|Parking lot that will be|
home to a 110' tower on
Westbard Avenue; does this
look urban to you?
The session was missing an important critical voice, that of Councilmember Marc Elrich. Without Elrich on the dais, the only differences are minimal among the players (which don't include the residents, who can only listen), and no one is representing the true position of the residents.
[For a full background on the issues discussed at the worksession, see my report from Monday morning]
When the session began, it was noted by Council President Nancy Floreen that correspondence had been received by the Council in the last 24 hours. This raised concerns among residents discussing the session in cyberspace, as a memo from the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights was among the correspondence. No residents had seen the memo, and some were concerned that - like the CCCFH's February resolution supporting a less-dense alternative plan by Councilmember Roger Berliner - it would misrepresent the vast majority of residents, who have made clear they support allowing only 580 new housing units in the plan.
A review of the CCCFH memo does not show any major betrayals of the community. But it does endorse a 45' height for townhomes right up against single-family homes on Westbard Avenue, which is not only too high, but as I mentioned yesterday, is a full 10' taller than the townhomes expected to be built alongside Crown Street. Why have a double standard, especially when these are detached homes being impacted by the Manor Care site, as opposed to the attached townhomes on the opposite end of Westbard that are getting the lower 35'.
The memo correctly raises the issue of rooftop structures on the proposed townhomes, which are sure to take the form of a rooftop deck, and do not usually count against total height. So these homes could end up being significantly taller than 45' right on top of existing houses. The CCCFH asked the Council to include language that currently permissible roof structures up to 8' be expressly included in the 45' total height. But the Council declined to do so yesterday.
Also pointed out by the CCCFH was that there is no specific language in the plan that requires naturalizing the Willett Branch - a key goal of the plan - to exceed the current 45' height limits in the sector plan area.
A second area of disagreement is one the CCCFH ironically got "right" on the Kenwood Professional Building, but wrong on the Westwood Tower property. Under the Westwood Tower/Housing Opportunity Commission section of the memo, the CCCFH states that it supports the staff recommendations for that site.
But those recommendations include giving a "freebie" to the HOC by suggesting language that would make their non-conforming Westwood Tower conforming, which clearly has significance, or else it wouldn't be done. A page later, the CCCFH does oppose a similar grandfathering of the 90' Kenwood Professional Building. At a minimum, making these buildings "conforming" would mean they could be rebuilt if destroyed. At a maximum, I strongly suspect they are Purple Line placeholders for redevelopment of those properties after the rail line is extended to Westbard.
If you consider that Westbard is currently slated to get buildings well above 110' after bonuses through this plan, and that Chevy Chase Lake has 120' height limits right at a future Purple Line station, you're talking about essentially Purple Line density without the Purple Line. Now imagine what the heights might be if the Purple Line was actually extended to Westbard - potentially higher than the current Westwood Tower.
The worksession ended before councilmembers could discuss the other items in the CCCFH memo, most notably the Washington Episcopal School site.
Now, one of the justifications for increasing height and density the plan makes, is the naturalization of the Willett Branch stream and creation of a greenway alongside it.
One weakness in the Parks Department's presentation is that it still includes photo examples from sites that have bodies of water far wider and deeper than the Willett Branch. It would be best to stick to the examples like Evans Parkway in Silver Spring, which is much more what this naturalization would look like.
While the new stream facility would be an improvement, it does appear from the amount of density being approved by the Council so far that the experience would be something like taking a nature walk down N. Park Avenue in Friendship Heights. Taking the path along the future greenway, your experience will be one of being at the base of multiple high-rise apartment towers on either side.
Total cost of the naturalization is currently estimated at $4 to $6 million, and another $9 to $12 million for the "Countywide Recreational Park" a.k.a. the skate park, and which I suspect is actually a placeholder for a Purple Line station and small rail yard. One additional suspicious detail about the rec park? Well, that there weren't any details at all about it in yesterday's presentation. Hmm....
