East County residents and businesspeople met with Montgomery County planners last Wednesday at the Regional Services Center to learn about a proposal to bring a life sciences center to White Oak.
When completed, the East County Science Center Master Plan will recommend creating a mixed-use community with a focus on science and technology in an approximately 1400-acre area bounded by the Beltway, New Hampshire Avenue, Columbia Pike, Cherry Hill Road and the county line.
The goal of the plan, as outlined on its website, is to create a 21st-century vision for the “Cherry Hill/FDA/White Oak area.” The main tenets of that vision are a community built around a “bio-tech employment cluster”; a “better jobs/housing balance” in an area with more residents than employment opportunities; creating “more diverse housing options” in the area, and bringing it all together with “efficient transit” and open space.
While previous master plans have taken up to 3½ years to draft, staff will finish the plan on an abbreviated schedule at the behest of the County Council, eager to bring more attention to the neglected communities east of Rock Creek Park. “This is a big master plan, and we only have two years,” explains project leader Khalid Afzal.
Those seeking to build in the area were at the open house, including some of the car dealers located on Cherry Hill Road and Jere Stocks, president of Washington Adventist Hospital, which has land for a new facility on Plum Orchard Drive.
Also there were Jonathan Genn and Ayana Lambert, president and general counsel for developer Percontee, who’s proposed a large development on Cherry Hill Road called LifeSci Village. “This is exciting because it means something’s happening,” says Lambert. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Transportation planner Eric Graze brought a board showing proposed rapid transit routes in the master plan area, including ones along New Hampshire Avenue, Columbia Pike, and Cherry Hill Road. He explains that the map was largely derived from County Councilmember Marc Elrich’s county-wide bus rapid transit plan, currently under study.
One line crossing the Food and Drug Administration campus between New Hampshire and Cherry Hill was an unknown, however. “I have no idea what that is,” Graze says.
Planners seemed to outnumber residents at the four-hour-long open house, but those who did stop by could write comments on large boards. Their suggestions were heavily favored towards more development in East County. “Allow high density at the existing shopping centers (White Oak & Hillandale),” wrote one commenter. Another advocated a bus rapid transit line down Route 29.
Because of the plan’s abbreviated schedule, some opportunities for community outreach - like an advisory committee made up of local stakeholders - may not happen. That’ll be a big concern in White Oak, where reaching out to tenants of apartment complexes or non-English speakers in the area can be difficult.
"We haven’t figured out how to get that segment of the population to come out,” Afzal says of the area’s large immigrant communities.
While drafting the sector plan for the Wheaton CBD - now going before the County Council - planners visited the owners of local ethnic shops to get their opinions and ideas. “We went to them” in Wheaton, Afzal notes. “If you don’t have time, we’ll come to you.”
As with most land use issues, getting anyone involved is difficult regardless of their background. “There’s an entire group of people interested in land use, and another group who won’t come no matter how much we reach out to them,” Afzal says. “Maybe they think we’re doing okay.”