Updated 12:41 p.m. Friday: Housing commission officials declared this week that they have no current plans to redevelop the Westwood Tower property in Bethesda, the center of an ongoing battle over a historic African-American burial site.
Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission Chair Jackie Simon read a statement about the apartment property during the agency’s meeting on Wednesday as protestors lined the back of the room, many carrying signs shaped like headstones. For months, members of Macedonia Baptist Church have fought to block any building plans for the apartments and the adjoining parking lot believed to cover gravesites.
The agency has largely stayed silent on the matter, saying pending litigation prevents them from commenting. But during Wednesday’s meeting, Simon said the HOC is “sympathetic to the concerns raised” by demonstrators.
“[A]t present, and for the foreseeable future, the Commission has no plan to develop the property. The Commission intends to purchase Westwood Tower and operate it in its current state,” she said.
The commission will conduct a study if officials decide to pursue redevelopment, Simon said.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the leader of the church’s social justice ministry, said the statement is encouraging on its surface, but doesn’t resolve the congregation’s underlying concerns. Church members say the existing parking lot dishonors the burial sites and want the area dedicated in memory of the black community that once thrived along River Road.
“Even if the HOC is saying that they won’t develop the land in the future, the fact that the land is currently desecrated cannot be acceptable to the residents of Montgomery County,” she said on a Thursday phone interview.
About 20 demonstrators showed up at the HOC headquarters in Kensington on Wednesday, singing “We Shall Overcome” until commission members called the meeting to order. They remained standing at the back and holding signs as commission members listened to public comments.
The Westbard neighborhood surrounding the apartment complex in question was the subject of a growth plan approved by the county last year. The document sets the stage for redevelopment of the aging Westwood Shopping Center and proposes rezoning the Westwood Tower property to enable the construction of about 150 additional multi-family homes.
Westbard residents are challenging the plan in court and recently added the HOC as a defendant in the case. The church is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Regency Centers, the Westbard developer, has submitted a redevelopment proposal for the shopping center and surrounding areas. Despite an outcry from Macedonia Baptist, the Montgomery County Planning Board in February approved the sketch plan, excluding a section that would be examined for burial plots.
The planning department tracked down records showing that an African-American benevolent society bought that land in the early 1900s and shifted remains to the Bethesda site from a graveyard in Tenleytown. The burial ground was paved over about six decades ago when the Westbard area was redeveloped, and there is some question about whether bodies were removed at that point.
Regency Centers agreed to pay for an archaeological study of the area, but church members believe the housing commission must vote to allow the experts onto the property, which the HOC leases.
They have been calling on the commission to take such a vote during recent meetings. The HOC has not put the matter on meeting agendas.
Shauna Sorrells, the HOC's director of legislative and public affairs, on Friday noted that the commission does not yet own the Westwood Tower property and said the housing agency's permission is not required for the archaeological examination.
Coleman-Adebayo said the community activists also are looking for action from the county.
Council members this week unanimously approved a measure to require the Montgomery County Planning Board to create and maintain a countywide inventory of burial sites. A companion bill, which also passed unanimously, would require burial sites to be respected during the subdivision approval process.
“There will be more that needs to be done in terms of us really getting some of the more robust protections that are necessary, but I do think that this is an important first step,” Council member Craig Rice, a lead sponsor of the legislation, said before the vote.
However, Coleman-Adebayo argues that the measures are “dangerous” because they give the planning board more power without setting up adequate safeguards for burial sites.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.