Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Berliner outlines alternative Westbard sector plan

Montgomery County Councilmember
Roger Berliner listens as a Springfield
resident asks a question
Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner gave some Bethesda residents a preview of what he thinks the new Westbard sector plan should look like last night. The plan, as currently drafted and approved by the Planning Board, has been soundly rejected by residents. At a special meeting of the Springfield Civic Association, which represents one of the communities most directly affected by the planned Westbard redevelopment, the councilman outlined what he called, "the Berliner alternative."

"I know how much stress this has caused the community," Berliner said, "and I regret that." He said the current plan is "far too aggressive," and includes "twice as much as we ought to be thinking about" in terms of housing units. Berliner got in front of the issue recently by issuing a memo with his general thoughts on the plan, and appeared to agree with the majority of residents on a number of the plan's most ridiculous proposals. With the alternative plan he previewed last night at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on River Road, Berliner fleshed out those comments further in terms of specifics he will present to his colleagues at upcoming worksessions.

The good news first:

Berliner criticized the attempt by Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, and the County Department of General Services, to stuff a 75' building on the Little Falls Library site at the very last minute, when the public had no ability to comment on the idea. "The very end, the plan put things in like the library [proposal]. Really?" Berliner asked incredulously. "Nothing is going to happen on that library site," he promised residents.

A second point of contention, a high-density mixed-use building the plan recommends for the Manor Care site on Ridgefield Road, was also on Berliner's radar. Again, Berliner assured residents this, too, will not happen. "It's not gonna be a tall multifamily building," he predicted. "It's going to be townhouses. That's the Berliner alternative."

Berliner was less confident that he could bring the building height on the Westwood Center II site (corner of Ridgefield and Westbard Avenue) down from 90' all the way to 50', and later said, "I doubt we will get to 50'" on the Capital Properties site around the Park Bethesda. CP initially asked for at least 250' for two new towers on the Park Bethesda parking lots. That is not even legal. But the Planning Board has proposed 110' heights, stepping down to 35' adjacent to the Westbard Mews/Westwood Mews townhomes across Crown Street.

Praising Wood Acres PTA President Jason Sartori as "an extraordinary asset in your community," Berliner announced that Sartori's outreach and convincing arguments have led to him arranging a special meeting between the affected PTA representatives, Berliner himself, and Montgomery County Public Schools. He did not yet announce a date for the meeting, however.

On school overcrowding, Berliner said he wants to dial back the claims of the Planning Chair and MCPS - that the system can handle supersized Westbard growth - to more closely match "our sense of reality. Right now it's still too loosey-goosey." He said Anderson is "in error" if he believes the community desires the level of density Anderson and the Board forwarded to the Council for approval.

Berliner said developers would not guide his final decisions in the process. "What guides me is whether or not what is proposed...enhances our community," not development interests, he said. "I do not consider Westbard to be an activity center. I don't consider it to be urban. And that is my starting point." While planning staff and the Planning Board have made their recommendations, and MCPS has weighed in approvingly, "It is our responsibility, ultimately, to get it right," Berliner noted.

Most of this was well-received by the crowd, and Berliner's willingness to tackle some of the biggest problems with the current plan is encouraging.

Some aspects of the Berliner alternative weren't so pleasing to residents.

For example, Berliner strongly approves of Capital Properties' proposal to include 25% affordable units in its new towers on Westbard. 25% is great - if it was located in downtown Bethesda. 25% at Westbard is simply using the community as a dumping ground for low-income housing. The location is nowhere near a Metro station or to County services and facilities such disadvantaged residents need. There have been no County facilities in the Westbard area other than the library, and none are proposed in the new plan. How would it make sense to strand hundreds of low-income residents with no access to jobs, transit and services? In turn, will the Council insist that the redevelopment of the Apex Building include 25% affordable units or more, atop two rail stations?

Virtually no one opposes the current 12.5% affordable unit requirement, and that will happen automatically in any project of qualifying size at Westbard, generating as much affordable housing as Westbard can realistically bear, if not more than it can bear. There is today more affordable housing at Westbard relative to population than in developments approved in downtown Bethesda over the last 10 years. Park Bethesda and Kenwood Place have units that rent for significantly less than downtown Bethesda apartments, and Westwood Tower is nearly half affordable units.

