The first thing out of most mouths at the first-ever meeting of the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee earlier this month was that the area needs one identifiable and marketable name.
What went unspoken is the disagreement over exactly what that name should be.
The area around the White Flint Metro station is projected to see 14,000 new housing units and 13 million square feet of commercial redevelopment in the strip shopping centers along Rockville Pike over the next 25 years.
The bulk of that development will come in four major projects from four different developers that appear split. Should the area be called White Flint, like the Metro station and landmark mall, or North Bethesda, to better identify it on a map?
“Not being a ‘Little Bethesda’ but creating a district that is unique and identifiable and that actually leads the county,” Federal Realty’s Deirdre Johnson said at the April 9 meeting of developers, business representatives, residents and county staff. “We want people saying, ‘Look at what they did,’ and not, ‘Look at what Bethesda did and they replicated it.’”
Rockville-based Federal Realty is building Pike & Rose, the 24-acre, $250-million mixed-use development at Mid-Pike Plaza that will include a town center, retail and office space, a hotel, luxury movie theater and recently announced music venue managed by Strathmore. The first phase is set for completion next year.
Johnson touched on a point many of the White Flint-backers make: Going with North Bethesda would only tie the place to Bethesda. The area needs to distinguish itself.
Across Rockville Pike, the bare lot that developer LCOR hopes will one day have 280,000 square feet of retail development, a 320-room Westin hotel and a Wishbone suspension bridge over the White Flint Metro station platform has already been branded.
It’s called North Bethesda Center and LCOR Vice President Mike Smith said the company chose the North Bethesda label after early community discussions seemed to point toward the name.
He also said the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, built with $40 million in state and county funds, indicated to LCOR that North Bethesda would be the name. It opened in 2004 on Marinelli Road, across Rockville Pike from the White Flint Metro.
“When the Conference Center was being developed in 2003, we were starting to see our development plans begin. Going through the community meetings back then, gauging the reaction of a lot of different folks, there seemed to be an informal consensus at that point in time that the area had a name,” Smith said. “It literally was a neighborhood in between Rockville and Bethesda. Through all of this consultation, we heard the area wanted a different image from White Flint Mall.”
Lerner Enterprises, which opened White Flint Mall in 1977, presumably does not. The Mall has become synonymous with the area. The Metro stop is named White Flint, though Smith said WMATA opened up the possibility of adding North Bethesda to the station name when it redid its maps and orientation materials last year for the new Silver Line in Virginia.
The Lerners are nearing a mixed-use, town square-oriented redevelopment project of their own for the Mall site, one of the major catalysts for the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan, the county’s rewrite of the area’s zoning.
Across Rockville Pike from White Flint Mall, Chevy Chase-based developer JBG took to North Bethesda early on.
JBG’s project, North Bethesda Market, began before the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan. Montgomery County’s tallest building, surrounded by upscale restaurants, retail and a Whole Foods grocery store is already on the ground. North Bethesda Market II, a 300-foot-tall, 347-unit apartment building that will eclipse what exists today, is still in the pipeline.
“So much thought is being put into the cohesiveness of the White Flint Sector, it would be a lost opportunity for it to not have a consistent and marketable name,” said Lindsay Hoffman, a resident who has been active in redevelopment discussions with the nonprofit Friends of White Flint. “Our hope is that all of the stakeholders can find a consensus on this, perhaps with the help of a branding study, so we can ensure the area has its rightful place on the map.”
Friends of White Flint members include the area’s major developers.
The group’s website did a poll in which 53 percent of voters tabbed “White Flint,” 15 percent chose “NoBe,” (a SoHo- and NoMa-like shortening of North Bethesda) and 14 percent preferred plain old “North Bethesda.”
“What the group has to do together, what the developers have to do together, is decide what they’re going to call that area. Whether they keep the North Bethesda name or not, once they decide then we have a name brand that we’ll market through everything we do here,” said Kelly Groff, director of the Montgomery County Conference and Visitors Bureau. “We’ll market it however they decide.”
At the April 9 Downtown Advisory Committee meeting, Ken Hartman, the county’s point man in Bethesda, Potomac and North Bethesda, asked members what they want to accomplish in year one of the group.
Most said the same thing: Find a name and stick with it.
“There needs to be a broader conversation,” said Smith, whose LCOR group has already delivered a Harris Teeter/apartment project and office building for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will complete the Aurora apartment building about a year from now.
“It seemed like people were very adamant to rechristen the neighborhood, not based on the name of the Metro station,” Smith said. “But those in favor of White Flint have a case. It’s clearly something we can’t just kick down the road.”