Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Developer Equity One gave its first indication of a specific plan for the properties it recently acquired in the Westbard area of Bethesda at a Design Principles presentation, held at Walt Whitman High School last night. Equity One's Executive Vice President of Development, Michael Berfield, led the presentation. A question and answer session followed.

This was a far more productive meeting than the initial design workshops. The venue and parking, in contrast to those events, were ample. While Equity One is still holding much close to the vest, there was a specific overview diagram of a possible plan for the entire suite of properties, known as the Westwood Complex. And Berfield took questions from the audience. Some at the initial meetings felt their voices were not heard. At last night's meeting, every person who wanted to ask a question was allowed to speak, and the meeting was extended beyond the expected end point for that purpose.

Berfield's presentation started well enough. He promised to make every effort to retain the small businesses that currently constitute the majority of tenants within the Westwood Shopping Center. Equity One plans to enhance those local retailers with national brands. Many people in the room had different interpretations of what that meant.

Some expressed opposition to the potential for big box stores; Berfield responded that in his daily work, that definition is not always determined by the square footage of a store. He and other company representatives gave examples of high-end stores that have large footprints, while also suggesting that there simply won't be the square footage needed for a Best Buy or Walmart on this site.

Historically, during the golden age of the Westwood Shopping Center, it was a retail center dominated by national and regional brands. Farrell's, Radio Shack, Baskin Robbins, Crown Books, Drug Fair, a hardware chain and others leased there prior to the 1990s; Radio Shack remains, and Rite Aid replaced Drug Fair. Much like in Wheaton, Glenmont, Kensington, and other areas of the county, the lure of rezoning was dangled by county politicians funded by developers. Landowners began to dream of a day when shopping centers could be mixed-use mini-cities. Suddenly, solid brand-name tenants in these commercials areas began to move out, as landlords implemented rates and terms that would position them well for a quick demolition, when the new zoning passed.

Alas, it took about 30 years to accomplish the zoning change, passed just this year by the Montgomery County Council. In the meantime, small businesses filled the spaces that weren't allowed to stay vacant. Now tenants like Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys, the venerable Westwood Barber Shop, and Beyda's Lad And Lassie have become old standbys for local residents. But the changes coming have some tenants "quaking in our boots," according to one who attended last night's meeting.

Berfield said Equity One will not demolish the existing Westwood Shopping Center first; such a move would leave the firm with no income during construction, he noted. But the plans make such a demolition all but certain eventually.

An urban "Main Street" is the "Westbard Vision" for Westbard Avenue, a heavily-traveled commuter route during rush hours twice daily. A rendering showed an urban, Bethesda Row-style streetscape of shops and cafes. Equity One representatives said their goal is to improve the safety and ambiance for cyclists and pedestrians along the street. The intersections at Ridgefield Road and Massachusetts Avenue have always been challenging to cross. Montgomery County's Department of Transportation recently installed all-new signal apparatus in all directions at the Ridgefield intersection, but have not activated it yet. Whether this will be an improvement won't be clear until they do, but I'm assuming that was the point of the new equipment.

Yet the Equity One plan, and the idea of an "urban boulevard" along Westbard are at cross purposes. The plan calls for a major influx of new residents, and an undetermined increase in retail and restaurant traffic. Meanwhile, the firm's traffic expert says they will implement various methods of slowing down drivers. Unfortunately, that is a formula for traffic disaster not only on Westbard during rush hour, but on already-nightmarish River Road. It simply cannot be done.

What really stood out for me at last night's meeting, was the size of the residential component. Most of the communication from Equity One tends to emphasize enhancing the retail experience. I'm on board for that, and I think many others are, too. There hasn't been a real, sit-down, family restaurant in the Westbard sector since Farrell's closed in the mid-80s. Given the income level of the surrounding neighborhoods, the current dining situation is as improbable and absurd as it gets. Yet the landlord previous to Capital Properties and Equity One was determined to wait it out with no restaurants. So one or more restaurants would be welcome, in my personal opinion. There's room in the parking lot (especially over in the unused one currently zoned as residential) to add retail and restaurants. And I was one of dozens in the room who applauded one resident's suggestion of Wegman's (if Giant were to decline to renew its lease in 2017).

