Thursday, November 20, 2014

SUBURBAN TO URBAN: WESTBARD PROPOSAL COULD ADD 4972 NEW RESIDENTS, 3758 CARS TO NEIGHBORHOOD

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?

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your concerns about the lack of transit and office space are all valid Robert.

But how in the hell do you label those renderings a "concrete canyon."

Seriously, you have some very valid arguments but you undercut those valid arguments when you make such ridiculous statements. It goes to show you have less of an idea of what you're talking about and also indicates that you've never actually left Montgomery County and have less perspective

Anonymous said...

Thanks for creating a dialogue about this. The overcrowding of schools and the traffic mess MUST be addressed before profiteers come in to build housing and then move on to the next project to make money at the community's expense. He is not undermining anything. This project is based on greedy real estate investors' desire to capitalize on land without leaving the area in a better way or at least the same as they found it. I'd like to place 5,000 new residents next to their homes. Maybe they can have a hard time getting their kids to school or go to work. #jerks

Anonymous said...

Robert your an asshole from a different time. You should of died off years ago.

AnneRoss said...

I greatly appreciate Robert's informative blog and get a lot of news from it.
The Westbard area seems headed for the "concrete canyon" look like that of downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights but without the transit option of a walkable Metro station. The Westbard residents don't mind improvement but would prefer it look more like Spring Valley than Rockville.

Anonymous said...

The people have spoken and they don't want "Downtown Westbard".

Anonymous said...

@ 5:43 PM - "Your" should be "you're", and "should of" should be "should have".

Now continue with the dialogue...

Anonymous said...

Robert, thanks for covering this story in the depth it deserves. The Westbard area is already a well known traffic bottleneck for those of us who drive on River Road. Not to mention the additional traffic coming to the area due to the big expansion of the government facility at the far end of Sangamore Road. Also, all this extra traffic is sure to spill over onto nearby residential side streets as drivers look to take short cuts around congestion.

InBethesda said...

"Or will it become an urban area of concrete canyons"

Lol what a joke. I don't see how any rational thinking person could look at that photo and label it a "concrete canyon."

"Looks just like Friendship Heights."

What?! Looks like someone has clearly never travelled south of Bradley. Friendship Heights has plenty of 9-17 story office buildings, and 14-23 story residential high-rises. In total at least 20 150-250 foot buildings in FH.

At the very maximum the proposed buildings will be less than a third of the height of those buildings. These are more along the lines of the more suburban areas of Gaithersburg/Rockville, such as the Shady Grove corridor. Even the existing 1960's era residential towers are three times as tall.

This entire article is chock full of absurd statements and illogical arguments. There are some a couple legitimate arguments against this plan, but they're buried deep within the misrepresentations and invective.

Dyer's obvious grudge against the county makes him blind to facts. No matter what the county govt does it will always be ridiculed by Dyer. It doesn't matter if the height limits were 300 ft or 30 ft.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I think I'm done coming here. This blog was useful back when it reported actual Bethesda happenings. Now it's all just intellectually embarrassing crap. This plan does not include "concrete canyons" nor would 1900 apartment units bring 5000 new residents and 4000 new cars to the area. Nor could these short, 5-6 story buildings be considered comparable to what you see in an urbanized downtown area, a la Bethesda. I honestly don't know if Dyer is legitimately stupid (e.g. doesn't know that apartments are smaller than detached homes, or doesn't know Bethesda isn't dominated by 5 story buildings, or doesn't know what the words "concrete" and "canyon" mean) or if he thinks he's helping his argument by fabricating all these "facts."

Anonymous said...

My God, I looked at the first rendering here and it's like Rockville Town Center or Bethesda Row. Both of those are steps to Metro.

It looks like they're trying to make Westbard a destination place, like Bethesda Row.

Anonymous said...

Don't compare Westbard with Rockville. Twinbrook is being further developed, but they have a Metro station and plenty of transit options via bus.
Same deal with Shady Grove: they have a Metro station and the area is well served by bus.

Woodmont said...

Any plan to add BRT to River Road? It could run from Potomac to Friendship Heights and provide rapid bus from Westbard.

Anonymous said...

"Any plan to add BRT to River Road? It could run from Potomac..."

I just heard the sound of several tea cups and saucers crashing on the marble floor as the ladies of Potomac reached to clutch their pearls.

