Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Westbard sector plan ripped at County Council public hearing (Photo)

The Montgomery County Council listened to public comment on the Westbard sector plan at the first of two hearings last night. "You're going to hear a lot about this not being an urban area," Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson predicted. Anderson himself appeared out of touch with the reality and implications of what he and his four colleagues have proposed.

Residents have demanded the Planning Department and Montgomery County Public Schools detail specific plans for how MCPS will accommodate the new students generated by the thousands of new housing units allowed by the plan. But Anderson continued to evade any such specifics. "I won't get into details about the schools," he said. He said he's been told by the school system that there's "no reason to have concern about the ability to handle the school capacity needs," a statement met by laughter from the crowd.

"Where is the analysis from which this conclusion is drawn?" Wood Acres Elementary School PTA President Jason Sartori asked regarding Anderson's "blind faith" in MCPS claims of readiness. Mere faith, Sartori added, "does not constitute a plan." He noted that MCPS growth estimates in the community have been off by 14% historically, resulting in six classroom trailers outside Wood Acres mere years after completion of that school's new building.

What about the impact of the proposed growth on already-jammed River Road? "For roads, the traffic counts are actually way down," Anderson claimed to derisive chuckles in the audience. Obviously, Anderson does not use River Road during rush hour. "I was pretty surprised to hear that traffic on River Road is less than it used to be," Deborah Schumann of Tulip Hill later said to raucous laughter from the seats.

Yet, the plan Anderson endorses would drop 5,000-6,000 new people, and nearly as many cars, into what is literally a two-city-block area. And offers not one proposal to increase capacity on River Road. As anyone who deals with local government infrastructure issues knows all too well, if it's not in the master plan, it's not going to get funded in a future CIP budget.

Few residents have any confidence in Anderson, and they now must rely on a County Council caught between large developer campaign contributions, and the potential of being voted out if they don't protect the neighborhood.

"This is a trial, and we have nine judges," resident Lynn Pekkanen observed. "They're the only ones who can vote on twenty years of future for all of us." Noting that the vast majority of financial contributions to the Council (with the exception of Marc Elrich, who doesn't accept developer donations) are from developers, Pekkanen said to the Council, "I want to know who you are. I want to know how you got here," referring to the well-bankrolled campaigns that lifted councilmembers to victory. "The word on the street is that this Council gets 70% of its money from developers (the number has been calculated to be as high as 82% in recent years). It's a simple question for me."

Phyllis Edelman, President of the Springfield Civic Association, urged the Council to ensure Westbard Avenue is realigned to connect directly to River Road to reduce cut-through traffic in that community. She also endorsed reconfiguring the corner of River and Ridgefield Road to better accommodate tractor-trailers, which often have difficulty navigating the turn there. Anderson essentially stated he didn't care about that during a Westbard worksession. Apparently, he hasn't been there when a Giant driver is squeezing between a utility pole and the cars waiting at the signal to turn onto River Road from Ridgefield.

Richard Mathias, President of the Westbard Mews condo board, warned the Council that "supersized apartment towers...all along Westbard Avenue will overwhelm our neighborhood. We live inside the Westbard sector." He cautioned them against "putting our library site in the hands of developers."

When Giant Food's William Shrader confessed he was "new to this area," as a lifelong resident, I was confident he was telling the truth. Shrader stated the Westbard Giant "has not kept pace. We don't have the infrastructure" to add Starbucks or a pharmacy. Actually, the store did have a Starbucks counter a few years ago, and it failed and closed. Perhaps because there's a full Starbucks just around the corner in the shopping center? The Westbard Giant is not only the best Giant in Bethesda, but it's also far larger than the urban Bethesda Row Giant. That smaller Giant on Arlington Road mysteriously was able to fit a pharmacy into its space.

Shrader went on to sing the praises of the mixed-use Cathedral Commons in the District, which replaced the old Giant there. I'd been to that Giant, and the G.C. Murphy next door, for decades, and found nothing wrong with either.

Resident Bob Cope, who also represents the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, was so dedicated to getting this plan fixed, that he came out to testify with "a couple of broken ribs. I really don't feel good. If I thought this was a done deal, I wouldn't be here tonight. I don't think this is a done deal."

Cope said he and the CCCFH look forward to working with the Council to improve the plan, which he said is "sort of like the 50s movie, The Blob." Referring to the industrial area, which provides many repair services to neighborhood residents, Cope said, "It's our dog patch, it looks like hell, but keep as much of it as you can."

Patricia Johnson, who serves on a committee focused on River Road development in her Kenwood neighborhood, lamented that "small merchants are being forced out" of the retail spaces where they've thrived for decades before redevelopment was proposed.