Suzanne Paul of the Parks Department said the park could be built prior to naturalization of the stream, but all of this will rely upon affected property owners not only agreeing to dedicate land to the projects, but funds as well. It is unclear where this money would come from. Legacy Open Space designation could also provide another source of funding, she said. Floreen said it sounded like "a rather expensive project."
Paul noted an active recreation park is "badly needed in this particular area," and I agree in theory. But I think a recreation center is the best direction to go in terms of active recreation.
Council Staff member Marlene Michaelson said she originally wanted the Council to put funds for the greenway and stream into the FY-2017 budget, but was dissuaded by Floreen. Michaelson said she will now suggest the Council put money into the FY-2018 CIP budget.
Councilmember Hans Riemer asked if there was a chance that the development could go forward, and not the stream project, leaving people asking, "What happened?" twenty years from now.
In fact, that's exactly what happened with the proposed park in the 1982 plan. It didn't happen.
Most troubling regarding the stream, is that the Council committee (Floreen, Riemer, George Leventhal [and non-member Berliner, sitting in on the PHED session]) affirmed that the stream buffer will be allowed to be reduced from its standard 100 feet. Theoretically, this is to allow flexibility to ensure full build-out of the greenway and naturalized stream. But it also means the linear park could vary in quality along its length. And it sounds like the Kenwood Tributary west of Ridgefield Road along River Road may not get naturalized.
Contrary to what was said at the meeting, the Kenwood Tributary is not entirely buried along River Road in front of Equity One's Manor Care property. About half of it is a channelized stream before it goes underground to pass under Ridgefield.
Michaelson said that with the stream, as well as with the other postage stamp parks currently proposed in the plan, quality matters more than size. Trust me, no one will confuse Chase Avenue Urban Park with Cabin John or Westmoreland Hills Local Park anytime soon.
One among many false ideas floated yesterday was that "master plans never, ever end up with full buildout" in Montgomery County. This may have been technically true up to this point, but no longer applies with certainty. All of the master plans being cited were under the more-sensible and responsible single-use zoning of the past.
Of course Westbard never fully built out to the 1982 limits, because the zoning of that time did not allow the kind of Wild West, mixed-use projects that will be allowed under the new zoning adopted in 2014. In fact, just as in Wheaton and Glenmont, Westbard landowners like Laszlo Tauber were waiting for this new urbanization zoning to go into effect before redeveloping their properties.
It took politicians decades to achieve the political environment in which they could actually ram through this audacious idea of putting up apartment towers on every shopping center and industrial site in the County. You'll note that it required eliminating Republicans from the County Council, achieved in 2006.
With little threat to their Council seats, the votes could finally be cast. And here we are today.
Leventhal said it is "very hard, understandably, for the public" to understand why plans allow more development than will actually be built. Really? The most educated zip code in the most educated County in America can't "understand," but Leventhal can? He understands "why the public would not understand it automatically." Hmm.
The idea of a scale model of a full build-out was also dismissed by Leventhal. He said he opposed it because the foam blocks would make it appear that the buildings would all look the same. But I think most of us realize that the real reason no sensible councilmember would agree to a scale model is because the public would likely faint upon viewing what the neighborhood will look like 10 years, after this plan passes.
In fact, the public reaction would be something like this:
Riemer reflected the Council and Planning Board's deep desire to fundamentally change the character of the "Westbard" residential suburban community to urban when he noted that the 1982 plan failed to bring change. "Westbard will stay the way it is, unless we adapt our zoning strategy...to the current market environment."
Well, many residents want it to "stay the way it is," much as Spring Valley and the Palisades have never changed under the protection of D.C. City Council members who apparently guard the interests of their "insistent constituents" more effectively than ours do.
Two other lies? The claim that there are only 48 affordable housing units at Westbard today, and that it is an ideal place to locate a tremendous amount of low-income housing.
The public, of course, cannot speak. But if we could, I would like to remind the Council and their staff that they have left out the lower rent apartments at Park Bethesda, and lower rental and sale prices at Kenwood Place condos, both of which are significantly lower than downtown Bethesda prices.
