2021 | Development

Gaithersburg unanimously passes Lakeforest master plan

‘Ball is in the court of the private sector,’ mayor says

share this

File image

The Gaithersburg City Council on Monday unanimously passed the city’s master plan for the Lakeforest Mall property, outlining the framework for future redevelopment.

The plan includes a mix of residential and commercial development, along with green space. Any future redevelopment of the site must fit the master plan.

The master plan rezones the 102-acre site from commercial to mixed use. It calls for 30% to 35% to be used as green space.

Additionally, there is a cap of 1,600 residential units with the following guidelines:

  • Up to 10% of the units could be townhouses
  • At least 25% would need to be “gap housing” that “bridges the gap” between single family units and rental-focused multifamily units.
  • Between 40% and 65% would need to be either rental or owned multifamily units

The plan also contains guidelines for retail development, such as:

  • A maximum of five acres for stand-alone or solely retail (can be multiple tenants) facilities. The five acres includes surface parking lots.
  • The five acres may be contiguous or spread among areas
  • A 30,000-square-foot building footprint for stand-alone or solely retail facilities
  • Unlimited retail acreage and footprint size for mixed-use buildings

City officials have long intended to create a new master plan for the Lakeforest site, in preparing for a future redevelopment.

On Monday, city officials were overall supportive of the plan. Mayor Jud Ashman said the redevelopment of the Lakeforest site is one of the most important projects in Gaithersburg, and this plan paints a general vision for its future without dictating specifics.

“It takes the property out of the realm of big boxes drowning in the realm of at-grade parking and recommends a much more integrated, urban, green space ecosystem,” he said.

Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles said she was pleased with the thoroughness of the plan and the city’s outreach to the public.

Council Member Robert Wu said he thinks it’s a great plan overall, but he has “misgivings about certain flexibilities” in it. He did not elaborate.

Developer opposition

South Carolina developer WRS bought Lakeforest Mall in 2019. However, it did not acquire the four anchor properties: Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Sears and Macy’s. All of the anchor stores except Macy’s have closed, but the properties are still owned by their parent companies.

WRS tried unsuccessfully to acquire the anchor properties after buying the mall two years ago in­to clear a development hurdle set out in a 1970s reciprocal easement agreement, stating that all owners of the mall must agree to any changes made to the property.

In August 2020, the city imposed a yearlong moratorium on development of the property to determine the best use. WRS opposed the moratorium due to concerns that investors and lenders would be driven away.

WRS has continued to be at odds with the city over the future of the Lakeforest site. The developer released its own vision for the site in October 2020 in a conceptual plan. That plan calls for:

  • Between 500 and 600 townhomes
  • 120 to 150 condominiums
  • 175 to 250 multifamily apartment units
  • Between 400,000 and 500,000 square feet of retail space
  • 1,000 surface parking lot spaces

WRS Executive Vice President Kevin Rogers wrote to the city in May, saying that the master plan does not ensure future development is receptive to the market and that it could take years to fully implement. He worries that the other property owners might be forced to sell or lease their properties.

WRS has also alleged that it and the other property owners weren’t involved in the drafting process for the master plan — an allegation the city disputes.

Rogers could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

Ashman told Bethesda Beat this week that the master plan is a “step in the right direction” in that it provides a baseline for the property’s vision if and when redevelopment comes.

“The ball is in the court of the private sector,” he said. “The property owners … either they have to all align in a redevelopment or someone needs to acquire all of the properties and then come to us for redevelopment.

“So that could happen a month from now or it could happen three years from now. It’s just totally unclear. But I’m hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”

But even if a redevelopment plan is approved soon, a new future for Lakeforest is likely still years away.

Ashman said that if a developer acquired all of the properties tomorrow, it would likely take six to nine months for them to go through the city’s approval process, which would then be followed by years of demolition and construction.

“At the very best, we’re still years away from something built and ready to occupy the Lakeforest property,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com