Friday, July 20, 2018

Bethesda construction update: Fish Taco (Photos)

There's no official announcement as of press time regarding the opening date of the new Fish Taco location at Bethesda Row. The walls have come down on Woodmont Avenue to review the new lighted sign, and gleaming interior. It looks like they could open any day now.

Le Creuset closes at Bethesda Row (Photos)

Le Creuset has closed as expected at 7116 Bethesda Lane. The interior is being cleared out and demolished, and the space is now up for lease.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Planning Board approves 4 Bethesda Metro Center sketch plan

Brookfield's plan for Bethesda Metro Center
Commissioner compares 
opponents to ICE agents

Developer Brookfield's sketch plan for its 4 Bethesda Metro Center project was unanimously approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board this afternoon. The plan met with stiff opposition from neighbor Clark Enterprises and a broad coalition of citizens. Email communications against the project easily overwhelmed those in support by about 80% to 20%, based on the compiled record provided by the Planning Department. But planning commissioners largely pushed back on opponents, with one bizarrely comparing residents to ICE agents who "put kids in cages."

Much of the opposition centered on the question of whether the majority of open space should be facing Wisconsin Avenue, or wrap around the building as the Brookfield plan proposes. Brookfield's plan does include a fair amount of public space in front of the tower, which they refer to as the Metro Commons. It also creates a promenade alongside the 290' residential building the developer compares favorably with Bethesda Lane at Bethesda Row. Behind at a rear corner will be a lawn and programmed gathering space, that will include art exhibits directed by Arts Brookfield, the entity Brookfield operates arts programs through in several major cities around the world.

Proponents of Brookfield's plan included Bethesda resident Amelia Ciriani, who called it "just what we need for Bethesda Metro Center. I absolutely love the idea." "Bethesda should be so lucky as to have Brookfield program this space," transit activist Tina Slater testified, referring to Arts Brookfield.

Mary Jo Peebles of Bethesda urged commissioners to deny approval of the plan, calling for more study to consider "what it feels like to walk the streets" around such developments. Like many speaking in opposition, she referred to the 3-D models of the Metro Center on display on the table before her, which were prepared by former Montgomery County Planning Director Richard Tustian. Tustian also provided thorough testimony in opposition to the project, asking commissioners to deny the application, and "initiate alternative design studies."
Richard Tustian's 3-D model #1

The models, silently but prominently displayed, subversively tweaked those who argue such three-dimensional renderings cannot be provided by developers, as Tustian assembled these relatively quickly at home. They had a strong impact on the conversation. "Oh my golly, that's horrible," one resident said after examining the 3-D version of what the plaza will look like with Brookfield's plan. On the other side, one Brookfield proponent objected to having to testify with the models in front of her.
Tustian's second model, showing a
larger plaza facing Wisconsin Avenue
"Without illuminating studies of the kind mentioned above," Tustian said in more-lengthy written testimony, "the Board cannot possibly make an adequately informed judgment, that is sufficient to justify striking a balance between density granted and whatever degree of “public amenity” (c.f. “public benefits”) is deemed necessary to satisfy the relevant zoning criteria.

Bethesda resident Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, an environmental scientist whose career included 18 years at the EPA, said downtown Bethesda is "rapidly becoming a concrete jungle." She spoke in opposition to Brookfield's plan, and called for more open space at the Metro Center plaza. "Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to find open space, safe space, where they can talk, organize and share ideas," she said.

Despite the strong opposition on display before and during the hearing, commissioners dismissed the opponents and voted to approve the plan. If that wasn't enough reminder of why term limits passed overwhelmingly in 2016, Commissioner Natali Fani-Gonz├ílez took the nose-thumbing one bizarre step further, comparing opponents who called on her to "do the right thing" to ICE agents who "put kids in cages." She said ICE employees she has spoken to in her role as an activist say they are "doing the right thing" in implementing federal immigration law. Raising her voice slightly, Fani-Gonz├ílez said "I'm doing the right thing for my people, which will be very different from yours."

Considering that a majority of those who opposed the plan were Democrats, many in the room were offended by the remarks, which were certainly unnecessary and out-of-bounds.

I think a lot of the opposition could either have been solved - or alternatively, hardened - if more detailed renderings had been provided. Personally, I have not taken a position for or against the 4 Bethesda Metro Center plan in part for that reason. Based on what has been shown, I think there is potential for Brookfield's plan to be successful, but I am puzzled as to why we cannot see detailed renderings of the actual building to fully understand how it will relate to its surroundings and the proposed open space.

