Credit: File image

Gaithersburg officials on Monday discussed a plan for redeveloping the Lakeforest Mall site, including a debate on how much to focus on affordable housing.

South Carolina developer WRS Inc. bought the core of the mall, except for the four anchor properties, in 2019 and is planning a mixed-use development there.

WRS has been trying to acquire the anchor properties for the past two years. Three of the anchor stores, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney and Sears, have closed. But the parent companies still own the parcels. Macy’s remains in business.

Last fall, WRS released its conceptual plans for the site, which include a mix of townhomes, condominiums and apartments, along with a grocery store, restaurants and more.

The Lakeforest site is currently under a 12-month development moratorium that the city approved in August 2020, to help determine the best use for the site.

Recommendations for the property under the master plan include:

  • An “integrated and coordinated mix of uses” such as (collaborative work spaces), integrated light manufacturing, research and development, and community/civic uses.
  • Housing at various price points
  • An interconnected network of community and green space
  • A mandate that at least 35% of the 102-acre site be used as green space
  • Improvements to the existing transit center or the construction of a new transit center
  • Removal of uncontrolled right-turn lanes and more crosswalks
  • A grid-street pattern that is safe for pedestrians and bikers
  • A cap of 1,600 residential units and limits on the types of housing
  • An emphasis on multifamily and “missing middle” housing
  • A 5-acre limit for buildings that are entirely used for retail. The limit includes surface parking lots. The buildings “footprints” could not exceed 30,000 square feet.

The housing recommendations state that up to 7% of the 1,600 allowed units can be townhouses, between 20% and 30% can be missing middle housing and multifamily homes can be 63% to 73%.

Missing middle housing refers to units “intended to be sold at a price point targeted to middle-income households,” planner Rob Robinson said on Monday.

Single-family homes on individual lots would not be allowed, according to the master plan.

Planner Kirk Eby said Monday that the goal in offering different types of housing is “not to create a bedroom community.”

“But instead, the goal is to create a mixed-use, mixed-income community that has a diversity of housing options within its residential areas,” he said.

Eby said that residential units similar to single-family homes, called bungalow courts, would be allowed. These are detached units that are part of a “condominium regime” and have a shared parking area.

“We’re trying to accomplish a broader range of affordability that’s more market driven, and that’s one of the reasons we felt single-family detached homes were not appropriate,” he said.

One of the stipulations in the master plan is that Lakeforest development not include more regulated affordable housing than is required the city code.

The code requires that at least 15% of all dwelling units in a rental property are affordable to households earning 60% of area median income for low-rise properties and 65% for high-rise properties.

Council Member Mike Sesma said he was “shocked” by a ceiling on affordable units proposed in the master plan.

“You can only put affordable housing where you have the opportunity to build it. OK? So, this is the biggest greenfield in terms of residential development … anywhere in the city at this point,” he said.

Other council members noted that the east side of the city already has a good deal of affordable housing.

Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles said The Cider Mill Apartments, on the opposite side of the mall across Lost Knife Road, is a community with affordable units.

“If we’re trying to attract the sort of economic development that we need on the east side of the city, I think a focus on mixed-income housing and projects is probably what the recommendation was trying to get after,” she said.

Council Member Neil Harris agreed, saying it’s important not to concentrate on affordable housing on just one side of the city.

“It’s the right philosophy for the city as a whole, but probably not in this spot, in my way of thinking,” he said.

Mayor Jud Ashman said he also thinks the Lakeforest property needs to be attractive to some residents with higher incomes.

“There should be equal emphasis on getting some higher-end units, whatever types they are on this property, because as Laurie-Anne said, we are trying to revitalize here. We are trying to attract the retail and the other uses come when the area median income is higher,” he said.

Sesma said he doesn’t think requiring 15% to 25% of units to be affordable would be a problem in terms of concentrating affordable units on one side of the city.

“To say that we’re consigning the area to some crazy destiny of low-income residents is ridiculous …,” he said.

Council Member Robert Wu was more sympathetic to Sesma’s position.

“I think we need to be careful in how we articulate what the goal is for this area. Yes, we do want various price points. But I don’t think we need to discourage or disincentivize various uses. So, I’ll throw my hat in on Mike’s side of the scale here,” he said.

The city will formally release the master plan at the end of the month, which will be followed by a 60-day public comment period. When the comment period concludes in June, there will be a public hearing. The council is expected to take up that matter again after the development moratorium expires on Aug. 17.

Dan Schere can be reached at