Lynne Battle of Westbard Mews said the plan "goes too far," and that her townhome community's residents "strongly oppose" the last-minute proposal to redevelop the Little Falls Library site as a 75' apartment building. She also denounced plans to build shared-use paths along both sides of Westbard Avenue, saying that would require taking portions of the townhome front lawns.

Would millennials really want to live over a mile from a Metro station? Sue Schumacher of The Kenwood condominiums was skeptical. "Millennials would sooner sleep in a tent at Logan Circle" than live in Westbard. She said young people ride the subway, not the bus, and called for more amenities for seniors such as a senior center. Aakash Thakkar, a senior vice-president at EYA, a development partner with Equity One, said he doesn't expect many millennials to buy in Westbard, as the townhome design they use appeals more to empty nesters.

Dan Dozier and Sarah Morse of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance both pressed for more guarantees that the proposed naturalization of the Willetts Branch stream. The current state of the waterway is "an abomination," Dozier said. Willetts Branch is "anything but idyllic," Morse said, adding it's the "kind of creek you see in a blighted neighborhood." She also noted that some of the businesses who own property along the stream, and are seeking to stop the naturalization proposal, are actually guilty of dumping their trash and other litter into the site. "I've seen their trash in it," she said, without identifying the culprits by name. LFWA organizes regular volunteer clean-ups in the watershed.

Sally Bosken, representing Little Falls Library, said the late proposal to replace the building with an apartment tower is "a dark cloud hanging over the library." Katherine Davies said the library is eligible for historic protection, as a unique example of both midcentury modern architecture and use of modern building materials. In fact, she said, the library was featured in a book the County released on midcentury modern architecture.

Resident Jenny Sue Dunner took her 3 minutes to speak on behalf of the merchants who will likely be displaced in the redevelopment on Westbard Avenue. Dunner said the owner of the popular Westwood Pet Center started when he was 21, and has operated the business for 37 years. She invited the Council to visit Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys, the type of toy store you can't find in a town center.

Richard Barnett, who lives near the Park Bethesda apartments, where owner Capital Properties plans to add additional towers on the parking lots, said a 20' slope means that excessive heights would tower "completely over our community." He said it was "imperative" that the Council maintain the 35' height for anything directly adjacent to residential homes.

"There is a complete disconnnect between planners and the public," said Robin Hammer, representing the Kenwood Civic Association. She said her neighborhood is "strongly against this Westbard plan" and its "overreach and cookie cutter" approach." She said there is disappointment and anger that residents' concerns were not considered by the Planning Board. "What happened?" she asked. "These are quiet neighborhoods."

Indeed. I made the point in my testimony that Westbard is not an urban area, but a low-density suburban area away from Metro. It's not Chevy Chase Lake, but is exactly like its neighbors across the DC line in Spring Valley and The Palisades. There, DC Councilmembers have protected their constituents' quality of life for decades. Spring Valley and The Palisades haven't changed in 50 years. Will our County Council do the same for us?

"It's a bad plan," said Leanne Tobias of the Springfield neighborhood, who has a backgound in commercial real estate. "It needs to be scaled back dramatically," she said. Although the plan claims to be "green" and "sustainable," Tobias said, "nothing could be further from the truth." It "undercuts established planning guidelines," she said, as Westbard is not recognized by the Metropolitan Washingon Council of Governments as a growth center.

Resident Jackson Bennett effectively summed up the Planning Board's approach as, "We know what's best." He said the resulting plan will only create a "soulless canyon of high-rise buildings," and that the claim of low congestion on River Road "ignores the testimony and actual experience of residents."

Bennett said the Council still has the opportunity to derail this "preventable error."

Councilmember Roger Berliner was the only member of the body to speak. "I promise you, I am listening," Berliner said earlier in the evening between panels. He also released a memo in which he, commendably, promises to "significantly reduce" the total number of housing units put forward in the plan. He has addressed quite a few of the most egregious aspects of the plan, stating that he agrees with residents that townhomes are more appropriate for the Manor Care site, that 90' is too high on the Westwood Center II site, and unequivocally opposes the rezoning of the Little Falls Library site for residential use.

Berliner's letter is a good starting point. Equity One did respond to many resident concerns on the Westwood Shopping Center site. What we need to do now, is to take that same collaborative approach on each parcel, and come up with something that works for all parties. Remember, most of the landowners are asking for more than current zoning allows. So a collaborative approach is the only credible one.

More public amenities are needed, such as a recreation center (which could also serve as a senior center). The language regarding the stream buffer width needs to be tightened up to ensure a viable greenway along a naturalized Willlett Branch.

