High-tech helps White Flint area developers open doors
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Seven developers eager to remake the jumbled 420 acres around the White Flint Metro station in Montgomery County have flipped their usual script for winning the hearts and minds of politicians and residents.
Rather than relying on secretive development lawyers and their hard-to-understand jargon, the companies have joined together as the White Flint Partnership and meshed traditional shoe leather political organizing with 21st-century technology.
They have a Web site; a friendly slogan: "Building a new sense of community;" an e-mail group list; a Facebook page; a Twitter account; a blog; and Web site "news flashes."
Although groundbreaking for major redevelopment in White Flint is several years away, the political spadework needs to be done now. The County Council, which will have the last word on many of the details, has begun to review the proposed White Flint Sector Plan, which would remake an area of mostly strip shopping centers, car dealers and fast-food restaurants. The complex document, likely to be inked next year, will govern decades of development that could lure thousands of new residents and commuters.
The partnership is lobbying the council to adjust key elements of the plan, devised by the county's Planning Board. In particular, they want to speed up redoing the roads to make them pedestrian-friendly, an expensive project that needs widespread political support.
When the digital communiques open the doors to the neighborhoods, the partnership turns to a decidedly more low-tech weapon: Evan Goldman, an affable 36-year-old Federal Realty Investment Trust developer who has helped the partnership determine how to use different media to reach potential supporters.
The idea to use the Web in a big way came about a year ago, when the partnership began to hold meetings with residents. At the first one, Goldman said, he thought five or six people would show up. "We had 50. People asked lots of good questions," he said. "After that meeting, we were so energized we began to figure out what the message was" and how best to communicate.
Goldman, a Cornell graduate and father of two young children with a third on the way, also is emblematic of the future resident or commuter developers say they hope will be attracted to the new White Flint. A transplanted New Yorker raising a family in a Dupont Circle apartment, Goldman takes the subway to his office in White Flint. His apparent lack of pretension -- at a recent meeting, he pulled campaign-style buttons from a Whole Foods paper shopping bag he was using as a briefcase -- makes him seem like the suburbs' newest Everyman, whose interests developers believe mirror their own.
"If you add new development to the White Flint area, and also redesign Rockville Pike, you can actually reduce congestion, not add to it," Goldman says at a recent evening meeting at the Midtown, a high-rise condominium near White Flint. A screen behind him flashes images of what life could be like if Rockville Pike's clutter is replaced with outdoor cafes, shops, pedestrians and cyclists.
Goldman addresses questions about traffic by telling his audience that the county government wants to redesign the Pike later but that the developers believe it should happen sooner. If they prevail, he says, commuters enduring traffic headaches on the Pike and nearby Interstate 270 will benefit.
Several at the Midtown nod in agreement. Now Goldman is ready to close the deal: If they like what he's been talking about, maybe they'd be willing to write a letter to the County Council? And, by the way, we have some samples here, or if you want, go to the partnership's Web site and click on a prewritten e-mail, in which you can also add your own thoughts.
Meetings like the one at the Midtown can last a few hours. But Goldman shows no fatigue, cracking an occasional joke and complimenting questioners on their queries, even those that seem somewhat hostile. "That's a very good question," is a constant refrain.