Westbard community members erupted in outrage last year when developer Equity One debuted plans to knock down the aging Westwood Shopping Center and surrounding buildings in the Bethesda neighborhood and replace them with big-box stores, a residential high rise and townhome subdivisions.
Too much density, they said. Too much height. Not enough green space.
On Wednesday night, the new owner of the shopping center property answered these complaints with a dramatically different redevelopment plan that is about half the size of the original proposal and provides a larger, more centralized green.
“We want to do something that the community will like, that will be part of the community,” Sam Stiebel, vice president of investments for Regency Centers, said in a Wednesday interview before the evening presentation.
The response was mixed among the crowd of hundreds who gathered at Westland Middle School to hear Regency representatives detail their new plan.
Sue Schumacher, who lives in the Kenwood Condos on River Road, was less than impressed by the proposal for an enlarged central green.
“So, in your great generosity, you are going from a third of an acre to a half an acre of green space? That’s huge!” she said sarcastically during the Q&A portion of the meeting.
Others, such as Eric Hart, thought Regency was on the right track with the revised plan. Hart, who has lived in Bethesda since the 1950s, predicted that overhauling the aging shopping center would boost property values for him and his neighbors.
“I can’t see this happen soon enough,” he said.
Proposed half-acre green at the Westwood Shopping Center site. Under this plan, the new location for the Giant grocery store would be in the upper floor of the building to the left. Credit: Regency
Equity One in 2016 submitted a sketch plan for a roughly 1.8 million square-foot development on several properties lining Westbard Avenue. The plan called for replacing the Westbard Shopping Center with three big-box store buildings along with 74 townhomes spread out behind the retail center. The plan called for a 120-foot-tall high-rise on the Bowlmor Bethesda site, townhomes in place of the vacant, five-story Manor Care building and mixed-use space on the Westwood Tower site. Equity One also wanted to demolish the Westwood II office buildings to clear space for realigning Westbard Avenue and a new, 190,900-square-foot mixed-use building.
The sketch plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board last year excluded Westwood Tower, a property that needed to be studied by archeological experts because of the presence of a historic African-American cemetery.
Community members reacted vehemently against the Equity One plan, saying the surrounding roads and schools couldn’t handle such a massive project. Stiebel said since Regency acquired Equity One last year, company representatives have heard residents complain that the original proposal would’ve turned Westbard into a kind of downtown Bethesda, which has seen much development in recent years. People didn’t like all of the big-box stores and the proposal for underground parking, he said.
After spending months considering the plans and talking to neighborhood associations and community members, Regency decided to take the Westwood Shopping Center in a different direction, Stiebel said.
The Equity One sketch plan that passed muster with the board would’ve yielded 1.5 million square feet of total development, 874 residential units and 510,000 square feet of retail space. Regency’s new proposal would only give rise to 819,000 square feet of total development, with 524 residential units and 183,000 square feet of retail space. The updated plan does not cover the Westwood Tower site, which Regency recently sold for $20 million to the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, or the Bowlmor site.
Regency’s plan also would significantly ease the expected burden on schools and roads, since it would add fewer students and car trips to the Westbard community, he said.
Comparison of the Equity One and Regency plans. Via Regency.
Under the new plan, the redevelopment would unfold in phases, the first of which would focus on the Westwood Shopping Center site. Stiebel said the new plan is to construct two buildings separated by a half-acre green that would act as a community gathering space and have a small stage for hosting concerts or other events.
Ground-level shops and restaurants would line the outside of each building, leaving space at the center of each building for parking. Giant would continue to anchor the shopping center, moving into 60,000 square feet on the upper level of one of the buildings, Stiebel said. The second building would include three levels of multifamily housing—about 180 units—on its upper stories. A subdivision with about 74 townhomes built by EYA would be constructed behind the redeveloped mixed-use complex, he said.
The only underground parking would be for residents in the multifamily housing complex.
Stiebel said the Giant and much of the rest of the shopping center could remain open during construction. It’s too early to say whether other retail tenants would return to the revamped shopping center, but he said Regency understands that many in the community want to see these businesses stay.
Future phases of the development plan would include building EYA townhomes at the Manor Care site and possibly putting senior housing at the Westwood II property, he said. Regency is also considering a low-rise residential building for the Citgo gas station parcel.
Bowlmor has a 20-year lease for its bowling alley, which isn’t included in Regency’s redevelopment plan.
Several people challenged Stiebel about the amount of community outreach that Regency has done in recent months. Representatives of Macedonia Baptist Church, a Bethesda congregation that has advocated to protect the historic cemetery site, said the developer never tried to meet with them.
The Rev. Segun Adebayo, Macedonia’s pastor, said Regency was still responsible for helping preserve the burial ground, even though it no longer owns the HOC property that contains the historic site.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the pastor’s wife and head of the church’s social justice ministry, called on Regency to support the congregation in protecting the property.
“We want to see that area sanctified. We want it respected and memorialized,” she said.
Regency representatives said they had met with Macedonia Baptist members, although both the pastor, his wife and an attorney representing the church maintained they’d never been contacted by the developer.
Stiebel said Regency will do its part to help protect the history of the neighborhood.
“We really understand the sensitivity of the issue and we are committed to working with park and planning [officials] to commemorate the [cemetery] site,” he said.
Lucy Freeman, who lives in the town of Somerset, noted Equity One’s original plan would’ve dedicated 15 percent of residential units to affordable housing, while Regency is only proposing 12.5 percent. Stiebel said Regency is only required to provide 12.5 percent under county zoning laws.
Others asked what Regency would do to promote restoration of the Willett Branch and create a greenway around the stream valley.
Stiebel said Regency intends to dedicate land along the Willett Branch and for the Springfield Neighborhood Park.
County Council member Marc Elrich, who attended the presentation, said he appreciated the reduction in proposed density in the new plan.
“I thought, by and large, this was a huge step in the right direction,” Elrich said Thursday of Regency’s changes to the project plan.
He added the revised proposal shows the planning board was wrong in trying to convince community members that they’d have to accept dense development if they wanted a new shopping center.
Because Regency is greatly reducing the proposed density in its project, it is free to pursue an alternative method of development and is subject to different planning requirements, Stiebel said. For that reason, the developer doesn’t have to resubmit an entirely new sketch plan to replace the voided Equity One proposal.
Instead, Regency will move forward by preparing a preliminary plan amendment and several site plans. Stiebel said he anticipates submitting those plans to the county in March, and Regency expects to break ground at the shopping center site in late 2019.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.