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|
|River Road, or|
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.
"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.
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.