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Opponents of Gaithersburg West Master Plan Give County Officials Plenty to Ponder


By Alex Philippidis

At public hearings this week, officials in Maryland's Montgomery County got an earful from the civic groups and individual residents opposed to the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, which seeks to more than double the county's current inventory of life-sci R&D space over the next 30 to 40 years.

At County Council public hearings held Tuesday and Thursday, the groups and individuals argued that the master plan would overdevelop their communities, choking local streets with traffic and hurting the quality of life.

At issue is the master plan's recommendation for new housing and additional R&D and commercial space, within a 4,360-acre swath of Montgomery County — including the 900-acre Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, which would expand 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.

Opponents of the master plan brushed aside arguments that the land-use guideline would benefit Montgomery County by helping it generate 40,000 new jobs, many of them in the life sciences, over the next 30 to 40 years; as well as generate about $1.5 billion a year in taxes over 30 years, with average annual tax revenue of about $43 million.

The most recent county official to weigh in, County Executive Isiah (Ike) Leggett, tried, but largely failed, to bridge the divide late last week when he recommended that the council trim the amount of developable space within the study area by 2 million square feet. The change would shrink the total developable space to 18 million square feet.

"I also believe that we should review the plan in six years to determine if additional density would be needed and achievable into the future," Leggett said in a report to the council.

Leggett said his scaleback would save Maryland $250 million to $300 million by allowing it to avoid constructing two of five interchanges proposed by the master plan — one at Sam Eig Highway and Great Seneca Highway, the other at Great Seneca and Key West. While the state is cash-strapped — Maryland recently cut spending for its stem cell program for the fourth time in 18 months — the county did not act out of concern that Annapolis would fail to come through with the cash, Diane Schwartz Jones, Montgomery County's assistant chief administrative officer, told BioRegion News, since the master plan covers a 30-year period.

Of greater concern to the county, Schwartz Jones said, was that the master plan calls for construction in stages that hinge on interchanges and other improvements being completed before additional work begins. The scaleback eliminates the two interchanges that are prerequisites to development of the third phase, raising the likelihood that all four phases of the ambitious master plan will be achievable during its 30-year life, she said.

Because of the master plan's long-range perspective, she said, the county is less concerned about the potential loss of average annual revenue resulting from a scaleback, than from the even larger loss if little or none of the project materializes: "It’s important to grow our tax base, for sure. But it's also important to balance impacts on the environment. And if you can't accomplish the whole picture, then you may accomplish one or two of those [development] stages, but you don’t give yourself the assurance that you'll move beyond those two stages."

"Experience has shown that interchanges are very slow in coming from the state, and we don’t control the funding for that. By reducing the density by 2 million square feet, the county executive felt that we would have a greater likelihood of being able to implement this science-based community that is being envisioned," Schwartz Jones added.

Leggett has proposed exempting from the staging projects deemed by the county to hold "strategic economic significance." They are expected to include projects in the biosciences given the county's large life-sci cluster, as well as other industries targeted by the county for further job growth, though criteria have yet to be hammered out, according to Schwartz Jones.

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The county executive has insisted that even with the reduced development density, Montgomery County remains committed to growing its life sciences cluster, which consists of some 200 employers. The county hopes to capitalize on increased NIH funding under president Obama, as well as the commitment made by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat expected to seek re-election next year, to spend $1.3 billion on various life-sci initiatives through the year 2020 — including the $5.5 million one-stop agency Maryland Biotechnology Center, which this week formally opened offices in Baltimore and the Montgomery County city of Rockville, Md. [See BioRegion Real Estate, this issue].

"We have the elements for a successful research environment, but to remain a leader, our model must change as well. With competition growing globally, nationally, and regionally, it is critical that we define ourselves as a leader in the field of biosciences and that we create exciting and inviting places for these quality jobs within the county," Leggett wrote.

"With the federal and state attention to this segment of the economy, we must act definitively and boldly now," Leggett added. "Later is too late."

The county is leaving details of how to grow its biocluster to its 34-member Montgomery County Biosciences Task Force, an advisory board formed last year. "We expect to get their recommendations on a strategic plan for life sciences in the county; we expect that to come out sometime in the October-November time frame," Schwartz Jones told BRN.

‘Biosciences are Critical’

Leggett's report also acknowledged that the change would reduce the county's economic benefit of additional development recommended by the master plan, to $1.1 billion in taxes over 30 years, with average annual tax revenue falling 28 percent, to $31 million.

