Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Johns Hopkins University wants to build as much as 20 million square feet of space in Montgomery County as part of what university officials describe as a science city. The university has proposed building up to 6.8 million square feet on its land west of Interstate 270 off Shady Grove Road.

'Science city' data fail Montgomery residents' calculator tests

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

In debates over new development, data are often the most valuable currency, cited to demonstrate a project's value, impact on neighborhoods and effect on traffic. But the Washington area's legions of sophisticated community activists are increasingly reluctant to accept data from local officials, saying the numbers are unreliable.

"It's a very serious concern if you can't trust the numbers," said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).

Andrews represents the area west of Interstate 270 off Shady Grove Road where Johns Hopkins University wants to build as much as 20 million square feet of commercial, retail and residential space in what university officials describe as a world-class "science city."

Andrews and other critics say the data being used to support the plan are anything but scientific.

A similar debate in Northern Virginia recently led a founding member of a major community coalition to decry as "guesswork and fantasy" official projections about future development at Tysons Corner.

In Montgomery, the data questions have come into sharp focus as the administration of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has thrown its support behind the Hopkins project, which is pending before the council.

Hopkins officials and business leaders urge approval of the plan, saying it has the potential to create a $10 billion scientific research center to rival North Carolina's Research Triangle or Palo Alto, Calif. County projections say it will triple the number of jobs in the area to at least 60,000, many with handsome wages. Project backers say it would have a minimal impact on the surrounding community and a maximum impact on the county treasury.

Although many in the county applaud any effort to attract companies and government agencies involved in scientific research and innovation, speaker after speaker at a recent community meeting said the data aren't telling the real story. As community groups and some politicians have burrowed more deeply into the numbers, they are concluding that the Hopkins project is too big and too dependent on the not-yet-built Corridor Cities Transitway and is unlikely to bring prestigious academic offerings to the area. Instead, they say, it is simply a big commercial venture by a developer wearing academic robes.

Among their concerns: that the science city would not boost the county's revenue by $31 million annually, as the county says, that it would create massive traffic jams, even at newly established "acceptable" levels; that it would strain public schools beyond what the county has estimated; and that, ultimately, it would not help the county's bottom line but would cost taxpayers more. The county's annual budget is more than $4 billion.

"In the end, this is not about science. This is about corporate welfare," said Bragi Valgeirsson, an economist by training who lives nearby and did his own math to evaluate the project. He was enthusiastically applauded this month at the meeting, which drew more than 200 people. "It's about JHU asking us to foot the bill for their real estate speculation."

Valgeirsson said that "taxpayers will collect about $4 billion over the next 30 years and spend about $4.8 to $5.7 billion. . . . We have to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure to accommodate them. So how much will taxpayers have to pay for each job? . . . It comes out to $38,000 per each job. In other words, for every 2.5 jobs, we have to spend about $100,000."

More challenges

Andrews said a study for the county by Municap, part of a $32,000 contract, undercounted the number of moderately priced housing units required by county law; double-counted the economic contributions of the 22,000 employees in the area; failed to fully calculate the impact of newcomers on public schools; and overestimated the likely price of new housing, which could affect predictions about income from taxes and fees.

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