In the spring of 1972, dozens of Chevy Chase residents marched through Friendship Heights to protest a plan that would’ve brought a small city’s worth of office buildings and shopping malls to Wisconsin and Western Avenues.
Many were first-time homeowners with years of experience marching for civil rights and against war in Vietnam, recalled longtime civic activist Julie Davis on Wednesday.
The group met in the parking lot of Woodward & Lothrop, carried banners and signs and eventually wound up on Western Avenue with speakerphones and speeches. Many of the marchers were pushing their young children in strollers.
“It was the perfect storm,” Davis said on Wednesday. “Nobody knew anything about planning and zoning, but we learned on the job. We got into the citizens advisory committee. Adversarial doesn’t begin to describe it. Nothing went on other than shouting matches.”
The battles between developers and residents that happen today seem tame by comparison.
In an event Wednesday at the Planning Department titled “Retrofitting The Suburbs: From Friendship Heights to White Flint,” Davis and others recalled stories about how Montgomery County’s urban areas got that way.
Most agreed that the policies and sector plan framework set up by the Planning Department after Friendship Heights have played a huge role in making the process more inclusive and more effective, though challenges remain.
Friendship Heights in the 1970s was very much the first battleground, according to Royce Hanson, the Planning Board chair from 1972-1980 and again from 2006-2010.
“Back then in Montgomery County, planning was a religious experience,” said Hanson, who went on to compare the Friendship Heights deliberations to Caesar’s Battle of Pharsalus.
Hanson cast the property owners at the time, including Koubek, the Chevy Chase Land Company and Bergdoll, as “the Commercial Republic,” all dueling over how much density and development should be allowed in an an area where the Friendship Heights Metro Station wouldn’t open until 1984.
It all led to the landmark Montgomery County v. Woodward & Lothrop case, which set the precedent for the County Council and Planning Board to be able to rezone central business districts with the sector plan and sectional map amendment processes used today.
“It established the rules of engagement for planning politics,” Hanson said. “Friendship Heights was the prototype for the reinvention of planning politics in Montgomery County.”
Hanson spoke about remodeling downtown Bethesda around its new Metro station and the Metro Plaza that many feel remains uninviting to this day.
“In the first generation of Metro, the battles were about neighborhood impact rather than the quality of life in urban districts,” Hanson said. “This kabuki performance continued with many plans. The planning process also established legitimacy for the plans themselves. And the activists who were involved in it developed real skills in dealing with both the public officials and developers.”
Much of Hanson’s presentation dealt with the “death and life of Silver Spring,” including stories about major development plans that never happened and the eventual downtown Silver Spring project of the 1990s that reinvigorated what had long been a commercial district in decline.
Hanson finished with White Flint, what he labeled “the end of suburbia,” referring to the 2010 White Flint Sector Plan that established the guidelines for massive mixed-use redevelopment of the area’s commercial strip shopping centers and 160 acres of surface parking lots.
“For the first time in memory, more residents supported the plan than disparaged it,” Hanson said. “I’d say for the Board and staff at the time, that was really a great night.”
That widespread support for massive redevelopment of White Flint came for many reasons, according to Hanson.
One was the three years of discussions between major property owners and residents, “in which the antagonists and protagonists got to know one another and began to develop mutual trust.”
Another, according to Federal Realty’s Evan Goldman, was the fact that most of White Flint’s existing commercial corridor was far enough away from single family neighborhoods that higher buildings wouldn’t overshadow.
Goldman is Federal Realty’s point man on the Pike & Rose project, which when finished will bring 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, 1,605 residential units and a 177-room boutique hotel to the former Mid-Pike Plaza Shopping Center.
He recalled one resident who was very fearful of height increases for buildings. She literally did a balloon test, floating a balloon 300 feet in the air at the White Flint Metro to demonstrate just how high new development might be.
“She kind of missed the point that other people were really excited about the change,” Goldman said. “I was nervous that was going to change and we were going to end up with 50-foot heights. I spent that entire morning driving to each single family home neighborhood trying to see if I could see the balloon. I couldn’t find it from any neighborhood. This was one of those final battles.”
Goldman said the heights eventually recommended in the White Flint Sector Plan were vital, providing enough incentive for property owners to pursue mixed-use redevelopment.
But he also said some of the Planning Department’s regulations, especially concerning public amenities, are too often applied as a blanket rule to all developers. In response to concerns about the county’s down office market, he said the county needs to find anchor tenants from outside the area for its vacant and planned office space.
Pike & Roses’s 80,000-square-foot Class A office building will have an anchor tenant moving from elsewhere in the county.
“We are not pulling new tenants to the market and it’s a huge huge problem,” Goldman said. “I liken it to the way that we heavily subsidized a movie theater, because that’s going to create a huge benefit for the rest of my project — foot traffic, sales at other retail stores, the cultural aspect. We need to figure out who are those key anchors. We need to subsidize them heavily to get here.”
As for future development battles, Davis said she learned from her history in Friendship Heights that sometimes things will “turn out about as well as they could,” when all sides are unhappy.
“It doesn’t have to be everyone walks away unhappy and that’s going to mean the best result,” Goldman said.
Councilmember Nancy Floreen, a former member of the Planning Board, said while the general agreement on the White Flint plan “broke a lot of expectations,” the same might not be the case for other areas.
“They’re going to Westbard now and Bethesda,” Floreen said. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Flickr photo by Bill in DC