The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved the White Flint Sector Plan yesterday, authorizing a new walkable, mixed-use district like Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring.

Today, the area of Rockville Pike from the White Flint Mall to Randolph Road is an unbroken chain of strip malls and huge parking lots centered on a Metro station. These strip malls serve many of the shopping needs of Montgomery residents, but could continue to do so in a more walkable form while adding substantial office space and 9,600 new residents who don’t need to drive to reach stores, transit, or jobs.

Left: White Flint area today. Right: Proposed grid and building heights.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, whose district includes White Flint, wrote,

When you look at the area today, it is hard not be struck by the large amount of asphalt found in the strip malls and surface parking lots. Asphalt is not the highest and best use of this incredibly important real estate.  We need less “impervious surfaces” and more trees.

The White Flint Sector Plan will provide both.  It will transform the proliferation of surface parking lots into a greener, more vibrant network of mixed use development that will produce vast improvements in stormwater management and overall water quality to the benefit of our local watersheds like Rock Creek.

Streetscaping and street trees, along with other environmental incentives in the Commercial/Residential Zone (CR Zone) will also help to reduce CO2 emissions and absorb some of the heat produced in urban areas. In fact, it is the goal of the plan to double the tree canopy.

The plan calls for 2,600 affordable housing units, parks and plazas, daycares, hotels, retail, a conference center, walking and bicycling trails, and more. Under the new, innovative CR zone, developers must provide one of a menu of different amenities in exchange for maximizing their density to that allowed under the plan. Buildings can reach 30 stories in the central area right around the Metro station, tapering down to much lower maximums toward the edges.

Rockville Pike will become more of an urban boulevard, accommodating bus rapid transit and becoming more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists. The adjoining parcels will get a street grid, taking some traffic off the Pike. Even so, the County Council had to grapple with existing traffic modeling rules that prioritize vehicle throughput and don’t adequately consider the effects of side streets. County Executive Ike Leggett and his transportation officials also advised against any changes that inconvenience drivers.

Berliner said,

The White Flint Sector Plan is also predicated upon a deepening commitment to mass transit and calls for a new MARC station on Nicholson Court and the transformation of Rockville Pike into a lovely grand boulevard that will include state-of-the-art bus rapid transit.

The plan calls for significant parking restrictions and aggressive mode share goals that will help take cars off the roads; a new street grid which should help diffuse traffic and make it easier to get around the area; and protective measures that will be put in place to prevent cut-through traffic into the neighborhoods surrounding White Flint.

Yesterday’s approval isn’t the end of the road for White Flint. There are still issues yet to be resolved around the traffic modeling, and the County needs to set up the financing mechanism, including getting buy-in from property owners if they create a special district to pay for the needed infrastructure.

Today, newcomers to DC visit Bethesda and see a lively, thriving area with many stores and restaurants, numerous apartment buildings, attractive streetscapes and cute small alleys, and single-family housing not far away, all atop a Metro station. Only the occasional car dealership or empty lot gives a glimpse back to Bethesda’s past when none of that existed. One day not too far in the future, newcomers will exit the Metro at White Flint and similarly see little resemblance to the strip malls of today.

White Flint stands in clear juxtaposition to the other two major development plans under debate, Tysons Corner and Gaithersburg West. In Tysons, Fairfax County is wrestling with the same issues as in White Flint: Conventional traffic modeling says that creating a real city on the scale of downtown DC can’t possibly succeed without widening the Toll Road and the Beltway and creating massive traffic sewers around the area. Meanwhile, downtown DC itself stands as living proof against the models. Can Fairfax similarly see past the parking lots and formulas and take the plunge?

Meanwhile, twice as far from the region’s core as White Flint and Tysons, Montgomery County is considering a very different plan. Instead of converting a large traffic sewer into a street grid, Gaithersburg West creates more of them with grade-separated interchanges even while assuming unrealistic mode shares. Instead of adding residents and jobs atop a Metro station near many other residents, it proposes disconnected job growth in an area that will force very long commutes, either by private car or by at least two modes of transit.

Montgomery County is turning some of its worst sprawl into real walkable urbanism. Will Fairfax have the courage to do the same? Will Montgomery have the courage not to simply create a larger amount of sprawl as it yesterday voted to replace?