Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Emergency Pepco work continues in downtown Bethesda (Photos)

Del Ray Avenue reopened to traffic yesterday in downtown Bethesda, but Cordell Avenue remained closed at Old Georgetown Road last night, as Pepco continues to repair damage to its underground feeder lines apparently caused by WSSC workers. A tent protected the manhole where Pepco crews have descended, along with holes that had to be dug in the street.

Community opens in Bethesda (Photo)

The eagerly-anticipated upscale diner Community officially opened last night in Bethesda. Founded by successful local restaurateur Mark Bucher (BGR, Medium Rare), the restaurant will take on the venerable Tastee Diner that it faces across Veterans Park, as well as newcomer Silver off Bethesda Row.

Community will initially serve dinner, starting at 5:00 PM tonight, according to the website. They will then add breakfast, lunch and late night hours. Service should be good, because the staff has benefited from one of the longest soft-opening periods I can recall in Bethesda.

7770 Norfolk Avenue

Westbard developer reveals first detailed renderings of Westwood Shopping Center redevelopment (Photos)

Regency Centers unveiled the first photo-realistic renderings of its redevelopment proposal for the Westwood Shopping Center in Bethesda. The images were displayed at a required pre-submittal meeting for its Preliminary Plan for that, and a suite of other properties along Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road known as the Westwood Complex, held at The Ballroom on Landy Lane last night.
A large crowd filled the ballroom to hear Equity One's Bill Brown give an overview of the Preliminary Plan, which also includes the Manor Care nursing home, Westwood Center II, Citgo I and II, Westwood Tower and Bowlmor Lanes properties. Equity One recently reached a merger agreement with Regency Centers, but Brown said he will head the Westbard project until its completion.
Representatives of the Little Falls Watershed Alliance handed out hats advocating for the vision of a Willett Branch greenway park, and stream naturalization, that was outlined in the Westbard Sector plan. After a brief presentation, Brown spent the bulk of the meeting answering questions from residents.

What new details did we learn last night?

  • Equity One's traffic studies will be released in the next month
  • The Preliminary Plan will be submitted before the end of the year; a public hearing should be scheduled 6 months later; the project's Sketch Plan hasn't been approved yet, and is scheduled for a February 2 review by the Montgomery County Planning Board
  • The demolition of Bowlmor Lanes could be over ten years away, Brown said, unless Regency Centers and Bowlmor agree on a relocation within another new building prior to the expiration of Bowlmor's lease in 2028
  • In contrast, the demolition of Manor Care and Westwood Center II - and possibly the Citgo closest to them - has been moved up. They will now be destroyed and redeveloped in the first phase of development, which is expected to begin in 2018 if Montgomery County approvals and legal issues go the developer's way
  • Brown expressed little concern over the lawsuit filed by a group of residents in September, predicting it "will run its course through the court system." A resident who spoke in opposition to the development, on the other hand, told the crowd the lawsuit is the only way to reduce the size of the proposed development
  • Equity One has agreed to realign Westbard Avenue, to connect directly with River Road. This was a concession heavily lobbied for by the Springfield Civic Association, to reduce cut-through traffic in Springfield. It does not appear there will be a signal at the new Ridgefield-Westbard intersection, which could pose a safety issue for Springfield residents trying to get to River Road across 4 lanes of two-way traffic. There will be new signals on Westbard at two intersections with roads into the shopping center
  • Power lines will not be moved underground as it stands now, Brown said
  • Underground parking garage ramps have been realigned to create an additional 1/2 acre of green space at the shopping center site. Residents who were underwhelmed by the total amount of green space currently proposed groaned at that, with one saying, "Oh, jeez." "Thank you," Brown replied
  • Each building on the Westwood Shopping Center site will have a loading facility. The Giant store's will be under the building, but above-ground, Brown said. He added that hours of deliveries will have to be worked out with partner EYA, which is building townhomes close to 2 of the loading dock areas. But it's unclear how Giant could stop its around-the-clock deliveries at its most-profitable store
  • Specific land dedication for the Willett Branch greenway park - where it abuts Regency Centers property - will not be mapped out until the Site Plan stage, Brown said
  • An underground stormwater facility beneath the Manor Care site will be "relocated," Brown said, and the western-most parking lot facing River Road there will be turned into green space next to the 34 townhomes EYA will build on that site
  • There's unlikely to be access to the Willett Branch from the Bowlmor site, due to the 45' slope between them, Brown said
  • Affordable housing units (MPDUs) will be integrated into each phase of the development
  • Parking will be 10% above the minimum required, Brown said. 1-and-2-bedroom apartments will be allotted 1 space; 3-bedrooms will get 2 spaces. Townhomes will have 2 spaces in a garage underneath each home. There will be 1100 customer parking spaces beneath the new Westwood Shopping Center. "That equates to a lot of cars, obviously," Brown said in a moment of candor
  • Asked if the new buildings would extend into the Willett Branch stream buffer, Brown replied, "We're still working through that. It's not finalized. The sector plan allowed for modifications of the buffer"
  • "We're not anticipating charging for parking at this time," Brown said of retail parking
  • Smaller businesses will be located on the ground floor; larger ones will be on second floors
  • Brown said rear decks, including one with a pool, have been planned for buildings that back up to the Willett Branch, to take advantage of the expected stream amenity
  • The phasing of the Westwood Shopping Center redevelopment is now in question again; Brown said it's possible it might have to be done all at once, which would be devastating for existing tenants in the strip mall
  • And most notably, the new renderings:

