Friday, November 14, 2014


Less than 12 hours after Westbard Mews residents made clear that a Crown Street bypass of Westbard Avenue was unacceptable, planners had removed that alignment from the newest map of the sector's potential future. By Thursday evening, a Westbard-to-River Road connection remained, but was shown as being routed through either the current driveway of the Park Bethesda apartments, or the sloping rear driveway of the Westwood Tower property.

Long before that community meeting at Walt Whitman High School, several more groups of stakeholders sat down with Montgomery County planners. Land and business owners discussed their future in the Westbard area, and residents expressed their concerns about how those plans might affect them.

"We've been a staple in the community since 1953," American Plant's Todd Shorb said as his popular gardening and landscape design company considered the future of its 5258 River Road location with planners. For the near future, the company would like to stay and continue to operate successfully at this location. "If you continue, you don't have to do anything - that's fine," planner Marc DeOcampo assured them. American Plant is considering possible joint redevelopment with neighbors The Roof Center and Talbert's in the future. Right now the basic concept is a 6-8 story building with a 72' height.

That would change things, however, as the current draft proposal is showing a naturalized and wider Willetts Branch Stream as part of a new linear park concept. This would bisect American Plant and other properties in the rear, a potential problem for future redevelopment plans. "Yes, you would have a bisected property," DeOcampo noted, but the new stream park would be an amenity that would give American Plant "two developable lots, with all of this street frontage." That didn't placate Shorb, who replied that they would need additional height and density to justify a bisection. How high, DeOcampo asked? A building in line with The Kenwood, Westwood Tower would be a fair comparison, Shorb suggested.

American Plant also expressed skepticism about the stream plan and sidewalk upgrades proposed in the plan. River Road currently works for them in terms of foot traffic and access, and they pointed out that Willetts Branch as it is reaches the top after 3-4" of rain.

The Shorbs said they would like to discuss their options further in the months ahead and meet with planners again. "Think about what best serves you," head planner John Marcolin told them.
Westbard Mews President
Dick Mathias discusses
traffic impacts of the
plan on his community
Next up was Westbard Mews, who continued to express displeasure at the proposed Crown Street bypass of Westbard Avenue that would begin near their homes, and the outsized plans of next door neighbors Park Bethesda. Westbard Mews Condominium Association President Dick Mathias described the future growth at the Park Bethesda site as "two more monster buildings." Mathias felt the zoning should remain as it is. "If we hear through our discussions with the community and landowners [that a zoning change] is something we can consider," DeOcampo said. "We know we don't want to be next to three monster buildings," Mathias asserted. "You know we don't have the school capacity for the children that would live there." The new proposed heights are "totally incompatible with our vision for what the future of the neighborhood should be," Mathias added.

Of course, the Crown Street bypass was foremost on Westbard Mews' residents' minds. "We feel like we're sitting at this funnel," Mathias lamented, "and you're figuring out ways to fill it." Putting cars onto Goldsboro Road and Little Falls Parkway would be a better option, argued several residents.

"I'll be completely honest with you," DeOcampo said. "Sumner came to us with their concerns that Westbard Avenue was going to be the alternative road for ICC-B (Sangamore Road intelligence campus) employees to get to the Beltway if Clara Barton [Parkway] was blocked in any way." Parks and Planning cannot widen Little Falls Parkway, DeOcampo said, as that would be "against our charter." Besides, DeOcampo noted, the new traffic will be the same volume even if nothing is built.

"Have you done a study of how traffic actually moves?" asked Phyllis Edelman, President of the Springfield Civic Association. She said the major problem is west-to-east/east-to-west during rush hour.

Mathias suggested a new cut-through route between Little Falls Parkway and Westbard (via River Road crossing) would generate even more traffic. Why would I leave Little Falls, DeOcampo asked, "if I have a straight shot" to Massachussetts Avenue? "You're paving over the whole sector in asphalt," Mathias countered. "The more options you have, the more dissipated traffic will be," DeOcampo said.

Equity One should be limited to 45' heights on the Westwood Shopping Center, with low density housing, townhouses and neighborhood, Mathias suggested. That developer returned to the charrette Thursday primarily to comment on what planners and stakeholders had assembled the previous day in the form of three options. Michael Berfield, Executive Vice President of Development for Equity One, said "it's been a very helpful process for us."
Equity One and EYA return
Berfield addressed traffic concerns, saying that a reorientation of Ridgefield Road would be expensive but possible. Smaller blocks along Westbard Avenue "makes sense for a lot of different reasons." He questioned the need for new roads, and believes that Westbard has excess capacity to handle any future increase in traffic. A shuttle bus to the Red Line "is critical [and] we will do anything we can do to make that happen," Berfield promised.

The proposals for a new school site and for moving Little Falls Library to the Equity One site were new to him, Berfield noted, but said both could be achieved. He said he has had libraries in other retail centers in the past. But Berfield suggested 65' heights are "not a huge difference" from the 50' planners are recommending. He views 120' as ideal for the Bowlmor side of Westbard.

Equity One's architect Matt Bell said Westbard was the product of "an era when the automobile was king," but did not identify which other mode of transportation had vanquished automobiles since then. Berfield said that underground garage parking "can be made appealing," but did not offer examples of where that has been accomplished. I can't think of any myself around here.

