The Montgomery County Planning Department Thursday released its Working Draft of the Westbard Sector Plan, a 90-page document that’s likely to have much influence on the Bethesda neighborhood’s zoning, building heights, street grid improvements and many other land-use issues.
The Planning Board is expected to approve the draft next week (July 16) and its public hearing on the draft is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 24.
Here are five noteworthy recommendations (some new, some that have been shared before) from planners included in the draft:
Recommended building heights for new development in Westbard. Credit: Montgomery County Planning Department
New development would effectively be capped at six stories
Planners announced at an April community meeting that they would be reducing many recommended building heights in the area compared to their initial concept plans released late last year. Westbard today includes light industrial uses and suburban-style shopping centers along Westbard Avenue and River Road between Westbard Avenue and Little Falls Parkway.
Most new development would be capped at a maximum 75-foot-height, resulting in six-story buildings that planners say would “create a low-scale building fabric, composed of small blocks and walkable streets.”
That would be a big change from Westbard today, where planners pointed to four existing buildings more than 100 feet tall that “stand alone in the landscape.” The working draft emphasizes that new development should be built to a “neighborhood scale” that creates a “vibrant village center.”
It seems as if planners chose that language on purpose, responding to concerns from Westbard residents about the area turning into the type of dense, commercial center that downtown Bethesda has become.
Planners want Metro shuttles and developers might have to help pay for them
Unlike downtown Bethesda, home to a Metro station, and Chevy Chase Lake, home to a planned Purple Line light-rail station, there is no major transit system in Westbard—and none is expected in the 25- to 30-year life of the sector plan.
So planners are pitching a private shuttle service to run between Westbard and the Metro stations in Bethesda and Friendship Heights. The idea is that healthy use of the private shuttle would prove to Montgomery County and Metro the area is prime for increased public bus service, long the desire of many in the community.
Who would pay for the shuttle?
Planners suggested the private shuttle service as one of a host of potential public benefit projects that could be provided by developers who want more density in their projects.
Small, independent retailers are a focus
In keeping with the “neighborhood” theme of a new-look Westbard, planners recommended that property owners form an association of Westbard merchants. That could one day lead to “a retail marketing and revitalization strategy, of which attracting and retaining small businesses will be a component.”
Equity One, the property owner that plans to redevelop the Westwood Shopping Center on Westbard Avenue, has committed to keeping as many of the existing small and independent retailers as possible.
The company has also said it doesn’t envision new anchor tenants would be huge regional draws (such as, for example, the Apple Store on Bethesda Row), but instead more tailored to the interests of those who live in the single-family neighborhoods surrounding the shopping center.
Planners recommended reserving some space in new commercial buildings “for small, independent retailers” in the 500- to 1,000-square-foot range “when possible.”
Credit: Montgomery County Planning Department
Library out, civic space in
Planners initially threw around the idea of relocating the Little Falls Library to a new facility in Equity One’s development that would serve as the area’s central civic gathering space. Residents roundly criticized the idea.
After that criticism, Montgomery County officials called a special meeting in April to assure residents they had no intention of moving the library—which now occupies a 60-year-old building in need of repair on Massachusetts Avenue.
In the working draft, planners said they will not recommend moving the library. The civic space at Equity One’s development will instead be recommended for a half-acre green open space facing Westbard Avenue.
Planners also recommended a series of other park spaces, including at the realigned Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road intersection with River Road.
A potential new look for the Willett Branch. Credit: Los Angeles River Master Plan
‘Daylighting’ the Willett Branch is still very much part of the plan
None of those proposed new park spaces would be as ambitious as what planners want to happen to the Willett Branch Stream, which now runs through a concrete piping system more conducive to illegal dumping and stormwater runoff than healthy aquatic life.
Fixing the stream by adding a trail, tree canopy and natural-looking creek bed is another of the public benefit projects listed as possibilities for developers.