Next door to FDA’s new campus, LifeSci Village would bring the good jobs and upscale retail eastern Montgomery residents have demanded for years, but a lack of political momentum will keep it from becoming a reality anytime soon.
The Gudelsky family is well-known for their philanthropy, but they were also one of the region’s most prominent developers. In the conference room of Percontee, the Gudelsky Group’s real estate arm, the walls are covered in the yellowing photos of buildings finished years ago. A 1960’s-era ad for a Laurel apartment complex advertises rents of $100 a month. There’s a plaque celebrating the renovation of Wheaton Plaza - in 1987.
It’s here, on a concrete recycling plant in Calverton a few miles up Route 29 from where Homer and Martha Gudelsky grew up, Percontee’s giving the Gudelsky family their “legacy project.” In 2004, Percontee proposed combining their land with a planned business incubator next door to create the 290-acre LifeSci Village, three urban neighborhoods with a mix of offices, stores, housing and facilities for scientific research.
It would have two million square feet of “life science and tech uses,” including labs and educational space; two million square feet for retail, a hotel and conference center; and between three and four thousand apartments and townhomes. Green space will come in the form of several small parks and plazas, including one in the village center, and a greenbelt preserving the only wooded portion of the site. The entire complex will have a street grid with connections to the FDA and the relocated Washington Adventist Hospital.
Left: LifeSci Village site plan. Right: a busy street in LifeSci’s “Village Center.”
Images courtesy of Percontee.
“This is probably the last of the large tracts the Gudelskys own in East Montgomery County,” Genn says. “For them as for us, this is what we hope people will look at in twenty-five or fifty years and way ‘What a great thing they’ve done.’ Create a place for people to live and work and have a great time in the eastern part of the county.”
LifeSci Village has been compared to “Science City,” a similar development proposed by Johns Hopkins University west of Gaithersburg. Skeptics of that project, from Greater Greater Washington to Councilmember Phil Andrews, say it will draw investment away from East County, though Percontee disagrees. “I see it as collaboration,” Genn says. “We’ve already collaborated with Johns Hopkins University in trying to attract businesses and institutes to come and locate in Maryland and Montgomery County.”
“It’s an asset to get skilled medical professionals coming here,” says Genn. “The FDA sees this as a tool to recruit the best scientists to come here. Here are the amenities you have for when you’re not at work.”
Community leaders support the project. “Stuart Rochester was here,” says Genn, referring to the civic activist who passed away in July. He points where I’m sitting. “He sat right in that chair. He said traffic and congestion will happen no matter what is developed, and can we have the best thing possible. He thought this was a responsible vision for the area.”
But former County Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who lived in Calverton for forty years, was skeptical. “Although at first glance the artist’s renderings of this proposal may seem appealing, a closer look raises a number of concerns,” she wrote in a November 2007 newsletter. “The amount of development proposed for the site would have a tremendous impact on traffic.”
With 9,000 workers at the Food and Drug Administration and 3,000 more at the hospital, traffic is a major concern. “The more mix of uses - including residences - on here, the fewer trips people have to take to work,” says Genn. “When gas gets up to four, five dollars a gallon, all that will be driving people to walk to work.”
Unfortunately, a groundbreaking is “regrettably not anytime soon,” says Genn. Architects Torti Gallas and Partners will start work on the final design next summer, while the Planning Department won’t draft new master plans for East County and the Route 29 corridor until 2013. “Five years ago, we were trying to get this moving, if not for forces beyond our control. The FDA employees are coming here now. It would’ve been great to have something for them.”
The biggest delay for LifeSci Village, Genn laments, has been unfunded road improvements that must be made before development can proceed. “We put in overpasses, but we’ve had little to no investment in the Route 29 corridor,” he says. “We made it very easy for Howard County development to come down 29, and they got the tax base increase at Maple Lawn, but congestion isn’t better.” Rather than push people away, Genn continues, we should give them more reasons to come here. “Unless we close off our borders,” he says, “we can’t stop people from coming through.”
For more images, check out this photoset on Flickr.