All photos by the author unless noted.

The DC area has long faced an east-west divide, with more of the wealth going to the west side. Increasingly, investment is also heading to urban areas over suburban ones. For struggling suburban areas on the east side, the only answer is to take on more urban features.

One of those places is White Oak in eastern Montgomery County, where the County Council will vote tomorrow on a plan to create a new town center. Local residents are eager to have more jobs and amenities close to home, but civic and environmental groups want to limit the amount of density in White Oak because it’s several miles from a Metro station and roads are already congested.

But the kind of compact, dense development proposed for White Oak could allow residents to access jobs, shops, or other amenities by walking, biking, or simply driving a shorter distance than they would otherwise. It would generate less traffic than the alternative: more of the sprawling, car-oriented development that’s currently allowed in White Oak, plus additional sprawl farther out.

Residents say it’s East County’s turn

East County has experienced little of the prosperity that more affluent parts of Montgomery County take for granted. One reason is the county’s traffic tests, which prohibit development when roads reach a certain level of congestion until more roads are built. This standard led to a 20-year development moratorium in East County that ended in 2004.

Development simply moved to the western, more affluent side of Montgomery County or farther out to Howard County while East County roads remained congested. Today, White Oak consists largely of aging strip malls, office parks, and industrial brownfields surrounding the Food and Drug Administration’s new headquarters near New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, which will eventually hold 9,000 workers.

LifeSci Village rendering courtesy of Percontee.

The White Oak Science Gateway plan, which councilmembers will vote on tomorrow, would allow them to transform into urban, mixed-use neighborhoods with up to 8,500 new homes and 40,000 new jobs. Much of this development would occur at LifeSci Village, a concrete recycling plant that the county and developer Percontee want to turn into a research and technology center.

Local residents say it’s their turn, speaking out in favor of the plan at two public hearings. At a public forum last fall, community members called the White Oak plan their highest priority for economic development.

Traffic tests won’t solve traffic

But the Science Gateway plan would still fail the traffic tests. County Executive Ike Leggett and some councilmembers have recommended excluding Route 29 from traffic counts, arguing that it’s a regional highway that would be congested no matter what.

An abandoned office building in White Oak.

As a result, some civic associations and environmental groups around the county have criticized the plan, arguing that urban development shouldn’t be allowed away from a Metro station. They say Montgomery County should follow its own rules and stick to the traffic tests.

But the traffic tests can’t really fix congestion if their required solution is always to build more roads, which is proven to cause more traffic. And East County residents know that they haven’t solved congestion, since they have to travel longer distances for work, shopping, or other things they can’t find closer to home.

That’s not to say that White Oak doesn’t need better transportation. Councilmember George Leventhal has asked Leggett to put together a financing plan for Bus Rapid Transit within two years, so the county can figure out how to fund and build it as development moves forward.

East County’s future depends on having a town center

More development doesn’t have to mean more driving. Montgomery County added 100,000 residents over the past decade, but the rate of driving actually stayed the same. That’s because as the county grows around Metro stations, more people can get around without a car. But even in town centers away from Metro, like what’s proposed at White Oak, people would have more transportation options than they do otherwise, whether that means walking, biking, taking the bus, or even driving a shorter distance.

It’s possible to create urban places away from Metro stations, like Shirlington in Arlington County.

We know that people increasingly want to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. We’ve seen businesses gravitate to more urban locations in the region, like Choice Hotels, which moved from an office park near White Oak to Rockville Town Center.

For decades, there’s been a growing divide between the east and west sides of Montgomery County. East County increasingly lags the rest of the county when it comes to new town centers like White Flint, Crown in Gaithersburg, and even Germantown. If we’re going to close the east-west gap in Montgomery County, White Oak can’t stay a land of office parks forever.