More security needs to be provided for the small business owners in the two shopping centers, as well. One big question I have is, what will the staging be? If the underground parking requires the whole site to be dug up at once, that would make it impossible for the existing businesses to move into a new structure while the old one is demolished. Moving over to Westwood II is what I suspect would be offered, but that location's lower visibility and unfriendly parking setup will deter business.

We need more protection for gas stations, too. Casey Anderson stated that market economics ensure there are gas stations in the District. That's not true - DC has a gas station advisory panel that weighs in on whether a station can be redeveloped as residential or not. We need a panel like that here. Now is the time to get started.

Most of all, we need the Council as a whole to do what Berliner seems to be doing - listening to their constituents.

A second public hearing will be held Thursday night, February 4, at 7:30 PM before the Council.


Anonymous said...

Good write up.

The main complaint, and a very good one, is about the schools. MCPS needs to have a plan in place to handle the new residents.

I can't get behind a lot of the complaints though. What's there to protect about that stretch of River Road that would be "destroyed" by replacing it with apartments and condos? From Little Falls to the Whole Foods parking lot light, there's an existing high rise building, two self storage warehouses, 4 gas stations, a 7-11, a McDonalds, a beer store, and a bank that looks like it was previously a cold war fallout bunker.

Westbard Ave is basically the same. I'm not sure how it snuck up on Westbard Mews, but their direct neighbor is already a 9 story apartment building. Then from there it goes gas station, bowling alley, 14 story building, gas station, and a strip mall (Giant area) thrown in for good measure.

This is not some low density suburban utopia. It's not high density either. But it's hard to be supportive of residents who seem to think that a strip of gas stations and storage warehouses is preferable to...well, anything!

Anonymous said...

They don't, really - everyone wants an upgrade and expects more housing, but at a smaller scale than that which is being proposed. As for River Road, it's primarily the additional traffic that has people leery. Adding lots of local traffic to what is essentially an expressway to the Beltway won't be pleasant. A trip from Wilson Lane to Westmoreland Circle at the DC line takes about 30-45 minutes or (much)longer in the morning around 9:00am now.
The other issue for me is the lack of green space and the total dependence on the Middle School field for recreation - even though it's off-limits to the public during school hours and already booked by local rec teams on weekends and late afternoons. Kenwood place has trees and grass but doesn't intend to become the defacto park for any other development. Watch for the fence and gates to go up. The developers need to build their own parks for their new residents and I don't see much at all in their proposal.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for Dyer for a detailed and non-tirade report. I think he presented the issues well.

I agree with 9:08 that the schools are the biggest issue here. How can Anderson just ignore it? It smacks of either incompetence or being paid off by developer interests.

I believe Anderson is appointed by the Council. What about a concerted effort to get the Council to oust him?

Anonymous said...

DRINK anytime someone says "canyon". LOL

Anonymous said...

Opponents of the Westbard Sector proposal overwhelmingly favor the redevelopment of the sector-- just at a lower scale and density than proposed by the planners.

The plan approved by the County would redevelop most of Westbard with buildings of 7-11 stories tall-- think of Rockville Town Center, and much of downtown Bethesda. Residents want to keep Westbard neighborhood scale, with heights of 3-5 stories, require more green space, and place more of an emphasis on neighborhood retailers. It should be noted that developers Equity One and EYA have great credentials in profitably developing projects on the scale advocated by the community.

There is plenty of room for compromise here. Let's hope that the Council listens to local residents.

There is a petition on (search on Westbard) that advocates neighborhood scale development at Westbard. So far, over 1,300 people have signed, and many have posted comments. The site also advocates for a lower-scale approach to the redevelopment of Westbard.

Anonymous said...

Redevelopment, not Overdevelopment. The County plan is Overdevelopment.

Anonymous said...

@9.08: the problem is *not* redevelopment. Everyone wants that. The problem is the excessive building heights and densities approved by the Planning Board. The surrounding neighborhoods are largely single-family, and the new Westbard should be compatible-- not overwhelm the residential areas.

Anonymous said...

Will the cashiers and other workers at the Westbard shopping center each get a EYA townhome? Good deal for those hard workers. Will there be a lottery system to determine which low income workers get a EYA townhome?

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the County Planning Department and Planning Board are not providing much in the way of renderings that would give Westbard residents an idea of what their plans would create. Equity One, the developer, issued a rendering in support of its own height/density recommendations. The result reminded me of Tysons. Big, ugly, blocky buildings.

The Planning Department talks a good game about "neighborhood retail", but it's plan would just super-size Westbard.

Anonymous said...

You'd think that a journalist would try to sit as close to the front, yet Dyer is sitting all the way at the back, and there are plenty of empty seats closer to the front. Odd.

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary!

Btw, sitting in the back ensures you can get a good view of the dynamic of the room.

Casey Anderson should be ousted, and so should his cronies on county council. Enough!