When Carr Properties rolled out its vision for 7272 Wisconsin, right at the beginning, they brought out highly-regarded architect Robert Sponseller. The impressive renderings of true trophy towers, and Sponseller's promises of touches like a staircase you would find at a "nice Italian villa," helped considerably to start the project off on a positive note with the community. Opposition to Carr's plan among the larger public has been quieter than in the case of the Metro Center or Westbard, for example. 7272 Wisconsin is a much-bigger project than 4 Bethesda Metro Center, so it's unclear why it is so challenging to provide the same detail. To be fair from a technical requirement standpoint, Carr's rollout included a site plan as opposed to just the sketch plan application, but it was still at the start of the public process.

Brookfield will be required to provide more detailed renderings at the Preliminary Plan stage by one of the conditions imposed in today's approval. Again, I still have hope that the Brookfield plan will turn out to be a success. We really can't afford for it not to be, and it will define Bethesda for tourists and economic development scouts for decades to come.

I happen to like the design of the Bethesda Metro Center as it is, at least until somebody decided to add artwork around the rim of the platform above the bus bays that looked like someone had defaced it with graffiti during the night. I was not even aware years ago that there was ever a plan to add another building to it, and it seems to really throw off the balance of he design. The fantastic modern architecture of the existing buildings, the dramatic fountain, and the sweeping open plaza are an impressive welcome to downtown Bethesda by car or transit.

Frankly, the poorly-conceived design restrictions in the worst-of-both-worlds Bethesda Downtown Plan, actually prevent the sort of artistic crown-jewel centerpiece effect that the final tower needs to work in its context. Yes, those same guidelines that are resulting in most of the new projects coming in under the new plan resembling each other. Oops. If Brookfield can somehow figure a way around those restrictions to deliver the needed effect here, and reactivate the plaza, I'm all in favor of their plan. They've certainly got the design minds on board that could do it.

I watched the current Metro Center being constructed while drinking Orange Freezes at the Hot Shoppes across the street. At the time, I was upset about the loss of the existing retail, movie theater, carousel and Swensen's Ice Cream. But the resulting redevelopment turned out better than I could have imagined. I'm not sure the perceived "failure" of the plaza has much to do with its architectural design, but simply with the fact that those in charge stopped using it for an ice rink, fireworks, and Christmas tree lightings. Hopefully, Brookfield can restore some of that energy and atmosphere again in the context of this plan, and through whatever improvements or refinements will be made at the Preliminary and Site Plan stages.

Peloton posts Coming Soon signage at Bethesda Row

As I reported last month, Peloton is coming to Bethesda Row. Yesterday, they installed a construction wall that includes a Coming Soon message at their space, which is at 4823 Bethesda Avenue. The space was recently vacated by Ministry.

New ice cream shop for the Woodmont Triangle?

The vacant florist space at 8009 Norfolk Avenue has a new tenant. Chevy Chase-based Jefferson Foods operates a unique ice cream business, Jeff's Best, with existing locations in Friendship Heights, D.C. and Waldorf. The company's founder is Jeff Eden.

Using self-serve ice cream vending machines invented in 1939 (but are newly-manufactured in Wisconsin), Jeff's Best dispenses soft-serve ice cream with 10% milkfat for a richer flavor and texture, with no GMOs. The machine even dispenses a spoon for you to eat it with. At least 4 toppings are available, including Reese's Pieces and chocolate sprinkles.

Jefferson Foods has not responded to an inquiry as of press time. But the company is expanding locations, and all indications point toward a new ice cream business in the Woodmont Triangle. This would certainly be a great addition downtown.

Slapfish review (Video+Photos)

Slapfish opens tomorrow, July 20, 2018 at 11:00 AM at 12033 Rockville Pike, in the Montrose Crossing shopping center. The first 107 people in line at 11 will get a free lobster roll. But this morning, you can watch my review from a soft opening event last night.

