Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shady Grove Science Center: A Smart Growth Community

By Elaine Amir, Johns Hopkins University.

The Montgomery County Planning Board has adopted a visionary new Gaithersburg West Master Plan that will allow true smart-growth development to take hold in an expanded Shady Grove Science Center, right in the heart of Montgomery County’s I-270 science and technology corridor. The new plan provides for long-term growth of the Shady Grove Science Center, with a continued focus on research jobs and healthcare. For the first time, it also allows a mix of housing and retail in an area that was limited to commercial use only in the old plan.

This is exactly what smart growth advocates have wanted to see more of in the I-270 corridor: A vibrant, walkable community, with improved pedestrian, bike and transit access. Right now, workers in the Shady Grove Road area have to get into their cars and drive if they want to meet someone over a cup of coffee. The new plan would allow people to walk from their offices to a meeting, or to a sidewalk café, or home for lunch. New parks and community recreation facilities would also be integrated into the community, and all of this will be located within convenient walking distance of three new transit stations. The Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) connects this area directly to the Shady Grove Metro station, King Farm, Washingtonian Center, Germantown and other key points all the way to Clarksburg at the northern end of the CCT alignment.

Nearly the entire plan area falls within a 5-minute walking radius of the CCT. The entire Life Science Center and many surrounding neighborhoods lie within a 10-minute walk.

By changing the design of the life sciences center, introducing a more walkable, transit-oriented design, and a mix of jobs, housing, shopping and entertainment, we hope to provide the kind of environment that can attract the best and the brightest scientists and entrepreneurs to live and work here. This is the kind of community that will foster innovation and help transform great scientific discoveries from our research labs into the latest medical advances to improve people’s lives. Isn’t this the kind of future we want to see for the next generation here in Montgomery County? Great jobs with great futures, in key growth industries such as healthcare, bio-science and related fields are not a bad thing in this economy. The millions of dollars in new annual tax revenue will also go a long way towards ensuring our future prosperity. Great opportunities exist to build partnerships among leading scientists, teachers and students to reach out to our children and get them more excited about careers in science.

I think this plan will be looked back upon as the defining moment when Montgomery County chose to complete the vision that was first laid out more than two decades ago for a thriving 270 technology corridor, and updated that vision with a new, more sustainable community design.

I know there are some who may not support all aspects of this plan, but that is not unusual. Most people don’t yet have enough information to even form an opinion, so let’s put some facts on the table:

1. This New Plan is a Huge Improvement over the Current Master Plan.

The existing plan for the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center allows up to 13 million square feet of mainly commercial construction, 38,000 jobs, and virtually no housing. It also includes very limited pedestrian, bike or transit access, and no requirement that any significant transit service be provided before additional development can happen. The new Gaithersburg West Master Plan would transform this single-use, commercial area, filled with low-rise office parks and acres of surface parking lots, into a vibrant town center that feels more like a community. The new plan will have some taller buildings right around the new CCT stations, to provide more compact, transit-oriented design so we can move from parking lots to parking garages that take up less space. The new plan also adds a local street grid with smaller blocks and more connection points to disburse traffic, plus intersection and pedestrian improvements, new sidewalks, common areas and parks. And finally, one of the great advantages of the new plan, from a countywide standpoint, is that it would allow an additional 22,000 science and healthcare-related jobs – and an estimated $176 million in new annual tax revenues for the County – but these new jobs are allowed only if new infrastructure is provided first.

2.The New Plan Contains Strict Staging Requirements. The Current Plan Does Not.

In the new Gaithersburg West Master Plan, development can move forward only if needed infrastructure is funded and built beforehand. There is no such requirement in place under the current plan. In fact, the “staging requirements” in the new Gaithersburg West Master Plan actually would allow LESS development in this area (no more than 8.6 million square feet) as compared to the current 13 million square feet in the existing master plan, until construction funding is provided for the CCT. Full build-out cannot happen until the entire CCT is up and running. In some ways, the new Gaithersburg West Master Plan imposes TIGHTER restrictions on future development than the existing master plan. Between the CCT, planned improvements to I-270, a new pedestrian-oriented street grid, and mixed-uses to allow more people to live near work, we can significantly increase the percentage of non-auto trips generated in this area. The Planning Board has established a detailed and effective program for managing transportation needs in a smart growth, transit-oriented manner.

3. The New Plan for Johns Hopkins Belward Research Campus: Great Science, Great Jobs, Great Place to Work and Play.

Continued growth of the Life Sciences Center and the Belward Research Campus is critical to Montgomery County’s efforts to remain competitive as a global center for scientific research. Belward will provide a campus-like setting for good bio-science, healthcare and related jobs over the next 30 to 40 years. This will allow us to fulfill our mission for groundbreaking scientific research to help improve people’s lives. The new plan also will make this whole area a much more exciting and healthy place to work, with new recreational facilities, more public and open space, and other work-life amenities. While the Planning Board did scale back the scope of the research facilities Johns Hopkins had requested for the Belward campus, the Board still recognized the need for a sound guiding vision that will help transform the area into a vibrant, transit-oriented, science-based community that will attract the next generation of knowledge workers on which the bio-science industry depends. And since 45% of the Belward site will be preserved as parks and community/recreation space, there will be new sports fields, natural areas, and lots of other new amenities for our scientists, students and neighbors to enjoy. The old plan had just 25% open space.

The new plan preserves 45% of the Belward Research Campus as parks and recreational space. No permanent housing will be allowed at Belward.

4. The Community’s Voice has been Heard in Crafting this Plan.

Johns Hopkins University has been meeting with community representatives throughout the planning process, for over three years. We have found broad support for creating the kind of place where we can bring together great scientists and researchers, create thousands of good jobs, and help transform the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center into a much more vibrant and attractive place to live and work, for our children and for generations to come.

The new Gaithersburg West Master Plan is one of the best opportunities we will ever have in Montgomery County to retain our edge in biotech, health and informatics, and create a truly transit-oriented, smart growth community, in the heart of what has long been planned as a major development corridor for our region. The Planning Board has produced a plan that is both workable and visionary, and preserves the residential character of the surrounding neighborhoods. We hope the community can see the value it will provide for years to come.

We look forward to working with the County Council to put this visionary plan into action and create the kind of community where great science, great jobs, and real transit-oriented-design all come together to make Montgomery County an even better place to live, work and play.

Elaine Amir is Executive Director of Johns Hopkins Montgomery County.

This is what the Life Sciences Center Looks Like Today:

This is what the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center could look like with this new plan: