Developer Equity One unveiled its sketch plan for the 22 acres of property it plans to redevelop in the Westbard area of Bethesda at a public meeting last night. Equity One's Mike Berfield said the company expects the Planning Board to take up the plan this fall, and for construction to begin in the 1st Quarter of 2018.
The project will be built in four phases, likely to start with the first of three retail buildings on the current Westwood Shopping Center site. That 60,000+ SF structure is expected to house the anchor tenant, an expanded Giant Food store. Berfield confirmed rumors that Giant is seeking to avoid closing the current store before the new one is ready to open. He said that while that may be the ideal scenario, the logistics of whether that is possible are not fully worked out yet, so the Giant staging remains to-be-determined at this point.
|Residents line up to|
Berfield didn't dodge the question, and was completely candid in his response, saying that increased height would be a possibility if the Council went beyond the 12.5% MPDU requirement.
In contrast, councilmembers repeatedly told the community at worksessions that there would be no need to add another floor to any building if 15% affordable units were required.
Now, if you've been reading my blog all along, you will not be at all surprised to find out that at least one floor is being added to two buildings. You'll recall I warned you several times that whatever height was assigned by the Council was only a starting point. The Council forcefully denied that, clearly stating that 110' was the maximum. Period.
One building that will be in front of the existing Westwood Tower high-rise will increase from 75' to 85', and a second multifamily building that will combine the Bowlmor and Citgo II sites will increase from 110' to 122'.
You also may recall that Councilmember Roger Berliner, and the Council as a whole in endorsing his "Berliner alternative" Westbard plan, told us that Springfield would be getting the realigned Ridgefield Road as part of the sector plan. This was to reduce cut-through traffic to the Springfield neighborhood, and to solve the existing problem of semi trucks not having the required turning radius to properly turn right from eastbound River Road onto Ridgefield.
The realignment was a major reason the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights endorsed the plan, an endorsement Berliner waved in the final weeks of the Westbard debate.
But now it may not happen. "We can't 100% commit to that," Berfield told residents last night. "At this point, we haven't spent enough time with the [County and state] agencies that would have to sign off on that." He said an agency like Pepco or the State Highway Administration could nix the realignment, for example. "Everyone anticipates it's going to happen," Berfield said, but a commitment can't be made at this stage.
And once again, it was the Council, not Equity One, who fooled the public. Equity One has said all along that they would like to do it if it was possible; they never committed to doing it. The Council, by contrast, said it was happening, and like the Planning Board, endorsed giving additional height to the Westwood Center II site on Ridgefield Road as compensation for losing buildable space that would be dedicated to the new road's right-of-way.
"That's why the Berliner plan was a ruse," resident Margie Eulner Ott said to sustained applause from the crowd later in the evening.
Now what may happen is, Ridgefield Road stays where it is. Trucks continue to struggle making the turn from River. Traffic will continue to cut through the neighborhood further up Ridgefield. And now the 75' building will be even closer to the single-family homes that sit across the street from the site, and further down Westbard. So the Council lied, and unless the realignment happens, they literally made the situation worse.
Resident Lee Janger followed up on this point later in the evening. If Equity One doesn't realign Ridgefield, he asked, will they still build up to the 75' they were given in exchange for the road shift? Yes, Berfield replied. "That's what the zoning allows." Janger asked where the height of 75' would be measured from. The ground level of the building is a story below its frontage onto Westbard Avenue. Berfield said the County has rules that determine that, but they haven't been applied to that particular property yet.
A third point I can't really direct at the Council is the doubt now surrounding the proposed naturalization of Willett Branch. Berfield noted that it was not listed as an amenity in the plan because it is now a public project for the County. The reason I can't say the Council lied, is because they actually admitted they were dropping the Willett Branch as a priority in the sector plan. But the Planning Board did lie, because it was one of the primary amenities they touted in the plan they sent to the Council.
One amenity that Berfield did talk about was the much-discussed shuttle, which would travel between the Equity One properties and the Friendship Heights and/or Bethesda Metro stations. There is no language that absolutely requires Equity One to operate this shuttle, and the Council declined to add such language. Which is quite laughable, when you consider these "transit advocates" claim that all of the developments they are approving will have a large number of transit users. And what do they do? Not require a shuttle, and delete the proposed transit center from the Equity One site! Complete phonies.
Berfield said that this is stage in the process where Equity One can commit to the shuttle. He said it would be free to use, and open to anyone. Schedules and routes have not yet been determined at this point.
Before taking questions from the large crowd at The Ballroom, Berfield also confirmed another report that's been making the rounds in the Westbard area. He said he is "transitioning out of Equity One," after having been the main point of contact between the publicly-traded firm and the community. Bill Brown is taking over in his place.
Residents lined up for a sometimes contentious but respectful dialogue on the plan.
The first resident to speak said he found it "puzzling" that proponents of the Westbard sector plan had referred to Metro so much. He said that subway system is "unpleasant, unreliable, and now definitely unsafe."
Westbard is well over a mile from the Friendship Heights and Bethesda Metro stations, but that didn't stop folks like Councilmember Hans Riemer from claiming it was "just a mile from two Metros." Are these folks pathological liars, or did Riemer cast his vote for the plan with bad information from his staff? Do tell! But I'm detecting a pattern here, aren't you?
Berfield said Metro's woes would have no bearing on Equity One's plan.
How many acres will the civic green be, another resident asked. Berfield said it would be about 1/3 of an acre, which elicited laughter from the crowd. "That's a joke!" one resident shouted.
Asked about the timeline for the construction, Berfield said the first Westwood Shopping Center phase would take two to three years to build out, with the aforementioned Q1 2018 start of construction on that site.
