The biotech research campus at Belward Farm has taken its first step toward fruition since Montgomery County enacted its broader vision to turn 900 acres between Gaithersburg and Rockville into a world-class "Science City."
The broad-stroke dimensions of development on the rolling farmstead on Darnestown and Muddy Branch roads—framed in its iconic white fence—were laid out last year in the Great Seneca Science Corridor master plan, which calls for a 4.7-million-square-foot campus on Belward.
The county Planning Board on Thursday amended Belward’s preliminary plan, giving the 108-acre farm a new road grid and sketching out its building locations and height limits. That clears the way for Johns Hopkins University—which owns Belward—to submit plans that would detail the exact build-out.
Thursday’s action does away with a 1996 plan for a suburban-style research park in favor of a layout based more around the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed light rail or rapid bus line that would run 15 miles from the Shady Grove Metro station north nearly to Clarksburg. The new preliminary plan also:
- Splits Belward in two; 57 acres and 39 acres divided by an east-west Belward Campus Drive.
- Sets aside a 10-acre historic enclave around the farmhouses.
- Accommodates a right-of-way for the CCT, pending Gov. Martin O’Malley’s long-awaited endorsement of the project.
- Sets the open space requirements, including buffers along Darnestown and Muddy Branch roads and facing the Mission Hills neighborhood to the north.
- Designates greater densities and building heights near the CCT stop.
- Replaces the previous plan’s expansive parking lots with multi-story garages wedged into areas of densest development.
Because it is an amendment to a plan that had been approved prior to the Great Seneca master plan, Hopkins can move ahead with 1.4 million square feet without having to wait for the master plan’s staging limits.
Hopkins has not submitted a specific proposal for Belward.
"We currently don't have a timeline," Elaine Amir, director of Hopkins’s Montgomery County campus, wrote in an e-mail. "We're meeting with interested parties who would like to join the Hopkins campus community. As soon as we find a suitable match, we will take the next step in the planning process."
Despite the absence of immediate plans, county leaders stress that it is the context of what’s at stake.
"Those of us who spend every day talking to business people are very concerned about the projections for the state of the economy: Flat would be considered to be optimistic," said Steve Silverman, the county’s director of economic development. "So, opportunities that present themselves, such as moving forward with the Belward campus, are very, very critical in terms of our life sciences efforts in the county. … This particular slice of the plan, the Belward campus, is a key component to our ability to … kick it up a notch … and make sure that folks in the region, folks in the country and folks throughout the world recognize the opportunities that present themselves by locating in Montgomery County and the Life Sciences Center and hopefully in the Belward campus in particular."
Over the years, Hopkins has wanted as much as 7 million square feet on Belward, which they believed necessary to woo large, federal agencies such as NIH or FDA.
The Great Seneca plan scaled that back by more than 2 million square feet, in response to uproar from the thousands of homes bordering Belward on three sides. That rancorous debate appears to be abiding, a détente embodied in Belward’s new preliminary plan by a last-minute revision to remove a road that was running through the 200-foot buffer facing Mission Hills.
Lynn Rose, representing Mission Hills, thanked Hopkins for responding to the concern and was encouraged by the improving relationship.
"We are hoping that our neighborhood is not going to be totally forgotten in the process," she said.
But Donna Baron, coordinator of the Gaithersburg-North Potomac-Rockville Coalition, said that other neighborhoods “still have reservations” about development on Belward, especially on its traffic impact.
Planning Board Chairwoman Françoise Carrier assured Baron that Hopkins will not be able to build the remaining 3.3 million square feet without a traffic study and other requirements are met.
"Very limited development is going to happen until we have substantial infrastructure improvements," she said.