Anonymous said...

Robert does a nice job reporting on developments. Thank you Robert for keeping up on this topic and providing valuable information.

However, you intertwine facts regarding the process and your opinions (to which you are, of course, entitled). While the traffic and school concerns (and overall density concerns)are legitimate, the county is very clearly making every effort to address those issues.

A few of things to keep in mind:

1. "Residents have clearly spoken against the high-density proposal on the table now." While technically accurate, it gives the impression that all residents are opposed to the proposal. As a resident in favor of the proposal, I can say that is not the case. I will have a view of the buildings proposed from my house, and I fully support the proposal. It's not perfect, but it is a vast improvement on the current site.
2. The current site (both Westbard and River Road) is undesirable. It is old and a poor use of a large swath of property. A revived area with restaurants and stores will be fantastic for our community. River Road is a miserable stretch of ugly buildings (roof store, Talberts, storage facilities, auto repair shops) and industrial use. I could live with less than 8 gas stations in a 1 mile radius.
3. The lack of a metro station does not require the conclusion that there should be no new residential or mixed us buildings. Again, the county is carefully taking this into account and planning accordingly. Traffic is not a problem on Westbard or Mass Ave in this area right now. River Road is poor during rush hour, but that does not make it unique in this area.
4. This is a long term plan. There is no guaranty that all of these proposed structures will be built, and it is far more likely that all will not be built.
5. There will be some negative impacts from this redevelopment on resident in the neighborhoods surrounding Westbard, including directly on me. I am wiling to put up with some negative impacts if there are a number of positive changes as well, which it appears there will be.

I believe the county is making honest efforts to take all concerns into account, and the end result will be a great benefit to the surrounding area.

Robert Dyer said...

11:04: Appreciate your input as a resident. I agree that the planners themselves have kept schools in mind, but my concern is that the elementary school site is non-conforming with the current 7.5 acre requirement of MCPS. And there is no proposal regarding the middle and high school levels.

I very much agree with you about restaurants. We haven't had a sit-down family restaurant since Farrell's closed around the mid-80s. But it's very possible for Equity One to add a restaurant on a pad site, or within a new shopping center redevelopment. A new shopping center more in scale with the neighborhood than the current urban proposal could still have public and green spaces - especially when you consider how tiny those spaces are in the current proposal. There's plenty of room to add more retail as well, while retaining the current businesses.

Gas stations may not seem ideal, but consider if there were none, as the current plan clearly shows. How much would gas cost Westbard area residents - and how far would a trip to get gas be? If just 1 or 2 remain, they would price gouge like downtown Bethesda and DC.

I have not seen any planning by the County regarding rush hour traffic loads on River or Massachusetts. That is a major flaw in the plan so far. The number of proposed new residents would indeed require a rail transit station, as well as major upgrades to River Road.

I think this plan will achieve full build-out much faster than others, due to the incredible demand for the near-DC location, and Whitman schools.

I have not identified many positive changes in the plan, other than the Willetts Branch restoration and path. That alone would not be worth the change in character and negative impact on roads, schools and quality of life this plan would have.


Two previous landowners, and now Equity One, have declined to upgrade or build a modern new shopping center such as the Osborne Shopping Center in Upper Marlboro, Fallsgrove or Sumner Place. The reason is that they've been waiting for a zoning change that would allow urban-style development. Remove that lure, and you can be sure they will build an upraded strip mall-style shopping center with convenient, safe surface parking - and public spaces, which Equity One has claimed are critical.

I think we deserve the same convenience and quality of life as residents around Potomac Village, Spring Valley and the Palisades continue to enjoy today. Developers should respect the desirable neighborhood residents have fostered for decades, and present plans that enhance, rather than destroy, that.

Robert Dyer said...

5:16: The canyon effect is massing as much as height. The latest rendering has structures less broken up than Concept 1 showed last week. It's because I have left Montgomery County that I do have a good sense of the scale of development in suburban, car-dependent residential neighborhoods. Walls of concrete and blocked sky views are definitely a concrete canyon.

Robert Dyer said...

7:58: I think you are referring to buildings near the Shady Grove and Rockville Metro stations. Westbard does not have a Metro station. The existing high-rises in the Westbard area are non-conforming, and have been grandfathered in. Can you tell me what major demand there has been from current residents for high-density residential buildings? The demand is coming from developers, and the County Councilmembers who get the big campaign checks from them.

