Science city plan deepens rift between east, west Montgomery

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

The state came to Montgomery County's east side a few years ago bearing gifts: a redesigned Route 29 to speed commuters through to destinations in Howard County and the District.

But soon after the roadwork was completed, new problems arose. Nearby shopping was now obscured from drivers' sightlines. Once-thriving stores lost business and began to close.

"It's easy for people to keep on going," said Bill Strassberger, a community activist who lives near the Burtonsville shopping area, where several storefronts are vacant. "The shops there are struggling."

The experience along Route 29 is not unique in Montgomery's eastern sector, which residents and local lawmakers have complained for years is the county's forgotten half. And now, the tantalizing possibility that Johns Hopkins University's proposed science city could create 23,000 high-paying jobs on Montgomery's west side is being cited as further evidence that the western part of the county prospers at the east's expense.

The data were contained in a little-publicized forecast from the county's planning agency that is provided to the regional Council of Governments for its predictions of regional growth and economic development. The Montgomery numbers suggest that if change doesn't come soon to the county's east side, the gap dividing it from the west could become a gaping chasm.

Opponents of the Hopkins plan, which would not be fully built for 20 years, say it will create massive traffic jams and more gridlock in the west. They have seized on the jobs data to try to bolster their case against Hopkins's proposal to build on the west side.

"In the east county, where they need more houses and jobs, a plan of this scale might be more appropriate," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D). He said that going ahead with the Hopkins project in the western part of the county will add too many cars to already crowded roads, increase sprawl and detract from economic development on the county's east side.

Andrews's constituents include residents of Gaithersburg and Rockville and unincorporated neighborhoods in between, where there is well-organized opposition to the scope of the Hopkins proposal. Mayors of both cities also have voiced concerns.

Hopkins officials, planning officials, the administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and some County Council members say it is a "a false choice." They say that whatever development comes to the west, it won't take away from the potential for growth in the east.

"It's not cause and effect," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).

East side residents aren't so sure.

"Over the years, Gaithersburg and Germantown have developed. They have beautiful town centers, the BlackRock arts center, but still there is nothing over here in the east county," said Odessa Shannon, who has lived on the east side since 1966 and formerly headed the county's human rights commission. "We don't even have a movie theater."

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