Most agree a business improvement district to maintain and market White Flint/North Bethesda will be an essential component for whatever the place ends up being called.
Some on the county committee charged with setting up that organization feel they’ve been left out of a key recent discussion raging between the area’s major developers.
In a letter to the White Flint Downtown Advisory Committee, a group of some of those developers expressed its new goal to expand the area past the boundaries of the White Flint Sector Plan, potentially into the City of Rockville.
In a letter from the White Flint Partnership, the developers behind some of the area’s biggest projects (Pike & Rose, White Flint Mall and North Bethesda Market included) said identifying the area as a larger Rockville Pike District will mean better retail marketability on par with Rosslyn or Tysons.
“I think it’s a little bit backdoor,” said Downtown Committee member Bob Daley, general manager of the Bethesda North Marriott.
“I mostly agree with the concept. I’m not saying I do or I don’t but I’m a little concerned when this is so developer-driven,” said committee member and resident Paul Meyer. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘By the way, here’s the new name of where you live,’ and it’s done by someone who lives in downtown D.C. If this is going to be developer driven without much input from residents, you’re going to get a lot of pushback.”
The county set up the Downtown Advisory Committee last year and the County Council confirmed its first batch of members to pave the way for an official business improvement or urban district to serve the rapidly transforming area. That organization — similar to the Bethesda Urban Partnership in downtown Bethesda — would promote the area’s businesses, organize large events, landscape roadside right-of-ways and provide other maintenance with funding from special taxes or another source, such as parking fees.
The committee was on its way to completing its first major project — creating a MetroWhiteFlint.org that would act as the official website for White Flint, with restaurant and retail listings, a history of the area and a development map.
But when Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Director Ken Hartman sent out a logo for the site in April, representatives from Federal Realty Investment Trust said they disagreed with branding the place as “White Flint.”
Federal Realty’s Evan Goldman proposed the idea of a larger “Pike District” that would allow the White Flint name to carry on in some places and new neighborhood names to emerge elsewhere.
Eventually, Federal Realty got buy-in from the property owners in the Partnership — including White Flint Mall-owning Lerner Enterprises — and the group sent its recommendations to the Downtown Advisory Committee for its meeting on Tuesday morning.
That prompted a discussion of who is determining the future of White Flint/North Bethesda. Some also asked what benefits a larger district would bring, beyond a bigger market for property owners to pitch to retail targets.
“Until somebody tells me why, I am totally uninterested,” said resident and committee member Bernie Meyers.
Expanding the area would mean the committee must go back to the County Council to change its resolution. It also mean’s the group’s website efforts are paused, for now.
Still, the proposal seemed to garner support from many on the committee, even from those who said they disliked the way the Partnership went about it.
Lindsay Hoffman, executive director of the Friends of White Flint, said an expanded business improvement district could provide more revenue sources necessary to provide services.
“Indirectly, there’s a big positive impact. You have a larger area that’s more visible. It’s more identifiable,” said committee member Cliff Cohen. “When you go out to market it nationally, you have something that makes it more possible to be successful.”
Meyers interjected to ask how that helps residents.
“If you want nice tenants or you want good shops,” Cohen said. “This is the big picture. And in the little picture, the neighborhoods don’t change.”
Andy Shulman, who represents the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber on the committee, said the recent developer movement on branding could be viewed as an accomplishment of the committee.
“For a year, this group has had one hand tied behind their back. For six or seven years, we’ve been waiting for the Partnership to do something together,” Shulman said. “That was the whole idea, that they were going to work together to determine what that would be. When they couldn’t, we said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ And they said, ‘Wait a minute, we’ll get our things together and take another look.'”
Goldman is expected to give a presentation on the Pike District concept at the committee’s July meeting. Hartman said he didn’t expect final recommendations to come until September.
Meanwhile, the Partnership said it’s working with its own consultant to come up with a few name choices.
And the idea of expanding the area into the City of Rockville faces a number of challenges. No formal communication with the City of Rockville has been made, but Hartman said it seems doubtful that an official business improvement district could extend past municipal boundaries.
If the Downtown Advisory Committee endorses the idea, it would likely want to help define the neighborhoods within the larger district.
“What we have to focus on is what do we want? Do we want to go forward with the recommendation from the Partnership,” asked committee member Tara Flynn. “I too bristle when things are said in a way that sounds like they’re happening, rather than we are here to think about what we as a committee want to do.”