Thursday, November 20, 2014


The Willett Branch Stream and I go way back - back to my very first day in Bethesda, just days after I was born. If you're new to Bethesda, or just want to learn more about some of the natural resources hidden away around here, you can join the Little Falls Watershed Alliance for a stream walk this Saturday, from 10:00 AM to noon, along the Willett Branch.

While the waters of this stream once flowed in a wider, natural path - and helped to power a mill in the vicinity of today's Little Falls Parkway - Willett Branch is mostly a channelized storm sewer today, running through concrete. A potential daylighting of tunneled sections, and a naturalization of the stream to its original state, are two potential outcomes of the Westbard Sector Plan rewrite currently underway.

See how it is currently this Saturday, in a walk alongside the creek's path starting at the Westwood Center II parking lot, at 5110 Ridgefield Road. The truly adventurous can make a return trip through the stream itself, although you'll want waterproof boots for that. Bring a flashlight, as well, for the return trip. While the entire tour will be on pavement, there is a steep grade to enter and exit the concrete creek bed. A round trip will be less than a mile.

The LFWA is hosting the walk to raise more awareness of the stream's fragile and contaminated state, and to advocate for improvements and a linear Willett Branch Park to be part of the Westbard Sector Plan recommendations. I'd like to see the beleaguered Willett Branch get the same protection in any future redevelopment in the Westbard area as Ten Mile Creek received in Clarksburg earlier this year.


MET Bethesda, Westfield Montgomery's first true venture into upscale, fine dining, plans to open sometime next week across from the mall's new cineplex, ArcLight Cinemas.

The 120-seat space will feature a prominent 40-seat full bar at center stage, with the area's first on-tap Martini Bar. Flavors served up by the latter will include Lychee Ginger, White Peach, Coconut, Caramelized Pineapple and Prickly Pear. In keeping with the fine dining theme, it's fitting that the restaurant's General Manager will be Patrick Desotelle, a veteran of Le Diplomate in the District.

Signature menu items will include Spaghettini Carbonara with blue crab, chilies, lemon and fried egg; the Pounded Veal Chop on the Bone with watercress, escarole, endive, Taleggio, red onion, dates, walnuts and parmesan vinaigrette; and the Green Guru salad with kale, baby spinach, avocado, broccoli, shaved carrot, spiced pumpkin seeds, haricot verts, cilantro, mint and green goddess dressing.

A wood-fired grill will produce Whole Branzino with lemon grass, garlic-kale and sambal asum, Baby Back Ribs with grilled pineapple and jalapeƱo French fry salad, and Prime Bone-in Ribeye for Two. And the Char Bar will serve up American Yakitori: marinated, skewered and grilled beef, pork, chicken, seafood and vegetables cooked over an open fire, designed for sharing.

MET Bethesda will be open Monday-Thursday from 11:30AM to 10:00PM (bar until 11:00PM), Friday & Saturday from 11:30AM to 11:00PM (bar until 12:00AM), and Sunday from 11:30AM to 9:00PM.


The future of the Westbard area of Bethesda is at a crossroads - will it remain a suburban residential area, with a commercial area that provides essential services to residents? Or will it become an urban area of concrete canyons, despite not being within walking distance of any Metro station? This is what ultimately the Montgomery County Council will decide. But right now, the planning process affords the opportunity for residents to be heard.

Residents have clearly spoken against the high-density proposal on the table now. As you can see in greater detail today in these images from the Plan Westbard web site, the plan as proposed would entirely change the character of the area from suburban to urban. 

This first image is virtually identical to what one would find in an urban town center near a Metro station, such as Bethesda Row or Rockville Town Square. The current sight lines to the forested tree canopy around the borders of the commercial area are all blocked by buildings. These 80' buildings will also impose themselves over the single-family homes of the Springfield neighborhood behind the Westwood Shopping Center, the Westbard Avenue homes on the other side of Ridgefield, and over the existing Kenwood Place condominiums.

