Regency Centers, in a new development, has agreed to pay the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission $500,000 within 60 days of reception of the Use and Occupancy Permit for the new Giant store. There's some irony in that, given that the $500,000 Regency partner EYA paid the commission earlier this decade (as a condition of approval of the Little Falls Place development) did not end up going to the improvement of the Willett Branch watershed, despite County officials having loudly and falsely claimed they would.
In taking the quick vote, commissioners briefly considered a few of the concerns raised by residents, environmentalists and the owners of the small businesses in the existing shopping center. But they ultimately took no binding action beyond the language already present in the plan and master plan documents.
Considering that the chairman of the board shared a celebratory handshake with executives from Regency's development partner seconds after the County Council approved the Westbard sector plan in 2016, it's not surprising the board warmly endorsed the plans. But in doing so, the board did not even employ some of the tools it had at its disposal to allay the concerns of the public regarding this massive remaking of an established community in southwestern Bethesda. Stack-and-pack apartment buildings and dozens of townhomes will bring over 1000 new residents and over 1000 new vehicles to the neighborhood's already-congested schools and commuter highways. Ultimately, over 3000 people and over 3000 cars will be added to a block-and-a-half area about 2 miles from the nearest Metro station, far beyond the quarter-to-half-mile international standard for "smart" transit-oriented development.
Here are the key issues raised today before commissioners:
Activists have identified a shortage of parking for the combined uses of shopping center patrons and residents of the new homes in the new development's site plan.
Easements owned by the Kenwood Place condominiums across the site designated for the Springfield Neighborhood Park in the redeveloped Westwood Shopping Center could prevent construction of the park. The park, while likely to wind up a green postage stamp at best, is a key amenity in both the sector plan and site plan.
With the late revelation of the legally-binding easements, that can only be released by an 80% vote of Kenwood Place, one has to wonder if this wasn't the cynical plan all along. Knowing they could not build there, place a park there in the plans, and then pull a bait and switch later on.
Lynn Battle, a resident of Westbard Mews, noted that the park was supposed to be a buffer between the new development and the single-family homes and condos that abut the Regency property line there. Many residents, especially those with small children, are concerned that the park will end up being located across busy Westbard Avenue from the shopping center - therefore requiring those kids to cross what will be an even heavier barrage of traffic to reach the park.
Battle also recalled that planners and the developer repeatedly stressed that the County was allowing other green spaces in the plan to be smaller explicitly because the developer was offering the (very-relatively) "larger" park on the shopping center site. "That's critical," she told commissioners this afternoon. Battle said that if the park moves elsewhere, the board should stipulate it be completed on the same time schedule as the shopping center, but that neighbors strongly oppose such a relocation. "Bottom line: this park has to stay on the Westwood I side."
Another key matter in the park/easements dispute is that the decision of where the park (which Montgomery Parks' Suzanne Paul said will have to be the same size no matter where it ends up) might move would be in the hands of planning staff, not the board with a full hearing and public testimony.
Perhaps most concerning of all, the Planning Department is - if anything - back to square one in negotiations with Kenwood Place. A planner told the board that there has been a major turnover on the Kenwood Place condo board, and "we've had to start over" in negotiations.
Is the proposed Civic Green across from the proposed new Giant store building as big as the developer claims? Regency promised residents a half-acre Civic Green at a public meeting in January 2018. A representative of the Kenwood Citizens Association questioned that in testimony, describing the actual size as "less than one-third of an acre when you add in the Jewel Box," a small glass building Regency shows on the green. That would be even less green space than previous developer Equity One proposed in 2014.
Resident Lloyd Guerci questioned the conditions for Regency's conveyance of land near the intersection of Ridgefield Road and River Road for future trails along the Willett Branch Greenway. He said commissioners did not include a "declaratory sentence of specific date" for that to occur.
Currently, the land is supposed to be conveyed when occupancy permits are issued for 55 townhomes across Ridgefield on the site of the vacant Manor Care nursing home. Guerci suggested making it contingent on the occupancy of the multi-family building that will be built adjacent to the greenway. He also urged commissioners to make the easement access from the Bowlmor site down to the Greenway open to the public, and not just for Park & Planning maintenance crews.
Such a waiver "sets a precedent we think could weaken the county's ability in the future" to mandate on-site stormwater management, LFWA's consultant told commissioners. A study LFWA used half of its annual funds to commission found that Regency could treat all stormwater on-site, without changing any of the structures they plan to build. "We have a chance to do this right," LFWA Executive Director Sarah Morse said. "Regency Centers is on the record saying it wants to do this right." But the current plan is not in the best interests of the stream nor the community, she added.
Kenwood Place resident Carl Petty provided some compelling testimony regarding the challenges of runoff from the sloping site today, and I can back up what he said from my own experience. He said that during heavy rain events, 1500 gallons a minute flow from the walkway to Kenwood Place Entrance 8 down to the shopping center parking lot below the condo property. It's unclear if a swale blocked by a fence could handle this volume between Kenwood Place and the future townhomes.
I can back this up, because the standing water and flooding can be significant in the parking lot in front of Giant, the liquor store, and Anglo Dutch, to name a few, during heavy rains. One time last year, I had to divert to Safeway because the water was too high to reasonably cross between Giant and the parking spaces.
An owner of Fashion Craft Cleaners in the existing Westwood Shopping Center said the long planning process and uncertainty about the future has been a heavy burden for the small businesses there. "We have major concerns we will not be invited back as a small business," he told the board, after 32 years at the shopping center. Commissioner Natali Fani-Gonzalez said she could not force Regency to make such decisions, but that is actually not true. The board previously required a "high-quality restaurant" be included in the Stonehall condos in Bethesda, before waiving the requirement at the developer's request later.
A Regency representative told commissioners "we are in discussions" with the business tenants about their future at the center. But that's not exactly true, either. In fact, one request the owner of the dry cleaners made of commissioners was to facilitate just such a meeting between Regency and tenants.
Fani-Gonzalez and Commissioner Tina Patterson did strongly encourage Regency to bring those businesses back, but no new actual conditions were added to protect existing tenants. In full fairness to Regency, one positive thing they did over Equity One was to add small retail spaces into the new Giant building. Along with their plan to demolish the center in stages, rather than all at once as originally-planned, this theoretically makes it possible for the existing businesses to stay open and then move to the new spaces when their section is leveled.
The question is, will Regency take full advantage of that potential by grandfathering rents for existing tenants?
In our supposed dedication to Vision Zero (surely it's not just to benefit developers, right?), and with a rabid War-on-Cars mentality on our County Council, it's shocking that those officials could endorse an uncontrolled intersection of this level of danger. Dunner cited the County Department of Transportation's letter that acknowledged this will be a dangerous intersection. "We should do no less," Dunner said.
When commissioners discussed this issue, Regency and staff said that a signal study is required of the developer after the new development opens. Just one problem - when the Westwood I site opens after the redevelopment, Westbard won't have been realigned yet.
Several residents urged the board to table the vote until a court rules on residents' lawsuit against the County regarding illegal actions taken by the County during the approval process of the Westbard sector plan. That decision could come as early as next month. Springfield resident Robert Weaver suggested the board "should delay this decision until the court rules."
Commissioner Patterson was the only member to side with residents on that question. She said that as a long-time arbitrator, she would like to avoid all parties involved having to be dragged back into Planning headquarters if the case goes against the County. For their part, Regency maintains no decision will impact their plans.