Ott suggested putting a 3-D model of the sketch plan on the New Westwood Facebook page. "It's easy to do, it's cheap," she said.
Will parking be free?
"I never like to say forever, but the intent is that parking is free," Berfield said. There may be a necessity for time restrictions to prevent Metro users from parking on the site and taking the free shuttle to Metro in the morning, he added.
Concern for the future of the popular small businesses in the Westwood Shopping Center remains on the front burner for their customers. "75 people work in that shopping center," a Sumner resident noted, asking Berfield what will happen to them now. Will they be able to come back?
"Yes, we've talked about this with retailers," Berfield said. He said any existing tenant will be offered a new lease at the existing rent "plus C.P.I. increases." However, Berfield added, "we can't promise that they will be able to operate during construction."
In an interview after the meeting, the owners of Fashion Craft Cleaners said all they are asking for is a letter of commitment from Equity One, so that they can plan for what's ahead. They employ 11 people, who would be out of a job if the shop has to close. The dry cleaners has been a fixture in the center for 32 years.
Other "mom and pop" shops in the center, including Westwood Pet Center and Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys, are in a similar position of uncertainty at the moment. Some, like Beyda's Lad and Lassie, simply decided to close rather than deal with the upheaval and uncertainty.
A resident of Sumner had another very important question - where will the construction workers park? Berfield said they will park on Equity One's property. Similarly, the routes of construction vehicles are a concern. Berfield said Equity One will "make sure trucks take appropriate routes," rather than cut through residential areas.
Helen Burns of Sumner asked what the total number of units will be at full build-out on the Equity One land. Berfield said, "It's hard to know exactly" at this stage, but he said it could be in the 650 to 850 range including the future Housing Opportunities Commission projects. By comparison, the adjacent Springfield neighborhood has about 600 households, and Sumner has 500.
The lack of any designs showing how Equity One is "going to interface your buildings with the [Willett Branch] Greenway," was a red flag for Sarah Morse of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance. She asked if there was any plan to incorporate the envisioned stream project with the new development, as was done in downtown Frederick with Carroll Creek.
Berfield said his company really only has a small portion along the stream, at Westwood Center II. He said it's Park and Planning's project to determine, not Equity One's. "We're waiting for Park and Planning...before we can do anything," Berfield said.
Sumner resident Sid Clemens said the Council "told us no one ever builds to the max. Are you guys going to back down a little bit" from what the sector plans permits, he asked. "People here are pretty mad," he added to applause. Berfield replied that he final site plan could end up being different. "The reality is, we've gotten huge amounts of support for this plan," Berfield said. That elicited laughter from the audience, given that the overwhelming majority of the community has opposed the density and height of the residential component of the plan in every public forum.
A Kenwood resident asked if Equity One would "work with us" to prevent additional cut-through traffic in that community. She predicted a "ten-fold increase in traffic." Will there be restaurants, she asked, citing additional after-hours traffic related to those as a concern. Berfield said that many see dining and the related evening activity as a positive. He asked if there was a particular restaurant she would like to have in the new center. She did not suggest one, but I will suggest a restaurant from the Great American Restaurant group, if anybody is listening. She did offer an opinion on the the appearance of the townhomes, which are just shown as boxes lined up in the sketch plan. The townhome configuration "reminds me of quonset huts on a military base," she said to laughter.
Resident Susan Spock asked if it has been determined where the affordable units will go in the various buildings across the 22 acres. That "hasn't been decided yet," Berfield replied. "I'm really unhappy with the way you've dealt with the stream and Ridgefield Road," Spock said. She suggested Equity One commit to those even if they don't have control over the outcome. "You're really not living up to the amenities stated in the plan" (I would add that this could be said of the Council and Planning Board). Berfield said HOC controls more of the stream buffer than his firm. They have a ground lease that runs until nearly the year 2100, and are expected to exercise their option to purchase Westwood Tower and the land around it from Equity One.
At the Bowlmore site, Berfield said, the drop is too steep to give Equity One much if anything to offer along that stretch of the Willett Branch.
Resident Stan Wiggins asked Berfield if he was aware of the large tax cut for developers that's being proposed by the planning department. A tax cut of 50-60% would suggest that somehow the cost of providing school infrastructure has been reduced by that amount in just a year or two, Wiggins said. "Have you heard why they think this?"
"No," Berfield replied.
Attorney Michelle Rosenfeld asked why the power lines along Westbard are not going to be buried as part of the redevelopment, a common practice today. "It's a challenging issue to bury them underground," Berfield said. He said Equity One is still examining the possibility, but that he could not promise it would happen.
Sumner resident Phil Wilcox questioned if there is a market for this much retail in the area, noting that there are currently many vacancies in Westwood Center II.
A resident of Kenwood Place finished off the night (and this article) by asking if the footprint of the underground parking garage had changed for the Westwood Shopping Center site. Yes, it has, Berfield said. It will no longer extend beneath the townhomes behind the retail buildings. Whether that means there has been a reduction in spaces was not immediately clear. Berfield promised that the necessary parking would come online as the various retail buildings come online. There will also be a certain amount of surface parking on the property, he added.
|Public use/open space plan|
|Orange represents public space|
(including green space/park areas);
green represents open space
|Civic green denoted by green|
area on map at right
|One "civic green" concept|
being used to model the future
one at the new
Westwood Shopping Center
|Neighborhood green located|
near the spot where
Montgomery County failed
to deliver a promised park
in the 1980s
|Use this color key to|
read the map of street types
plan shows two new
traffic signals between
Retail first (1A-C), then
townhomes behind (2A-C),
then Manor Care (3A) and
finally the large buildings
on the opposite side of Westbard
|Equity One image of|
The New Westwood
(all other photos except this
by Robert Dyer)