Equity One Unveils Westbard Development Plans

The Westwood Shopping Center and surrounding properties would be developed into a mixed-use Town Center

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A diagram provided by Equity One shows its plans for redeveloping a 22 acre parcel in Westbard surrounding the Westwood Shopping Center. Annotation by Bethesda Beat. (click to expand)

Developer Equity One revealed Wednesday new renderings and diagrams depicting a proposed low-rise retail town center in Bethesda on the site of Westwood Shopping Center, plus nearby residential developments including a town house community and apartment and condo buildings.

The drawings were the first detailed depiction of the New York City-based developer’s plans to develop a 22 acre parcel with several different properties it bought in early 2014 for a reported total of $140 million.

Those properties include the sites of the Manor Care senior living center and Westwood II shopping center across the street from each other at the corner of Ridgefield Road and Westbard Avenue; the Westwood Shopping Center anchored by a Giant grocery store; two gas stations and the Bowlmor Bethesda building.

Michael Berfield, Equity One’s executive vice president of development, laid out the company’s vision for the properties during a meeting with reporters Wednesday afternoon inside a meeting room at the Westwood II shopping center.

“This is a first iteration,” Berfield said. “We like it, but we recognize that there are things about it that people in the community might want to change and we’re open to sort of continuing the dialogue we’ve already started with them to make sure we come to a place where we have a project that we believe in, that the community will support.”

Two of the three tallest buildings in the plan would be constructed on two sites near a newly-aligned Westbard Avenue, where it connects with River Road and Ridgefield Road on the eastern portion of the property. Currently the two sites are home to the Westwood II shopping center and Manor Care.

Equity One is proposing two 75-foot-tall residential buildings across the street from each other on those two sites. The condo building proposed for the Manor Care site would have 75-foot heights facing River Road, but rise 50 feet in the back to better fit in with the single-family homes in the neighborhood, according to Berfield. The company is planning about 250 units for the two buildings.

Equity One is also proposing a 75-foot-tall apartment building on the site of Bowlmor Bethesda, down Westbard Avenue. About 200 units are planned for that building, Berfield said.

The centerpiece of the developer’s plans would be the redeveloped Westwood Shopping Center. The existing surface parking lot and low-rise white shopping center would be redeveloped into a mixed-use town center encompassing approximately 250,000 square feet of retail space in three buildings rising no higher than 50 feet. Berfield said the town center would include 60,000 square feet of space for a grocery store, as well as space for shops and restaurants.

The town center would include 1,100 to 1,200 parking spaces on one level of underground parking, plus a surface lot for the grocery store. That works out to about 4.5 spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail, which Berfield said is fairly standard for new retail developments. Westwood Shopping Center has about 1,000 parking spaces.

“What this does is allow to you have a very simple, easy-to-understand, easy-to-navigate parking feel for the people who are going to drive here,” Berfield said.

Equity One is also proposing to build town houses next to Westbard Circle on a section of the shopping center’s existing parking lot. Working in conjunction with residential property developer EYA, the developer is planning to build about 75 high-end town houses between the proposed town center and Kenwood Place condominiums.

In total, Equity One is proposing to build between 500 and 700 residential units, according to Berfield. He said the company is negotiating with the existing Giant grocery store and several other grocers to see which might want to be located in the development. Giant’s lease expires in 2019 and Berfield said the store is interested in being part of the new development.

If the company receives county approval for the project, which Berfield says could take two and a half years, construction would be spread over 10 years, Berfield said. He wasn’t sure which component would be built first.

“That’s probably the fuzziest part of the project, as to what would go first,” Berfield said. “What’s not fuzzy is that it’s a very long-term project and the impacts would be spread out over a very long period.”

Equity One first began pitching its development ideas during community meetings in the spring 2014. The early proposals were vague—one presentation showed a heat map-like diagram of where potential density increases may occur—which caused concern among residents about high-density development on the large parcel that is mostly surrounded by traditional single-family homes.

Without access to specifics, residents grew more concerned, leading to tense meetings with planners from the Montgomery County Planning Department as they solicited ideas for the Westbard Sector Plan update during the fall and winter of 2014. A significant portion of the Westbard Sector is taken up by the properties owned by Equity One.

Berfield said Equity One pursued a rewrite of the sector plan because it would allow the developer to consider the 22-acre parcel in a comprehensive way. He said he hopes the community will be more receptive to the company’s proposals once they see the latest renderings. Many of which were shown to members of the press Wednesday.

“It’s very unique to have this amount of land possible to be redeveloped in this type of neighborhood, in terms that it’s really an established, vibrant neighborhood,” Berfield said. “Our focus is really building a project that’s [built] to scale and fits in with what’s already here.”

He said Equity One’s town center proposal isn’t designed to primarily attract people from outside the community. “We’re looking to fit into an already vibrant, existing community and give it a place where that community can kind of center around.”

Berfield said the company plans to hold outreach meetings with community groups and civic associations to further detail its proposals, but doesn’t plan to hold additional sessions for the community at large, such as the 400 person meetings held in an auditorium last year.

“At a certain point they become counter-productive,” Berfield said.

He said some community groups have responded favorably to the updated plans during early meetings.

“I think it was hard for people to be positive when it was hard for them to know what to be positive for,” Berfield said. “I think when they see this plan and they see that it is not Armageddon and we are not proposing 300-foot towers and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of square feet of new commercial, then I think there’s a little bit of relief. But also I think there’s some excitement.”

According to the plans:

  • Green roofs or public space, such as dining space for restaurants, are under consideration for the rooftops of the town center buildings.
  • The company plans to address potential stormwater issues to prevent runoff into the nearby Willett Branch Stream.
  • Rents for the proposed apartments could be lower than those for similar units in downtown Bethesda that often run about $2,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, while the town homes will be priced similar to those in EYA’s nearby Little Falls Place development. Those town houses are priced from $1.3 million to $1.7 million.
  • Westbard Avenue would remain as a four-lane road, with two lanes running in each direction. Free street parking is being considered, but not during rush hour.
  • Several parks are proposed, including a hardscape fountain and a new park near River Road.
  • No gas stations would be built, the current ones would be removed in the proposal.
  • Westwood Shopping Center’s existing tenants will be given the opportunity to move into the new development. However, Berfield said it may be difficult for them to do so, given the lengthy construction schedule. Still, Equity One would like to keep retailers that “customers go out of their way to go to,” he said.

 

Diagram of the plan.

Entry to Westbard shopping center from the east side.

View down Westbard Avenue.

View of the proposed Village Square.

View of Westbard Circle, with proposed townhome community. All above images via Equity One.

Possible park locations in the proposal

Parking spots proposed in the plan.

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