Plans to redevelop Westbard would change density and retail configuration

Bethesda resident Patricia O’Neill, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, has shopped at the Westbard center off River Road for years. She knows it is far from perfect, a little down at the heels, and maybe ready for a makeover.

But that makeover, which is likely to come in the form of clustered housing, new retail, and a more walkable community, is also likely to come at a cost: the community probably will need a new elementary school for the children who are expected to move into the new housing. The preliminary outlines of the Westbard sector redevelopment plan, which would allow denser zoning, calls for adding up to nearly 2,000 more housing unitstripling the 1,100 units already there.

“We will need a new elementary school,” O’Neill predicted.

Without changes to the current zoning, the county could only permit about an additional 1,000 housing units in the area, which is bounded by River Road, Little  Falls Parkway and Massachusetts Avenue. But a revised sector plan, unveiled as a staff draft in November, could increase the density by allowing more units, and buildings taller than the current limit of about 40 feet in most areas. Some of the new buildings could be as tall as 80 feet, preliminary plans suggest. The proposed revisions are subject to change, and any changes to current zoning must be approved by the Planning Board and the County Council, which are expected to review them in 2015.

The Westbard area is part of two public high school clusters, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster and the Walt Whitman cluster. If more housing is built, O’Neill said, inevitably there will be more families hoping to send their children to neighborhood public schools.

“Both clusters are experiencing severe overcrowding,” she said. “B-CC High School will be landlocked and built out with the next addition. And we are now studying building an addition at Whitman without knowing what will come out of Westbard.”

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There are some possibilities other than new construction, including having the county reclaim the former Brookmont Elementary on Sangamore Road, now occupied by the Washington Waldorf school. And there is always the potential to redraw school boundaries, often a contentious and volatile political process and one that most elected officials would like to avoid.

Although potential redevelopment may not occur for several more years, O’Neill said the school board and school system must try to foresee construction costs, which run on a six-year planning cycle. And the officials want prospective developers and county planners to recognize that they may need to set aside land for a new elementary school in the area, at minimum.

“In the Bethesda area, there is just not a lot of land,” O’Neill said.

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Whether there will be enough money to build additional schools is also a big question.

In October, county schools superintendent Joshua Starr asked the state for nearly $221 million in additional money for school construction for Maryland’s fastest growing school system.

The county’s schools are expected to grow by about 2,600 students annually for the next several years. The current school population is about 154,000 students.

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County Planning Board chairman Casey Anderson said much more planning and discussion will occur before a final decision is made on the scope of potential redevelopment in Westbard.

“We are well aware that schools are an issue in Westbard, he said. “This is an issue all over the county. I think there are solutions. We are not going to be proposing a plan that we don’t think won’t meet school capacity.”

One possibility is to build up, and situate schools on less acreage than has been customary. For elementary schools in Montgomery County, that has been about seven acres, which as land prices escalate, becomes more and more valuable to developers.

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“We are well aware that schools are an issue in Westbard,” Anderson said. “This is an issue all over the county. We are not going to be proposing a plan that we don’t think will not meet school capacity.”

One possibility would be to build up and build on smaller sites. Ideally, O’Neill said, elementary schools need about 10 acres, but that may be hard to negotiate in a sector where more housing and retail density is sought by developers. That’s been part of the hangup in White Flint, where talks are still  underway to resolve the need for a new elementary school.

O’Neill said the board will move ahead with a letter, likely to be written and sent by mid-January. She said the school board was criticized during the rezoning process in White Flint, being redeveloped along Rockville Pike, for waiting to speaking up about the need for a possible site for an elementary school. She said the school board had waited for what they thought was the right time in the process, but learned that negotiations with developers were very far along.

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She said the school board thought it was important to make its concerns known now. “I don’t want to wait for a future [school] board to say ‘Why didn’t the school board speak up?’ We are speaking up. We have an obligation for the kids of the future.”

 

 

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