Berliner also didn't mention any specifc projects that could add capacity to already-jammed River Road, to which the plan would currently add about 5000 cars during the morning rush. He also didn't discuss what he might do to preserve gas stations, nor the survival of small mom-and-pop shops in the Westwood Shopping
Center during and after the redevelopment of the site.

He said he thought the 1200 units he is proposing, half as many as are currently proposed in the plan (before density bonuses, at least), aren't too many. Many residents disagree.

And Kenwood residents are sure to be unhappy with Berliner's endorsement of the realignment of Westbard Avenue to meet River Road at Brookside Drive. While the Springfield neighborhood has complained of cut-through traffic, Kenwood residents have said such an alignment would simply funnel more traffic into their community. Having heard from both neighborhoods, Berliner told Springfield residents, "I'm with you. Your case is far more compelling" than Kenwood's. Surely, Kenwood residents will take issue with that statement.

But Berliner's proposal is at least a more-than-solid starting point for what should be an ongoing conversation between himself, Sartori and other PTA leaders, small business owners, and residents. Asked by one resident to be Peyton Manning against the developers' "Panther defense," Berliner responded, "I hope my arm is better than that, actually."


Anonymous said...

Why no mention of Rales' campaign contributions to Berliner, or of Congress's investigation into Berliner's role in shielding their museum from paying taxes?

If it's relevant to an article about a bar closing, then it's relevant to this article, too.

Anonymous said...

Simply diverting development from Westbard to Bethesda only transfers the problems to another community. Traffic, schools, green space, and scale are all issues in Bethesda, too. Have you tried driving on Wisconsin or Connecticut during rush hour? Relying on Metro instead of driving? The county needs a serious reality-based review of its growth projections and potential. And it needs to show some respect for the taxpayers who are here now.

Robert Dyer said...

5:41: There's no doubt that even development in downtown Bethesda needs to be considered in the context of a failing Metro system, for example. The only difference is that downtown Bethesda has a Metro station, whereas Westbard is not within walking distance to one, and generates a higher rate of cars for that reason.

I wouldn't suggest putting irresponsible development not supported by infrastructure in either location. But I wouldn't recommend shifting growth from a Metro stop to a low-density suburban neighborhood like Westbard, either.

Westbard can't be punished for the planning sins of the past, nor for the County Council's sellout to developers on the promised affordable housing in the Arlington Road/Woodmont Avenue corridor, which instead became home to the most expensive housing in downtown Bethesda.

Anonymous said...

I think Berliner's plan is a good and reasonable compromise.

As for 25% MPDUs (low-income housing), I have no problem with that. Yes, it's not walking distance to a Metro, but I'd argue that MOST lower-priced housing in MoCo is not either. Look at a place like Langley Park, Germantown, or most of Silver Spring. All have high percentages of lower-cost housing and lower-income residents (Langley Park in particular), yet those residents somehow manage fine by taking the bus, and bus service in most of those areas is quite good. River Road already has decent bus service, and it would be easy to make increasing that service a requirement to proceed with development -- make the developer pay into an escrow fund to pay for additional bus service for the next 10-20 years.

Besides, how "moderately-priced" are we talking about? $300k condos? I'm guessing the residents will be teachers, firefighters, and young families, as opposed to gangbangers, thugs, and drug dealers.

Anonymous said...

Why does it seem that Dyer is all of a sudden against affordable housing?

"The location is nowhere near a Metro station or to County services and facilities such disadvantaged residents need."

It's literally a 5 min bus ride on the Metrobus T2 and RideOn to Friendship Heights station. That's far better transit access than 90%+ low-income residents in the county have.

Whatever, let Berliner gut them plan. He's clearly trying to rack up brownie points for his run to be county exec. Westbard will continue to be a dead industrial blighted drive-through zone for uber-wealthy Potomac residents on the way to DC.

He might not even get his way, since the other council members might out-vote him (and Elrich), like they did for Chevy Chase Lake. Anyway, just please don't screw with the Board's downtown plan.