Aerial view of Westbard Avenue

Street alongside the future Giant store,
looking toward Kenwood Place property

Sidewalk, "civic green" and
storefronts along Westbard;
Park Bethesda (L) and future
Giant store (R) in distance

Looking at new Giant store
from Bowlmor sidewalk

What you'll see approaching
the shopping center on the
new Westbard Avenue from
River Road (the building ahead
is approximately where
Anglo-Dutch Pools and Toys is

Residents were unhappy about many aspects of the plan as currently laid out, and with the perception that the developer is not being responsive to resident feedback. "This is not a two-way conversation," one said, as another resident chimed in, "Hear, hear." Brown suggested he had been listening, defending the choice of a plain, grassy civic green by arguing that residents had personally asked him for it. A hardscaped plaza would have been cheaper and easier to maintain, Brown said.

Among many sticking points, beyond the heights and density that an overwhelming majority of residents have opposed since the process began in 2014, is underground parking. Currently, "you don't have to go down into a parking garage to get a cup of coffee," one resident noted. She and many other residents drive large SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban, and find poorly-designed garages in downtown Bethesda difficult to navigate. "I can't park in a lot of parking garages in this area," she said. Hard-to-access parking may be fine for future residents who will walk downstairs from the future apartments, she said, but won't work for existing patrons of the shopping center.

"It is not a good feeling for women and children to go down underground," a small business owner concurred. "The beauty of the [current shopping center] is that somebody who is not a teenager, or is visually-impaired, can easily get there," compared to downtown Bethesda, she said. "This is just something to get big bucks, and no concern for the community."

"I've lived in this neighborhood for 34 years," another resident said, who regularly patronizes Voothuis Opticians, one of the banks, Anglo Dutch Pools and Toys, and China Cafe in the Westwood Shopping Center. "This is my neighborhood. You are converting what is truly a suburban neighborhood into downtown Bethesda. I grew up in New York City. I know what density is like. I and many other people really don't want to see such a large scale development," she said. The crowd applauded.

"Is there a possibility...are you willing to work with the neighborhood and compromise" on something smaller, she asked Brown. "It's always hard to say, 'No,' in a nice way," Brown responded. "We're at a point in time, two or three years later, that we have to move forward with this development."

The lack of detailed, ground-level, 360-degree renderings of just what all this is going to look like vexed several residents. A complete absence of renderings for the tallest buildings planned for across the street also raised questions. "Why did you elect not to show renderings and elevations" for the rest of the properties, resident Leanne Tobias asked. Brown said he himself has the renderings, but that they are not ready for public display because Development Review Committee issues have to be resolved before the designs can be finalized.

"The county doesn't really want you to know what it's going to look like," another resident reasoned, "because they know we don't want it. Term limits were voted in for a reason."

"It's a little unfortunate," Tobias said. "By not showing a complete picture tonight, it undercuts having a complete interchange with the public, and it's disappointing. I find this presentation to be less informative than the last one [hosted by former Equity One EVP of Development Mike Berfield]." "Mike is very good," Brown said humbly. Brown was much more patient during the question period than Berfield, however, letting one questioner speak for about 10 minutes, and even refusing to pull the plug on another speaker whose poignant childhood memories of Westbard suddenly pivoted to an infomercial for the Green Party.

Willett Branch advocates remain highly concerned about further encroachment into the stream's buffer area. "You're pushing the [Westwood Tower] surface parking back behind the building, entirely in the stream buffer," LFWA Vice-President Mikel Moore said. "You should be putting that parking underground. Let's not put any new buildings in the stream buffer."

LFWA's Executive Director Sarah Morse concurred, calling the idea of building a parking garage in the stream buffer "just unfathomable to me. I hope we can do better than a parking garage." That was in reference to another priority of park advocates, which is to have building designs that will interface positively with the stream and greenway below them.

Perhaps the most contentious point of dispute in the evening was the question of what will happen to the beloved small businesses that populate the two shopping centers along Westbard. Prior to the merger with Regency Centers, Equity One had refused to meet with tenants to discuss leases or provide some assurance of stability for the mom-and-pop shops going forward. It's unclear if Regency Centers will take a different approach, but Brown offered no such assurances last night.

