With a few ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt, Montgomery County has broken ground on its far-reaching endeavor to clear the way for a pair of massive projects destined to redefine the county’s economic fortunes for decades to come.
County Executive Isiah Leggett’s “Smart Growth Initiative” is Montgomery County’s most ambitious and expansive capital project ever, a dozen intertwined projects that balance half a billion dollars in expenses against tens of millions more in revenue and savings. It relocates old, overcrowded and otherwise inadequate facilities to three sites around Gaithersburg: the GE Tech Park on Route 28, the Webb Tract near the Montgomery County Airpark and the Casey 6 and 7 parcels off Shady Grove Road.
Doing so will by 2014 open up two properties in Shady Grove laden with financial promise:
1) The County Service Park—92 acres on Crabbs Branch Way that will be transformed into a 6,500-home “urban village” walk distance from the Shady Grove Metro station
2) The Public Safety Training Academy—52 acres off Key West Avenue designated last year to become a 2,000-home neighborhood, the lion’s share of new housing intended to support the 900-acre “Science City” envisioned to emerge between Gaithersburg and Rockville over the next 30 years.
Nearly four years have passed since Leggett (D) unveiled his plan and began navigating its environmental hurdles and addressing outcry from neighbors to the GE Tech Park, Webb Tract and Casey properties.
Last week’s groundbreaking marked the long-awaited arrival of the plan's construction stages. First up: a new hub for RideOn buses and the county transportation department’s fleet of service vehicles—a facility called the Equipment and Maintenance Operations Center (EMOC).
The $36.7 million project on the Casey 6 and 7 properties—which straddle Interstate 370, a few hundred yards from EMOC’s cramped home in the County Service Park—gives room to hold 65 more RideOn buses, improves service and will help the county meet its transit demands, which are expected to double over the next ten years.
County officials also heaped praise on the project’s environmental attributes, dubbed “radical and dramatic” for a government facility.
The future EMOC will be LEED “Gold” certified, including such features as: solar panels to heat the building’s water supply, and vegetated roofs to capture rainfall for reuse as wastewater and for washing vehicles.
“I defy you to find another facility of its sort in the United States,” said David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services. “This is really going to be a tremendous facility we can all be proud of.”
If the rest of the plan follows suit, the County Service Park and the Public Safety Training Academy will be cleared out by 2014.
“The fact of the matter is, this really is a big deal,” Councilwoman Nancy Floreen said at the July 13 groundbreaking. “This is the beginning of great things at Shady Grove.”
That had seemed a far-fetched possibility when Leggett devised the Smart Growth Initiative in 2007, he said, recalling the moment he described the plan to a handful of incredulous department heads.
“I literally was the only person in the room … saying we can do this,” Leggett said. “Everybody else looked at me as though to say, ‘I’m not sure that he fully understands what he’s asking us to do.’”
Here is a look at the properties involved:
GE Tech Park
The five-story office building off Route 28, next to Lakelands and Kentlands—the former headquarters of National Geographic—was bought by the county for $107 million. While a $20-plus-million renovation got underway, the county’s Department of Transportation moved into the 340,000-square-foot building last year.
By the middle of next year, the renovated building will be home to a joint headquarters for the police and fire/rescue departments, as well as the police crime lab and forensics division, the 1st District police station and the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
The Finmarc warehouse nearby will a year from now house the Department of Liquor Control.
Bought last year for $46.6 million, the vacant 130 acres runs along Snouffer School, next to the Montgomery County Airpark. County officials have completed the site plan for a new police and fire/rescue training academy, and will soon be soliciting bids for its engineering and architectural design. That process will take a year, then the County Council will have to fund the construction, which isn’t likely to begin until the end of 2012 and is expected to last 18 months or more.
The Webb Tract will also be home to three other county facilities: the parks department’s maintenance depot, and the school system’s food distribution warehouse and building maintenance depot.
The 52-acre parcel off Key West Avenue and Great Seneca Highway is slated for the lion’s share of new housing needed to support biotech growth laid out in the Great Seneca Science Corridor Master Plan. County officials will begin looking for interested contractors next month. The nature of the transaction is still up in the air.
“We’re open to anything, whether it’s purchase, land swap, public-private partnership—anything that may come about,” Dise said. “It’s really open to suggestion.”
One facet of the Smart Growth Initiative has eluded resolution: the school bus depot in the County Service Park. Leggett had originally called for building a depot at the Gude landfill, but that proposal came unraveled amid outcry from Derwood residents over environmental risks.
County officials have not yet revealed what other locations they have in mind.
“We are about to make a formal proposal to them later this summer, and let them react,” Dise said.
So far, the Smart Growth Initiative’s complicated financial plan appears to be holding true. Early on, Leggett projected $515 million in revenue from land sale and rent saving, balanced against $485 million in costs. Those figures haven’t been updated in more than a year. Officials are refining the numbers and will report to the County Council this fall.
“We’re still on course,” Dise said.