Robert Dyer said...

8:02: Never said I was against affordable housing. It's just that putting mass numbers of it in a transit and services desert like Westbard is not only against best planning practices, but also cruel and unusual punishment for those who need those services.

I've got a few disagreements with the Downtown plan, but I think it is far better than the Westbard plan, which may be the worst ever in the history of MoCo.

Anonymous said...

Robert said "which may be the worst ever in the history of MoCo"
Maybe until the WhiteFlint "boulevard" plan comes into play. Another disaster, although for different reasons.

Anonymous said...

Westbard should be a gated community. Keep the riff raff out of our schools.

Anonymous said...

I believe that Bennett (Urban Planner ) let the cat out of the bag with his suggestion of an extention of the Purple Line to Westbard. That seems be the only real solution since the suggestions of adding more T2 buses to Friendship and 1000's more cars on River is a complete joke. River Road is already at capacity, 17,000 cars daily and the recent construction of the left turn lane at Willard, and more crosswalks seems futile.

Anonymous said...

Expand the Purple Line Now!

Robert Dyer said...

12:05: I am increasingly convinced you are correct. River Road east of Whole Foods and the American Plant/Roof Center project remains fairly vague in the plan, with a lot of County land acquisition planned around the CCT (a.k.a. Purple Line) right-of-way. Likely a placeholder for Purple Line station and rail yard/maintenance facility. Never underestimate the MoCo political cartel!

Anonymous said...

I seriously doubt 3:14 is a resident anywhere near Westbard (I'd bet a developer) but by the slim chance you are, maybe they'll run the Purple Line right through your meticulously manicured backyard. Be careful what you wish for.

Anonymous said...

Is there actually existing room to run the Purple Line to Westbard, or would space have to be taken from something else (CCT?)?

Robert Dyer said...

8:38: As you may be aware from the Purple Line fence fight, the right-of-way for a railroad corridor is quite wide. Having said that, unlike the route between Chevy Chase and Silver Spring, the topography of the Georgetown Branch railroad between the south edge of the River Road industrial area and the canal could not hold the supersized 2016 incarnation of the Purple Line (2 tracks, buffer, rebuilt Capital Crescent Trail alongside + fencing).

So it's either impossible, or they would have to single track it. But trust them to come up with some scheme to make it work.

Remember that the Purple Line would also allow them to urbanize Little Falls Mall, and aging garden apartments around that area. There's also a few commercial properties along MacArthur near the CCT that would be eligible for high-density, as well.

This is all high-level, hush-hush planning among the MoCo political cartel at the moment, but save this prediction for later reference.

Anonymous said...

Did he say anything specifically about building heights on River Road? This is one of those aspects of the plan that most residents are most worried about.

Anonymous said...

Is Dyer's back yard meticulously maintained?

This also raises the question, did he actually shovel his own sidewalk after snowzilla, or did he just wait for it to melt?

Robert Dyer said...

6:25: You're spamming so furiously, you posted this on the wrong article! This is about the Westbard plan, not snow shoveling.

Robert Dyer said...

6:19: No, he did not give any detail on River Road other than to say something to the effect that he disapproved of what planners had proposed there more than the Equity One or Capital Properties plans. TBA, in other words.

Anonymous said...

What's the logic on downtown Bethesda being able to support 25% low-income housing while Westbard can't? It's "low-income" housing, not "too poor to afford gasoline" housing. And as 7:30 AM said, the bus service along River Road is much better than most areas of the county.

Though your statement about it being a dumping ground for poor people makes the real reason for your opposition pretty clear: Westbard is for well-to-do people, not people who have low incomes.

Anonymous said...

The huge push for low-income housing or social engineering (gentrification) in wealthy cities throughout many areas of the country will be yet another final failed policy of the current WH administration.

There is little doubt that the stores & restaurants planned for Westbard will be anything less than high-end. Why would a low-income earner even want to live there if they can't afford the going rate in that newly urbanized area? Simply for the overcrowded schools, I don't think so.

The gas stations on River Road already are some of the highest priced in the state, if not the highest! Even though it will be demolished, the prices at the Bowlmore Lanes are outrageous for the average working Joe!