|Does this look like an|
urban area to you? The
very suburban site of the
Little Falls Library
In regard to the library plan, Lynn Battle, representing the Westwood Mews and Westbard Mews townhome communities, said, "This site is directly across from all of our townhomes. This was suddenly raised. We are very strenuously against that. It certainly has to be a step up [to 75' from a lower height facing the townhomes]."
Westbard Sector Plan Project Manager John Marcolin said there would indeed be a step up from the Westbard Avenue side of the potential building, as required by the CRT zone's compatibility provision. The center of the building would likely be 75', stepping down from there, Marcolin said.
Battle noted that the idea of a 75' building there was never even mentioned during a year-long public engagement period. "Most of the public that thought they were being given an opportunity to comment," Battle said, were not allowed to comment on this proposal, brought up long after the September 24 public hearing.
Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson acknowledged that the Montgomery County Department of General Services' decision to make the 11th-hour height request was not the way things should be done. “I don’t think that was frankly very helpful,” Anderson said. But he was in favor of 75' nonetheless, saying the Board had heard “considerable public support for affordable housing” in the Westbard area.
In reality, relatively few speakers advocated for extensive affordable housing, few of those were residents, and even fewer actually live adjacent to any of the properties targeted for redevelopment. How many speakers asked for a 75' building on the low-rise library site? Exactly zero. In fact, a huge crowd turned out to vehemently protest any idea of replacing or moving the venerable Little Falls Library this past April. At that meeting, DGS representative Greg Ossont made no mention of redeveloping the site. Of course, he understandably used careful legal language to do so.
What's really going on at the library site?
To get a sense, consider the facts we do know, rather than the unknowns to come. Marcolin revealed new language to apply to the site in the draft sector plan. That language states that redevelopment of the library site "must involve a public-private partnership." Stop right there. That's exactly what I predicted in my last article. County elected officials will be able to select a favored development firm from the many who donate to their campaigns, and deliver this prize property on a silver platter.
But it's affordable housing, to help the downtrodden, they'd say.
Wrong. Just check the language. Only a maximum of 25% of the units will have to be affordable or workforce housing. Never mind that placing a lot of affordable housing far away from Metro and near no County services for low-income residents, and with no public recreational facilities, would be just plain irresponsible. But this isn't going to be an affordable housing project.
Rather, it will be luxury apartments or condos, and fill up classrooms and nearby roads, for private developer profit. And this is more than 100 additional units beyond what the public had to consider at the time they testified on September 24. In a building that will tower over the suburban residential uses around it. You can step down all you want, but 75' is still a wall, and still blocks the sky, even if it is x-number of yards past the 35' edge.
On the Whole Foods site, where adjacent neighborhoods have suggested townhomes be placed if redevelopment occurs, the height will also be 75'. A representative for the landowner said, "we are not looking to redevelop our site and do townhouses. This site needs to retain CRT zoning. We just wanted to specify that these requirements would be based on assemblage only." "If there’s no assembly, there’s no 75’.," Anderson reminded her.
The situation with the Capital Properties site around the Park Bethesda remains unclear. Yesterday's debate centered around how the height should relate to the width and placement of the new connector road between Westbard and River Road. Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss suggested that the height be 35' at Crown Street, and then bump up to 75' at the new road, and finally to 110' on the other side of the road. That road should be placed as close to the existing Park Bethesda building as feasible, Dreyfuss said.
Planning Director Gwen Wright agreed that the road would be a "good line of demarcation" to relate heights to. But, she added, a 75' building towering right over a narrow connector road would not be good planning. Ultimately, Wright said, "This is really in many ways a site plan issue. There will have to be a lot of engineering work to figure out where that road" will meet Westbard.
While the Board will not place a townhome zone on the Manor Care property on Ridgefield Road, it did deliberate over how to discourage commerical uses there even with a CRT zone. Echoing what community representatives had said at a previous worksession, Commissioner Amy Presley said, "We had said no commercial, we didn’t think it was appropriate for commercial. I want to make sure that if that’s what we said," that the language reflects that in the plan.
Wright argued the plan should make emphasize "residential as the predominant use for this parcel," and that “commercial uses are strongly discouraged on this site. Period.” Michael Berfield, representing landowner Equity One, which owns the Manor Care site, assured commissioners that they do not intend to locate retail on that site. Berfield said the Board's previous vote to give Equity One 90' on the Westwood Center II site across Ridgefield reduced the need to have retail on the Manor Care site.
One positive note on yesterday's worksession - planning staff finally brought up the issue of gas stations, which I and others have been emphasizing for over a year, and up until now, has not been reflected in the draft plan recommendations. Anderson made clear he is not concerned about gas stations existing in the Bethesda area (does he drive an electric car?). He claimed several times during the discussion that "the market" would provide gas stations as needed.
Of course, we know this is hogwash. There's a market for competitive gas stations in downtown Bethesda. They're all vanishing anyway. Yeah, there's a market. But it's nowhere near as profitable as redeveloping your gas station as a luxury condo. That's why - duh - it's the responsibility of the Planning Board and County Council to ensure that all gas stations don't get zoned such that they become worth more than the gas station business currently operating.
Anderson truly comes across as if he couldn't care less if you have to drive to Gaithersburg to fill up your tank. But I give Marcolin credit for bringing the issue up, clearly stating the case for concern, and reminding the Board that, in regard to strengthening language to preserve gas stations via the master plan, "That’s up to you."
The end result of the discussion was that we won't be getting any protection for the gas stations in "Westbard".
And small businesses currently operating in the Westwood Shopping Center and Westwood II?
The news wasn't much better for them, either.
When the topic of how to preserve those popular mom-and-pop shops and services came up, it was concluded that the language in the vision statement of the sector plan was sufficient. Norman Knopf, an attorney who often represents neighborhoods in land-use decisions, deemed that language "pie in the sky," as it is self-implementing, not a requirement to preserve local retail.
Berfield argued that a mix of larger retailers is needed to support the smaller ones, saying they might coexist on different floors of the same retail center when the site redevelops.
Anderson suggested Knopf consider the issue, and submit sample language to the Board for consideration by its December 17 worksession, when it is expected to vote on the plan.
Photo via Google Maps