If you are familiar with the Chevy Chase area, you will notice this second image is almost identical to what you would see while driving south into Friendship Heights - yet there is no Metro station to be found in the Westbard area.

There are a handful of non-conforming high-rises from an earlier time in the Westbard Sector Plan area. However, these are no longer allowed under current zoning, and placed far apart, they do not create the canyon effect clearly visible in the images immediately above. But the new structures combined with the existing towers would create a definitively urban character, out of context with the geographic location and low-density neighborhoods around it.

With schools and roads already jammed, it is unclear how this part of Bethesda could possibly handle the 4972 new residents and 3758 new cars that would be generated by 1927 new units. If anything, River Road would lose capacity under the new plan, with narrower lanes and new traffic signals. There's no guarantee of approval of a new elementary school on the current Little Falls Library site, as it is not large enough under current MCPS standards. And that doesn't even begin to address overcrowding at Pyle MS and Whitman.

Just the idea of 4972 more people, and 3758 new automobiles along two one-block strips boggles the mind. All of them will have to travel out of the Westbard area in the morning, as there is no new office space proposed for them to "live where they work," and no Metro within walking distance. And the "smart growth" folks say this scheme will reduce automobile use?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Work continues at the future Smoothie King on Bethesda Avenue. At last report, the shop was expected to open at the beginning of December.


Well, that was short. J.Cigar, a tobacco and vaping shop in Westfield Montgomery Mall, has closed after only 2 months in business. The store was one of 3 such retailers to recently open in our area, with the other two being Bethesda Vapor Company and Vape Ink (the latter of which is in Rockville).

Also closing is - well, if you can pronounce the name of this store, you're ahead of me this morning - some children's clothing store which was called something more pronounceable when I reported it opening a year ago.


A car was broken into in the 6000 block of Welborn Drive in Wood Acres on Sunday, according to crime data.


The wraps came off the Westbard Concept Framework Plan last night at Westland Middle School, and residents quickly were asking them to be put back on again. "We just don't want it," might be the best summation of 90 minutes of resident feedback to Montgomery County planners. "This is the beginning, not the end," Westbard Sector Plan project manager John Marcolin said at the outset, as Phase 1 of a 2-year process came to a close.

Everything in the plan revealed Tuesday evening had mostly been seen last week, with the exception of a new 80' building shown for the area of the Westwood Shopping Center parking lot over by Westland. Previously, that site had been been proposed to have a height limit of 50', a significant difference. Given that Equity One's land area had only increased since Friday, with the deletion of a new elementary school site on the current Springhouse nursing home property, it was unclear what the developer had done over the weekend to suddenly gain 30' of bonus density. A second 80' tower would be allowed on Ridgefield Road where the Westwood Center II and Citgo currently stand, and all of River Road would be given a 75' height.

One connector road remains an option from Westbard Avenue to River Road along the Capital Crescent Trail, but an alternate map shows it cut-off from Westbard. That alternate map also shows an extension of Dorsey Lane to Little Falls Parkway. An extension of Butler Road to the parkway remains, as well. There will apparently be a parallel road alongside Westbard Circle at the border of Equity One's property with the Kenwood Place condos. Westland MS would still gain a new soccer field, but the impact on the forest area around the school was not discussed. Little Falls Library is shown moving into the "town square" at the current Westwood Shopping Center site, and its current location being used for a new elementary school.

With attendance estimated at 250 people, the 100 printed copies of the Concept Framework Plan quickly ran out, and dozens more metal chairs were wheeled in as the meeting got underway.
Westbard Avenue, or
Bethesda Row?

River Road, or
Friendship Heights?
Renderings of what Westbard Avenue and River Road would look like after full buildout of the plan drew gasps and grumbling from the audience. Essentially, they represented the worst nightmare of any resident or civic association who testified against the new zoning code rammed through by the Planning Board and Montgomery County Council, or the county's general shuffling toward urbanizing its suburbs. Simply unrecognizable, and a complete change in character from suburban to urban. It didn't help that the rendering of Westbard Avenue - using stock images, which of course (one would hope) won't be the architecture actually used - showed that same rounded off building you've seen in Rockville Town Square, Downtown Crown, and a host of other "town centers" in the area. In short, the images showed the "concrete canyon" many residents referred to last week during the many charrette meetings.

