|Proposed realignment of|
Westbard Avenue to connect
directly to River Road
Where the Montgomery County Council took a blase approach to the plans for naturalizing the Willett Branch stream, realigning Westbard Avenue to connect directly to River Road, and recognition and protection of an African-American cemetery on the site of the Westwood Tower apartments in approving the Westbard sector plan this year, planners pushed back after Equity One did not indicate these were priorities in its sketch plan.
|What the development would|
look like if Ridgefield Road
and Westbard remain as is
Equity One had never officially committed to the realignment of Westbard Avenue, but had only said it was open to the idea and willing to pursue it if feasible. The realignment was favored by the Springfield Civic Association, which argued that cutting off direct access to Ridgefield Road would protect its residents from additional cut-through traffic. In its sketch plan submission, Equity One shows the realignment, and an alternative that leaves the final block of Ridgefield in place.
Planners said they were not enthusiastic about the alternative. Robert Kronenberg, Area 1 planning chief, said the realignment is "what we expect. We do not expect the alternative alignment." Planner John Marcolin, project manager for the Westbard sector plan rewrite, said the alternative should be eliminated from the sketch plan. However, much remains unclear about the feasibility of moving the road, and who would pay the hefty expense. Equity One notes in its application that many of the agencies involved with such a project have yet to officially weigh in on the idea.
Park and planning officials also reasserted their priority of naturalizing the Willett Branch, and creating a park along its buffers. County Council president Nancy Floreen had declared that concept all but dead. Planners, in contrast, said they expect Equity One to add the stream and its buffers to their map. Susanne Paul, senior planner for park and trail planning, said the sketch plan should refer to the financial contribution and any land dedication Equity One would donate for the Willett Branch plan.
Paul also noted that the current plan encroaches on the stream's buffer along the Westwood Center II and Westwood Tower properties.
Kronenberg said "there is a lack of detail on the sketch plan," including the need to add the Kenwood Tributary of the Willett Branch that exists on the current Manor Care property.
The historic evidence of a lost African-American cemetery along the Willett Branch on the Westwood Tower property has been moved to the front burner in recent days by the Little Falls Watershed Alliance and historic preservation advocates. Kronenberg acknowledged planners had received many emails on the topic over the last week.
Based on land records, the cemetery is believed to have been active for burials up through the 1930s. Funeral processions to the cemetery took what is now the road behind the McDonald's retaining wall to reach the gravesite, according to descendants of the also-lost African-American community that centered around the Macedonian Baptist Church on River Road. The church remains, but the residential homes were bought up by developers, including that of The Kenwood condo tower.
Based on limited oral history, eyewitness and hearsay accounts, construction crews building the Westwood Tower are accused of desecrating the cemetery in the 1960s while constructing the building. Some accounts suggest some graves were improperly relocated close by, on one side of today's alignment of the Willett Branch or the other (Willett Branch was realigned by the WSSC in the late 1950s). Fill was added to some areas around there to facilitate creation of industrial and commercial properties. Radar imaging will be necessary to determine the location of any graves or remains. Advocates also want to ensure the cemetery is recognized in the proposed public park/greenway along the Willett Branch.
Planners are not endorsing, asserting or quoting any of the cemetery reports, but are concerned about confirming the existence of gravesites before any development goes forward in those areas. "It's a potential," Kronenberg stressed. "We don't know what's there."
Other concerns included the massing of one building in particular, proposed for the site of Bowlmor Lanes. As shown in the sketch plan, the massing is "very large and monolithic, creating a Great Wall effect," Marcolin argued. He encouraged Equity One to "break it up." Marcolin also advised the developer that it would have to at least show a provision for undergrounding power lines along Westbard Avenue to earn exceptional design credits.
Paul said the proposed civic green on Westbard should not include public right-of-way in its square footage calculation.
Greg Leck of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation said MCDOT has "significant concerns" about the location of traffic signals along Westbard Avenue, and the spacing of intersections and median breaks. He said there are concerns about queuing approaching River Road. There should be 600' between median breaks, Leck recommended, and the current plan offers "very limited left turn storage" for cars.
In terms of traffic signal placement, Leck said Equity One may need to consider putting one at the new Ridgefield-Westbard realigned intersection, and another approximately between today's Citgo station and the new building on the front lot of Westwood Tower. He also said Equity One may need a wider right-of-way for Westbard "if you want street parking."
Leck also questioned where the transit hub envisioned in the sector plan is on the sketch plan. The Council had disregarded that recommendation in its discussions this past spring. Equity One's property should have 4 bikeshare stations in MCDOT's view, and Leck emphasized that all truck loading dock access must be from private streets, not Westbard.
Equity One's plan would leave the existing utility poles in place on Westbard. Leck had doubts about that. "I'm not sure how this all is going to work out," he concluded.
A representative of the Maryland State Highway Administration said more needs to be done to measure traffic impacts, "knowing that [Route] 190 is a busy arterial." Given that congestion, he said, Critical Lane Volume "is not an appropriate measurement" in this case. "We need a traffic impact study."
Marie Labaw, representing the County Department of Permitting Services and Montgomery County Fire and Rescue on the committee, said the sketch plan had too little detail on fire access. She had particular concerns about the buildings on the west side of Equity One's property. "Don't design yourself into a corner," she said.
Equity One's Bill Brown and attorney Barbara Sears both said they were eager to work out all of the concerns with the different agencies in future meetings. Brown suggested "breakout worksessions, the sooner the better."
Kronenberg said Equity One can get a 30-day sketch plan extension without Planning Board approval. Further delay beyond that will require board approval, he said.
Maps via Montgomery County Planning Department