The partial rollback would lower by 15 percent the amount of approved and proposed additional biotech R&D space to nearly 3.6 million square feet from 4.2 million square feet. Leggett's proposal would also reduce healthcare space to about 2.7 million square feet from almost 3.2 million; cut office space to 2.5 million square feet from 3 million square feet; reduce academic space to 1.6 million square feet from 1.9 million square feet; and shed around 121,000 square feet from retail space, which would become 669,867 square feet.

Leggett's proposed scaleback would also cut by 16 percent the number of direct jobs within the study area, to 45,168 from 53,950 positions; and the number of total jobs, counting indirect positions projected via economic multiplier methodology, by 16 percent, to 72,772 jobs from 86,658 slots.

Not affected by the Leggett plan is the 3,300 proposed housing units called for under the master plan.

A majority of those units, or 2,000, are envisioned to be developed at the county-owned Public Service Training Academy located in Rockville. Leggett wants the county to sell the 52-acre PSTA site to a developer that would build 2,000 housing units, as well as a firehouse and a new school. This component would be part of a larger plan that would move the academy to a portion of the 134-acre Webb property. To that end, a council committee this week recommended full-council approval before being allowed to buy that portion for $21.1 million

Schwartz Jones said this week that Leggett arrived at the proposed 18 million-square-foot density by using the same figure the state of Maryland has used for its feasibility studies into a mass-transit system planned for the study area, to be called the Corridor Cities Transitway, as a way to help reduce the expected jump in automotive traffic following new development.

The state is expected to advance CCT early next month when it releases findings that county officials believe will conclude the mass transit system is feasible and should be built.

"We believe that for a successful life sciences area, you do have to have the mass transit," Schwartz Jones said. "We think that the biosciences are critical. The federal and state governments have sort of thrown

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down the gauntlet in the sense that there's a recognition of increased funding into these jobs, and there to be a place for these higher quality jobs to occur."

In his report, Leggett recommended that the county planning board assist the council in studying whether the additional 2 million square feet could be built outside of a quarter-mile radius from the CCT stations envisioned by the master plan, or on recently built properties that are unlikely to be redeveloped soon.

The master plan, which has been written in two parts (here and here), examines land use for a portion of Montgomery County that is envisioned to include at least one new large mixed-use proposal with life-sci space at Shady Grove. To that end, Johns Hopkins University would transform the 108-acre Belward Farm into a research campus with 4.5 million square feet of new R&D space.

Hopkins' plans would expand its presence in the county — namely its Montgomery County campus at Shady Grove, which has 4,000 graduate students enrolled in part-time programs, and nearly 100 researchers employed in 12 local institutes and companies.

"We envision Montgomery County as a 21st century global center of discovery and education to advance health," Scott Zeger, Johns Hopkins' vice provost for research, told the county council. "We believe that with our partners, we can bring basic, clinical, and public health sciences together to discover how best to prevent disease, or its harmful effects through early diagnosis and treatment, how to use information to improve the quality and reduce the costs of healthcare services, and how to organize and manage globally competitive healthcare systems."

He cited JHU's participation in the NIH National Children's Study, in which scientists from Hopkins will follow 1,000 newborns in the county to age 21 in hopes of better understanding the environmental causes of disease. The plan also calls for JHU to collaborate with the county Department of Health and Human Services aimed at delivering better and more affordable healthcare locally with potential applications nationwide.

More than 1,400 Johns Hopkins faculty and staffers live in Montgomery County, he said. "They want to live and contribute here, not in Palo Alto [, Calif.,] or Cambridge [, Mass.], or Research Triangle [Park, NC].” He said the Gaithersburg West master plan “is a roadmap to make Montgomery County a world-class center for discovery and learning about people's health through a unique partnership of government, industry, and academic, or which Johns Hopkins would be proud to be a part."

"We do not yet have the scale and critical mass to make us competitive," David McDonough, senior director of development oversight for Johns Hopkins Real Estate, told the board.

Speaking with BRN in July, McDonough noted that Johns Hopkins' Montgomery County campus has been approved earlier for an additional 900,000 square feet of development, some of which the university is looking to build out.

"We're actually competing for some lab requirements right now," he said, declining to provide details. "It's quite life-science research-rich users that we're seeking to have come to the life-science center,” said McDonough. “These are researchers with quite extraordinary national prominence on a large scale."

