Over the past five years, Percontee has been reaching out to the FDA and to the surrounding neighborhoods for input on the project. Response from the FDA has been positive. "We like to shop," Genn recalls them saying. "We like to visit nice restaurants, and we like to take our colleagues out."
Percontee has been meeting regularly with the Hillandale and Calverton civic associations and the advisory committees for the Fairland and White Oak master plans. "For years we've been meeting with the outside communities and doing surveys about what they think of our concept compared to what could be here." Percontee gave the neighbors disposable cameras, asking them to take photos of the kinds of buildings or amenities they'd like to see here.
The community has "literally had a seat at the table," says Lambert. "Stuart Rochester was here," says Genn, referring to the civic activist who passed away in July. He points where I'm sitting. "He sat right in that chair. He said traffic and congestion will happen no matter what is developed, and can we have the best thing possible. He thought this was a responsible vision for the area."
"That's not to say we can ignore the traffic issues," Genn adds. "That's part and parcel with what we're trying to do."
Traffic was the main reason former County Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, who lived in Calverton for forty years, expressed skepticism about LifeSci Village. "Although at first glance the artist’s renderings of this proposal may seem appealing, a closer look raises a number of concerns," she wrote in a newsletter sent to her constituents in November 2007. "The amount of development proposed for the site would have a tremendous impact on traffic."
Councilmember Don Praisner, who succeeded his wife after her passing in 2008, complained that it wasn't "ideal for East County" and that mixed-use development was a fad. "A developer isn't going to build an office building if he can't fill it," he told JUTP in 2008. "You can't ignore the marketplace."
Despite its low profile, LifeSci Village has come up in countywide discussion lately due to its similarity to "Science City," a mixed-use community proposed by Johns Hopkins University west of Gaithersburg also aimed at encouraging scientific research. Skeptics of that project, from Greater Greater Washington to Councilmember Phil Andrews, have suggested that it will draw much-needed investment away from East County, though Percontee doesn't view it as competition.
"I see it as collaboration," Genn says. "We've already collaborated with Johns Hopkins University in trying to attract businesses and institutes to come and locate in Maryland and Montgomery County. We see that Montgomery County can become a real epicenter for life sciences." He notes that the Gudelskys owned the land that became the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center.
Already five years in the making, LifeSci Village will have a while longer before it comes to fruition. Percontee and architects Torti Gallas and Partners won't even start work on the final design until next summer and after that, they'll be waiting for the Planning Department to draft a new sector plan for White Oak and the Route 29 corridor, scheduled to take place in 2013.
A groundbreaking is "regrettably not anytime soon," says Genn. "Five years ago, we were trying to get this moving, if not for forces beyond our control. The FDA employees are coming here now. It would've been great to have something for them."
The biggest delay for LifeSci Village, Genn laments, has been a de facto moratorium on new development in East County due to road improvements that haven't been completed or even funded. "They said we'll put in infrastructure," he says. "We put in overpasses, but we've had little to no investment in the 29 corridor. We made it very easy for Howard County development to come down 29, and they got the tax base increase at Maple Lawn, but congestion isn't better. We've devastated Burtonsville and now we have to figure out how to revitalize it."
Rather than push people away, Genn continues, we should give them more reasons to come here. "Unless we close off our borders," he says, "we can't stop people from coming through."
Check out this slideshow of LifeSci Village and Belcrest Plaza. All images courtesy of Percontee unless otherwise noted.