2022 | Government

Elrich exploring inclusion of affordable housing in Chevy Chase library project

County could renovate building or redevelop property; rally in support of housing held last weekend at the site

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Montgomery County officials are considering whether the Chevy Chase Library on Connecticut Avenue should be renovated or redeveloped as part of a mixed-use community with housing. The library was built in 1965 and is need of upgrades, according to the county.

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Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich says he is exploring the possibility of whether it would be realistic to redevelop the Chevy Chase library site into a mixed-use property that includes a new library and affordable housing.

The 16,000-square-foot library on Connecticut Avenue, built in 1965, is in need of major upgrades, according to the county Department of General Services (DGS). The county is currently weighing the options of simply renovating the library or building a new one through a public-private partnership that would measure 20,000 square feet and be part of a mixed-use residential development.

In recent weeks, a group of advocates in the county have been speaking out in support of building a mixed-use affordable housing development that includes a new library on the 2.07-acre property. The push comes two years after the county issued a request for developer expressions of interest – an informal invitation to developers to submit proposals for discussion.

In a statement to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday evening, Elrich wrote that the request for expressions of interest was part of a process in which he asked county staffers to evaluate both the redevelopment and renovation options for the library. The responses from the developers, he noted, “varied widely.”

“Some included no affordable housing — and raised additional questions about how best to proceed,” he wrote.

Currently there is a “placeholder” in the county’s capital budget for a “refresh” of the library in fiscal year 2027, according to Elrich. But he wrote Wednesday that he and county staff are still evaluating the costs of each option and “what kind and amount of affordable housing could reasonably be located on the site along with a new, expanded library, parking for both library patrons and residents, and safe access onto already traffic-burdened Connecticut Avenue.”

“This is an ongoing assessment, and no final decisions have been made,” he wrote.

DGS Director David Dise told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that his staff met with Elrich last week to review developers’ ideas for the site.

“Some were good, some were better, some were not, so he asked us to explore those in greater detail,” Dise said.

Dise said Elrich will decide whether the library undergoes a redevelopment or renovation. A redevelopment also would require approval by the County Council, he said.

Both the redevelopment and renovation options for the library would take at least two years to complete, Dise said. A redevelopment might take longer if the county needs time to find a partner, he noted.

Recent push by affordable housing advocates

On April 7, a group of about 20 organizations sent a letter to Elrich urging the county to redevelop the library and include mixed-income housing in the project.

“We believe this is an opportunity to model the future of Montgomery County by mixing housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs,” the letter stated.

The letter called for 30% of the proposed units to be set aside as below market-rate income-restricted units under the county’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program.

The MPDU program requires that those applying for units have a minimum annual household income of $40,000. The annual maximum household income for owners varies depending on household size.

The income limits for renters can vary from property to property, according to the county’s website. To calculate the allowable rent for a renter, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs uses a methodology based on household size and income.

In their letter, the organizations point out that the median home sale price in Chevy Chase is more than $800,000 and the average rent is $2,409, citing data from various real estate services.

“This is an area that was kept out of reach for people of color through redlining, restrictive covenants, and other public and private policies,” it states. “The government must take intentional steps to reverse this history.”

Jane Lyons, the Maryland advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, one of the organizations that signed the letter, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that the 30% MPDU request is more than the minimum 15% of MPDUs that new developments in that part of the county are required to have.

Lyons said the library location is ideal for housing due to its proximity to local bus routes positioned between Silver Spring and Bethesda. She also noted that the property is near the site of a future station on the light-rail Purple Line, which will eventually connect Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. Ongoing delays and cost increases have pushed the completion date for the Purple Line to 2026.

“There’s a few projects that have either gone up or are going up near the new Purple Line station, but in general there has not been a lot of new housing in that neighborhood, and certainly not a lot of new affordable housing outside of The Lindley project,” she said, referring to another apartment building on Chevy Chase Lake Terrace.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, along with the organizations Montgomery For All and Action in Montgomery held a rally Sunday outside of the library to advocate for redeveloping the property into a mixed-use development with affordable housing. Some who attended shared accounts on social media of a crowd numbering around 100, most of whom were supportive of the idea. But some counter protesters expressed concerns about traffic, and one person commented that adding affordable housing would make the area look like the D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia.

The Anacostia remark has been interpreted by affordable housing advocates and county officials as a veiled reference to the large Black population that lives in that neighborhood. Chevy Chase’s population is more than 80% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz condemned the remark during a briefing on Monday.

“I think that’s unfortunate, to say the least, and I also think that people need to understand that as we did discuss accessible housing options and workforce housing options, there are many options on the table,” he said.

Majority of those surveyed favored renovation over redevelopment

Albornoz on Monday noted that the county conducted a survey in October concerning options for the library property, in which more than 1,300 people participated. About 62% said they favored renovation and 38% said they preferred redevelopment.

“[They had] concerns about traffic…concerns about adding to the density, and some other concerns generally, but there is no current formal project for the council to review or look at right now,” Albornoz said.

The DGS website states that the department and the library system held informal information sessions at the library Oct. 16 and 20 to present both the redevelopment and renovation options to the community. Attendees at the session then filled out survey cards; people also could participate in the survey online. The survey closed Nov. 15.

The county continues to collect and post comments from residents online. Most comments from last fall up until about a month ago support the renovation option, and often cite traffic and parking concerns as reasons for not supporting redevelopment.

Gregory Koblentz wrote on Oct. 1 that he supports renovation of the site, and thinks redevelopment could lead to “congestion in the town by creating more high-volume residential units on Connecticut Avenue.”

“The Chevy Chase Lake development is already set to saturate our local roads and access to I-495 with even more cars and our schools with even more students that they can barely handle,” he wrote.

Alan R. Chap wrote Oct. 18 he worries that adding residential units would “create additional traffic congestion already exacerbated by the Purple Line project.”

Starting this month, more pro-redevelopment comments began to surface. Patty McGrath wrote April 11 that adding affordable housing close to transit would “help the county to achieve racial equity and social justice” as well as helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Chevy Chase is an expensive community to live in, and was kept out of reach for people of color throughout much of its history through discriminatory public and private policies,” she wrote. “To address the racial and economic divide between the county’s eastern and western areas, the county must intentionally create more affordable housing in communities like Chevy Chase. Housing is important in this location because it is near a future Purple Line station. Families are able to drive less and spend less money on transportation costs when living close to public transit.”

Deborah Beebe wrote April 11 that her daughter is considering moving back to Montgomery County, but doesn’t think she can find an affordable place to rent.

“Building more transit-oriented affordable housing on sites like this will help relieve the housing shortage affecting families like mine,” she wrote. “Please consider development which includes more affordable housing and which will be so conveniently located near the new purple line for public transit.”

Albornoz said Monday that in general, DGS is seeking opportunities for expanding housing and child care opportunities in the county.

“And as has been noted, and well documented,” he said, “we have a housing crisis in Montgomery County and that there is a lot more demand than there is supply of housing at all levels, but particularly for people who are finding it hard to be able to afford to live and work in our community.”

Bethesda Beat staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story

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