Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Planning Board to push ahead with Westbard sketch plan Feb. 23, propose to temporarily remove cemetery site from approval

Protesters marching in the streets Sunday demanded the Montgomery County Planning Board delay review of developer Equity One's sketch plan for about 22 acres in the "Westbard" area of Bethesda, until the presence of an African-American cemetery on the site can be delineated. But the Planning Department reaffirmed yesterday that it is going ahead with the review on February 23. In its first public statement since the very successful Sunday protest, the department announced Tuesday it has required Equity One to exclude the Westwood Tower property in question from its sketch plan.

The Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Tower property now appears crossed out with hashmarks on a map with the staff report for the February 23 board meeting (see map at top). Taking the department's assertions at face value, that property - including the believed boundaries of the cemetery - would have to have a separate approval at a later date for the sketch plan, via an amendment.

Is this sufficient assurance for those concerned about the cemetery? Is this a wise decision, when it appears - based on the aspirational language in yesterday's statement - there is still no firm agreement on which stakeholders and experts will have equal standing in the cemetery research process (one speaker at the protest was proposing citizen involvement, and the importance of the church and their allies having the same access to information uncovered in the discovery process as the developer)? And does still going forward with the sketch plan address a key grievance of protesters - the perception that the process seems to favor speeding the developer toward profit, before getting answers to 50-year-old questions about what happened to this cemetery during the construction of Westwood Tower?

At press time, there are still two protests scheduled: tomorrow from 2:00-4:00 PM in front of the planning department headquarters in Silver Spring, and this coming Sunday at 1:30 PM again in front of the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road. It will be up to leaders of the protests to make the call as to whether this latest revision is enough to placate their concerns.

Here's something I don't understand: The planning department Q&A just posted describes a sketch plan's parameters thusly:

"A sketch plan shows the basic concepts for development, including building massing and height, and locations of public uses and their relationship to existing and proposed properties. A sketch plan shows circulation patterns and describes the public benefits proposed and incentive densities requested, as well as the phasing of the development."

So, if you yank out the HOC/Westwood Tower portion, how can you proceed on the sketch plan? It would not contain one of the major "basic concepts for development" of the Equity One property, namely several large new structures. How can the plan be approved, if commissioners fully ignore the "locations of public uses and their relationship to existing and proposed properties?" How can we know the "relationship" of the new construction on the HOC site, if it's not being approved with the rest of the plan? 

The proposed public road through the HOC/Westwood Tower site is indeed a major part of the overall "circulation patterns" of the larger Equity One proposal, as well as a public benefit. With a very large portion of the overall affordable housing component being planned for the HOC site, how can commissioners evaluate the total "incentive densities requested?"

How will we know the "phasing" of the development when one major piece is not under consideration?

What if graves are located all around where the HOC plans to construct a new building? If the expected affordable housing there can't be delivered as a result, how will that throw off the rest of the plan and its promised benefits?

Finally, the major concerns about the cemetery and the Willett Branch stream buffer encroachment on the HOC/Westwood Tower site indeed will have tremendous impact on "the public benefits proposed," namely the park that would both protect the stream and commemorate the "lost" black community and cemetery.

I am not a land use attorney. Is there any leverage that will be lost going forward under this revised sketch plan? I am not qualified to answer that question. I can say that the more I research Maryland law regarding cemeteries in this type of situation, the more concerned I become about what may end up happening here.

There's also some fact-checking to be done on the Q&A about the cemetery released by the planning department.

1. "In 2014, Planning Department staff identified a possible cemetery located behind the Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Towers apartment building and near the Willett Branch stream. During the planning process for Westbard, Planning Department preservation staff researched the local history and discovered the possible presence of an historic African-American burial site within the Westbard Sector Plan area."

False. I first informed the Planning Board of the existence of an African-American community along River Road in 2011, during the hearings on the Little Falls Place development. One of the issues was the almost-certainty that there would had to have been a cemetery somewhere in the vicinity. In 2014, it was a gentleman from one of the businesses who attended the "sunrise session" for business stakeholders who identified the location of the cemetery - not "Planning Department preservation staff." He was the source who had detailed information on, according to his account, the desecration of the cemetery by construction workers building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. Finally, the cemetery is also alongside Westwood Tower, not just behind it, and was apparently within the footprint of Westwood Tower itself.

If you go back to the 2011 hearings, you will hear the board's historical preservation expert giggle at my assertions about the black community. He then ntold the board that he rarely comes before them to say this, but that there is absolutely nothing historical whatsoever about the industrial area of River Road where the Betco property was under consideration for redevelopment as Little Falls Place. In 2014, the initial "history" released at the beginning of the sector plan process mentioned nothing about the black community at all. It was added after I criticized the omission, and other inaccuracies, on this website.

2.  "[C]urrently, there is no evidence of whether burial sites still exist in this location."

False. The oral history account clearly gives us strong evidence there were burial sites. His account of the cemetery's location mirrors that of Harvey Matthews, a resident of the "lost" black community who pointed out its location to marchers on Sunday.


Anonymous said...

"The oral history account clearly gives us strong evidence"

Lol. What a joke.

Robert Dyer said...

6:49: So you think desecration of a cemetery is "a joke?" You are the joke.

Anonymous said...

The desecration of a cemetery is a serious offense. The construction of Westwood Towers on a cemetery site, presumptively without reburials, shows tremendous disrespect by the original developer.

Montgomery County officials now have an opportunity to correct this long-standing act of desecration. I am ashamed that the County did not address the matter of the cemetery in the Westbard sector. Why have they waited?

Anonymous said...

@6:49: How would *you* feel if you grew up where Mr. Matthews did and the cemetery contained the graves of your ancestors and community members? Your comment is insensitive and cruel.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think of it that way.
It is terrible to think someone would build a high-rise on the graves of family members, simply to maximize profits.

Anonymous said...

I agree, 3:06. What is worth noting is that neither the Planning Department, the Planning Board, the County Council, HOC nor Equity One addressed the cemetery when the Westbard sector plan was being developed-- even though the Planning Department's research (2014) indicated that the cemetery might lie on the site.

The only thing that the County did was to require commemorative signage of the history of the area. County officials remained silent about the cemetery.

It wasn't until the Macedonia Baptist Church and others objected to development plans that the County required Equity One to research the cemetery issue. Even then, the County waited until this week to delay consideration of land use approvals for the cemetery site.

I am very happy that the Macedonia Baptist Church protest has delayed consideration of redevelopment of the cemetery site. But I am extremely disappointed that the County failed to respectfully address the cemetery matter in the first place.

This whole episode reflects poorly on the Planning Department, the Planning Board and the Council.

Anonymous said...

6:49 AM - I agree!

Anonymous said...

@4:23 AM: Harvey Matthews, a member of the Macedonia Baptist Church, whose childhood home was across River Road on what is now the River Road Whole Foods site, remembers playing in the cemetery. This is corroborated by the oral history account. For example, the owner of the nearby Citgo remembers being told during childhood (his family owned the gas station then), that construction workers on the Westwood Towers site were finding human remains.

Why do you find this laughable?