Final Gaithersburg West Compromise Master Plan
In April 2010, the County Council unanimously approved a changed master plan for the Life Sciences Center (LSC) area, the major part of the Gaithersburg West master plan. The discussions, drafts and meetings about this plan illuminated Council members' sharply different philosophies on growth, development, economy, environment and climate protection. At the final Council meeting on the plan, however, all the differences were erased in a compromise plan that received unanimous approval.
This final plan is a chimera, a joining of incompatible parts which contradict each other. Though somewhat reduced, the plan still permits a major urban employment center, where none has existed, and there are good reasons one should not exist. Then the Council approved a draconian staging plan which leaves the impression that they don't really believe much of the development will occur. Only a few major landowners/developers lobbied for this plan. They got the final development capacity they sought.
Even with the commercial development cap somewhat reduced, the plan will still produce one of the largest employment centers in the County, in a location that will never be really transit oriented, and in an area with a housing shortage, where it is guaranteed to induce sprawl housing development and long car commutes from many directions.
This plan is so contradictory that it is impossible to foresee the outcome. It approves more employment than in any of the County's longstanding Central Business District's or Metro station areas. However, little development, except that already authorized, is permitted until serious progress is made on the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). Funding and construction of the CCT, however, becomes more and more remote. Limbo can't last forever. What will give first? Will officials accept reality and design a more reasonable plan? Or will the developers eventually get permission to go ahead without the CCT? Will the hype about the LSC jump the CCT ahead of the Purple Line?
Wheaton Master Plan
In our ongoing quest for balanced land use across the County, we next turn our attention to the Wheaton business district. If the problem at Gaithersburg West and White Flint was lack of housing, the problem at Wheaton is lack of economic activity and good jobs. Wheaton should be a dynamic central business district (CBD) like the County's other three—Silver Spring, Bethesda and Friendship Heights.
The job/housing ratio in the Georgia Avenue corridor is the lowest in the County. Outside the Silver Spring business district, the corridor lacks business centers. Thus most of the thousands of residents must commute long distances to the south or west. Wheaton has jobs available, but two-thirds of them are retail, not a good foundation for an economy.
Thus a major goal of a new sector plan for the CBD should be to turn it into a focus of good jobs, with good proximity or transit service for area residents. Unfortunately, the draft sector plan seems to be more one of accepting and trying to improve on the status quo. It seeks redevelopment but planners say that the main demand for redevelopment will be housing, and the main economic activity will be retail.
Planners and County Council should instead adopt a visionary plan that seeks high value economic development and job growth in Wheaton. Some of the passionate attention that has been lavished on the I-270 Corridor should be redirected to the more economically and environmentally correct challenge of a growing Wheaton.
Doing this while preserving Wheaton's unique diversity will be challenging. The Sierra Club and its members should help with letters to the planning board.