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Montgomery County Sets Fall Vote on Gaithersburg West Plan for 8M+ Sq. Ft. of New Life-Sci Space


This is an updated edition of a report originally published July 17, with corrected information about potential new large projects with life sciences space within the master plan study area.

By Alex Philippidis

The Planning Board of Maryland's Montgomery County said Thursday it expects the County Council to decide sometime during the fall whether to allow the development of at least 8 million square feet of new life-science space over the next 30 to 40 years, which would more than double the county's current inventory of life-sci R&D space.

The council is set to hold a Sept. 15 hearing on the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, which would allow Montgomery County to develop new mixed-use projects anchored around life-sci employers with housing, stores, restaurants, and other amenities intended to draw them to the clusters well beyond the hours they spend on the job.

The master plan, which has been written in two parts [here and here], examines land use for a 4,360-acre swath of Montgomery County that is envisioned to include at least one new large mixed-use proposal with life-sci space at the 900-acre Shady Grove Life Sciences Center.

Johns Hopkins University would transform the 107-acre Belward Farm into a research campus with 4.5 million square feet of new R&D space. Also interested in whatever zoning emerges from Gaithersburg West is Silver Spring, Md., developer Percontee, which is looking to build more than 2 million square feet of life-sci space within a mixed-use project for its 185-acre property near the US Food and Drug Administration campus outside the master plan study area, in White Oak.

JHU's original plan called for 6.5 million square feet of new R&D space, but the proposal was challenged by local residents who sought a 2-million-square-foot limit. Montgomery County's planning board in May split the difference, approving 4.5 million square feet [BRN, May 29].

Gaithersburg West would expand the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center into a live-work research hub with 20 million square feet of laboratory, office, and commercial space — nearly doubling the county's existing life-sci footprint.

The new development, most of which would comprise R&D space, would be capable of supporting 60,000 jobs over the next 30 to 40 years — which would triple the county's current life-sci payroll.

"The Gaithersburg West Master Plan envisions a vibrant Life Sciences Center where the foundation of science, business, health care, and academic uses combine to create a dynamic, sustainable science and medical hub," according to the land-use guideline. "It will be a place where knowledge drives the agenda, and students of all ages can rub shoulders with the industry's best minds, creating an environment that will attract new thought and investment."

The master plan would divide the LSC into five districts, to be linked by a 3.5-mile multiple-use path called the LSC Loop. One district would include JHU's Belward project. The other four LSC districts would include:

• LSC North, which has easy access to I-270 from Shady Grove Road and Interstate 370, also called the Sam Eig Highway;

• LSC Central, home to the J. Craig Venter Institute and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital;

• LSC South, anchored by the Universities at Shady Grove and the headquarters of Human Genome Sciences; and

• LSC West, anchored by the 60,000-square-foot Shady Grove Innovation Center and the 52-acre, county owned Public Service Training Academy located in Rockville.

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The county government wants to sell or lease the PSTA property to a developer willing to include life-sci space among a mix of uses, and who would relocate the academy [BRN, Aug. 11, 2008].

This week, Montgomery County took a step toward relocating the academy when it set a July 28 public hearing on a plan to use $48.3 million in funds from the county's Capital Improvement Plan to acquire the land where the county wants to move the PSTA, a 57-acre undeveloped Gaithersburg property known as the Webb parcel.

Montgomery would spend $46.6 million for the Webb Parcel, and another roughly $1.7 million toward preliminary planning design and supervision related to the new PSTA, which would be moved to Webb along with the Montgomery County Public Schools food production and distribution facility, and maintenance facilities for MCPS and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's Parks Department

The $1.7 million reflects only part of the cost of planning design and supervision. The ultimate cost is not yet known, Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Montgomery County County Executive Isiah (Ike) Leggett, told BioRegion News on Wednesday.

Leggett has called for moving PSTA from its current facility, which he has said is outdated, as part of his Smart Growth Initiative/Property Use Study. The county reasons that new life-sci space, plus amenities like housing, are a better use for the academy site because they would be more compatible with nearby commercial and institutional life-sci uses within the 300-acre Shady Grove campus — just as the academy meshed well with the largely agricultural uses that surrounded it when the facility opened in 1973.