In keeping with the sustainability theme of the
restaurant, water comes in boxes rather than
plastic bottles; at right is a cane sugar-sweetened
cola available on tap

Chowder Fries

Chowder Fries are loaded with bacon,
clam chowder, cheese and onions

Jersey Sauce (left) and
Awesome Sauce (right) are among the
dipping options

Lobster Roll with fries

Fish and chips with fries

Whitefish is used for the fish and chips

Great colors in the lobster roll

Served on a warm butter roll

The first 107 people in line at 11:00 AM
Friday will get one of these free

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

City Perch teams up with rooftop farm at Pike & Rose

City Perch Kitchen + Bar at Pike & Rose announced Tuesday that it has partnered with Up Top Acres, the rooftop farm at the Federal Realty development. Up Top Acres, the Mid-Atlantic's largest rooftop farm at 17000 SF, will supply the upscale restaurant with fresh produce grown just above the restaurant between the iPic Theatres and the Pallas luxury apartment building.

Previously, the output of the farm has primarily been going to those signed up in the Farm Membership Program, which is currently sold-out. Now City Perch will be acquiring salad greens, heirloom tomato varieties, cucumbers, scallions, peppers and eggplant, as well as herbs like cilantro and basil, into its summer menu. New to the menu is a “Chef’s Rooftop Salad” that will change based on produce available from the farm each week.

“As a seasonal American dining room, we source locally from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.  I have been a fan of Up Top Acres since they started in DC in 2014 and had 'produce envy' of my DC Chef friends! This is a Chef’s dream come true!  We are excited to incorporate Up Top Acres into our menus,” Chef Sherry Yard, Chief Operating Officer at iPic® Entertainment said Tuesday.  "I am truly grateful to Federal Realty and Up Top Acres for bringing sustainable produce to Pike & Rose that allows us to provide our guests with local ingredients at peak freshness and flavor.”

Westwood Shopping Center DRC meeting much ado about nothing

Many Westbard-area residents and community leaders took time and gas to drive to the Montgomery County Development Review Committee meeting Tuesday in Silver Spring, only to find the review of Regency Centers' plan to be over in 5 minutes.  Numerous issues and concerns had been raised about the plan prior to the meeting, but none of them were discussed during Tuesday's meeting.

Regency Centers disclosed that ten apartment units in the plan were being relocated from the Westwood Center II site to the Westwood Shopping Center property. Since that would potentially add over 20 more people to the shopping center site, such a move only heightened concerns about a shortage of parking in the plan. But parking was never discussed at the meeting, nor any other issue ranging from the staging of the Westbard Avenue realignment to the controversy over parking spaces at the shopping center given to the Kenwood Place condominium by covenant decades ago.

Attendees had barely settled in their seats when planners had already adjourned the discussion, and were announcing the schedule for the review of the project going forward. It appeared the substantive discussions had either already been had, or were being postponed for private meetings between planners and the developer, which certainly do not promote transparency in the approval process. Interestingly, every project reviewed at Tuesday's meeting had some sort of substantive discussion except for the Westwood Shopping Center.

Bethesda man disappears in Germantown

Montgomery County police are seeking the public's help in locating a missing Bethesda man, who was last seen in Germantown on July 13. Alexander Fadi Ashy, 21,  of the 8400 block of Quarry Ridge Road in Bethesda, was last seen in the 19800 block of Observation Drive in Germantown at approximately 3:18 p.m. on Friday, July 13.

Police describe Ashy as a white male, 5 feet 9 inches tall, and as weighing 160 pounds. He has brown eyes, black hair and facial hair. When he was last seen, Ashy was wearing a navy-striped tank top and khaki shorts.

Anyone with information regarding Ashy’s whereabouts is urged to contact either the 2nd District Investigative Section at 240-773-6710 or the police non-emergency number at 301-279-8000 (available 24/7).

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bethesda construction update: 7272 Wisconsin Avenue (Photos)

Night shifts are beginning this week at the 7272 Wisconsin Avenue construction site in Bethesda. Bisnow reports that developer Carr Properties plans to call the office tower for the project "The Wilson," after the historic Wilson Store that was moved from the site. The residential tower will be named "The Elm," after Elm Street, Bisnow reports.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Bath & Body Works to move in October at Westfield Montgomery Mall

Bath & Body Works will move into a new location at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda in October. It is currently operating in a temporary location by Ann Taylor on Level 1. In October, the store will relocate to a space next to the Kia Stinger Salon on Level 1.
Future location

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Friendship Heights construction update: Collection at Chevy Chase (Photos)

Today, I continue to document the transformation of the Collection at Chevy Chase shopping center in Friendship Heights. Once referred to as "the Rodeo Drive of Montgomery County," a moribund County economy and the flight of the ultra-wealthy to lower tax jurisdictions in the region have left it a barren row of vacant storefronts. Now a major makeover is designed to make the center a more attractive place to hang out with more-inviting public space.