2022 | Government

County Council says it supports housing at Chevy Chase Library site

No formal proposal yet, but council amends library capital budget to explore idea

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The Chevy Chase Library, which was built in 1965.

File Photo

The Montgomery County Council amended the capital budget for libraries on Thursday, signaling that members are interested in some sort of redevelopment of the Chevy Chase Library to possibly include affordable housing.

County Council Member Will Jawando, the council’s lead for libraries, introduced an amendment that changed the scope of the Montgomery County Public Libraries’ capital budget for fiscal years 2023 to 2028. It allows for the possibility of redevelopment of the Chevy Chase library, including housing on the site. 

Previously, officials were considering spending just over $5.8 million to renovate the Chevy Chase Library, according to a memo and council staff documents.

But county staff determined that the amount of renovation needed at the library on Connecticut Avenue — which was built in 1965 — is so extensive that rebuilding the library might be the better option. 

Several council members said the library project presents an opportunity to consider building a new library and some type of housing that also could include designated affordable units. Council Member Andrew Friedson, whose District 1 includes the site, said there have been multiple opportunities over the years to consider building housing alongside other projects on county-owned land.

One example, he said, is the recent construction of the new county police station in Bethesda, although that project ultimately did not include housing. 

Friedson asked how much affordable housing County Executive Marc Elrich and his administration were expecting to see as part of the project. Elrich had previously told Bethesda Beat that the county had solicited proposals from developers for housing at the site — and some of the proposals included affordable housing. 

Greg Ossont, deputy director of the county’s Department of General Services, told the council Thursday that he and colleagues are still exploring what the affordability mix could be.

“All we know is that generally, we would have about a 20,000-square-foot library with 60 to 70 parking spaces,” Ossont said. “And then, there’s a big question mark above that.”

Advocates say housing is needed at the library site because high housing prices can make living in Chevy Chase unaffordable for some, and that the housing would be close to a station for the future light-rail Purple Line. Opponents say adding housing would lead to more traffic congestion in the immediate area.

Elrich said in a news briefing Wednesday that he initiated a study to look at the possibility of constructing housing on the site as part of a redevelopment of the library. 

The county executive said he was concerned that some developers who provided proposals for the site did not include any affordable housing. Elrich added that county officials must consider the economic viability of the project, including how much it would cost to build structural parking, for example, and other expenses.

Elrich added that the Chevy Chase Lake sector plan focuses on adding more affordable housing in the area, as well. 

“I don’t just do things if it doesn’t make sense economically, and that’s been my issue from the beginning: Does this project make economic sense?” Elrich told reporters. “Or would I get more bang for the buck if I put dollars someplace else? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question yet.”

At Thursday’s meeting, council members indicated that the project should include at least some level of housing. Friedson and others said they were concerned about “mixed messages” being sent by Elrich’s administration to Chevy Chase and the surrounding communities about the future of the library site.

Friedson and others said that some Chevy Chase residents expect the library will simply be renovated and that there won’t be a complete overhaul of the site, or any housing, based on information coming from the executive branch.   

Ossont said the community is divided on how to redevelop the site, and whether the project should include housing. But Friedson’s colleagues shared his concerns about the need for more housing on public land. 

Council Member Nancy Navarro noted there have been other opportunities for co-locating housing on public land, including the new county Park and Planning department building in downtown Wheaton.

“I just think that we just need to get real,” Navarro said. “The bottom line is that the county itself, in terms of … all of these goals that we all talk about — economic development, vibrancy, making sure we’re competitive, equity — all of those things are predicated on how we understand the major crises that we are facing, regarding the lack of additional housing units.”

Jawando emphasized that his amendment to the capital budget for libraries was simply to explore housing on the site. No proposal regarding the number of units or how many units would be needed to meet affordability requirements has been presented, he added.

According to council staff documents, any proposed development of the site wouldn’t occur until fiscal years 2026 or 2027 at the earliest.

Ossont and council President Gabe Albornoz said that more details on what could be built at the site could come in the fall. But Ossont confirmed that any project that includes a building with 100% affordable units and a 20,000 square-foot library underneath would probably cost tens of millions of dollars — much more than the county was previously allocating.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com