Under Leggett's predecessor, Douglas Duncan, the county originally planned to renovate and expand the existing PSTA at a projected cost of $11.77 million, but that estimate ballooned to about $30 million by the time Leggett took office in December 2006. The renovation's rising cost for a benefit of shorter-term than a new facility prompted Leggett to shift county policy toward development of a new PSTA, Diane Schwartz Jones, assistant chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, told BRN.

Montgomery's cost projection did not include the additional construction expense resulting from a county law that took effect last year. The county requires buildings of 10,000 or more square feet to be constructed to at least the third-highest "silver" rating of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design energy efficiency standard developed by the US Green Building Council. The added cost of LEED was not a factor in concluding the existing PSTA could not be feasibly maintained long-term, Lacefield said.

Schwartz Jones said Montgomery County still intends to dispose of the PSTA site through a sale or a long-term ground lease with a developer, but has not yet decided how to proceed. Just when that will happen will depend on how far along development has proceeded, and thus in what development phase would the property be redeveloped.

Gaithersburg West calls for transforming the PSTA property into "2,000 dwelling units with supporting retail, services, and community uses."

Because the PSTA site is located near several academic institutions, "we're going to want a mix of the types and price points of housing there. We're working to figure out what those will be," Schwartz Jones said, with help from the Smart Growth Initiative Implementation Advisory Group.

"There's a lot more work to be done. It will disposed of in connection with the Gaithersburg West master plan, in order to realize our objective of attracting the best and the brightest scientists to that area, and serving our higher education facilities that sit on either side of that property," Schwartz Jones said.

Lone Dissenting Vote

During their Thursday meeting, webcast on the board's web site, planning board members voted to recommend Gaithersburg West 4-1, with Joe Alfandre casting the sole vote against.

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Addressing board colleagues, Alfandre said the master plan opened the door to uncontrolled suburban sprawl like that which shaped the corporate parks and academic centers developed in Montgomery County over the past generation, and which now comprise its life-sci cluster.

He contrasted those concerns with the stated desire of county officials to cement the Gaithersburg West region as a "science city" for life-sci employers, "which made tremendous sense to me economically [and] design-wise," Alfandre said during the board meeting. "I thought it was a good idea for Montgomery County.

"The science city really is being set up to be a science blob, and at the very best, we're going to end up in this plan with a series of sprawl areas of employment," Alfandre added. "There is no science city in this plan, ladies and gentlemen. There is no epicenter. We are building for a disaster for the future of our county."

Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson and three other board colleagues defended the master plan by arguing the development allowed under the guideline would be phased and would be subject to stipulations hinging on the construction of a new 13.5-mile mass transportation system for the region.

That system, the Corridor Cities Transitway, is now under review by the Maryland Transit Administration. It would consist of 14 stops on a route from the Shady Grove Metro station to the Comsat property in Clarksburg.

Gaithersburg West recommends concentrating the highest densities of development, with both the tallest buildings and civic green space, around four CCT stations that the report suggests should be created further south of the current route alignment, in the center of the life-sci center. The four would include a station at Belward, which is home to JHU's existing Montgomery County Campus; one at Shady Grove Adventist; one at the Danac Corp. property; and one at PSTA.

Those stops would serve busier areas, thus offering the potential for more riders to the transit system — whose mode, either busway or light rail, has yet to be decided.

Danac, a Bethesda, Md., developer, operates a four-building, 350,000-square-foot office campus on 26 acres at the northern end of the LSC. Pharma tenants are among users of a 272,000-square-foot, three-building complex on the southwest corner of this property. The Danac site is approved for up to 669,538 square feet, but could expand under Gaithersburg West to up to 1.34 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space.

"Getting back and reviewing it in six years may be helpful," Hanson said, citing the master plan's timeframe for re-examination of the study area and revision of Gaithersburg West to reflect changes in market conditions. "My guess is that it'll probably be 10 to 15 years before there will be need for major changes to some of the uses that are now there, and are currently 15 to 20 years old as far as their existence is concerned.

"I think this is a good effort to meet realistically many of the future needs of the area, and to address an important mid- and long-term economic opportunity for the county," Hanson added.

