Renamed Viva White Oak a few years ago, the proposed Percontee/Gudelsky LifeSci Village has been extolled for many, many, many years as being transformational for the East County because it could provide high-paying jobs, housing, retail and entertainment. There was broad-based buy-in for the concept. Covering 279 acres of brown-field land, this project has a total of 12 million square feet of zoned development (7 million square feet of commercial space and 5,000 residential units) — more if individual building sites are awarded bonus densities.
The project is so significant that other large property owners in the master plan area have been “waiting to see” what happens. Other smaller, scattered projects, including Finmarc’s White Oak Town Center retail strip center (105,000 square feet), NPR Group’s White Oak Apartments (387 rental apartments) and the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County’s Hillandale Gateway (16,000 square feet of commercial space and 463 rental apartments), are moving forward.
But what about Viva White Oak? During the 2010-2014 White Oak Science Gateway (WOSG) Master Plan timeframe and with County Executive Leggett’s final 2016 General Development Agreement (GDA), the project was being touted as “ready to go.” Reportedly, there were multiple interested bio-science parties, some international, and the project could meet the then-existing development requirements and fees. Under the GDA, the county committed to $40 million for the development’s on-site roads and another $32 million in deferred “development-cost” credits against the $42 million purchase of Site 2 from the county. A high-profile ground-breaking ceremony was held in October 2018. A very basic Preliminary Plan for the major roadways through the site was approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board shortly thereafter in November. The county’s 110-acre Site 2 property was transferred to the Viva White Oak owner entity in December 2018.
But since 2018, nothing much has happened with Viva White Oak in the public realm, except for some very successful lobbying to reduce the costs for the developer. The area was designated as a Federal Opportunity Zone with all the associated tax and investment incentives. Then, using this “OZ” designation in 2021, the County Council eliminated the county’s development impact taxes. As Council Member Nancy Navarro has often said, these actions “set the table” for this much-desired development. In September 2021, widely circulated news reports asserted that the project was “ready to launch” and construction was about to begin, despite the fact that land entitlements were not (and are still not) complete for any segment of the project to apply for a building permit.
Now, lobbying appears to be reengaging. Within a new February 2022 proposal by Labquest, a non-public group that has been long associated with the Viva project, there is an astounding statement:
GLDC [i.e., Global LifeSci Development Corp./Percontee/Viva White Oak] “has been unable so far to obtain financing because it has not been economically justified and increasing the density allows the very high fixed cost associated with development to be allocated over more units thus reducing the per unit cost.”
Labquest’s Life Science Activity Center (Viva Activity Center) and White Oak Activity Center Development Proposal calls for a rewrite of the WOSG Master Plan to increase the project’s density, re-arrange the New Hampshire bus rapid transit and remove the Old Columbia roadway improvements, all for the convenience of Viva White Oak. Master plan revisions take years! Furthermore, the proposal presses for large additional capital improvement project investments by the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission. Remarkably, the proposal does not address the environmental/reclamation costs of the long-time quarry/concrete recycling operation on the Viva property.
The proposal also hypes two new ideas. The first is 41 acres of General Services Administration land which may be offered for sale by the Public Building Reform Board at some later date to become new county schools and fields. The second is a mention of a new Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility on the east side of the Federal Research Center land. The VA’s March 2022 Asset and Infrastructure Review, which covers all of the VA, gives no indication that White Oak is being considered for anything. These new hopes appear to be wishful thinking.
So, is the East County being held hostage by Viva with more demands? Is the county actually underwriting the restoration of Percontee’s land, a quarry and concrete recycling operation for decades? The County Council, and especially the Planning Housing, and Economic Development Committee, has avoided the necessary deep dive into the reality of this large project, choosing to just make more concessions. It is time for honest discussions about the viability and progress of Viva White Oak and to stop this ransom on the installment plan.
Eileen Finnegan is a Hillandale/Silver Spring resident who was a member of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan Citizens Advisory Committee and is a past president of the Hillandale Citizens Association.
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