Montgomery County is barreling blindly down a path to create a huge new pocket of sprawl outside Gaithersburg. Dubbed “Science City,” the county envisions 20 million square feet of new biotechnology research and development on 900 acres near Rockville and Gaithersburg. However, as currently proposed, “Science City” is no city. The Board recently rejected two proposals, one to increase its density to something more city-like, and the other to transfer density to a better location. Creating sprawl is familiar and easy, but harmful. Unfortunately, it’s the easier and safer choice for the Planning Board.
The area lies well beyond the part of our region currently served by transit. In theory, the Corridor Cities Transitway will serve this area, but officials still haven’t agreed on an alignment, let alone secured funding. This only continues the county’s pattern of planning “transit-oriented development” in areas far from existing transit, with only a faint hope of actually building the transit. And even if Maryland does somehow find money to build the line, a single light rail line can’t possibly effectively bring transit accessibility to 900 acres.
Christopher Leinberger writes that “driveable sub-urbanism,” the familiar suburban land pattern with big lawns and strip malls, generally has a floor-area ratio (FAR) between 0.05 and 0.3. In other words, for each acre of land, there is at most about 13,000 square feet (0.3 acres) of residential, office, retail and other building uses. Meanwhile, “walkable urbanism,” with a lively street life, starts to work at 0.8 FAR, and best around 1.5 and up.
20 million square feet on 900 acres represents an FAR of 0.51, which falls in between the two ranges. Leinberger calls these areas “neverlands,” and people find them depressing. The buildings are tall, taking away the pastorial countryside feel of suburban areas, but there isn’t enough going on to create lively places, and everything is too far apart to walk. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City was a “neverland,” as are 1960s public housing projects, and most commonly, suburban office parks.
If Montgomery County wants a real “Science City,” they should build an actual city. 20 million square feet is no city. The NoMA area of DC alone has 20 million square feet planned over ten years. And NoMa only spans about 240 acres, for an FAR of about 1.92. Of course, “Science City” could be a city without being as dense as NoMA; it could be half as dense, and still be a “city”.
According to the Gazette, Johns Hopkins, seeking to maximize the value of their real estate investment in the area, proposed more density, up to 6.5 million square feet on their Belward Farm property (100 acres, for an FAR of about 0.8). They argued that the greater size would create a “critical mass” to attract federal agencies and increase the cost-effectiveness of the Corridor Cities Transitway. The Planning Board rejected this, however.
Jean Cryor, the member from Potomac who couldn’t understand the problem with car-oriented design, argued that facts won’t affect the CCT. “It’s going to come or it’s not going to come. It’s going to be a political decision, no matter what anyone wants to say … It’s going to take the muscle that you have and everybody else has to make it happen. If [we] think it’s just going to be on numbers, we’re just kidding ourselves.”
Of course, while a real city would be better than sprawl, if the County really wants a “Science City,” they wouldn’t be putting it in Gaithersburg. They’d put it on the eastern side of the county, near I-95 corridor and the Beltway. It could go near or along the Purple Line, near College Park and an existing, major university. There’s also already considerable development planned along I-95, both private (like Konterra) and federal (like at Fort Meade). The eastern part of the county really needs development. There are two commuter rail lines and Amtrak, as well as Metro which state officials keep talking about extending. It’s nearer to an airport. And it’s nearer to the largest city in Maryland.
If planning happened more regionally, rather than having each county try to out-develop the other, Maryland would put Science City, and Johns Hopkins’ development, in the large city it already has. Baltimore already contains Johns Hopkins, and could really benefit from more investment.
Neighbors opposed to the development at Belward Farm proposed an alternative, to provide transferable development rights encouraging development at Hopkins’ existing Montgomery campus nearer Shady Grove (though still not particularly transit-accessible), but the Planning Board panned that idea as well.
Instead, Montgomery officials are set on building “neverland” density on open land at the edge of the region. Maybe some transit will one day reach this place, but no more than a tiny percentage of people will ever find that transit useful. CEOs who live in Potomac will enjoy a short, reverse commute ride, while blue-collar workers will have to pay lots of money to drive long distances on the toll Intercounty Connector.
The development will create huge demand for more housing in Frederick County, which has even less transit and fewer walkable places. The region’s sprawl will grow while existing areas ripe for science investment lose out. All this will happen because our counties and other jurisdictions compete for development instead of planning regionally, and because the Montgomery Planning Board, so familiar with suburban-style office parks, can’t envision anything else or lacks the courage to push for a better way.
Image from the Gaithersburg West draft Master Plan. Just drawing people walking in a “neverland” density development won’t make it actually walkable. And the sky was already that gray; I didn’t change the image at all.