The worksession last Thursday included a stealth request from DGS for the right to build a 75' urban-style affordable housing project on the site of the Little Falls Library. This was a violation of at least the spirit of open meetings rules, as no public notice was given on that specific request, other than its inclusion on a fine-print chart linked to the meeting agenda.
A memo from DGS Deputy Director Greg Ossont was termed a "late note," and one planner assured the board that this document had been received in the last week prior to the hearing. But it's nowhere to be found in the file posted online that supposedly contains all correspondence received between October 14 and November 18, 2015. There's a memo from Ossont in there, but it's about forwarding feedback on transportation and public safety issues from other County departments, not the library site. Was it in the single, pitiful attachment provided to the public on the November 19 Planning Board agenda? Nope.
Putting a 75' building on a green, forested corner surrounded by one-and-two story residential and religious structures, and in a suburban residential area, is absolutely preposterous. And a complete deception.
Ossont assured residents that there were no plans to demolish the library at an April 22 meeting this year. He most certainly did not suggest the County was even considering placing an apartment building there.
There's no debate that affordable housing units will be coming to the "Westbard" area in any redevelopment plan. But the constant attempt to suggest that current residents aren't "doing their part" for affordable housing needs remains a laughable talking point. A representative of Action in Montgomery cited Westbard as an example of housing inequality in the county. In fact, it has the most affordable housing relative to population/unit density of any part of the county. The existing Westwood Tower has many times the percentage of affordable units that any project approved in recent years by the Board and County Council. Park Bethesda has historically had lower rents than downtown Bethesda apartments, and the Kenwood Place condos have been a relative bargain to purchase, and a veritable steal to rent.
I am not aware of any major crime or otherwise-negative issues related to the substantial affordable housing already on Westbard Avenue. But there's little common sense in declaring "Westbard" a future hub for affordable housing. The area is completely disconnected from downtown Bethesda via transit, and has no County or private services for low-income residents.
Contrast this to the past failures of the Board and County Council in downtown Bethesda. The Arlington Road corridor had once been designated as a site for substantial affordable housing, within easy walking distance of County services and transit. Instead, it today houses literally the most-expensive residential units in downtown Bethesda.
After tossing the homeless and poor downtown aside in favor of cash from developers for personal and political gain, they now want to lecture about affordable housing? Please.
The community is not going to accept a 200-unit apartment building in a low density area, on a school site, to boot. Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson expects that. And he made clear that he doesn't much care what you want. "A lot of people are going to be unhappy with the idea," Anderson predicted, in what was the biggest understatement of the year.
I urge everyone to watch the meeting so you see the arrogance in action. The Planning Board whose salaries you pay say this process isn't about you - it's about them, and the people they would like to live in Westbard one day. They're kind of tired of you, and a bit annoyed, too.
Commissioner Natali Fani-Gonzalez said this plan is about "the community that's going to live in there in 30 years...people who haven't even been born yet." Wait a minute, they keep talking about how the 1982 Westbard Sector Plan is so many decades late in being updated - and now they're saying this is a 30-year plan? They're going to wait 30 years to update it again?
If you're really writing a 10-20 year plan, why would you include the potential for a 75' building on the library site because it might be relevant in 20-30 years? Hint: Because an unnamed developer is interested now, and has set this plan into motion behind the scenes. Note to Board - "people who haven't even been born yet" don't pay taxes, and don't vote.
|Distorted Google Maps|
image the Planning Board
used to determine the future
of a whole neighborhood
After changes at Thursday's meeting, Kenwood will now have a 75' building on the Whole Foods site towering over its single-family homes, rather than a gradual step-down from the center of that block of River Road. A future building on Westwood Center II's site will rise 90' over Springfield homes. Final recommendations were not solidified on the Capital Properties land around the Park Bethesda, but the Board was supporting 110', a whopping 35 additional feet over what planners recommended.
Redevelopment of the Westwood Shopping Center site also will be taller - 10' taller, at 60'. Residents of Kenwood Place who had reached cordial agreement with planners and developer Equity One on 50' height previously? No notice and no chance to speak. Developers? Unlimited time to speak at Thursday's worksession.
Planners and Equity One said the 10' difference won't change the actual height of the structures, but was simply a technical issue in response to where the County starts measuring the height from. Given that the retail buildings will be at street level and up to the roadside, it's unclear how there is a dispute over where to make the measurement, but perhaps someone can explain that in the comments below.
It's critical to note that all of these taller heights will only be the starting point, with bonus incentives available that would allow developers to add additional stories to these. By allowing 90' and 110' to start, imagine what the final heights will be.
Surely there were additional perks for residents added to the plan to offset the additional giveaways to developers and politicians? No, in fact, the list is shrinking by the hour.
The realigned Ridgefield Road that was supposed to solve truck-turning and cut-through traffic problems? It's now essentially dead, with Planning Director Gwen Wright the lone advocate for leaving it in the plan.
Worried about whether or not naturalization of Willett Branch stream will happen? Get a little more worried. Page 49 of the draft now has "new language" kowtowing to landowners' requests to keep Willett Branch as an urban sewer: "stream buffer areas may be modified or reduced".
What's left on the list? A postage stamp civic green on Westbard, a slightly-larger postage stamp urban recreation park (a.k.a. skate park) by the Capital Crescent Trail, "interior community use space", private shuttle service, and bikeshare. Private shuttle service will actually allow the developers to add additional density beyond what they're getting in the plan, which defeats the whole purpose of the shuttle service. Bikeshare? It's already there on River Road at Landy Lane. So no meaningful green space, and certainly no recreation center or significant County facility.
It's also worth noting that of the minority of people writing to the Board supporting the Draft Plan, most do not live in what will be the eventual shadow of these buildings. Not only do most live away from the site, some live outside of the state of Maryland!
Also, examine the supporters' letters closely. You'll notice virtually all focus is on updating the "outdated" Westwood Shopping Center. This is the classic planning-by-Stockholm-Syndrome strategy that's been going on for several years. Dr. Tauber could have built a new shopping center 30 years ago. He refused to do so. Capital Properties refused to do so. Equity One has acknowledged it could make money even if nothing changed at all, and certainly with a new non-residential shopping center. So why would you support urbanizing a suburban neighborhood, if all you want is a better shopping center? It makes no sense.
It makes about as much sense as having the public testify on one Plan, and then giving developers and politicians the opportunity to write a new one 60 days later, and have the Board ram it through to the County Council, where a majority of councilmembers receive more than 80% of their contributions from developers.
The Board said the majority opinion of residents in Westbard in 30 years will be different from today's. No kidding, when you jam the equivalent of a whole town's population of transient renters into a 2 block area around low-density single-family homes. This is what happens when no one is advocating for residents. We're told that the County's "serious fiscal constraints" prevent funding of a People's Counsel to represent our interests, but we can mysteriously afford a $200,000 Development Ombudsman. Hmm.
When does Councilmember Roger Berliner weigh in on this last-minute deception of his constituents, and Dumb Growth plan for high-density urban development nowhere near walking distance to a Metro station? He could, but as we saw Thursday, the public can't.