So there's a lot of room for Equity One to come up with a fantastic design for a new retail center, with the existing services already there, and some national retail and restaurant brands that would really benefit the neighborhood. It would be profitable. But not as profitable as the residential-heavy plan Equity One appears to be pursuing.

A giant, atomic crab is going to land on the Westbard Sector. At least, that's what the Equity One rendering suggests:
The Giant Atomic Crab
that will land on Westbard

The colors remind one of those satellite images that confirm dense cities generate more heat than green suburbs. That's appropriate, given the urban character being proposed for this currently-suburban area.

Nothing is final about this plan. Equity One is perfectly sensible in not getting too specific, as no one can predict what the real estate market - or economy - will be like by the time they're a few years into this massive project.

But the design principles shown make residential surprisingly dominant. Surprising, for two reasons: First, the type of high-density residential that is certainly on the table is exactly the type that will generate traffic and school congestion. If Equity One selects that route over the "world-class retail center" alternative, it will be actively seeking confrontation with public school parents and residents. With 6 trailers outside, WoodAcres simply can't hold this many students. And if you're one who buys the bunk that families with kids don't live in apartments, I urge you to go by Westbard when school buses are circulating twice a day. You'll find a sizable crowd of students from the existing multi-family buildings on Westbard.

The diagram shown could literally double the population of the nearby neighborhoods now. Equity One has introduced local development firm EYA as a new partner in the redevelopment. EYA builds high-density, multi-family housing. Based on the document shown above, one can expect apartment buildings of some height, where the existing parking lot is now above the Westwood Shopping Center. And possibly some townhomes on the edges of that property, where it meets garden apartments, single-family homes, and Westland Middle School.

What's shown as "mixed-use" where Bowlmor, the two Citgo stations, and the Westwood Center II are today, will surely be apartment towers with retail on the ground floor. There is no demand for office space in Bethesda, or anywhere else in the county right now. And the "residential" area on top of the Springhouse by Manor Care nursing home property would almost certainly end up as an EYA townhome development. Notice how the red extends in a strip west along River Road, behind single-family homes on Westbard. That must be the odd property acquired by Equity One a few months back, which has a River Road address. 

The potential total number of units is enormous, when you add all of those potential projects together.

Here's the really odd part: Equity One specializes in retail and shopping centers. That is their area of expertise. Residential development is not something they are known for. But when the giant atomic crab design made the large residential component really stand out, I had to ask Berfield about this during the Q and A.

I mentioned that, in my review of the company's large portfolio, I had not found another project with heavy residential development like the one being proposed for Westbard. Could he point to a similar project the company had successfully managed of this type, or is this endeavor an entirely new frontier for Equity One? 

Commendably, Berfield was totally candid in his answer. He said this is a very unique project for the firm; they have done nothing comparable to this in the past. And, he added, that is why they are bringing EYA on board.

There are a couple of problems there. First, if Equity One hasn't done this before, what if they make mistakes during this new venture that cause the whole project to collapse when it is halfway finished? Doesn't this make a high-income residential area, in effect, a guinea pig for a novice in the urbanization field? After decades of neglect by the county, there is little room for error in the redevelopment of the Westbard Sector.

Second, EYA was the firm that was able to essentially take over a portion of Little Falls Stream Valley Park, build a bridge over a stream, and extend a road into the park. And made misleading statements regarding its community outreach leading up to the approval of that luxury townhome project. In a nutshell, the company met with the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights and a local stream advocacy group, and then cited their support as representing the entire community. In fact, many of those individual communities were never consulted. Neither of the two groups I mentioned had any legal authority to negotiate on behalf of residents in neighborhoods adjacent to the project. Confronted well into the process by a constituent at a town hall meeting, County Councilmember Roger Berliner said he had never even heard of the proposal.

The resulting project has turned out just about like I testified it would at multiple hearings before the Planning Board, NCPC, and a county hearing examiner. A formerly uninterrupted stretch of Little Falls Parkway now has a street jutting out, and the massing of the townhomes asserts itself into the park to a greater degree than the factory they replace. In my opinion, the county should have acquired the Hoyt property to convert it to parkland, as a stream buffer.

EYA would do best to follow the example of Equity One on this project, and have these sort of high-profile community meetings.

Conversely, despite my opposition to that project, in my personal opinion, EYA may have the best townhome designs in the DC region. If you look at their portfolio, they don't just generate the same cookie-cutter townhomes you find elsewhere; each project has a distinct design. Some have been tailored to fit existing historical neighborhoods in the District; others create a new, original community, such as at Potomac Place.

But the bottom line is that the concept suggested will entirely change the character of the existing neighborhood, which theoretically, no sector plan or project should ever be permitted to do. A doubling of resident population would not only flood roads and schools, but also reduce the political power of the existing residents in future decisions. 

Parking is sure to be a problem as well. There doesn't appear to be room for any significant surface parking for the Westwood Shopping Center. People don't choose to live in the suburbs to spend time in dungeon-like parking garages. Those are simply inappropriate for a green, residential area, whether the parking is free or not.

Parking problem No. 2: Buildings and townhomes without adequate parking will lead to residents, and guests, parking in the adjacent neighborhoods. That will be used by politicians as a convenient excuse to introduce permit parking in those neighborhoods, gouging residents with expensive permits that rise in cost with each additional vehicle registered, as in anti-car DC. That is completely unacceptable, intolerable, and a total non-starter.

I would urge Equity One to scale back the plan, and put greater emphasis on retail and restaurants, as well as having distinctive architecture and retaining the suburban, residential character that surrounds this neighborhood commercial center. 


68bd8720-af75-11e3-bd43-000bcdcb2996 said...

I think it is important to listen well--the traffic consultant made a comment last night about "getting people out of their cars", that in combination with their goal of shortening the headway (I think that is the term) between buses, speaks volumes to me about how they are approaching the traffic situation through and around the River Road corridor. She also mentioned carpooling along with multiple modalities, (biking and walking), as ways to approach the development.
I also want to point out that they positioned shortening the headway (the amount of wait time between buses) as a goal gleaned from the first meetings. This might have occurred at the first session. I attended the second session. At that session it was the woman running the traffic breakout who stated how wonderful it would be if we didn't have to wait 20-30 minutes to catch a bus not those of us attending so I question whose goal this might be.
I do wonder if developers believe they see into the future and the future does not include single family cars. If, in fact that is true, then we are living in a time of transition and like most transition, it will hurt for awhile.

Anonymous said...

I take the Ride-On bus every morning from Westbard. At most, there's one other person from the neighborhood waiting as well.

On weekends, I've never had people from the neighborhood waiting with me for the bus.

Ride On is frequent enough during the workday during the week, but is infrequent/non existant weekends and later evenings.

The neighborhood is mainly affluent young families and older empty nesters.

I think we'll have to really incentivize them to get out of their Mercedes and Suburbans. At the moment, the Ride On could come every 5 minutes, and it'd be empty.

There is a good amount of pedestrian activity since we have sidewalks, but for getting to work/school, it's cars.

As a daily Ride On user, I'll refrain from talking about what terrible shape MoCo's bus system is in. The Ride On fleet is crumbling compared to Metro Bus, Fairfax Connector, etc.
I wish MoCo would invest some money into the system before talking about creating a separate BRT fleet.

Anonymous said...

It'll be interesting to see if the EYA Townhomes have garages built in or not.

If the developer is truly betting on a car free future Westbard, then they won't include garages, right? Just a small amount of shared parking for the townhomes would suffice.

Anonymous said...

If the parking is scarce not only I, but everyone I know, will not use the retail space. The buses don't penetrate the neighborhoods well enough for more utilization and are only a viable option with only one bag of groceries. With young family schedules they don't have time to take buses, going from activity to activity. EYA builds attractive and thoughtful housing so esthetically it will be fine. But heavy density will destroy the character of the area, pull people in who don't live nearby and drive current residents out.

Anonymous said...

Well..they're certainly utilizing every square foot.
Any word on public amenities? A park or something?

Anonymous said...

Very good points and thanks for attending and your thorough analysis.

The current parking lot is too big and underutilized, and the layout isn't great, so changes are welcomed. I, too, wonder if they're taking away too much parking though. While I like Wegman's and travel to Germantown for it now and then, I don't find it better than Giant for overall grocery needs.

Anonymous said...

The Giant is really popular. Very difficult to find parking spaces near the store during the day. They'll still need plenty of parking.

People need to keep in mind that this is a family oriented neighbourhood. All of the retail/restaurants need to reflect that.

Robert Dyer said...

I think the advances in automotive technology actually threaten the future of transit, more than the other way around. Remember they're testing a Google Car, not a Google BRT. Autonomous private and public vehicles with zero emissions are clearly the future of transportation. We'll always need public transit, but there is no service on the horizon compelling or convenient enough to replace private vehicles as the primary mode of transportation. Therefore our planning decisions have to be based on reality, as opposed to the Fantasy Island approach that seems to dominate the media and political discussion today.

Robert Dyer said...

All accurate and excellent points. If MoCo would put a fraction of the BRT billions into Ride On fleet and service expansion, it would be a better investment. As I've said in the past, wealthy lawyers and lobbyists aren't going to quit their jobs downtown to work at Starbucks on Westbard. And families aren't going to haul groceries home on a bus!

Robert Dyer said...

They might need advisors from Communist China to achieve a car-free future. That's the only place they've been able to stop driving - because the government tells people they're not allowed to drive on a particular day.

Robert Dyer said...

Parking is a major point, and factors into my decisions about where I shop. Safety is an issue, as well. One Equity One representative did say they had heard residents' concerns that parking be safe. I hope they will design with that in mind, as garages are not safe.

I strongly agree that the vague proposal and renderings are too dense, and are inconsistent with the suburban residential character of the neighborhood. Urban streets should be in urban areas.

Robert Dyer said...

Equity One is promising gathering spaces and amenities, but we won't know if they are adequate until later in the planning process. For all the talk of urban design and town centers today, in practice, these public spaces tend to be seas of concrete. Not clear how that differs from the convenient parking lots they replace.

Robert Dyer said...

1:43: Just to clarify, I am a fan of the Giant. And been a fan long enough to remember when they had a department store-type section where the frozen aisles are today! My position has been that, should Giant decline to renew its lease, Wegmans is a better choice than the other alternatives. I've been asking Wegmans to open a Bethesda store for years.

Robert Dyer said...

Yes, 2:51, I agree that those talking about the massive parking lot visit during business hours, and the grocery rush hours.

The fact that the surrounding area is family-oriented is exactly my point in mentioning the phrase "family restaurant" in my article.

Crickey7 said...

"Anti-car DC"? What is that supposed to mean?

I will agree that the promises of mixed-use development resulting in no increase in car traffic is often oversold, but the reality is that this part of Bethesda is going to change. And the orientation of the design isn't going to be car-centric, nor should it be. It's not on the Red Line like downtown Bethesda, but it's well-served by several bus lines, and it's actually easier to get around by bike here than in any other part of Bethesda. What's more, there is a modest but statistically significant shift away from driving in recent years, most pronounced in the Millenials. Cars will always be a big part of the transportation mix, but other modes are picking up. Your fears of parkers invading your neighborhood are off-base in an otherwise relatively balanced piece.

Anonymous said...

You wrote that "the bottom line is that the concept suggested will entirely change the character of the existing neighborhood, which theoretically, no sector plan or project should ever be permitted to do. A doubling of resident population would not only flood roads and schools, but also reduce the political power of the existing residents in future decisions.

It is a good thing the stakeholders back in the '70s did not take the approach that nothing should be allowed to "change the character of the neighborhood" or else the area now would be basically vacant land.

Crickey7 said...

Whether or not garages are safe--amd I'm kind of shocked to actually hear such a statement about a garage in Bethesda--surface lots represent an unsupportably wasteful use of space, even putting aside their ugliness and deadening effect on social spaces.

On the one hand you are saying the proposal is too dense, and on the other you are saying it's not going to be dense enough to get people out of their cars.


Robert Dyer said...

Crickey7, "Anti-car DC" refers to some of the policies adopted or promoted in the District to make driving and parking more painful, and costly. DC's neighborhood permit parking scheme is one of those. Don't provide sufficient, affordable parking, and then hit residents with permit fees when overflow parking floods nearby residential streets.

I think getting a general sense of specific issues in the Westbard area is critical to understanding the many concerns here.

First, people speaking to this issue from DC or NY or wherever need to know that the Westbard area has been neglected by the county for decades. A lot of the bustling employers moved out of the commercial area in the mid-to-late 80s. Marriott used to be headquartered there, there was a major TV station, and a large NIH office building. When those left, the area was allowed to become the self-storage capital of the world by planners and the county council. A contaminated industrial area has been left in place.

So you may understand why people who have had to live with this planning failure for decades will not be pleased if the redevelopment isn't worth the wait. There isn't a lot of room for error here. But what is the vision for the Westbard sector? The plan hasn't been updated for 32 years.

Second, the transit here isn't what proponents make it out to be. There are only 2 buses (T2, Ride On 23), and their schedules are limited. Even stranger, no bus from Westbard goes to downtown Bethesda. I've spoken to County Executive Ike Leggett about that odd fact, and he said there was no money to add such a route at this time.

As early as 1955, the county council attempted to establish a commuter rail service from Silver Spring to Georgetown, on the Georgetown Branch railroad. A second opportunity is the late 80s was not seized by county leaders at that time. Had the county had a stronger executive leader then, and he/she had launched a single-track, diesel train commuter service on the former Chessie System tracks through Bethesda, we would not be having all these Purple Line fights today. And developers could have justified denser construction.

While rail service would be just the beginning of what is necessary to support this size of residential growth at Westbard, the width of the light-rail ROW now proposed for the Purple Line simply cannot fit within the Georgetown Branch ROW without major destruction of the landscape.

The reality is that - particularly without some type of convenient rail service - we're talking about putting more cars in a space, while reducing the dimensions of that road space. To understand the relationship between Westbard Avenue, Ridgefield Road <-> River Road, Massachusetts Avenue, is to understand what a traffic disaster that would be.

I would say "ugliness and deadening effect" would better describe a garage, than a parking lot. They are truly ugly spaces, and have no place in a residential neighborhood. You can see trees now in all directions from the commercial area of Westbard, and any design should keep it that way.

It is possible to have a density that is too high, and still not "get people out of their cars." Unless Equity One wants to wait 30 years for a second Purple Line (after Purple Line I and the Red Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway), I think the plan needs to be scaled back.

If you look at the EYA project on Little Falls Parkway, they did not include sufficient parking. So unless the county forces them to do so in Westbard, there is reason to be concerned about spillover parking.

Robert Dyer said...

2:30 PM: Again, you may not be familiar with the history of the area. The existing development dates back to the 1930s with subdivisions like Kenwood. All of the surrounding neighborhoods are single-family residential, with a dense tree canopy. There was an industrial area that apparently was built through a former African-American community of slaves freed from the Loughboro plantation. That was in the mid 20th century, not the 70s.

So you have that industrial/commerical area (the rest of which came from farmland) surrounded by residential neighborhoods. A suburban residential area, served by a central commercial area.

Where was the previous change in character? The Equity One plan - as vaguely outlined so far - would double the population, and establish an urban design inconsistent with the longstanding residential character of the area.

It's a fairly standard planning principle that a single project or master plan should not radically upend, and change the fundamental character of, an existing and thriving neighborhood.

Crickey7 said...

I live quite near Westbard, visit the stores several tiems a week, traverse at least twice a day. I grew up in Chevy Chase. Yeah, I know the area. So I'm matching you in whatever silly credibility contest you have going.

Several of the individual apartment buildings and retirement facilties in the area have shuttles now. It would be no leap to imagine the Westbard development supporting a robust shuttle supplement to the T2 and 23 busses, including perhaps with routes to downtown Bethesda. I agree the Purple Line will never go that far, but it doesn't need to.

Crickey7 said...

As for the claim that sector plans never change dramatically, I have no idea where you got that from. And here, I'm speaking as a former professional city planner. The reality, both is terms of market forces and optimal public policy, is significantly greater density here, where the infrastructure already is in place. The alternative in not no growth, it's growth in places less well suited for it because new expensive infrastucture needs to be created, and we lose far, more more green space.

Finally, DC is not anti car. That is simply an absurd, inflammatory thing to say.

Robert Dyer said...

Since you live nearby, what do you find positive about the large residential component of the proposal? How will that influx of people and cars improve the quality of life for existing residents? I certainly favor Equity One adding additional retail and restaurants. But I just don't get what the positive side of traffic jams, more kids in an already-overcrowded school, and having to park in an exhaust fume dungeon garage just to pick up your groceries is? Most people don't choose the suburbs to have to park in a garage. It's ridiculous how they have to come up with all kind of "green" and "societal trend" mumbo jumbo, when we all know they just want to build more stuff and make money.

Crickey7 said...

The mix of businesses in Westbard is odd, to say the least. I'm not sure I'd grieve over any of them. Greater density will allow a bigger mix of shops and restaurants. I like that. I'm not particularly bothered by the prospect of more people. It's unseemly to be in an area that was once less developed than it is now, and then to complain about new development. There's no entitlement to having things frozen in time.

As for traffic, it's unclear what the impact will be. Not all will be going in the same direction at the same time, not all will be driving. And if you pushed this development elsewhere, some of that traffic might come toodling down from the new houses way out River Road in Potomac. You don't avoid it by pushing it out further, not to mention the fact that you are just trying to make it someone else's problem.

As for green development and market trends, it's kind of interesting how market forces and environmentally responsible development happen to line up. Makes it kind of hard to argue against it.

Robert Dyer said...

It's interesting that many of the developers and their attorneys live protected from urbanization in Potomac, Burning Tree and the Palisades. In effect, they're using their power "to make it someone else's problem," while taking the profits to the bank.

Whatever shall be done with all those "underutilized" surface parking lots and strip malls in Potomac Village? Will they take the same medicine they're prescribing for Westbard area residents?

It's a little too convenient how environmental concerns and massive redevelopment "happen to line up." I've seen no convincing evidence that urbanizing residential areas, and construction runoff, improve the environment. Google "LEED hoax" to find that many claims of efficiency have often been exaggerated.

Satellite imaging shows that cities generate and retain far more heat than suburban areas. We should stick with trees and lawns around Westbard.

Crickey7 said...

On the one hand, you want to keep surface parking. On the other, you bemoan the heat island effect.

And then there's the greedy developer theme. I'm not one, nor do I work for any, but I have known quite a few. You want to know why they get into the business? Because they take a lot of pride in making something cool, something that will last and contribute to a better community. They like making money, sure. But we're not talking about builders of tract housing in the exurbs here. These guys like building great buildings, because it makes them feel great about what they do.

Robert Dyer said...

The heat from surface lots in the suburbs does not match the heat level of urban areas as a whole. There's still enough green space and tree canopy to offset it.

There are a lot of buildings in the area whose designers and developers can rightly be proud of. I'm not anti-developer, and have praised quite a few existing and proposed developments. Sometimes the buildings are cookie-cutter, which doesn't reflect much pride or passion. I'll say that EYA certainly is among the best townhome designers in the area. The main question for me is, what scale of development is appropriate for the Westbard area, in contrast to an urban area atop the Red Line like downtown Bethesda.

Anonymous said...

An excellent debate for which I thank Mr. Dyer and the other participants. I think, however, the the exchange of views among neighbors would be more effective and meaningful if we dispensed with anonymouses and indecipherable nicknames. Bill Potts, 6435 Wiscasset Road []

Anonymous said...

"The mix of businesses in Westbard is odd, to say the least. I'm not sure I'd grieve over any of them."

Thanks a lot Crickey7... As one of the retailers in the shopping center, that really sucks to hear.

Robert Dyer said...

I also love the irony of outsiders telling Westbard-area residents what businesses are "odd." I invite them to stop by the shopping center during the daytime to see the massive numbers of people parking in the lot, and patronizing those "odd" businesses.