The estimates of new units were given at 1685-1927 at full buildout. That is less than the maximum plan (2529 units) shown last Thursday, but represents a stunning tripling of the current population and automobile count.
"That's just insane, and 
that's a nice word for it"
Out of 250 attendees, only one speaker supported the plan shown. Everyone else who rose to speak opposed the overall plan for a variety of reasons.

"This is my worst nightmare," said Sarah Morse, Executive Director of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, which advocates for the stream branches that flow through the Westbard Sector Plan area. "I am squeezed out by high density everywhere." Noting the lack of green space, Morse asked, "Where are those people going to play? Where are the parks?"

A planner's laser pointing to the tiny postage stamp of a "town square" on the map elicited howls of laughter from the crowd. Along with an uncertain plan to create a new linear park along the beleaguered Willetts Branch Stream, that is it, as far as green space in the plan, which severely displeased residents last night. "I'm really so disappointed that this plan doesn't add any green space to speak of," said Mikel Moore, another LFWA board member.

Also missing from the map were gas stations, and several residents questioned that. Concerns of price gouging by any stations that would remain were cited, as has happened in downtown Bethesda. It is an issue that - as of this morning - no county official has taken seriously, even though it presents a public safety and emergency preparedness disaster as much as an economic one. When a weather or - God forbid - terror event strikes, where would people fill their gas tanks? With the map showing no gas stations left at all, the plan seems to encourage more driving, not less. "It is a concern," said Senior Urban Designer Paul Mortenson of Bethesda's vanishing gas stations.

Residents advocated for other services necessary to the community, from auto repairs to the Westwood Pet Center. "What this area provides is a service to the community," Norman Knopf told planners. "We want to keep that service." Another resident said, "we love the stores that are there now."

Schools were another sticking point, and planners did not have definitive answers about how MCPS would accommodate new students at all three levels in the already-overcrowded Whitman cluster. Even the plan to build a new elementary school on the library site is uncertain, as the land area is not large enough to meet current MCPS standards for an elementary school, much less ample enough to provide the outdoor facilities needed for recreation and other practical concerns. The spectre of redistricting had one mother wondering if the elementary school her daughter was looking forward to attending would still be available when the time comes.

Traffic was just about as much on residents' minds. With the density proposed, one resident predicted the plan couldn't "possibly result in anything but horrible traffic."

Since the impact on schools and roads is driven entirely by density, the urban growth shown came under sharp fire from residents. "What you're doing by adding density is creating a wasteland" of automobile congestion, argued one.
"Honestly, that's
Residents were clear from the beginning that they wanted low-rise buildings. One last night referred to Poundbury, England, a new urbanist planned community with lower scale buildings. "I frankly love Poundbury," Mortenson replied. "It's a gorgeous town."

Many were upset by the perception that the entire process is being driven by developers. "I hope you're keeping in mind your constituency here," one resident warned. "Your constituency is us." "I feel defrauded," said another. "I expect more from Montgomery County than this."

In the most heated exchange of the evening, a resident of Springfield - a neighborhood directly behind the Equity One site - challenged planners to identify the specific problems in the Westbard area's zoning that the Concept Plan would correct. "You're not identifying any problems with the current zoning," which would cap heights at 45'. "What are they?" he demanded.

"We haven't identified all of them," Mortenson responded. "Surface parking is not ideal," he noted.

"We like it like it is!" shouted a resident from the crowd.

"I don't have an answer to the question," Mortenson said.

"Stop lying to us!" bellowed one audience member.

In a more mild-mannered wrap-up to the public comments, a gentleman from Nebraska said the problem with the process was that it was placing design and land use before public facilities. Since so many problems with the plan relate to lack of sufficient infrastructure capacity, he urged planners to "put all of this on hold," until the county can articulate its solutions to providing adequate public facilities. He cited the Doctrine of Comprehensive Planning as the model to follow.