Whether JHU or Belward develops that space first will depend on the needs of users and the types of research being done, McDonough said.

He added that JHU, like other property owners in the study area, would submit conceptual plans for their land to the county planning department once a master plan is approved — McDonough said it could "take somewhere between six and 18 months” but “end up running about 12 months" — followed by preliminary subdivision plans.

Montserrat Capdevila, president of the professional student organization Johns Hopkins Biotech Network, agreed with McDonough of the need to create "critical mass to unite government, academia and industry" in addressing the council.

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"Today I ask, give scientists the tools we need. Give us a place to research, live, play, and collaborate. Keep me in Montgomery County,” Capdevila, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, told the county council. “I promise you will not regret it. And I guarantee I will make you proud you did.

“Opponents say, 'Scale it back.' But I say, don't scale back my dreams, or your economic future,” he said. "When I find the cure for ovarian cancer one day, do you want me to do it here in Montgomery County?”

JHU's Belward project is one of five LSC districts created by the master plan, all to be linked by a 3.5-mile multiple-use path called the LSC Loop. 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. 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].

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.

The current master plan calls for the following 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.

• 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.

'Scale It Back'

The master plan has drawn fire from two civic groups, which have contended that the jobs, taxes, and other benefits generated by Gaithersburg West are outweighed by its density and the resulting traffic increases, and other effects.

Scale-It-Back, a coalition of 400 individual residents and civic groups, has called for Johns Hopkins to scale back any development at Belward Farm to the roughly 1.4 million square feet of new space previously approved for the property (part of the 2 million square feet approved when the parcel included additional land that was later sold off), and to shift development of its additional planned buildings to the university's existing and more densely developed Shady Grove campus.

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"We recommend that the Belward Farm campus be built as a low-impact development with an emphasis on green building and sustainability initiatives," with existing farm buildings renovated according to a plan that would also include "walking/jogging trails built amid low-maintenance sustainable landscaping, with native trees, plants and grasses," Scale-It-Back suggested in its Gaithersburg West Master Plan: An Environmentally and Community Friendly Alternative.

The planning board sought to respond to resident concerns about overdevelopment earlier this year, when it shrunk JHU's original plan calling for 6.5 million square feet of new R&D space.

"If there are research opportunities where we can build things to meet the needs of those researchers, we'll proceed to do that under the old plan while we're waiting for the new plan to move forward," McDonough told BRN.

"We were looking to have slightly more square footage on Belward [and Shady Grove], to make sure there is no dispute over the prominence of this life science cluster. And yes, we would like to have achieved the square footage we were looking for, but we have not," McDonough said. "But the important thing overall is that we look not at our own individual piece, but the sum total of all the pieces, and how that advances the vision for this new research cluster that has great jobs, great science, and a great place to live, work, and play."

For all of Gaithersburg West, according to the alternative plan, Montgomery County should cut the amount of all new development allowed within the study area by roughly half, from 9.5 million square feet to 4.5 million square feet. Like the master plan, Scale-It-Back calls for dividing the new development into stages, with later stages unable to occur without satisfying specific road and mass transit transportation improvements designed to handle the expected increase in traffic.

While the master plan also requires the staging of any new development, Scale-It-Back contends that the county should tighten its development staging criteria by requiring staging for new development in all five LSC districts, not just the North, Central, and Belward districts.

The current staging criteria called for under the master plan, "are entirely too flexible to give the residents any sense that they will know what is being built, when or where," Scale-It-Back contends in its alternative plan.

Addressing the county council Tuesday and in an interview the following day with BRN, Donna Baron, coordinator for Scale-It-Back, said her group was not opposed to additional biomedical or hospital activity in the county, but wants JHU to concentrate its densest future activity at the denser-developed LSC North and LSC Central sections, leaving Belward as a lower-density academic campus more compatible with neighboring subdivisions in the mostly residential neighborhood.

"[County officials] need to start with the reality of where we live and how much traffic we can handle," Baron said. "Right now, if I go down to the end of my street, I may have to wait for 35 to 50 cars before I can get out. If you add 15,000 people on the farm, how will I ever get out of my street?"

Traffic would worsen, she said, because nearly every street near Belward is a winding road ending in a cul-de-sac, because 25,000 residents already live within 2.4 miles of the farm, and because the CCT mass transit system is projected to be used by just 15 percent of those who work in Montgomery County.