And again, relative to total multifamily units and current population, Westbard currently has a higher ratio of affordable units than downtown Bethesda when those are included.
Westbard is a terrible place to locate low-income people, as it is nowhere near transit or public services they need. The current plan does not even provide for recreational facilities for low-income children, who will number anywhere from the hundreds to a thousand depending on the total number of units allowed.
Michaelson, in contrast, says "if there's any place" to put affordable housing, Westbard is it. Huh?
Basically, this is a dumping situation, as the Council attempts to dump all of the low-income housing it failed to build in places like the Arlington Road/Woodmont Avenue corridor in downtown Bethesda onto the Westbard neighborhood, the residents be darned.
Consider this - The Metropolitan, right on top of Metro and services for low-income people downtown, has 92 affordable units. But one building alone in this Westbard plan, a 110' tower on the Park Bethesda site, is slated to house at least 100 low-income units. 100+! Nowhere near Metro or services.
Then you start adding on the other units site by site. Dumping ground USA.
But wait, there's more.
Michaelson wants 15% affordable units on every Westbard plan property. All on the Council except Riemer expressed some skepticism about that, noting that they are not prepared to enforce a 15% requirement countywide. But you would enforce it on a non-transit-oriented, non-urban site? What the...
Anderson, who collects a cool $200,000 salary before benefits from taxpayers annually, giddily noted that 20816 is a "highly-affluent part of the County."
"We haven't done this before," Leventhal said. "Why here? Why not 17%?"
Michaelson cited what in her view is "a clear shortage of affordable housing." In this, Michaelson, like the Planning Board and County Council, is invoking a radical interpretation of "fair housing" that echoes actions taken by Chairman Mao in China. This radical concept is that even the poorest are entitled to housing in the wealthiest areas. But you'll notice, these Maoist housing plans are not being proposed for Potomac and Burning Tree, where the developers (at least those who aren't from out-of-town) live, nor in Takoma Park, where about half the Council is safely protected from the same development medicine they prescribe for the rest of us.
There may be a human dignity right to shelter, but there's no right to a Potomac mansion for the unemployed or low-wage worker. A quick review of the Constitution confirms this.
But these folks, supposedly professionals, actually believe this. Kind of. Actually, the driving force behind the race and income card in housing is actually to facilitate more private developer profit, that's all.
Leventhal asked Michaelson if her recommendation of 15% across the board was based on data, or discussions with property owners. She said they were not.
"I think we should go for it!" Riemer exclaimed, calling for "a pilot" of requiring 15% at Westbard. "How much juice is there left to squeeze," he asked.
"I'm kind of on the fence," Floreen said.
Anderson said planners could bring back a property-by-property analysis of where 15% might be appropriate, but even he expressed reservation that the cost of affordable housing would hurt other priorities like stream naturalization.
Of course, developers are glad to add these units, as long as they get to build higher and higher to well cover the costs and then some. In fact, you may recall that I asked Mike Berfield of Equity One if the company would have to add density to their New Westwood proposal should the Council demand more than 12.5% affordable units. He indicated that they likely would.
So if the Council were to approve 15% on the Equity One properties, then you would have to again revise the total height, density and unit totals for their proposal. The Council did not discuss that fact yesterday.
Here's what the Council committee voted to approve yesterday:
The too-high 45'-55' heights for the Manor Care site. Michaelson said 55' on the Ridgefield side of the site wouldn't be noticeable to single-family home residents. Wrong! They'll not only be taller than 55' with rooftop decks, but there are single-family homes diagonally across from the Manor Care site. The Council showed little interest in daylighting the Kenwood Tributary on the Manor Care site, in order to - surprise - maximize the number of townhomes that can be built on the banks of the stream there.
The committee cut the future building on the Westwood Center II site from 90' to 75' (before density bonuses). Michaelson, who argued for 90', said she wanted "flexibility" for developers. One has to ask, why isn't "flexibility" for residents also a priority? "This is one of the flash points," Berliner acknowledged about the property, but supported a height at least 25' higher than what the neighborhood has asked for there. All four voted unanimously for 75' directly across the street from single-family homes.
