Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

Last week, Montgomery County selected local developer Percontee to turn Site 2, a former sludge treatment plant in White Oak, into LifeSci Village.

The $3 billion mini-city is designed to compliment the Food and Drug Administration’s new campus and a new Washington Adventist Hospital. Despite a series of sexy new project renderings released by Percontee, East County’s answer to Cambridge isn’t a guarantee yet.

LifeSci Village, which we wrote about in 2009, would occupy 290 acres on Cherry Hill Road east of Route 29. In addition to the sludge plant, which closed in 1999, the site would include a concrete recycling plant owned by Percontee.

Jonathan Genn, vice president of Percontee, has previously said that the project would include roughly two million square feet of offices and research labs, two million additional square feet of shops, hotels and possibly a conference center, and between three and four thousand apartments and townhomes.

LifeSci Village Site Plan

2009 site plan of LifeSci Village.

Genn has been talking to the county about LifeSci Village and Site 2 since 2004, so it’s not surprising that they picked Percontee over two out-of-area developers less familiar with the project. But in 2009, he told me that a groundbreaking was “not anytime soon.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, says that construction could start within the next two years.

What’s changed? Last year, the Montgomery County Planning Department started work on the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan, which will reinforce LifeSci Village’s goal of creating a research hub around the FDA. In addition, the county is studying a Bus Rapid Transit network which could have several lines serving the development.

MoCo BRT Plan, White Oak

BRT lines under study in and around White Oak.

Though LifeSci Village has the blessing of both the county and local residents, the White Oak Science Gateway concept has its critics. A study from economic consultants hired by the planning department says that it won’t work unless it can get a major research institution, though Genn says he’s talked to “very prominent” DC-area universities about locating there.

Even then, the consultants say, biotech companies might just continue going to the county’s other research and development district, the Great Seneca Science Corridor in Gaithersburg, which Percontee helped develop in the 1980’s and where Johns Hopkins University plans their own, similarly-minded “Science City” project.

As exciting as the LifeSci Village proposal is, there remain a lot of questions. Who will provide $3 billion in financing for a research campus without a research institution? Is it practical to build 4 million square feet of commercial space and 4,000 homes in an area with no fixed-rail transit? And will Montgomery County be able to lure biotech companies away from the vaunted “Technology Corridor” along I-270?

East County needs a project like this. But it’s not yet clear if LifeSci Village will ever go from being a pretty picture to a reality.