Westbard Property Owner Reveals First Plans For New-Look Community
Equity One revealed its first detailed plan for 22 acres of Westbard it says would create a tree-lined community of new retail and housing that fits in well with the existing neighborhood.
Equity One Executive Vice President of Development Michael Berfield on Wednesday described how the 250,000 square feet of new retail space and 500-700 new housing units might look along Westbard Avenue.
The developer, which closed on the last of its seven Westbard properties early last year, has been showing the renderings and potential layouts to community groups, existing retail tenants and reporters before county planners finalize their recommendations for the area.
The Westbard area of Bethesda is centered around a Giant Food-anchored shopping center that’s heavy on parking spaces.
Equity One is hoping to get zoning approvals through the ongoing rewrite of the Westbard Sector Plan to build a new street grid and three blocks of 50-foot tall retail spaces on the site. Behind the retail would go a collection of about 75 townhouses.
Across Westbard Avenue, a residential over retail building would go about where the existing Bowlmor is. The plan would also consist of building a 75-foot tall condo building stepping down to about 50 feet where the existing Manor Care is. Another 75-foot tall apartment building would go across a realigned Ridgefield Road in order to provide more of a buffer to the existing neighborhood.
“What we’re trying to do is to create something that fits in with the existing community,” Berfield said. “We’re not creating a new place necessarily, but we do want to create something that does feel like a hub of the neighborhood. So we do want to create a place that’s not just where people can get their groceries and go home. We want people to stay longer and get more of their everyday needs done.”
The preliminary plans mostly echo the controversial concept plans presented by Montgomery County planners in November.
Equity One does differ on the height of a new building on the Manor Care site, with a pitch for a 75-foot tall building facing River Road where planners suggested 50 feet. But Berfield pointed out the developer so far doesn’t envision an 80-foot tall building opposite the playing fields of Westland Middle School, as planners devised.
The developer’s vision includes about 1,200 parking spaces in a series of underground garages, including in a massive one that could be built under the entire footprint of the Giant shopping center site. Equity One is looking at providing some type of shuttle service for residents to either the Bethesda Metro or Friendship Heights Metro.
The shopping center now has about 1,000 spaces for only 100,000 square feet of retail, which Berfield said is probably why much of the parking lot sits empty most of the time.
The plans are the latest in Equity One’s intensive public outreach efforts. The company began engaging the public in a series of open houses in early 2014. It successfully lobbied the County Council to move the rewrite of the Westbard Sector Plan to earlier on the Planning Department’s work schedule.
Berfield said the company considered applying for redevelopment projects parcel-by-parcel.
“But we really believed that the right way to do this was the Sector Plan, because it allowed for the whole area to be thought of and sort of strategically planned for,” he said.
From there, the Planning Department started its public outreach process. That led to the contentious November meeting in which planners proposed allowing triple the amount of housing units in the entire Westbard area, with an additional 1,685-1,927 units allowed on top of the existing 1,104.
Planners will make their preliminary recommendations in March ahead of a Planning Board public hearing in May. From there, the Planning Board will make its own recommendations before kicking the Sector Plan up to the County Council, which in the past has made substantial changes of its own to area master plans.
Equity One is the largest property owner in the area of mostly strip shopping centers and light industrial retail uses. The company is also the one that has been most aggressive and most open about its plans for the future.
Wednesday’s presentation included a small block model of the area now and how it would look with the current concept. Berfield said Equity One, a publicly-traded real estate investment trust, had been looking to get into the D.C. market for a while and actually came in second in the bidding for the Westwood Shopping Center property.
After a deal with the initial winner fell through, Equity One pounced, though Berfield said the company invested in the properties with enough financial wherewithal in case the county didn’t approve any new development.
Many residents have expressed concerns about how more housing would affect traffic and school overcrowding. Some have even stated they don’t want any change to the existing shopping centers.
Berfield said he’s heard from plenty of residents who agree that change is needed for the aging properties.
“This area is growing whether people want it to or not,” Berfield said. “I don’t want to get too far out ahead of it. I want to make sure that we’re not at a level of design that assumes certain things that the community or Park and Planning wouldn’t be comfortable with.”
The plans have been presented to civic groups from the Springfield neighborhood and the Kenwood neighborhood and the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights.
They include a series of parks and open spaces. Planners so far have suggested relocating the Little Falls Library from Massachusetts Avenue to the middle of the development, as a centerpiece for a new town square-like layout.
Berfield pointed to retail space that could be reserved for the library, though he said the developer is open to the Planning Department’s suggestions for placement. Bethesda-based developer EYA would play a large role in developing the residential pieces of the community, including the townhomes that back up to the existing condos behind the shopping center.
Equity One envisions a grocery store tenant anchoring the block closest to Westland Middle School (Berfield said the existing Giant’s lease runs out in four years), a health club anchoring the middle block of retailers and home furnishing and fashion stores anchoring the block closest to Ridgefield Avenue.
Equity One and its Rockville-based public relations consultant Maier & Warner held the media event Wednesday in an empty room of the Westwood Center II. Berfield talked about his upbringing in Bethesda. Food was provided from Ridgewells Catering, a Westbard neighbor with a large facility across River Road.
“Everyone says, just make sure the schools aren’t too crowded. Other than that, bring it,” said Berfield of friends who live in the area and who have contacted him about the project. “The reality is, anyone looking at the shopping center would say, ‘This is probably not the best use of this land.'”
He said he learned how to drive in the parking lot of the Giant Food store.
“I’ve had numerous calls from my parents’ friends,” Berfield said. “Any time anything comes up.”
The rollout of the plans this week will include a relaunch of Equity One’s “Westbard Vision” website. Fulfilling the plans will be a long process. The Sector Plan likely won’t be finished until late this year at the earliest.
Then, Equity One would have to submit individual pieces for approval in a phased timeline that could take a decade or longer.
“We’re going to be neighbors with these people for 30 or 40 years, so we want to do it the right way,” Berfield said. “It’s suburban. It’s not way outside the Beltway obviously, but it’s not an urban site. …We like the plan but we recognize that there are things about it that people want to change. We’re open to continue the dialog with them.”
Images via S9 Architecture/Perkins Eastman