Regarding the popular small businesses on Westbard like Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys, Westwood Pet Center and the Westwood Barber Shop, Berfield said their popularity "gives me incentive to try to  keep them."
Royco discussed the future of
its Whole Foods-anchored
Kenwood Station
Kenwood Station has some of the most popular retail in the Westbard Sector, but perhaps the most-hated parking lot besides Trader Joe's in downtown Bethesda. Landowner Royco, Inc. followed Equity One's presentation, and said nothing substantive will change in the near future there. "We love the building, we love the way it performs from a real estate standpoint," Royco President Joe Kelly said. With leases there running through 2026, expect no redevelopment in the next decade, Kelly reassured neighboring residents.
Ridgewells explained its
potential future expansion
to planner Marc DeOcampo
Further up River Road, The Ballroom and Ridgewell's catering are also not planning to go anywhere. The Ballroom is having great success as an events space and busy dance hall, although like most smart businesses, is keeping future options open. Likewise, Ridgewell's is the most popular catering service in the DC area, and is thinking more of redeveloping a larger facility that will allow it to operate in a more modern setting, and better accommodate circulation of delivery trucks on its site. For that reason, Ridgewell's opposes bisection of its property by any proposed new roads, or new alignments of existing roads, unless it accommodates its growth and truck traffic needs.
Little Falls Watershed Alliance
meets with Environmental Planners
Katherine Nelson and Marco Fuster
The Little Falls Watershed Alliance wrapped up Thursday's session with planners, saying it wants the new sector plan to restore the watershed to the greatest extent possible. LFWA's Dan Dozier said the group would like more rain gardens and less concrete holding tanks. Along those lines, it would like the new Westbard Avenue to be a "green street," meaning it will have active filtration and stormwater management features. Water flow is at least as critical as water quality, Dozier argued, even though it is not discussed as much. Several members stressed the need to acquire more green space along Willetts Branch Stream, and to widen it and restore a fuller flood plain with parkland. It seems that those are also priorities for planners, as well as the overarching goal of daylighting and naturalizing Willetts Branch in the coming decades. Environmental planner Katherine Nelson said she is hoping that the plan can reserve the room necessary to provide such a restoration in future years.
Senior Urban Designer Paul Mortenson
presents the 2 concepts planners
generated after feedback from
stakeholders the previous night
By nightfall, planners had worked up two concepts from the 3 options discussed the previous evening. While there were no massive changes, two jumped out. Crown Street was out as the bypass for Westbard, and one alignment for that utilizes the existing cross-stream passage behind Westwood Tower, still connecting to the County right-of-way parallel to the Capital Crescent Trail. And the road through American Plant - solidly rejected by the company that morning - was no longer an option.
Concept 1
I also noticed that the massing of buildings in Concept 1 leaves more space in-between, that hopefully will allow some of the suburban tree canopy that surrounds the Westbard area to be visible from within the "town center." A green space boulevard is supposed to prevent duplication of Westbard Circle outside of the Kenwood Place condos. Concept 1 allows 100' buildings on Ridgefield and the north side of Westbard, a 120' tower behind Park Bethesda, and 50' at the Westwood Shopping Center site.

75' would be the height limit for River Road in Concept 1, Whole Foods would be in the ground floor of a new apartment building, and new road connections to Little Falls Parkway would be achieved via Dorsey Street and Butler Road.
Concept 2
Concept 2 has lower heights, and one less new connection to Little Falls Parkway (at Butler). It has heights of 75' on Ridgefield and the north side of Westbard, 75' at Park Bethesda, and 50' on both the Westwood Shopping Center site and along River Road.

In my opinion, what remains fantastic is the plan for Willetts Branch Stream. It will not only be remediated over time, but could become a smaller-scale version of Carroll Creek in Frederick for the future Westbard. The improved street connections seem helpful to provide relief valves from a potentially jammed Westbard, although I think more needs to be fleshed out about what the State Highway Administration will do to handle increased volume on River and Massachusetts Avenue.

The Citgo II gas station by Park Bethesda should be recommended for continued use as a service station in the plan. Requiring much soil and groundwater remediation, it's hard to believe that plot has much potential for residential development. Rather than hold it as a dog park, why not allow Citgo to continue providing necessary services for the community there, including a Full Serve lane for the many senior citizens.

There is far too little industrial space left in either concept, and as you may have read in my report yesterday, some sites may simply be too contaminated to tamper with. Planners have promised a rough count of total potential housing units under the 2 concepts, which should give us a sense of whether they can be accommodated under the infrastructure that exists here.

Finally, while its too early for the design stage, I would strongly urge Equity One to ensure the architecture is unique within the parameters of what retail structures demand. One test is, what spot in the development will visitors take pictures of and post them to Instagram? Bethesda Row has that on Bethesda Lane (i.e. the arch, lighting, etc). RIO/Washingtonian Center has the water feature. Other centers like Rockville Town Square lack that unique feature. It is essentially an H-shaped box. Rockville Town Square resembles Pentagon City, and Downtown Crown is reminiscent of the Mosaic District. Westbard's architecture should be distinctive, and the gathering space should be unique and inspiring, not simply checking off a hardscape green square box on a planning form. It would be nice to figure out a design theme, like something playing off of the railroad history of the Westbard area. Or something entirely different from that. Just make it different, not cookie cutter.


Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your in-depth coverage of this process; I am unable to attend these sessions and you certainly provide excellent information. Thank you, Robert!

Alan said...

Outstanding reporting and write up, Robert. Thanks for putting in the long hours at the meetings, and for providing such a comprehensive summary of what's been happening at the charrette. You're providing a valuable public service.

Anonymous said...

I love the shiny bald head right in the middle of the 7th image from the top of the article. Especially the way it throws the rest of the picture into a shadow.

That poor guy is going to be called "Mr. Shiny" for the rest of his life. Maybe he should carry some powder with him at all times.