Updated at 12:35 p.m. Montgomery County planners on Thursday night showed off two preferred concepts for “an idealized” future Westbard section of Bethesda.
The concept plans were whittled down from the three “schemes” planners put out on Wednesday, with input from a variety of residents, property owners, government agencies and other stakeholders.
While the two concept plans are important, the final zoning will be adjusted and likely changed as the Westbard Sector Plan rewrite goes to the Planning Board and then the County Council. It’s also important to remember how unlikely it would be for all of the envisioned redevelopment, new roads, new trails and new civic facilities to be built out as planned.
In the 20- to 25-year lifespan of a sector plan, planners said full build-out rarely, if ever, happens.
With that in mind, here are six takeaways from the concept plans that illustrate what the Westbard of the future might look like (The full Powerpoint presentation from Thursday is also after the jump):
Any way you slice it, development is coming to the Giant Food parking lot — Both concept plans included allowing the possibility of mixed-use retail and residential development on what is now a large surface parking lot for the shopping center anchored by a Giant Food store (5400 Westbard Ave.).
Considering new property owner Equity One’s desire to redevelop was largely the impetus to finally update the Westbard Sector Plan, it’s a good bet the company will follow through with whatever the Planning Board and County Council allow.
In both concepts, planners suggested allowing buildings of up to 50 feet in height along with a new street grid on the site of the existing parking lot and shopping center. A mixed-use retail and residential building that’s 50 feet tall would typically allow for one story of ground-floor retail with three stories of residential above, according to county planner Paul Mortenson.
Both concepts include large civic squares that would be put in the middle of the new development and street grid south of Westbard Avenue. Concept 1 would put a new Little Falls Library branch in the civic space, leaving the existing library at 5501 Massachusetts Ave. as a site for a future elementary school.
Mortenson said representatives from Equity One weren’t crazy about the idea of one large, squared-off civic space when they met with planners earlier on Thursday. The idea of moving the library to the middle of the development was too new for the company to have formed an opinion, Mortenson said.
Planners didn’t have solid numbers on Thursday, because they’re developing those numbers right now — Residents at Thursday’s meeting repeatedly asked for projections of how many new housing units and how much more square footage could be built under the full build-out scenarios presented.
Mortenson and planner Marc DeOcampo repeatedly told residents that those numbers will be developed first thing Friday morning — in time for scheduled meetings with officials from MCPS and the county library system.
Those numbers would conceivably be made available to the public at another meeting scheduled for Tuesday night from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at Westland Middle School (5511 Massachusetts Ave.).
In the ‘idealized’ version, you can say goodbye to Westbard’s auto shops — The light industrial uses that permeate Westbard were originally allowed as a way to take advantage of the railroad that ran over River Road.
Well, that railroad was abandoned almost 30 years ago, and planners made it clear in both concept plans that new mixed-use or standalone retail development would make the area more inviting, attractive and vibrant.
Residents mostly agree that the auto repair shops, gas stations and storage warehouses on dead end streets around River Road are ugly. But a few made the point on Thursday that those businesses are still useful.
Some in the county’s Department of Economic Development apparently agree. Mortenson said officials from that county department pointed out that light industrial areas inside the Capital Beltway — such as the one in Westbard — are an increasingly rare and useful amenity.
In Concept 2, redevelopment along much of River Road would be allowed up to 50 feet, instead of the 75 feet allowed in Concept 1. Mortenson said that 50-foot height is not too much different from what’s allowed now and wouldn’t provide too much of an incentive for the existing light industrial businesses to sell off their land.
Translation: Lower density along River Road could mean at least some of Westbard’s auto repair shops and other industrial-type businesses remain over the long term.
School overcrowding is a big concern — Both concept plans included room for a new elementary school and showed a Westland Middle School with significant additions.
Many in the community say they’re concerned about how new residential units — particularly the type of townhouse or family-sized development that seems possible — could add to an already overcrowded school cluster.
Westland Middle School is a projected 215 students overcapacity this school year and is projected to be 605 students overcapacity in the 2018-2019 school year. It feeds into Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which is also overcapacity and scheduled for its own addition project in the next 10 years.
DeOcampo said MCPS planners have indicated they’d like a new elementary school in the cluster, as opposed to a middle or high school (which would also require more space). Concept 1 would put a new elementary school site at the existing location of the Little Falls Library.
Concept 2 would rework Ridgefield Road at its intersection with River Road in order to make room for a new elementary school roughly where the Springhouse of Westwood assisted living facility is today.
Planners want to revert back to a stream’s natural form — The Willett Branch Stream that runs through the entire Westbard area has portions that are channelized and piped with open concrete, a technique that solves local flooding problems but results in high-temperature waters not good for aquatic life and runoff downstream.
In both concepts shown Thursday and all three schemes shown Wednesday, planners proposed “daylighting” the stream and adding a greenway of parkland and perhaps new walking trails that would make it an asset, instead of a concrete eyesore.
The Giant Food shopping center isn’t the only place you can expect redevelopment — While much of the attention so far has been focused on Equity One and its plans for Westbard Avenue, there are other property owners showing strong interest in big changes.
The owner of Kenwood Station — the shopping center home to Whole Foods Market, Ledo Pizza, Georgetown Bagelry and others — is interested in a project that could involve a parking garage and residential units. Planners said both concepts would allow for a 50,000-square-foot retail anchor space in that new development, roughly the size of your typical high-end grocery store.
DeOcampo said the shopping center’s constrained parking lot leads to cars queuing up on River Road as drivers wait for spots to open up.
Also interested in redevelopment is Ridgewells Catering, the major area catering company with a headquarters at 5525 Dorsey Lane. The company could build a new warehouse facility on or near its current spot, which could mean realigning or looping around Dorsey Lane to allow for better traffic circulation.
Photos via Flickr user ehpien, Equity One, MCPS, the Little Falls Watershed Alliance and Google Maps