After making this change, they then upped the Floor Area Ratio for the Westwood Shopping Center site to 1.0 to compensate the developer for the loss elsewhere.
Committee members also approved the freebie for the HOC on the Westwood Tower site, and Berliner made an announcement regarding...more low-income housing. Let's hear it for low-income housing away from Metro, folks!
Berliner reported that the HOC told him in a meeting that it plans to double the amount of low-income units in the existing Westwood Tower in the coming years. But rather than take that into account in the overall total, that's going to be on top of all of the other low-income units the Council may approve.
The committee, including Berliner, unanimously approved a 110' building on the site currently home to Bowlmor Lanes and the second Citgo station.
Again, Michaelson improperly cited its "location between two [non-conforming] high-rise buildings." "Mommy, he did it, why can't I?" You cannot cite non-conforming buildings as justification for new ones, but they just keep doing it.
This 110' building would have 15% affordable housing, Michaelson suggested.
Heard enough about low-income housing? Enough about how you're not smart enough to understand what your smarter officials already know?
Well, they're just getting started, folks!
Impersonating a constituent, Berliner mockingly observed, "Gee, we don't need all this housing here in our county." Dropping the impersonation, he added, "They don't want anything more." He asked Anderson to mansplain the need for lots of new housing. Floreen concurred, noting that, in her opinion, "there is a need for education about this issue." Mansplain away, Mr. Chairman.
Anderson said the need is great, even though Elrich demolished his argument at last week's worksession, noting that the plans already approved by the Council will fully accommodate all projected population growth through 2040.
That hasn't stopped Anderson.
He then gave us another preview of the post-Smart Growth era in Montgomery County.
Walking away from smart growth, Anderson roughly described its sprawl replacement as "not transit-oriented, but at least closer to the core."
The difference between transit-oriented development and auto-dependent development is not as clear as you might think, Anderson opined.
Somewhere, Peter Calthorpe just screamed.
"There's a continuum," Anderson continued, making a totally-bogus claim that transit use in the Westbard area is "upwards of 40-50%." Baloney is the polite response to that false statement. In fact, the actual survey of the 19 communities around Westbard - including transit-oriented Friendship Heights - found that transit was used by only about 9% of commuters leaving their homes for work in the morning.
Yet, Anderson wants to add more drivers to that commute - thousands more, "close to the core...closer to Washington, D.C." That's not smart growth.
The Palisades and Spring Valley are closer to the core of D.C. than Westbard. Why are they not urbanizing?
This is just shocking stuff. It should be written about in local and national media. Montgomery County is acknowledging it is walking away from smart growth, which it has claimed to be committed to for over a decade.
The committee went on to approve 110' for a tower behind the Park Bethesda, with 500(!!) units.
They also retained the existing zoning for all properties on River Road, with an overlay floating zone of 75' that would require Council approval to obtain. This was not originally proposed for the American Plant/Roof Center/Talbert's site, but Berliner persuaded two of his three colleagues to include it. Riemer dissented.
If successful, the approved 75' project on that site would include a whopping 350 units, including another 53 low-income units. Wow. Hundreds and hundreds, thousands of people with low or no income, just wandering around an area with no public facilities, recreation center, services or transit? This is completely nuts.
Just extrapolating the math on what the Council approved today already puts them over the 1200 units suggested by Berliner.
But this is what happens when there is no opposing voice. There's nobody in the room, of those who are allowed to speak, with the guts to challenge them on these very wrong principles. Everybody in this conversation at the worksessions agrees on some basic premises that are extreme compared to what the average person thinks. If somebody needs to "educate" and "mansplain" dropping thousands of housing units, and dumping mass amounts of low-income housing to the highly-educated residents of the 20816 zip code, that's a pretty good indication they're doing something very wrong.
The committee will resume its worksession on this topic, with the remaining properties including WES and the Little Falls Library, next week.