Monday, March 07, 2016

Westbard land-use staff report reflects rabid race to redevelop Bethesda neighborhood

Nobody can stop the
Westbard Development Express
The PHED Committee of the Montgomery County Council will hold a second worksession on the Westbard sector plan today at 2:00 PM. A Council staff report released in advance of the session provides interesting reading once again. But it also reflects a process seemingly racing forward to deliver developer profits by public officials unfamiliar with the neighborhood. Yet they are the ones, more than the residents, who will decide the future of that already fully-developed, fully functioning neighborhood.

One resident, Bobby Lipman, has written to the County Council and their staff suggesting now is an appropriate time to pause this process. Noting that Councilmember Roger Berliner lamented the community's loss of faith in the planning process at a recent meeting in Sumner, Lipman says a temporary halt would allow time "to restore faith and develop community support for the project.  Failure to restore faith and failure to develop community support for the project evidences broken government -- and Montgomery County is better than that."

Lipman also calls on the Council to create an inexpensive scale model using foam that would create an easily-understandable way to grasp what this plan would allow at full-buildout.

Right now, the Council staff's "model" is going to give you a 1/3 acre civic green at the Westwood Shopping Center property. This won't be confused with Central Park anytime soon, folks.

On the Manor Care site, Council staff imagines 37 townhomes on the banks of a stream running alongside River Road west of Ridgefield Road, an echo of the Betco property disaster rammed through by this same County Council a few years ago (on behalf of the same developer). We can build right on, or put a bridge over, a sensitive stream (as was done in the Betco debacle) for private profit, but we can't build the Midcounty Highway Extended on its master plan route upcounty for public benefit, because it would cross a stream? Okay. Got it.

Importantly, Council staff is not giving the same consideration to residents of Westbard Avenue whose single-family homes are directly adjacent to the Manor Care site, as the Planning Board gave to Westbard/Westwood Mews. Where the Planning Board set a 35' height step-down by Crown Street adjacent to the existing townhome communities there, Council staff would allow 45' as the minimum height on the Manor Care site. And 55' a short distance away from those homes, and directly across the street from townhomes and single-family homes on Westbard and Ridgefield Road. Think about it - more height, right up against detached homes that are even lower-density than the Mews communities? That makes no sense.

Staff also reaffirms the Planning Board's recommendation of 90' for Westwood Center II. It suggests adding weak language regarding the "importance of transitioning to the surrounding residential communities, leaving that decision in the hands of the Planning Board - which just approved 90' for the site. Care to guess what height the same body would pick again?

The staff report cleverly does not mention that the Westwood II site is directly across the street from single-family homes. It also doesn't mention that the Planning Board reached its decision of 90' in truly amateurish fashion, by consulting a distorted Google Maps image of the site that warped its true dimensions, exisiting heights, and grade of the property. Amateur hour from a dysfunctional Planning Board.

Then Council staff sneaks another freebie in for the Housing Opportunities Commission on their Westwood Tower property. In addition to the excessive heights being recommended for additional future buildings on the site, staff is requesting that the non-conforming Westwood Tower itself be granted additional height to become conforming with the new zoning.

Council staff, as with the Planning Board and developers, repeatedly invokes the non-conforming high-rises scattered around the sector plan area as justification for taller buildings, even though their own zoning code forbids them to do so. Non-conforming buildings are NOT justification for additional high-rises. County employees need to start following their own zoning code; they are not above the law.

For the Park Bethesda site, Council staff is recommending 500 new units, with 100 of those being low-income housing. This is more affordable units than any downtown Bethesda project, near Metro and County services for such low-income people, has had! And, remember, that's 500 and 100 low-income before any of the density bonuses Captial Properties can accrue. Shameful planning, from both a sociological and quality-of-life standpoint.

Moving to River Road, you get another indication of how community-altering decisions are being made by people with no knowledge of, or interest in, the community. We already know the County Council had to be driven through the "Westbard" area on a bus tour, so that the many carpetbaggers on it could become familiar with it (and they also drove past sidewalks blocked with snow, and took no action to get them cleared!).

Well, now Council staff is introducing you to "Talbots" on River Road. Now, most nearby residents know of a business where one can purchase beer, wine, snacks, and lottery tickets, as opposed to "classic women's clothing with a modern twist."

Ladies and gentlemen of the Council - it is called TALBERT'S, not "Talbots."  When bulldozing a community, details matter.

Here's where it gets interesting. While reaffirming absurd 75' heights for the Kenwood Station shopping center, Sunoco, other gas stations, 7-Eleven and Bank of America (most of which would loom over single-family homes and the famous cherry blossoms of Kenwood), Council staff is not quite as gung-ho about immediately redeveloping some of these properties near the Capital Crescent Trail. Remember, the handful of token "amenities" such as cycle tracks, new sidewalks, etc. along River Road requires full redevelopment.

If the redevelopment of River Road with 75' buildings (for starters before density bonuses, remember) doesn't happen within the life of this plan (30 years, they claim), then - wait a minute - none of the pedestrian and bike facilities will happen either. Could that be true? Or is there something else in mind?

I certainly don't support the redevelopment of River Road as laid out in the plan, but I'm pointing this out for the sake of argument. There is also a preference given for retaining industrial land south of River Road, with the stated goals being to retain services and light industrial uses. That's good, if true. But, again, the decrease in rabid enthusiasm for redevelopment that will bring all of these warm and fuzzy amenties and better stormwater runoff management to those properties has to be put into the context of the River Road recommendations.

The reason for the vague language about some River Road redevelopment? My guess is it's the same reason as the vague language about the supposed "urban park" (which isn't a real park, where one can get away to nature, like all of the postage-stamp pocket parks in this plan) and "greenway" for the Willett Branch and Capital Crescent Trail: a future extension of the Purple Line. And for ordinarily anti-road officials and politicians being unusually enthusiastic about building a "connector road" alongside the Capital Crescent Trail between River Road and Westbard Avenue. Hmm...

Council staff is recommending the County begin purchasing land in the vicinity of the Capital Crescent Trail, which is the right-of-way that would be used to extend the Purple Line to Westbard, the Shops at Sumner Place, and to either Georgetown or Tysons. The engineering that would be required to fit the full width of the 2016 version of the Purple Line would absolutely destroy the environment between the River Road industrial area's southern boundary and MacArthur Boulevard.

Are these "public land" acquisitions and "floating zone" pauses simply placeholders for an eventual Purple Line extension? Is the industrial land south of River Road a future Purple Line station and rail yard? Think about it.

Two controversial (and possibly illegal) "minor master plan amendments" to sector plans have already been passed by this Council. Imagine this scenario: At a time in the future - but not that far in the future - a proposed extension of the Purple Line to Westbard will be announced. The appropriate studies will be conducted. Land aquisition, according to Council staff, will already be well underway. Then, similar to the sham at Chevy Chase Lake, a minor master plan amendment will be proposed that allows some parcels to redevelop at transit-oriented urban heights and density, before the transit is actually built. With that carrot in place, the final build-out will then proceed, but at heights and density beyond even the 75' proposed in the current floating zones in the plan.

Could the HOC "freebie" being written in for Westwood Tower I referred to above, be another Purple Line placeholder for a building taller than 120' - in addition to Purple Line-related high-rises on River Road?

Residents will write, complain, scream and stomp up and down. And just as they are right now, the Planning Board, County Council and Council staff will lower their heads and surge forward, ignoring overwhelming public opposition on their way to the end zone. "This won't hurt the neighborhood, it will actually help, we can accomodate it, and here's the fake data showing how. Opposition? [covers ears] I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

The danger is real. Speaking of which...

Will there be an urban residential tower constructed where the Little Falls Library currently stands?

The residents certainly made clear they don't want that. Councilmember Berliner promised residents at a recent Springfield Civic Association meeting that "nothing is going to happen on that library site."

Council staff has a different idea. It is recommending that language be placed in the plan to indicate "this area may be an appropriate location for affordable housing when there is a future CIP project related to the library."

Uh, no, this area is NOT an appropriate location for affordable housing. Including such language in the plan will allow a developer to join the County and propose a redevelopment with homeless and drug addicts among the residents on top, and the library on the ground floor. This is right on the corner of a block with two schools packed with young children, remember, children who use that library after school.

The only way to stop destruction of the library is to remove language from the plan that in any way leaves a loophole for it, such as that proposed by staff, and to include language reaffirming the library is not going anywhere. Berliner's memo does not suggest anything about designating the library as "an appropriate location for affordable housing." Where does Council staff get its directive for language nobody is asking for, other than the Executive Branch of the County government, and their developer partner who is hiding behind the curtain?

One other thing Kenwood residents can't be happy about in the Council staff report: staff recommends allowing a non-conforming 97' height for the so-called "senior housing" project on the Washington Episcopal School site - even if it ends up not being senior housing. Oops. I hate to say I told you so, but I did - way back on March 23, 2010 - six years ago!