The five LSC districts combined account for a total 21,200 jobs, a figure projected to nearly triple to 60,000 jobs when all phases of the master plan are completed. The number of dwelling units would also nearly triple, from the existing roughly 3,300, to 9,000.

Within the five districts, more than 6.9 million square feet of commercial development now exists, with more than 3.7 million square feet of additional space approved but as yet unbuilt, resulting in a total 10.7 million square feet. That number would nearly double to a total 20 million square feet of commercial space.

The new space would be developed in four stages:

• Stage 1 — 400,000 new square feet of new non-residential development in LSC North, Center, and Belward districts. The three districts have a combined 5.5 million square feet of existing development, with another 2.7 million square feet of future development approved.

• Stage 2 — 2.8 million square feet of new commercial development in all LSC districts, in addition to the 8.6 million total square feet of development allowed under stage 1. Work hinges on conditions that include full funding of CCT from Shady Grove to Metropolitan Grove, full funding of PSTA relocation to a new site, and a 5 percent increase, above the "baseline" number before stage 1, in the number of commuters who do not drive.

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• Stage 3 — 1.8 million square feet of new commercial development in all LSC districts, in addition to the 11.4 million square feet allowed in stages 1 and 2. Work hinges on conditions that include CCT starting construction from Shady Grove to Metropolitan Grove, a 10 percent-over-baseline increase in the number of commuters who do not drive, and completion of several road projects.

• Stage 4 — 4.5 million square feet of new commercial development in all LSC districts, in addition to the 13.2 million square feet allowed in stages 1, 2, and 3. Work hinges on conditions that include CCT beginning operation on its entire route from Shady Grove to Clarksburg, and completion of several road projects.

John Robinson, the board's vice chair, said the phasing plan was "clearly the linchpin of this plan, without which it will fall."

Robinson said that because most of the master plan study area was already developed, and notwithstanding opposition from residents, he still believed that Belward offered the best prospect of being developed "on a density level, and perhaps by transportation and urban design criteria, that would move this portion of the county most closely in the directions of the most efficient and successful urban areas involving life sciences that we see in the country," such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston/Cambridge, Mass.

Robinson concluded that while Gaithersburg West wasn't perfect, "I think this plan comes close enough that I can vote for it, even though I have some of [Alfandre's] reservations."

He added that he was attending his final meeting as a planning board member: "The reservations that I've heard during the first phases of this plan will be in the very competent hands of people who are still here," he said. "I have no doubt in their ability to address the issues, thoroughly and in an analytical and efficient fashion."

Board members Jean Cryor and Amy Presley said that they supported the economic goals of Gaithersburg West enough to recommend it be moved to the council, though both said they would have preferred a master plan that more closely reflected community concerns.

"I [would have been] wanting to have a different process, where you have an audience of people, both of residents and new developers, saying, 'This is great.' I think we can get to that point. We can all develop the right way together," Presley said. "I can’t say this is the plan that evidences that; I think there's still some heartache about it.

"I also know we have certain limitations right now as to how far we can get," he added. "And I do think we're trying to move in the right direction with the statements we're making in the plan."

Alfandre joined his board colleagues, however, in voting unanimously to recommend that the council approve the text of the proposed new Life Sciences Center zoning called for by Gaithersburg West. Montgomery County, he said, should promote the new zoning aggressively to life-sci employers, as an example of Montgomery's commitment to growing the industry.

He noted Montgomery County has a reputation as an unfriendly place to do business — which was reinforced earlier this year when Hilton Hotels and Banner Life Insurance chose to expand by moving out of the county to other suburbs of Washington, DC [BRN, March 30].

Planning board members are among Montgomery officials scrambling to eliminate negative perceptions about the county and grow its economy by expanding its life-sciences sector.

According to a consultant hired by the board, Partners for Economic Solutions, Montgomery County currently is home to 223 "bioscience" businesses and 6.65 million square feet of life-science space. Of that, 49 percent is flex space, 45 percent office space, and the remaining 6 percent industrial space.

PES projected the county's life-sci workforce will increase by 4,200 jobs to 16,200 by 2025, due in part to the proximity of the FDA and the National Institutes of Heath, and to the expectation that companies will continue to seek to be near both. This increase, however, amounts to annual job growth rates of 2 percent or less each of the next 16 years, according to PES.