2015 | News

In Raucous Westbard Debate, Supporters of Redevelopment Say They’re Part of ‘Silent Majority’

While opposition to development has been pronounced, some area residents have sided with major property owner Equity One

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The Westbard area of Bethesda, which surrounds River Road and Westbard Avenue

Montgomery County Planning Department

Over the past two years, the community meetings and Planning Board sessions concerning the future of Westbard in Bethesda have been dominated by those opposed to significant redevelopment, often in a contentious manner.

But to some who would like to see the area’s largest single property—the Westwood Shopping Center—redeveloped into a more modern destination, the controversy apparent at those events belies the true feelings of the community.

“I think most people just aren’t bothered by it,” said Ben McMakin, a Bethesda resident who lives a few blocks away from the shopping center. “At block parties or soccer games, you meet some families that are interested in the school overcrowding issue, but that’s bigger than Westbard. I think there’s, and I hate to use this phrase, a silent majority of folks who don’t particularly care to get involved in the day-to-day machinations or the tug and pull of a project like this.”

McMakin is one of dozens of Bethesda residents who sent emails to the Montgomery County Planning Board in support of property owner Equity One’s plans to transform the Westwood Shopping Center from an aging strip mall to a “retail town center” with underground parking, a new street grid, a public park and new town homes.

Many emails sent in support of Equity One’s plans were prompted by a public relations campaign the New York-based developer is running to show support. Opponents of Equity One’s plans sent similar pre-formulated emails to the Planning Board outlining their views.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity to transform the community with new amenities and a real, walkable gathering place for things we just don’t have,” McMakin said. “The list of services that you have to drive to Bethesda for or into D.C. is ridiculous. There’s no community around Westbard.”

The Westbard Sector Plan, which will go before the County Council for a final approval process starting next month, could bring new zoning to the area around Westbard Avenue and River Road that would allow for housing on surface parking lots, bicycle lanes, the restoration of the Willett Branch stream and other design details that opponents say are too reminiscent of bustling downtown Bethesda.

“You have a responsibility to protect our community,” one opponent told the Planning Board at a September public hearing. “New Urbanism is so 1990s. New Suburbanism is the idea of the future.”

Despite concerns from neighborhood groups about traffic, school capacity and the loss of existing small businesses, the Planning Board earlier this month approved allowing 60-foot-tall retail buildings on the bulk of the Westwood Shopping Center property along Westbard Avenue.

An image from Equity One's public relations campaign on the Westwood Shopping Center, via Equity One

“My main reason for supporting Equity One’s plans is because the Westwood Shopping Center is such a sad, dreary, outdated center with sprawling acres of concrete in an important, central area,” said Alison Cooper, another nearby resident who sent an email in support of Equity One’s plans.

Tiago Soromenho, 45, who lives in the nearby Kenwood Park neighborhood, said he’s supportive of the redevelopment plans because it would add retail and restaurant options like those he currently patronizes in downtown Bethesda.

“There are very few modern conveniences here,” said Soromenho, who first moved into the Westbard area as a teenager in 1986. “The world is kind of moving forward. I realize some people don’t want that to change, but that center is fighting time over there.”

Soromenho said he’s hoping specifically for more fast-casual food options. While he said he’s concerned new town homes could add to the area’s existing issues with overcrowded schools, he is in favor of the type of apartment or condominium projects that typically attract young professionals or downsizing retirees without kids in the county school system. McMakin, who is 50 and has three kids in public schools, said the opposition to redevelopment of the shopping center “irks me.”

“The school overcrowding thing is an enormous red herring,” said McMakin, who pointed to already overcrowded schools in the Walt Whitman High School cluster. “Along my street in the past two years, we’ve got six new families, all with young kids. That’s one-fifth turnover in basically two years. That’s where the students come from, not the type of development going in.”

Soromenho said he’s sensed a generational divide on the issue, with middle-aged residents more likely to support or not have a position on redevelopment and older retirees or elderly residents being the most concerned.

“To them, this is sort of a lot of change near the end of their lives and they don’t want to deal with it,” Soromenho said. “That’s a valid concern. But what is sometimes seen as a vocal set of people tends to belie a much larger set of people who don’t have a problem with it. They are more motivated to speak out and they have a lot more time to do it.”