Residents wary of redevelopment in the Westbard section of Bethesda asked county planners some tough questions on Tuesday about the new landowner that’s bought up major pieces of the area.

Unfortunately for planners, who are just starting to update the 32-year-old Westbard master plan, there were few answers to provide so early on in the process.

“The first question I’ve gotten is, ‘When do you start digging,'” lead planner John Marcolin told a crowd of about 200 in the cafeteria of Walt Whitman High School. “We’re not Equity One.”

Equity One is the company that bought Westwood Towers, Springhouse by Manor Care, Bowlmor Lanes and two Citgo stations last year. It finalized the acquisition of Westwood Shopping Center and Westwood Center II early this year, meaning the company controls many of the major properties in the predominantly residential, low-density retail and light industrial area along Westbard Avenue and River Road.

The Tuesday night “kickoff meeting” hosted by the Planning Department put the county planners who could recommend new zoning for Westbard in a tough position.

While planners were simply looking for community input, many of the residents in the cafeteria had already attended a series of separate meetings hosted by Equity One in which company reps described vague plans for a destination “Main Street” on Westbard Avenue with new housing on what’s now a mostly unused surface parking lot.


Unsurprisingly, many of the residents have concerns about added density they fear will overload area roads and already overcrowded schools.

One resident asked Planning Director Gwen Wright if Equity One will be seeking new zoning in the Westbard Sector Plan rewrite.

“I don’t know,” Wright responded.


But Equity One very likely will be asking for new zoning, considering the Council moved up the sector plan rewrite in the Planning Department’s work schedule in large part because the company made clear it was ready to pursue redevelopment.

After three community meetings earlier this year, Equity One asked residents to send letters and emails to members of Council urging them to move up the Westbard sector plan on the schedule. It also created a website, Westbard Vision, with the help of Rockville-based public relations firm Maier & Warner — a firm that’s represented a number of developers on projects around Montgomery County.

“What is the motivation for change? Who will it benefit,” asked one resident who pondered whether planners would consider recommending no zoning changes, essentially leaving the area as is.


“Change in the community, change in the world is somewhat inevitable,” Wright replied. “Our goal here is to talk about how to best manage that change.”

On multiple occasions, Wright and Marcolin pointed out that the current zoning of the properties would already allow for more density than what’s there now.

Still, the possibility of mixed residential and commercial zoning had many skeptical of the process and some downright antagonistic.


“Are we playing cards against the $200 million bet [Equity One] made,” asked one resident, who said he understands Equity One bought the properties for $200 million with the idea to redevelop. (Equity One’s website reports the actual price was $140 million.)

“I don’t know anything about their finances,” Marcolin replied, which brought on a chorus of groans.

“We have a Council that loves any bulldozer they see,” declared one resident who referenced the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan that included more density than originally recommended by county planners.


Marcolin said the Planning Department is scheduled to transmit the Westbard Sector Plan rewrite to the County Council in early fall 2015, after the Planning Board hosts a batch of public hearings and worksessions to iron out its own recommendations.

That would mean any new zoning would be go into effect sometime in 2016 and Equity One and other property owners could submit development applications that would likely take at least another few years to get approval.

Wright acknowledged that Westbard is nothing like downtown Bethesda, which is going through its own master plan revision. (The resident who brought downtown Bethesda up labeled the development there “a monster.”)


While Equity One has not specified the type of density it’s hoping for, justifying the type of mixed-use development common to transit-oriented areas of the county would likely be a big hill to climb. Westbard now is serviced by just four bus routes, according to planners.

Planners said they heard a lot of concerns from residents who disagree with available data on the area’s traffic congestion levels. Planners said the latest counts indicate none of the area’s major intersections are failing congestion standards. One resident said that’s not true and basing any recommendations on that data could skew the final result.

Planners said new traffic analysis will be done in the course of the sector plan rewrite.


Another resident asked how the Planning Department and county school system interact when it comes to projecting growth of student populations. The Westbard area is split by the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster and the Walt Whitman High School Cluster, both of which have elementary and middle schools over or nearing capacity.

Despite the wariness about Equity One’s plans, planners tried to sell residents on the positive benefits the Sector Plan rewrite could have when it comes to better sidewalks, bicycle facilities, environmental concerns or traffic circulation.

“This is more about how the community might grow. There are opportunities here for positive things, better sidewalks, better ways to get around,” Wright said. “This is not just to fight off a particular development.”


Planners will host a series of public meetings in the next few months. Check out the department’s Plan Westbard site for updates.

Photo via Equity One/Westbard Vision