"We support the bioscience companies. It's just that we still would like to get out at the end of our streets," said Baron, whose daughter is a scientist working at Qiagen's North American headquarters in Germantown, Md. "We moved to our communities for the trees, the green space, and the suburban lifestyle. If we wanted to live in downtown Silver Spring or Tyson's Corner, we would have moved there."

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Seeking a 'True' Life-Sci Center

Another coalition of Montgomery County civic groups and individuals critical of the master plan is Residents for Reasonable Development. In its Proposal for a True Life Sciences R&D Center at Shady GroveWest, RRD urges that at least 60 percent of the new commercial space at Belward be zoned for "life sciences/medical" use, and at least 50 percent for the rest of the LSC area.

The master plan envisions about one-third of the approved and proposed commercial space that doesn't exist today being for biotech use, but sets a 50 percent requirement for both R&D and healthcare space. "If they're going to maintain the integrity of the life sciences center, it should be a much higher percentage" covering life-sci use alone, Baron said. "It should be at least 75 percent, if not higher."

"The county's plan for the LSC needs to have strong guarantees if they want any assurance that a huge biotech/educational/R&D center will develop at the LSC," RRD member Pamela Lindstrom told BRN.

Lindstrom cited employment data from Montgomery County's Planning Department showing that biotech jobs account for 4,000 of the approximately 20,000 jobs within the study area, and 8,000 out of the 500,000 total jobs across the county. That does not count another 40,000 medical-related jobs, such as hospitals and medical labs.

"Given the small size of the non-governmental biotech sector, the LSC as it is presently planned and zoned could accommodate a doubling of the county's total biotech sector. 40,000 new jobs in the sector defies belief; one needs an Alice in Wonderland outlook to give it any credibility," Lindstrom said. "Consider that about 16 percent of current employment in the area is in biotech, yet this is considered a biotech mecca. The new plan would further mix uses with more retail, entertainment, hotels, etcetera. The expected share of biomedical workers will certainly decline further without serious regulation in the plan and zone for the LSC.

"As long as the plan does not specify R&D, there is no objective reason that JHU will not seek other types of development that would meet the requirements of the zone," added Lindstrom.

Three key areas of agreement between RRD and Scale-It-Back: Both favor reducing the amount of new development at Belward, and shifting denser JHU development to its Shady Grove campus, and both believe that Leggett's scaleback plan does not go far enough to address their concerns.

"We figure [JHU's] development capacity on the two sites is over 3 [million square feet], which seems generous to us," Lindstrom said.

However, RRD has called for allowing 2,000 housing units at the PTSA site, "since housing is badly needed for the thousands of current and new employees," according to its plan. Scale-It-Back has held off offering its own number. RRD says the 6,000 new homes contemplated by the master plan would house 9,000 workers, forcing the other 50,000 workers expected to work within the study area to commute to their jobs from outside the county, most likely by car, worsening area traffic.

"The only remedy is to reduce the employment density substantially and increase housing capacity modestly," Lindstrom said. "There is also an ethical side to the housing issue: even biotech research and education provides quite a few relatively low-paid jobs … It would be unethical to have a public policy to create these jobs and not consider where the workforce will live; to force future workers to endure long expensive commutes."

Scale-It-Back said the master plan's new housing, plus the recent approval by officials of some 2,000 new housing units at Crowns Farm, threatens to overdevelop the county, which is why it hopes to see fewer homes at PTSA than the 2,000 units envisioned there by the county: "An accurate analysis of all of the housing surrounding the Life Sciences Center must be done to determine a realistic amount of additional housing to be built on the PSTA. Excess housing will cause further congestion and there is no assurance that the people who live in the housing will work in the LSC."

Within PTSA, Scale-It-Back supports a new fire station, an option supported by the county government, and "an elementary school on a standard school size lot."

Among developers watching what happens with Gaithersburg West closely 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 in White Oak, Md., within Montgomery County but outside the study area.

In June, Percontee joined JHU in asking the planning board to hold off imposing new fees or "exactions" as conditions of approval for their large mixed-use projects, arguiong the extra cost would make their projects less feasible and hinder efforts to grow the county's life-sci cluster [BRN, June 12]. The board rejected the request, absent more details about development costs and economic benefits associated with the plans.

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