|Montgomery County Councilmember|
Roger Berliner listens as a Springfield
resident asks a question
"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."