That incensed one resident, who said, "We would feel a lot better about you people" if the current retail tenants were included in the future plans. "They have been treated so badly," she said, "and we are furious. If I want a battery for my watch, I can get it [installed] right here. Westbard has always been a moneymaker [as it is. What is proposed to replace them are] boring, boring buildings, and a strip of grass. Is that the best you can come up with," she asked, adding that her backyard garden is better than the landscaping proposed for the center. "The Planning Board has been a disaster. They are so corrupt," she concluded.
Closeup on rooftop of center
retail building at
Westwood Shopping Center site
shows what appears to be a rooftop
pool with cabanas

Cars pass by the future
Westwood Shopping Center
(which will likely have a new name
after the 'Westwood')

Looking down at street
between "rooftop pool" building
and the future Giant store (top)

Giant store

Preliminary Plan
(please click to enlarge)

Phasing I-IV

Phase IV could be as
late as 2028

Vehicle, bicycle and
pedestrian circulation plan

Dark and light green areas
indicate open space and
green space

Westbard Self Storage development could add to Willett Branch parkland in Bethesda (Photos)

View from River Road
and Capital Crescent Trail
The developer of a new self-storage facility behind the McDonald's on River Road plans to dedicate the remaining portion of the property to the planned Willett Branch stream greenway park, according to representatives at a meeting last night at Westland Middle School in Bethesda. While the Westbard Self Storage building's footprint will extend out into the roadway that currently separates the property from the McDonald's retaining wall, the developer will also leave a space for Montgomery County to build a pedestrian path. The path would provide access down to the Willett Branch park.
View from Bethesda Collision
(a.k.a. Channel 20); future
pedestrian path visible at
right beneath McDonald's
retaining wall
Utility lines currently in the path of the proposed 4-story self-storage building may be undergrounded, the applicant's attorney, Timothy Dugan said. The building will replace an existing auto repair facility on the site, but will not require demolition of the adjacent Bethesda Collision body shop and Enterprise Rent-a-Car (a.k.a. the Channel 20 building). From the McDonald's/River Road side, the structure looks like a standard self-storage structure. Looking from the Channel 20 building, it almost looks like a low-rise apartment building, save for the storage unit doors visible through the large windows.
This portion of the property
(within red lines) is planned
to be dedicated for the
Willett Branch stream park
The entire property
(bow tie shape within
red lines), with the
self storage project in
color at lower right
In short, the project is in keeping with the industrial character of the River Road area, but will also provide some significant benefits to the proposed park, and another future access point to it from River Road, McDonald's and the CCT. There will also be some landscaping, as there is at the McDonald's out front.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Assault on Cordell Ave., vehicles burglarized in Chevy Chase + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on November 26, according to crime data:

Liquor arrest. 4900 block St. Elmo Avenue.

Assault. 4900 block Cordell Avenue.

Liquor arrest. Rockville Pike at Jones Bridge Road.

Drug arrest. Bethesda Station 20.

Theft. 5400 block Westbard Avenue.

Theft. 5300 block Western Avenue.

Vehicle burglary. Cedar Lane at Beach Drive.

Vehicle burglary. 3500 block Bradley Lane.

Vehicle burglary. 3500 block Raymond Street (Martin's Additions).

Vehicle burglary. 3500 block Raymond Street (Martin's Additions).

Vehicle burglary. 7500 block Vale Street.

Vehicle burglary. 8900 block Jones Mill Road.

Vehicle burglary. 4900 block Wyaconda Road (Randolph Hills).

Bethesda construction update: Cheval Bethesda ultra-luxury condos (Photos)

The construction of the future Cheval Bethesda ultra-luxury condo tower is now beginning to reach the residential floors of the building. While the lowest floors will primarily be taken up by parking decks, retail, and the lobby, they are now working on the levels where residents will actually live.

Cheval Bethesda, at 4960 Fairmont Avenue, will house 72 units on 17 floors. It will include 7000 SF of retail space. Prices range from the $700s to over $3 million, and the sales center is now open at 7706 Woodmont Avenue. Delivery is expected next year. The developer is Duball, LLC.

Streetsense marketing 3 retail spaces for lease at 7034 Wisconsin in Bethesda

The venerable retail center at 7034 Wisconsin Avenue has thousands of well-off people within walking distance, a prime location on a congested commuter route, and - three spaces available for lease. Bethesda's own Streetsense real estate firm is marketing the potential for these spots.

An 8000 SF ground level space has a lot of potential for storage and automotive uses, with its roll-up garage door access. A standard 1200 SF storefront on the access lane out front is also available, as is a second floor office space with Wisconsin Avenue access and visibility.

Photo: Streetsense

Monday, November 28, 2016

Emergency Pepco work to repair damage to downtown Bethesda feeder lines

Pepco has closed one lane of northbound Old Georgetown Road, and Cordell and Del Ray Avenues where they meet that road, for an emergency repair operation. Apparently, water and sewer utility WSSC's workers may have accidentally damaged Pepco's underground feeder lines in that area of downtown Bethesda, while making repairs to their own infrastructure there. Among those served by the lines is Suburban Hospital.

There has been pooling of water in the street in that area recently, suggesting a water main break. WSSC workers were stopped there at least once during that time, a nearby resident says. As of tonight, there is no longer water in the street.

Pepco is working underneath the road right now, and are down in a manhole on Cordell. There are no apparent power outages yet downtown, and none reported on the official Pepco outage map. Drivers should avoid the area, if possible.