A group of residents who don’t think County Council members did enough to reduce the amount of potential development in the Westbard Sector Plan took to Westbard Avenue in Bethesda Friday and Saturday with signs and chants decrying developer Equity One and council members.
“Modernize not urbanize,” read one sign. “Betrayed by The County Council,” read another. Some protesters chanted “Hey-hey, ho-ho, density has got to go,” as they walked around the Westwood Shopping Center, the aging facility likely to be the focus of any potential redevelopment.
Some spoke of supporting a referendum effort for term limits on council members. One person held a sign reading “Dump Berliner,” referring to Roger Berliner, the council member who represents the area and who pushed for the council to approve about half of the allowable density originally recommended by the county Planning Board.
More than 100 people attended the demonstration Friday and dozens came out in the rain Saturday morning. The message had been heard loud and clear by Monday morning at the Council Office Building in Rockville, setting up what Council President Nancy Floreen called an “unprecedented” situation.
With a March 22 straw vote, the full council already approved its version of the plan. Floreen said she has delayed the final approval until the first week in May.
“We’ve never quite had this situation, where people have continued to be unhappy after we’ve really done our best to listen to all sides of this and put into place county priorities that we believe to be very important,” Floreen said during a regular Monday morning press conference. “It’s unprecedented that we’re leaving so much time between the straw vote and the final vote.”
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Berliner on Monday defended the version of the plan approved March 22 by council members, while also saying he’ll ask Floreen to allow at least 12 days for the community to review the final plan resolution before the council’s final vote.
“I think there is a fair amount of misinformation,” Berliner said. “I think there is a strong desire by some not to have change come to Westbard or perhaps the amount of change contemplated even by the council’s plan.”
The plan as tentatively approved by the council would allow for as many as 1,213 new residential units over 30 years in the area around Westbard Avenue and River Road, down from the 2,470 units recommended by the Planning Board.
It would allow for Equity One to redevelop the Westwood Shopping Center into a new retail center with underground parking and an adjacent townhome community.
It also would increase the amount of income-restricted affordable housing units in new Westbard development from the countywide standard of 12.5 percent to 15 percent, with even more affordable housing required from certain projects such as a suggested new apartment building at the Park Bethesda property.
“We reduced a 75-foot building that could’ve had 100 units to townhouses that will have 30-something units. We reduced [the height of Equity One’s] Westwood II Shopping Center site from 90 feet to 75 feet. We reduced the [Westwood] Shopping Center site commercial density by 40 percent,” Berliner said Monday. “So it’s not like Equity One is getting a free pass here. We have made sure that what happens here is consistent with a suburban residential community that will create more, not less, for the community to enjoy.”
Some involved with the Save Westbard group that organized the Friday and Saturday protests suggested that neighborhood group leaders failed to represent their views throughout the plan process, which the Planning Department started in fall 2014.
Last week, Save Westbard organizer Jeanne Allen referenced a letter sent to Floreen declaring that some of the new density the council took out of the plan is “not a material concession” and that “we do not agree that additional affordable housing is necessary. We also challenge whether the proposed affordable housing will indeed be affordable by any reasonable measure.”
The group also asked that the final resolution for the plan be available for public review and comment for at least four weeks before the final vote.
“In our judgement, we’re enhancing the community, not degrading it,” Berliner said Monday. “I get that that view is not shared by everyone and I regret that.”
Floreen said Monday she didn’t think the council would further reduce the amount of allowed redevelopment in the plan in response to the Friday and Saturday protests. She defended analysis by Planning Department and council staff that found new development wouldn't overburden local schools and intersections.
“We’ve worried about these issues, prioritized affordable housing. Where there is height, people tend to not realize, there are some pretty tall buildings there in Westbard that have existed for a long time,” Floreen said. “There’s universal agreement, it seems, that the shopping center area should be refurbished or redeveloped. I think at the end of the day…people will be pretty comfortable with how it turns out.”