Anonymous said...

Fani Gonzalez should be ousted. she has no experience whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

It must be pointed out that Giant's representative Mr. William Shrader has nothing to do with the local Giant. He is from the real estate office but he conveniently omitted that detail. The managers from Westbard Giant are supportive of community efforts and had no idea that somebody from corporate offices was testifying. I suppose the top managers at Giant are no longer interested in building relationships with their local customers.

Anonymous said...

This is just another example that it is all about corporate (developers specifically) greed only, and nothing about the citizens who live here.

Anonymous said...

If the County has no plan to redevelop the Little Falls library site, then the idea should be shelved. I cannot believe that the county department of general services keeps insisting on rezoning. Do you job first before you start coming up with some grandiose plans.

Adkins said...

The scope of this project is astonishing, poorly thought out and will be years in the making...Buckle up your chinstraps people!

The Council members who are receiving campaign contributions from any organization and I mean ANY organization associated with this project need to be identified and voted out if not ousted ASAP! THIS WHOLE DEAL IS CLEARLY ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!

The citizens who have lived here for decades, attended the schools, supported the local businesses, are the ones who will lose and badly.

River Road at Willard Avenue, which has been a construction site for 2 straight years, handles 17,000 vehicles daily according to MD State Highways and is currently ALREADY one of the 10 busiest in MOCO. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH PEOPLE!

suzykelly said...

How about ousting not only him but also the other members of planning board. They hold too much power for people with their limited experience.

Anonymous said...

Time to abolish the Planning Board. If you really think about it they don't really serve any purpose and are a huge waste of money and resources.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. Robert Dyer used the right word in his testimony when describing the planning board - "dysfunctional" . Very little experience or no experience at all as in the case of Fani Gonzalez and no commitment to our neighborhoods. How did it come to this?

Robert Dyer said...

2:43: Surprised that with your front row seat, you so badly undercounted the number the who spoke in opposition to the plan.

Robert Dyer said...

7:24/8:11: True. I mean, these are commissioners who decide the height of a building based upon a warped Google Street View image. It was truly amateur hour. That's not how you make serious decisions that have a 50+ year impact on residential neighborhoods.

Robert Dyer said...

9:08: The high-rises you cite are non-conforming structures. You couldn't build them in those locations under today's zoning code. I think you can find examples of this around the County.

No one is complaining about having gas stations, easy access to auto repairs, cheaper gas than downtown Bethesda, a convenient McDonald's, Talbert's, or any other amenities.

Should the shopping center have been updated or replaced? Yes, about 30 years ago. But Dr. Tauber, and later Capital Properties, declined to do so. That's their fault, not the residents'. By the way, a replacement shopping center higher in the lot would have allowed the current tenants to move over when it was completed, and then they could have demolished the original building and replaced it with a second retail structure.

Self-storage was the fault of the County, and market demand for storage space in a neighborhood with numerous tear-downs by homebuilders. Again, not the residents.

You can't transfer the sins of the landowners and the County Government to the residents - it doesn't work that way.

The fact is, the whole Westbard Sector could be redeveloped now as mixed-use under the current zoning code. Go ahead and build 45' buildings. It's embarrassing for the County Planning Board to be urbanizing Westbard, and now they've been exposed as a complete fraud regarding "smart growth".

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary by Robert Dyer in his 4.50 AM post.

Anonymous said...

The 45-foot heights allowed under current zoning are far more compatible with the surrounding area than the 75-110 foot heights recommended for most of Westbard under the new plan.

G. Money said...

Westbard needs a 110' tall bowling alley. Imagine all those lanes!

Anonymous said...

The Westbard opposition should really try to put together a referendum to get Anderson ousted from the planning board. How many signatures are needed? I'd sign it.

Anonymous said...

8:35 AM You'll need to change your council representatives as well. Riemer, Leventhal both want to urbanize suburban neighborhoods to extreme extents.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Rimer and Leventhal should be ousted, and so should Floreen. Get rid of those 3 and then make sure Casey can't get appointed to dog catcher in anywhere usa. The utter contemp those 4 have for the residents of MoCo who are not fat cat developers is appalling.

But sadly, we are a bunch of lazy voters if we vote at all. So...we get what we deserve.

Why did Beth Daly lose? She was a grass roots slow growth candidate. What about Mr. Dyer?

Next time let's truly think before we vote in the same tired trio and we might have a chance to shove Anderson out the door.

Anonymous said...

Yelling at the planning board will do no good. They are chosen by the county council. If you want to change the board, change the council.

It's too late for Westbard sadly! Westbard's elected councilmember lives on Rockville Pike and Bethesda's two shadow councilmembers (Reamer and Leventhal) are safely tucked away in Takoma Park!