Wednesday, February 03, 2016
Westbard sector plan ripped at County Council public hearing (Photo)
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.