How should planners proceed? Here are my thoughts:

First, I think the Charrette process was a valuable one. I grew up here, and even I learned some new things about the neighborhood over the last nine days. With planners' help, we've identified a lot of the problems and concerns, even if we don't have the solutions yet.

Second, there is one great proposal in the plan - the daylighting of Willetts Branch Stream, and the construction of a linear park and trail alongside it. I would be fantastic to see that happen. It might be nice to have a brand-new library, although I happen to like the current one. It would also be unfortunate to lose a forested library site, and end up with a bait-and-switch apartment building there instead of an elementary school.

But there's no reason that planners cannot salvage a workable plan from all of the work they and we  put in last week.

So keep the Willetts Branch Plan. Change the proposed zoning back to the current 45' maximum height on Westbard and River Road. Frankly, I'm not convinced we need 45' on all of that area myself. There's big money in shopping centers, especially in 20816.

We've been told that development needs to be greater in scale to be profitable. But this past weekend, a beautiful new shopping center opened in Upper Marlboro. The Osborne Shopping Center was closed after 20 years at 7583 Crain Highway, and replaced by...a new shopping center. No apartments. No townhouses. No residential component whatsoever. Just a fabulous new strip mall shopping center with plenty of free surface parking, and a brand new Safeway store anchoring it. The Osborne Shopping Center pretty much shoots down the argument that Equity One can't simply give us a better shopping center. Equity One would still have plenty of room to develop across the street at 45'.

The 80' heights of two buildings proposed are incompatible with the nearby single-family homes, as are the 75' heights on River for Kenwood. These buildings will impose themselves on backyards of people who have invested just as much in their properties as the developers. And with no Metro station at Westbard, the heights and density proposed are simply creating more automobile traffic.

Planners should make an explicit text and map recommendation to retain the gas stations along River Road, and at least one on Westbard. Period. With more cars being added, we have to have gas stations to fill them up.

Regarding schools, the plan should not be approved until MCPS has made clear exactly what capacity improvements or new school construction it will provide to meet the number of students generated by the new units. Can the library site actually work for a school? We need to know that, and what they'll do at the middle and high school levels, as well. Is redistricting ahead? Tell us the truth now, not later.

Planners, and Planning Director Gwen Wright, have acknowledged that Westbard is not a transit station community. The plan needs to better reflect that, as well. With no new office space proposed, virtually all new residents will be heading into the District each day for work. New units will require new capacity on River Road and Massachusetts Avenue. As of right now, no such project has been proposed. We need to hear specifics from the State Highway Administration as to what can be done. You could widen River Road, but that would require taking front lawns east of Little Falls Parkway, and the road narrows in DC, anyway. So what is the answer? Maybe it's that this area is currently built out, and its roads and schools can't handle major new development.

I don't think residents are asking as much of the Westbard area as planners seem to be. No one considers the commercial strips along River and Westbard to be grand boulevards. They are simply service areas where one can fill the gas tank, get a quick meal from the drive-thru at McDonald's, buy some pet food or pick up a prescription. Could pedestrian and bicycle access be made safer? Sure. But there's no reason that can't happen at 45' height. This is perhaps the most in-demand area of the county, with Whitman schools and right outside the DC line. If apartments are built at 45', they will fill up quickly. They will probably still be too great in number for our roads and schools to absorb, but what is currently proposed is far worse.

The suburbs should remain suburban, basic residential services must remain, and the plan should put quality of life ahead of all other priorities.

Does that require putting the concerns of residents above the profits of developers who consider the neighborhood their personal Monopoly board? Absolutely.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


New banners have been posted on the fencing around The Lauren ultra-luxury condos construction site at Hampden Lane and Woodmont Avenue. Another sign posted is a noise warning from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, advising that there can be no noise above 55dBA before 7:00 AM weekdays, or 9:00 AM on weekends. The Lauren replaces the now-demolished The Hampden, at a net loss of affordable housing units in downtown Bethesda.


Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan (R) added 6 diverse new members to his growing transition team Monday, including 2 well-known names in state politics. Former state school superintendent Nancy Grasmick served two decades in that role - so long that the Maryland Education Department's headquarters is named after her. She clashed with outgoing Governor Martin O'Malley over failing Baltimore schools when the latter was mayor of Charm City.

Another name very familiar to Montgomery County residents is that of Blair Lee IV, a Silver Spring developer and Gazette columnist whose family has a tremendous legacy in Maryland politics.

The others appointed are former State Senate Minority Leader Marty Madden (R); State Senator Joe Getty (R); economist Anirban Basu; and retired Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Alexander Williams Jr.

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore. Basu was named one of Maryland's 50 Most Influential People by The Daily Record, and is often quoted in local newspapers. He has written economic development plans for Baltimore and Baltimore County, and lectures at Johns Hopkins University. Basu will serve as economic development and economic policy advisor to Hogan during the transition.

Judge Williams was President Bill Clinton's first African-American nominee to the federal bench. He was appointed to the U. S. District Court for the District of Maryland in 1994. A graduate of the Howard University School of Law, Williams also served as State's Attorney for Prince George's County from 1987 to 1994.

It's notable that Senator Getty represents part of Baltimore County, a jurisdiction that played a key role in Hogan's upset victory of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the November 4 election. Getty will lead the legislative and policy transition team.

"I am pleased to have these well-respected, distinguished, and incredibly talented Marylanders serving on our transition team as we work to take Maryland in a new direction," Hogan said at a press conference in Annapolis Monday afternoon.


While much attention is focused on the new and upscale Dining Terrace addition at Westfield Montgomery Mall, one new addition to the retail center is serving more practical needs. Montgomery Market Place is a convenience store located in the Old Navy wing of the mall, and probably a welcome addition for residents of nearby apartment buildings in an area of Bethesda underserved by convenience stores - or just mall patrons who want to grab a bag of chips on their way home after a shopping spree.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Extreme fans of the Hunger Games series can celebrate the grand opening of the book and film phenomenon's latest celluloid installment with a Hunger Games marathon in Bethesda this Thursday, November 20. Starting at 2:00 PM (see exact times below), screen the original, the Catching Fire sequel, and the newest, Mockingjay, Part 1, at several Bethesda theaters.

Buy tickets ahead online for your theater of choice - click on the theater name to order online:

ArcLight Cinemas - all attendees will receive a commemorative lanyard. You can also order a dinner sandwich that day, which you can pick up during the intermission between Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Part 1. First movie starts at 2:20 PM.

Regal Cinemas Bethesda 10 - Regal Crown Club members will receive a limited-edition keychain. First movie starts at 2:30 PM.

AMC Mazza Gallerie - Commemorative marathon lanyard, plus a free poster (only 1 of every 10 posters will be of Katniss, the chain notes for those concerned about that). Not in Bethesda, but worth knowing for memorabilia collectors. First movie starts at 2:00 PM.


Along with plans for daylighting Willetts Branch Stream and a potential new elementary school, the idea of relocating Little Falls Library to the Equity One redevelopment on Westbard Avenue is one of several intriguing ideas floated in the early Westbard Sector Plan process. I happen to like the current library, its architecture - and large side window, and forested setting. It is perhaps the ideal suburban library. Despite my nostalgia, I would begrudgingly admit it is growing outdated.

One of several public meetings held last Friday sought to get feedback from Montgomery County Public Libraries and nearby residents on the feasibility of relocating the library, and what features the ideal library would have.
Rita Gale (foreground) of MCPL
discussed what the ideal new
Little Falls Library would be

Rita Gale, Public Service Administrator for Facilities and Capital Projects for MCPL, discussed potential floorplans and designs with planners Marc DeOcampo and John Marcolin. Gale said MCPL is on board for the idea of libraries as anchors of public squares, with the Rockville Memorial Library being the most notable existing example. How would a potential land swap and construction of the new facility occur? It would likely be a public-private partnership between MCPL, Equity One and Montgomery County Public Schools, should the current library site become a school site.

