Lone Official Warns Against Blueprint for Gaithersburg 'Science City'

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009; 2:26 PM

Joe Alfandre rode the early wave of new urbanism in the 1980s when he built Kentlands, a small New England-like village where residents can walk to stores, schools and jobs. The Gaithersburg development endured financial problems but has been widely replicated across the country.

So Alfandre, now a member of the Montgomery County Planning Board, assumed that a proposal by Johns Hopkins University for a world-class "science city" nearby would incorporate new urbanist principles. But when the blueprint came before the Planning Board last summer, he found himself casting the lone vote against the 20 million-square-foot project. The science city would include several villages, constructed around existing buildings. Alfandre, state officials and some local residents fear the development could exacerbate traffic and create more sprawl, not contain it.

"The proposed plan is one of water spilling helter-skelter across a flat surface instead of a concentration of new growth into a vibrant city center," Alfandre said as he urged the County Council last month to revise the plan.

Hopkins officials have promised a $10 billion scientific community that would rival Research Triangle, N.C., and Palo Alto, Calif., and rank among the world's best. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and other political and business leaders predict the new community would boost the county's revenue and bring thousands of high-paying jobs in the next 30 years. They hope to build on the presence in Montgomery of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Universities at Shady Grove, which includes Hopkins, the University of Maryland, Towson University, Salisbury University and Montgomery College.

In many ways, the debate over how best to design the science city embodies the challenges facing the county in the next 30 years. Officials want to accommodate an expected influx of more than 200,000 residents, and hope they can offer them high-paying jobs that can strengthen the tax base.

But there is little buildable land left in Montgomery. To construct a project of the magnitude envisioned by Hopkins, planners say they have little choice but to work around the businesses and buildings already there. They also must find a way to pay for expensive new transit systems and roads -- predicted to cost at least $1.3 billion. Taken together, it doesn't lead to the construction of the urbane living and working environment that newcomers are likely to want, Alfandre said.

"I know we can do this right," Alfandre said as he drove through the area recently, weaving in and out of lunch-hour traffic. It's a place where few can walk anywhere for a bite to eat; instead workers jump into their cars to go a few blocks. The closest Metro station is four miles east at Shady Grove. The proposal endorsed by the planning board requires more transit, walkways, bike paths and roads, but Alfandre says that won't overcome problems arising from the creation of multiple villages.

The Maryland Department of Transportation also has expressed reservations, pointing out that the proposed number of jobs is far greater than the proposed amount of new housing. The state estimated the project could bring an additional 32,000 commuters who are unable to live there.

"That's it, in a nutshell," Alfandre said when he learned of the state's concerns.

Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit, a local advocacy group, said the county should be developing the project closer to the Shady Grove Metro station.

"We are firmly convinced that a large, dense, transit-oriented white-collar employment node can be created in Montgomery County only within walking distance of a rail station," he said. And even if there is transit nearby, he said, the state's data suggest that it will not be heavily used.

Residents near the area have geared up an extensive campaign, adopting the slogan "scale it back."

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