The developer that won the rights to 75 acres of prime Bethesda real estate plans to build up to 330 homes on the property, maxing out on a rare piece of open land that’s now home to four large radio towers.
John Harris, vice president with Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers, said the company plans a mix of town homes and single-family detached homes. The site’s zoning allows up to 50 percent of the new homes to be town homes, though Harris said the developer hasn’t decided on the final mix and many other important details.
Last week, Toll Brothers hired Silver Spring-based architecture and planning firm Torti Gallas to help design the site. Harris said Toll Brothers hopes to submit its sketch plan—the first formal part of the county’s approval process—in the next two months with the preliminary plan submission coming in early 2016.
The site, now home to the WMAL radio towers, sits just north of the Capital Beltway spur and just west of I-270. The location, the site’s status as Bethesda’s largest tract of yet-to-be developed land and surrounding neighborhoods with an average home value of more than $660,000 made for a long list of offers from developers.
When the property was put on the market earlier this year, the move raised concerns among nearby residents and government officials that more housing could pose more issues for an already overcrowded public school system and congested local roads.
“We share those concerns. They’re real concerns,” Harris said. “Our future residents will be faced with the same issues.”
Credit: Aaron Kraut
County Council member Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda, reportedly asked the county to examine if there was a way the county could acquire the land for use as a new school, park or for other government services.
Brokers selling the site said it could go for as much as $75 million.
Toll Brothers won’t close its purchase of the site until it has made progress in the county’s approval process. The purchase price of the land, which is owned by broadcasting company Cumulus Media, is confidential until that point.
Toll Brothers hired Rockville-based public relations firm Chesapeake Strategies to help set up meetings with local civic associations and residents. The developer has met with the board of one civic group, three smaller groups of residents in homes near the site and the West Fernwood Citizens Association.
The West Fernwood group organized this summer because of the prospect of development of the WMAL site. A July meeting with an appearance from Toll Brothers representatives brought out more than 100 people.
“The other option would be to wait. Then everybody sits there and gets worried,” Harris said. “So we’re out there to put a face on it and answer questions. We’re not going to be able to make everybody happy, but we are accessible.”
Harris said the county’s master plan for the area requires any residential development on the site to have an access point from Greyswood Road, one of the widest roads in the area and one that also connects to Fernwood Road near the major thoroughfare of Democracy Boulevard.
There will also be access to the new batch of homes from Greentree Road. A traffic study required in the Planning Department’s approval process will be done later to determine if any of the new car trips generated by the development cause nearby intersections to fail congestion standards.
Harris said Toll Brothers expects to be required to pay for improvements at some intersections.
The site is zoned for medium-density residential use, and could permit a mix of one-acre, half-acre and quarter-acre home lots and town houses. Toll Brothers isn’t proposing any commercial uses and won’t need zoning changes or special exceptions.
The home sites will likely be in the 4,000- to 9,000-square-foot range, meaning less than a quarter-acre. Pricing would start in the $800,000s with most of the homes sitting in the $1.1 million to $1.4 million range. Affordable housing requirements would mean a minimum of about 42 of the homes are reserved as moderately-priced dwelling units.
Zoning rules require that about 15 percent of the site be maintained as open space. Harris said the developer is accepting suggestions for what to do in terms of a required public amenity. Some residents have suggested a dog park. The wide open, mostly grassy site is now a popular place for dog walkers.
A sign on the edge of the property reminds people that “This Is Not A ‘Dog Park,’” and that dogs must remain on a leash at all times.
Cumulus Media will be responsible for taking down the radio towers once the deal goes through. A house on the Greentree Road side of the property, home to radio broadcasting equipment, will be torn down.
Local real estate broker Herb Patterson said he represented developer Aris Mardirossian’s unsuccessful bid of about $50 million for the site. Cumulus and its broker narrowed down the choices to four leading bids before choosing Toll Brothers, Patterson said.
Patterson said Mardirossian offered to donate about half of the site for a new school and a new park, with the rest reserved for a senior housing development.
The property’s impact on the local school population is expected to be another major concern for nearby residents. The new homes would likely be assigned to Walter Johnson High School, where the study of an addition project is already underway.
Harris and Toll Brothers plan to meet with the Walter Johnson High School PTSA soon.
Credit: Aaron Kraut