Robert Dyer said...

8:00 Better check your facts again. The number of occupants and school children is above average in apartment buildings on Westbard. No fabrication - I'm using the latest Census data. In fact, the estimate of cars is conservative, as the current number-per-household is skewed artificially low by the Great Recession data. Have you looked at the plan? It shows high-density residential buildings along every inch of River and Westbard - the very definition of a concrete canyon.

Anonymous said...

LOL, no matter how many times you repeat it, a row five-story buildings does not equal "canyon".

"And the 'smart growth' folks say this scheme will reduce automobile use?"

Even for new residents who would not be able to use transit along River Road, living closer in equals shorter car trips to most destinations. "Harm reduction", in other words.


Anonymous said...

"In fact, the estimate of cars is conservative, as the current number-per-household is skewed artificially low by the Great Recession data."

As opposed to your estimate from last week of two cars per each new resident.

G. Money said...

No one has addressed the most pressing question (or at least not that I've seen): what will become of the bowling alley?

Anonymous said...

6:35PM: the bowling alley building is not in plans obviously. It's an old, one level structure. It's too bad, since it was a nice entertainment option. For adults in the evening and families during the day. It would be a great addition to the new "Downtown Westbard".

I suspect things are going to move very quickly with the plan. This isn't going to be a 20 year wait. The developer is already clearing out the retirement home.

Anonymous said...

THE DEVELOPER IS TURNING ALL THE OLD PEOPLE INTO SOYLENT GREEN!!1!

OMG!!!

But I'm sad about the bowling alley. I hope it can re-open somewhere nearby.

Anonymous said...

@10:04 I agree with you. Something needs to be done. The Westbard parking lot is an enormous waste of space, and and eyesore, as are the various gas stations and industrial shops along River Road.

We do need to keep schools in mind, and I think that's going to be the big issue, as they're basically at capacity or overcapacity.

However, this area could definitely stand for a rework. I noticed it driving along River Road yesterday -- just a real hodgepodge of random businesses, and not pedestrian-friendly at all (though there is a sidewalk, that's a good sign).

Steve D. said...

No bowling alley, no dice.

And I don't get the people who say the photos don't look like Friendship heights. These buildings are about the same size as the Mazza Gallerie and Chevy Chase Pavilion buildings, which are between 5-7 stories.

Anonymous said...

Well in one respect traffic could actually improve. Left turners trying to squeeze into the Whole Foods lot frequently block the Potomac bound lanes of River Road. And McDonald's patrons often spill out onto River Road as well. This hardly justifies a massive redevelopment project but it's probably the only way these issues get addressed.

G. Money said...

I'm starting a NIMBA campaign.

(Not in my bowling alley)

Robert Dyer said...

"Something needs to be done." What kind of rationale is that for urbanization of a suburban area? The planners couldn't name a single real problem that going from 45' to 80' would solve. The vast majority of residents are not asking for the change. It's a solution in search of a problem. I like the hodgepodge. What does it matter to people who don't live there?

Anonymous said...

Steve D. -

The people who are screaming "Friendship Heights" are not referring to the block of Wisconsin between Western and Jennifer. Trust me.

Robert Dyer said...

5:33 The 3758 new cars will have a shorter distance than the current ones around Westbard? Will they be using some super-secret short cut into DC, or are you banking on the wormhole theory? Reality is carmageddon on River Road. Not environmentally sound planning any way you slice it.

Robert Dyer said...

5:34 It's the same Census data I used last week. Just updated for planners' new unit estimate.

Robert Dyer said...

9:52: I find River Road congested even when those 2 phenomena aren't happening.

Robert Dyer said...

2:02: I can't think of any block in Friendship Heights I would want to see replicated at Westbard. Too dense.

Anonymous said...

@ 5:33 PM - No, silly. The distances will be shorter than where they would have had to live otherwise.

Anonymous said...

@ G. Money:

"I'm starting a NIMBA campaign.

(Not in my bowling alley)"

Er, no thanks. That sounds a little too close to "NAMBLA". ;)

Anonymous said...

River Road is gridlock in the morning rush.
Can't imagine how bad it's gonna be with all these additional cars.

G. Money said...

5:30: National Association for Man-Bowling Lane Action.