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County, Planning Officials Express Angst Over NIH, Walter Reed Redevelopment

by BethesdaNow.com — October 19, 2012 at 10:00 am 1,045 0

NIH and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center neighbors aren’t the only ones skeptical of the federal institutions’ plans to redevelop their Wisconsin Avenue campuses.

In testimony before the Montgomery County Planning Board yesterday, Montgomery County BRAC coordinator Phil Alperson said he doesn’t believe in traffic studies from Naval Support Activity Bethesda (NSAB), which operates the Military Medical Center campus and presented its redevelopment plans to the Board.

“In a nutshell, the traffic study says two things of concern to me, long range predictions in the [Environmental Impact Study] up to the year 2018 indicate traffic will operate at a slightly improved level prior to the BRAC integration,” Alperson said. “In my view, BRAC traffic counts do not reflect the true nature of traffic in the Rockville Pike area. It was too congested to get accurate readings. The fact is traffic right now is dramatically worse than it was before.”

Alperson also said he’s not confident the expected 270 additional staff members expected after NSAB rebuilds parts of its medical center and university will hold. He cited the 3,800 additional employees who ended up moving to the base after Walter Reed relocated there. The original estimate was 2,500.

Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier called Alperson’s comments “apocryphal.” But fellow Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson had some criticisms of his own. His were directed at NIH, Walter Reed’s across-the-street neighbor.

In its draft Master Plan, which would add 3,000 employees over 20 years to the main campus of the county’s largest employer, NIH won’t be able to get their parking ratio to the federal goal of one parking space for every three staff members, a figure that encourages the use of mass transit.

“There’s no rational reason that I’m aware of that you shouldn’t have a 3 to 1 ratio by this point,” Anderson told an NIH representative after he presented. “With due respect, maybe people shouldn’t live in West Virginia and work in Bethesda.”

In an interview yesterday, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the county must balance the economic activity the prestigious federal agencies can spur with the traffic and congestion that comes with it.

“When you balance all things together, I think we need to be encouraging of our federal institutions,” Leggett said. “There is a downside to some of it but maybe you pick that back up on some other institution you get in that will compensate for that.”

The Planning Board and the county has no authority over NIH and NSAB development plans. Margaret Rifkin, the planner who reviewed the projects, called them “basically sovereign nations within our boundaries.” Both plans will be subject to approval from the National Capital Planning Commission.

“We know we can’t make you do it,” Anderson told a NIH representative about achieving the parking ratio. “But that doesn’t mean we have to sit here and say, ‘It’s OK.’”

Flickr photo by thisisbossi

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