Community facilities remain a major weakness in the plan, and the Council staff recommends little to change that. Staff suggests not specifying the public use space on the Equity One site be a senior center; only that it be indoors, and on the Westwood Shopping Center site. I would agree about the senior center. If development proceeds under the current recommendations of the Planning Board and Council staff, there will be a large influx of low-income children into this 2 block area. Where are they going to play? What activities will be available for them? A senior center ain't gonna do squat for kids.

There will have to be some kind of a recreation center somewhere. As the one about to be built in Wheaton shows (that area's second, while there are no comparable County facilities other than the library at Westbard), you can't fit this into a room in a shopping center.

Such a rec center can easily serve the needs of seniors, while also being accessible to all ages. It's embarrassing that there still is no such facility included in the plan. Just some junk and concrete for kids to crash their skateboards on. No thanks.

Stop the madness.


Anonymous said...

How does "affordable housing" = "homeless and drug addicts"? It's not a homeless shelter nor methadone clinic. Isn't affordable housing in MoCo parlance, still pretty expensive like $1,000/month, and only open to those who have jobs?

Regarding the Purple Line extension, that makes sense to me in theory. I like the idea of more public transport, and it seems like the Purple Line is the easiest way to make it happen there. I'm not clear on the details of what land will be used, etc though.

The "bus tour" is hilarious. Why didn't they just get out an walk? It's only a few blocks and that makes it easier to see -- and also realize Talbert's does not sell women's clothes :)

Anonymous said...

Hooray for the snow plow truck!

MoCo Machine to the rescue!!!

Anonymous said...

Finally go some news on the Purple Line.

Anonymous said...

"This 2 block area"

No, it's not. Quit lying.

Anonymous said...

"propose a redevelopment with homeless and drug addicts among the residents on top, and the library on the ground floor. This is right on the corner of a block with two schools packed with young children, remember, children who use that library after school."

Dyer,where in the world does 'affordable' housing = homeless and drug addicts? You're Bethesdan roots certainly show with that grossly stereotyped exaggeration of the families that would qualify under county rules for that housing. The homeless won't be squatting in flats. They pay rent and become members of the community.

If you want to talk about drug addicts and crime, talk about the petty crime taking place in Huntington Terrace behind Suburban where there are actual addiction clinics. That's some of that crime listed in your crime report.

Anonymous said...

"there will be a large influx of low-income children into this 2 block area. Where are they going to play?"

Why couldn't you just say a large influx of children? Why the label. The children don't have jobs that are low-income.

If you're going to report of this stuff, quit the labeling and stereotyping.

Anonymous said...

"Possibly illegal"... As in you have no idea and couldn't bother checking, but are happy to throw that out there without any supporting evidence. Possibly illegal, ha.

Anonymous said...

I thought Dyer was a supporter of affordable housing, seeing that he staunchly defended the neighborhoods along Batter Lane Bradley Blvd. But ignorantly equating affordable housing to "homeless and drug addicts" has shown me his true colors.

Anonymous said...

Dyer's message could not be any more clear:

"We must secure the existence of our people and a future for our white Westbard children."

Anonymous said...

Whitman should stay as the quasi-private school it is now. Economic segregation of schools forever!

Anonymous said...

"affordable' housing = homeless and drug addicts" Yup, it can. Different areas and different housing types yield different results. Section 8 rentals? MPDU units?

Have you folks ever been to some of these areas?

Generally takes about 5 years or so to hit the downhill slide. That's when the kids grow up and don't leave and hang out all day while their parents work.

Anonymous said...

Westbard is a bit more diverse than a Bethesda Magazine cover.

(Hope Bethesda Mag eventually reflects the diverse county population on their covers!)

Anonymous said...

@10:25 am

You clearly don't understand affordable housing. The rents for MPDU units in Montgomery County, especially downcounty, would be considered unaffordable by the standards of 95% of this country. I didn't realize that seniors who are becoming increasingly priced out of the county and millennial grads paying off student loans looking for a desirable place to live classified as "homeless and drug addicts."

Anonymous said...

I understand it quite well. It was my job for 10 years.

I don't recall mentioning I was speaking of Bethesda. My comments were general.

You clearly are the one not understanding.

Anonymous said...

2:21pm you commented on an article that is directly speaking to Bethesda and an opinion by Dyer equating affordable housing with homeless and drug addicts. No one was misunderstanding your comment. Maybe you can be more specific in detailing exactly where you were talking about next time? Taken in the context of comments on this article they are all relating to the Westbard area of Bethesda.

Anonymous said...

Didn't realize my saying that it can happen and that "different areas and different housing types yield different results" wasn't clear enough.
I was pointing out that, yes, it can equate to that. And that things can go downhill fast. That's universal.

The cost of, for instance, MPDU ownership units are decided when being built and agreed between developers and the county. What is the county agreeing to? Do you know?
Rentals have maximum rental amounts, not minimum. So, for instance, at one of the new properties, let's say the Flats, a 2 bedroom might have a maximum MPDU rent of $1500/mo, but could be much, much lower.
Then there's the voucher program(used to be called Sect.8) and other rent assistance that helps seniors and disabled. (also extremely low income which probably wouldn't be applicable in the Westbard area)
I don't know what's actually planned, do you? But I can tell you that 24 lower-income units in a high rise isn't always wonderful.

Anonymous said...

"Betco property disaster"

Wut dat?

"We can't build the Midcounty Highway Extended on its master plan route upcounty for public benefit, because it would cross a stream"

Who said that?

Robert Dyer said...

8:04: In fact, numerous people raised questions about the potential illegality of the minor master plan amendment use. As the question has not yet been weighed in on by a court, my description of "possibly illegal" is very accurate.

Robert Dyer said...

5:55: Betco property on Butler Road, now known as Little Falls Place.

"Who said that?"

The whole County Council except Craig Rice.

Robert Dyer said...

8:27: You fail to recognize you are talking about two different topics - naturally-occurring/market rate affordable housing, such as on Battery and Bradley in downtown Bethesda, and low-income housing created directly or indirectly by government (What's being proposed for Westbard).

Robert Dyer said...

Unemployed parent with two kids getting free, new luxury apartment in Germantown with giant screen TV and Olympic size pool is not "workforce housing" for "police officers and teachers". I've encountered people in downtown Bethesda who say they live in the Metropolitan who are clearly psychiatric patients who would otherwise be homeless. There are a variety of clientele who end up in these "workforce" units. Don't believe the hype. Ask the folks in Twinbrook Forest how it was when the methadone clinic was there. Scary stuff.

Anonymous said...

No, they didn't, Dyer you dunce.

Anonymous said...

Unlike Dyer, I've actually been inside the Metropolitan, and know people who live there. I'll start with the easiest point to debunk - the term "Olympic-size pool" has a very specific meaning. The Metropolitan does not have one.

Anonymous said...

Earn your tin roof like the rest of us by collecting recycles out of the garbage as a second job on the side.

Robert Dyer said...

7:26: I never said the Metropolitan had one. I clearly was referring to a building in Germantown. Read my comment again.

7:21: You obviously weren't at the Goshen debate when the M-83 was discussed. Rice is the only one who supports it.

Robert Dyer said...

7:29: You're the one who's lying. All of the development is within the range of two city blocks, along Westbard Avenue, Ridgefield Road and River Road. On Westbard, it doesn't even cover the whole block between Ridgefield and Massachusetts Avenue, and it's a very short block of Ridgefield that's in the plan area. 2 blocks.

Anonymous said...

"The whole block between Ridgefield and Massachusetts"

More hilarious distortion by Dyer. A "block" equals between one-twentieth and one-eighth of a mile, not an entire mile.

Anonymous said...


Cruz said...

I don't understand why liberals/progressives think they're doing low-income folks a benefit with their failed social engineering experiments. Are these directives coming directly from the White House?

Do low-income folks with kids really want to shop at stores like Lord&Taylor, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Gucci, like in Urbanized Friendship Heights...Or, would a trip to Walmart and Kohls make a little more economic sense for their budget.

Low-income folks need to be extremely cautious moving to the Urban Westbard cause the price of goods and services are going up, way up!!!

Oh, and what's up with all the beggars you roll up on at seemingly every traffic light now, signs reading something like "Lost my Job and 3 kids to feed" How sad, pathetic and disgraceful for a once clean, middle-class, upscale area.
Montgomery County seems to be looking more and more like a Third World Country!

Robert Dyer said...

11:17: What do you have to smoke to reach the conclusion that Westbard Avenue is a mile long between Ridgefield and Massachusetts? Whatever it is, George Leventhal wants to legalize it. Your math is not even close on this.

Anonymous said...

So what is the distance, Dyer? Google Maps says that it is 1.1 miles. If it's not that, then it must be some other number. You can't just reflexively say "you're wrong" and then not give an alternate answer.

Anonymous said...

It's how Dyer's logic works. His "facts" and "evidence". He touts transparency which certainly they are indeed!

Anonymous said...

8:02 The reality is that affluent children's lives are scheduled so they are busy after school and on weekends (I know a child who plays on three hockey teams). The children who don't have this lifestyle need a safe recreation space after school. A rec center would be the answer here, but the developers can't make money off that and may even have to pay for it; thus it won't happen.