On its way to disregarding serious concerns related to an African-American cemetery and approving Equity One's Westbard sketch plan on Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board told us the big rush was necessary, to more quickly deliver the "public benefits" the project will provide. Chair Casey Anderson summed up the whopping list of these "public benefits" thusly: the naturalized Willett Branch stream, and a realignment of Westbard Avenue.
Click here to read Part I: "Enough is Enough"
So treating the concerns about the cemetery on the Westwood Tower portion of Equity One's land in a disrespectful fashion, and dropping more than 3000 people (and their cars) into a block-and-a-half area of Bethesda is worth it for that two-item list?
While the vast majority of residents support naturalization of the Willett Branch, two problems remain, and were only amplified by the hearing Thursday. First, the project remains "pie in the sky, by and by." No land has been dedicated, and no funds have been collected to build the project. Each segment of it will have to be built separately, and so it will be many years before even a large portion of it will be ready.
Second, there is no evidence the finished product will resemble the renderings shown by the Parks Department. At Thursday's hearing, Equity One's attorney, Barbara Sears, protested the idea that the development firm should have to actually construct the naturalized stream segment between River Road and American Plant. She also had a different interpretation of the guidance on building within the stream buffer that the Westbard sector plan provides. Her arguments could well prevail in court if the dispute goes that far.
Even the representative of the Parks Department presenting the Willett Branch portion of the sketch plan conceded that "it's not going to be as naturalized as we had all hoped." Wait, a minute - what? Sears may have made the best prediction on the Willett Branch: "I think we'll be here ten years from now, trying to figure it all out."
Then there's that road. Sure, the realignment of Westbard Avenue was sought by the Springfield Civic Association for purely practical reasons - to reduce cut-through traffic into their neighborhood. But to call the realignment an "amenity" is more than a stretch. It's dishonest.
Planning Director Gwen Wright stressed that Equity One's project will provide parks where there are none. But those two patches of green are ridiculously small, especially placed against the scale of the actual development. Several in the crowd chuckled Thursday, when they noted the "civic green" was so small, it could hardly be made out on the rendering. Wright also referred to the project "improving the environment." Ironic, given that the Save Westbard lawsuit is partly about the fact that the Planning Board never evaluated if the Westbard sector plan would reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle miles traveled, as it is required to do under a 2008 county law.
The "private shuttle to Metro" was also invoked, but not mentioned was the fact that the County Council declined to make the shuttle mandatory, and even deleted the Transit Center from Equity One's site in the sector plan. This left many residents still searching for the supposed "amenities."
"What are the amenities you're getting today," asked Bob Cope, a resident who has been a longtime volunteer with the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights. He noted that, as part of past development agreements, the Friendship Heights recreation center and Round House Theater in Bethesda were built, and at completion, developers "handed the keys to the county." Here, Cope argued, all the buildings will be constructed, "and you come back and shoehorn in the creek." Many residents had advocated for large parks, a recreation center, and an aquatic facility, among other ideas. None of them ended up in the plan.
Both Pat Johnson of Kenwood's Westbard Committee and Springfield Civic Association President Phyllis Edelman commented on the lack of green space, and nonexistent playground areas for the future residents of the new development. "Where will the children play," Johnson asked the board.
Johnson said residents were expecting ample space for events like farmers markets. "How are we going to fit that into 1/3 of an acre," she asked to laughter from the audience. "These green patches are terribly inadequate. Living here will not be up to the standards of Montgomery County."
3000 people. Thousands of additional cars. All this for what could ultimately be a half-finished storm drain carrying the new trash and exhaust particulates from those 3000 people through a narrow green strip behind 5 high-rises, and a green patch that looks more like a carpet sample than a park. Raw deal.