Gale explained that the library system utilizes 3 year strategic plans. She mentioned that MCPL recently shifted from complete renovations of libraries every 20-30 years to mini-renovations every 7 years. The reason for the shift was the inability to keep up with technological changes on a 20-year calendar. If the relocation were to go forward, the existing library would remain in operation until the new building was ready to move into.

What would that new building be like, ideally? 23,000 square feet on a single floor, said Gale. Why a single floor? Staffing one floor is far less expensive than multiple floors. Meeting space would preferably be on a separate level, as that does not require the same level of monitoring by employees, Gale said. The existing Little Falls Library is far smaller at 10,000 SF, while the Rockville Library is 63,000 SF by comparison. Having the library at street level would also be important, as is free parking for patrons. I have to say that paid parking at the new Equity One development on Westbard would be a non-starter.

In regards to the second options planners have outlined - adding an addition to the existing library - Gale said that would require removal of several mature trees, and "generally taking down trees is not something that's appealing to folks. Of course, if the site becomes a school, those trees would come down anyway. Neither clearcutting sounds like a good idea at a corner of Bethesda known for its forested surroundings.

Residents who have spoken to the potential library relocation seem to be cautiously favorable in their opinion about it. One detractor at the meeting said a library would be a terrible choice for what is being touted as a vibrant public space. He argued the new library would be a "dead space in the evening. Leave the library where it is. [Relocating it] makes no sense to me whatsoever." He noted that a similar library upcounty, which has residential units facing it, has become a hangout for drug dealers after hours, and a magnet for crime in general. DeCampo said Equity One would likely take steps to secure the site, particularly with residents living in close proximity to it.

I thought the man did have a valid point, as - assuming the library operates on the typically-limited MCPL hours - the space around it could become a dead zone after 6:00 PM. Banks are another notorious vibrancy killer in urban settings. It would seem that other more active tenants would have to be located close to the library in order to prevent that from happening. Having said that, I don't think anyone expects the Equity One "town center" to be a noisy city that never sleeps. This is a bedroom community in the suburbs, not a true urban area, and should tone down the volume at night anyway.

The other thing those comments brought to mind, is the need to recognize that public areas - of which there are currently none on Westbard Avenue - need policing, as well as upkeep such as that which Bethesda Urban Partnership provides downtown. That should be considered during the design phase, as security costs money, whether it is public or private.


This Thursday, November 20, from 1:00 to 8:00 PM, Wentworth Gallery will be hosting a pop-up art sale in the Sky Lounge at the Gallery Bethesda luxury apartment tower. Over 200 international artists will be represented with original paintings and limited-edition prints. The event is open to the public, and a chance for downtown apartment dwellers to tap into the vast Wentworth collection of fine art without leaving the neighborhood. 

Can't attend? You'll find Wentworth Gallery every other day in Westfield Montgomery Mall on the upper level, just outside of Nordstrom. They're currently having a sale with savings of 20-75% off.

Gallery Bethesda
4800 Auburn Avenue
(there is a Bethesda
Circulator stop nearby)


Chloe's NY Style Deli is the latest dining attraction coming soon to Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. It answers the question of what will take over that space near Chick-Fil-A in the original food court area of the mall. But that's just the beginning of the restaurant news at the just-expanded retail center.
The other half of
the Chloe's sign
CAVA Grill opens today at the mall, and as is their custom on Day One (which they refer to as Community Day, not a grand opening), your food will be FREE today. In exchange, CAVA is asking you to consider making an optional donation to their non-profit local partners MicroGreens and City Blossoms. Here's a preview of the new restaurant:

Charley's Philly Steaks is now open in the Dining Terrace, as is MET Bethesda on the second level, just outside of the new ArcLight Cinemas.
For those craving the
famous sandwich from
MET Bethesda overlooks the
new Dining Terrace
Lobster ME looks like it will be opening any day now. Here's a sneak peek at the space, and the Lobster ME menu:

And the Coming Soon signage is up at CRAVE (opening in early December) and Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria.