Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NEW WESTBARD SECTOR PLAN IDEAS: UNDERGROUND PARKING, NEW ROAD, NEW TRAIL, NEW LITTLE FALLS LIBRARY? (PHOTOS)

Day 1 of the week-long Charette process for the Westbard Sector Plan was an eventful one Monday, with several new ideas coming to the fore. Among the most intriguing - and in some cases, controversial - were proposals for a new road between Westbard Avenue and River Road, a new trail alongside Willets Branch Stream, and a new site for Little Falls Library. The day concluded with a mapping session with all stakeholders at Walt Whitman High School. Here's a recap:
Project head John Marcolin
leads the 10:00 AM
walking tour of the Westbard
Sector area

Environmental planner
Marco Fuster discusses
options for restoring
Willets Branch Stream
(flowing below the sidewalk
area pictured along River Road)

Near the former WDCA 20
TV station building, with one
segment of a potential new
road right-of-way visible
alongside the Capital Crescent
Trail at left-of-center

Monday morning began with a meeting between Montgomery County Planning staff and representatives of the Kenwood Place condos. Between that meeting, and later comments by condo owners at the Whitman meeting, several themes and concerns emerged for Kenwood Place residents, whose property directly borders the Westwood Shopping Center. Many Kenwood Place residents would like their property to become a gated community, sealed off from public access - possibly literally, by a fence. They would prefer that heights of residential buildings on the shopping center site, and nearby, be capped at 40', and that adjacent properties be substantially set-back from their site. Retail and restaurants should serve local residents, with no national chains, in their opinion.

Two main points of contention regarding Kenwood Place going forward are whether or not Westbard Circle will be sealed off to the public, and a new public road on Equity One's Westwood Shopping Center property be built parallel to it; and a possible pedestrian/vehicle access point into the future Equity One development via an existing cul-de-sac on Jordan Road. County planners and Equity One seem to concur that a single road would be preferable between the two developments, for stormwater management reasons primarily for the latter. There seem to be mixed opinions on the Jordan cut-through at Kenwood Place. One point on their "list" was a concern about cut-through traffic via Jordan Road. But at least one Kenwood Place resident later felt that such a Jordan access point could assist in achieving the gated community concept. Such a connection into Jordan Road was strongly denounced by a resident who lives in that cul-de-sac, who noted that 16 children live nearby and play in that space, and that neighbors host gatherings there, such as a Halloween bonfire. Concerns about safety and lighting of such a connection were also raised.
Walking tour continues
on Westbard Avenue
Next up was a walking tour of the Westbard Sector. At the start, Project Manager John Marcolin wanted to make clear that the Planning Department was paying market rate for its temporary space in Westwood Center II, where most of the meetings were held, to avoid any sense that it was being favored or influenced by landlord Equity One. Marcolin cited the River Road McDonald's property as the only one to execute the boulevard concept and frontage envisioned in the 1982 Westbard Sector Plan. Some of the current flaws in streetscape design and stormwater management were highlighted, and there was even some background on Westwood Tower from the Housing Opportunities Commission.
Planners gave a 10th floor
overview of a proposed new
road that would run
behind the Park Bethesda
Without a doubt, the biggest news of the day was a potential new road connecting Westbard Avenue to River Road. Using a County-owned right-of-way that runs alongside the Capital Crescent Trail, and a second County R.O.W. along Crown Street, planners suggested that a new road could be constructed to run from the current end of Crown Street to the trail bridge by McDonald's at River Road. A traffic signal would be installed there, and cars would be able to continue across into a new road in the Landy Lane/Washington Episcopal School area, ultimately reaching a signaled intersection on Little Falls Parkway. Current landowners such as EuroMotorcars Volvo would have to contribute small parcels to facilitate construction of the road, which planners believe could divert cut-through traffic away from a slowed-down "Main Street" on Equity One's stretch of Westbard Avenue. Planner Marc DeOcampo said that WES could be urged to accept the new roadway when its residential development plan comes back before the Planning Board.
Some property would have
to be acquired to complete
the new road

Sketch map of proposed
Westbard bypass via
Crown Street, and
crossing River Road
into Washington Episcopal
School area to Little Falls Parkway

Impact of new road on
EuroMotorcars property
Initially concerned about the implications for their site, representatives for EuroMotorcars eventually warmed to the idea, as it would provide exposure for their auto repair facility that is currently hidden from busy River Road.
EuroMotorcars discusses
its River Road site with
planner Marc DeOcampo
But it will be a hard sell for Westbard Mews, and some residents of that townhome community were not pleased by the news. Kenwood residents at the charette seemed to favor it as one of several mechanisms to reduce the cut-through traffic that plagues that neighborhood. What seems like a fresh and innovative solution could ultimately divide individual communities who are otherwise united in opposition to urban-style density and massing at Westbard. I have to commend planners for coming up with this concept, as I was not aware that this was even an option. I think more feedback of residents directly impacted by it will be needed before green-lighting this, however. I suspect there will be a lot of outrage about the idea in Westbard Mews, and understandably so. My first reaction was, great idea. The next thing I thought was that Westbard Mews residents are going to go into orbit when they hear about this.
Willets Branch Stream

One proposal would restore
the stream to its natural state,
and add a path alongside
Less controversial, but - in my opinion - positive, was a proposal to daylight the channelized and tunneled sections of Willets Branch Stream and add a trail alongside it. This could potentially create a narrow park through the current industrial area and, done the right way, could be an asset similar to Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick, if not as large in scale. Such a linear park could also facilitate small park areas along it, where plaques or memorials to the history of the Georgetown Branch Railroad, or the lost historic African-American community along River Road could be placed.

Also new was planners' proposal to move Little Falls Library from its current site into the "town center" of Equity One's property on Westbard Avenue. Rockville Town Square's library configuration was cited as an example, although I've heard mixed opinions from commercial real estate folks and Rockville residents about the success of placing the Rockville Library there. It's worth exploring, but it's unclear if Equity One would be willing to delete that much potential retail/residential square footage for a library. Equity One's Michael Berfield did seem willing to consider that and other requests for public amenities on Monday.
Equity One makes its
presentation to planners
Monday
Berfield and Equity One's architect fleshed out a few more details of their potential redevelopment concept yesterday. They reaffirmed their previously-stated goal of creating a "Main Street" for retail along Westbard Avenue. Townhomes are the proposed use for the Manor Care Springhouse at Westwood (apparently now vacant) site and for the parts of the Westwood Shopping Center that border existing residential uses. Berfield proposed 2-story retail along the Westbard Avenue side of the property, potentially placing the site's grocery store on the second floor, while leaving smaller street-level spaces for diverse and "quirky" retail and dining. He said Equity One is "all about the retail," but stressed that there would be no retail tenants that would make Westbard a regional destination. Nothing here would draw people from far distances, or be different from what you would already find in nearby communities in the region, Berfield said. Of course, taken to the extreme, that would seem to work against creating a distinctive sense of place for the Westbard area. I don't think residents would want a cookie-cutter mix of "the salad place," the Chipotle, and "the cupcake shop" one finds at so many town centers. Equally or more important, the architecture needs to be unique enough that one only identifies it with Westbard.

Parking was discussed, and Berfield's suggestion for now is that parking will be primarily in a one-level, underground garage. I wouldn't want to totally dismiss that before seeing what else the eventual plan has to offer, but I personally don't feel garage parking is appropriate for the Westbard area. For the same reason that structures should not have a "wall" effect that blocks existing sight lines to the forested character of the surrounding neighborhoods, I don't think concrete surroundings are necessarily appropriate for a suburban community.

There is also the potential that the demolition of Westwood Center II, which sounded inevitable from Equity One's presentation Monday, would allow Ridgefield Road to be shifted onto that site, and away from its existing intersection at Westbard Avenue. This would ostensibly divert outside traffic trying to reach the Equity One development away from the Springfield neighborhood on the 2nd block of Ridgefield and upward. One would hope it would also facilitate more stream buffer around Willets Branch there, and a better turning scenario for tractor trailers coming off of River Road.

While promising "low-rise" multifamily housing on parts of the current Westwood Shopping Center site, Berfield pledged to "go taller" on the other side of Westbard, citing examples of 10-15 story projects elsewhere.

At no point in the day did I ever hear about office space. In order to achieve "smart growth," it is necessary to have workplaces near residential housing. Is there a plan to add office space to reduce the number of commuters generated by the new residential growth here?
Kenwood Civic Association
meeting with planners Monday
Kenwood itself was adamant that building heights along River Road be capped, with no exceptions for amenities or parcel collection.

Ultimately, most groups at the nighttime session repeatedly said that they couldn't find sample photos in the sets provided that showed the lower density and height they preferred. Comments strongly reflected a word cloud Marcolin displayed at the outset. The biggest words were SCHOOLS, TRAFFIC, and RIVER ROAD. Long-term MCPS planner Bruce Crispell made an appearance to take questions from frustrated parents of children in already-overcrowed schools.
Using markers, trace paper, maps
and tape, stakeholders tried
to reach a consensus at tables
throughout the room last night

Participants could choose from
these height and density options

Getting set to start

My group's map when nearly
finished

Concerned parent asks MCPS
long-term planner Bruce Crispell
about overcrowding in the
Wood Acres/Pyle/Whitman cluster
I was at a table with a smart group of residents who were able to lay out a lot of what the community wants in principle. I don't know if planners will be able to interpret everything we pasted on there. For example, a photo of Bethesda Lane was posted to show the concept of an iconic public space, rather than as a marker for building heights on Westbard. I pasted a sample photo of modern, single-family homes on the spot where the Manor Care is now. That would seem to be more consistent with the adjoining single-family homes, while remaining profitable (lots seem to be far smaller today) and respecting the lack of space in existing schools. I also suggested keeping one full-serve Citgo station on Westbard to serve the community, particularly senior citizens who regularly use that option. One other important point would be that the type of restaurant attracted can often be determined by the square footage of the space. So to get a sit-down restaurant (as opposed to a carry out), you need a certain minimum square footage to attract that type of tenant. I hope that Equity One will design its spaces accordingly, as there are no sit-down, family restaurants in the Westbard area currently.
At the charette, this was the
closest example I could
find for an appropriate height
for multi-family housing
on Westbard Avenue
Stay tuned for more on the Westbard Sector Plan this week.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

No one cares ...

Anonymous said...

9:56AM: You don't live in Bethesda, so of course you don't care.

John Hanna said...

I care. According to the Little Falls Watershed Alliance, 70% of Willett Branch "is channelized in concrete ditches or enclosed in storm drains".

This is what it looks like now.
http://www.lfwa.org/sites/default/files/attachments/the_willett_branch_presentation_0.pdf

Anonymous said...

Westbard isn't "Bethesda" any more than the old E.J. Korvettes/"Pike & Rose" is "Bethesda". The fact that it has a McDonalds should make that painfully obvious.

Social climbers, the lot of them.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Good reporting. Can you explain more how Mcdonalds is following the boulevard concept envisioned in the master plan? It just looks like a typical McD's to me.

Robert Dyer said...

5:47: The distinguishing features are that the sidewalk is set back further in front of the McDonald's property so pedestrians are not as close to the onrushing traffic, the sidewalk is wider, and there is a nice green lawn with trees and plantings out front.

Robert Dyer said...

2:37 You obviously don't know Bethesda if you think 20816 isn't Bethesda. Downtown Bethesda had a McDonald's for decades. Social climbers? It's one of the wealthiest areas in the country.

Robert Dyer said...

4:47 No personal attacks against readers please.

Anonymous said...

jsut tell them all a WEgmans is going in there and they will all be happy.

As for the overcrowding of the school, any parent with a kid in school now is not going to be impacted by this, this is 10-15 years away.

Anonymous said...

Great coverage - thanks.

Anonymous said...

5:49 What if they have babies/kids not in school yet?