2022 | Opinion

Opinion: High-rise development would be sensible addition for Friendship Heights

Residents have spoken in favor of Wisconsin Avenue project

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The Dec. 18 opinion piece by Roger Cochetti (“Large apartment tower doesn’t belong in Friendship Heights”) suggested that residents in Friendship Heights oppose the proposed development at 5500 Wisconsin Ave. in Friendship Heights. He is wrong.

Residents in the Village of Friendship Heights have supported this project — as shown by the fact that most residents at the Village Council and Planning Board public hearings about the project spoke or wrote to support the project.

According to Planning Board public records:

• Of the village residents who wrote to the Planning Board prior to the Nov. 18 hearing, 21 wrote in support. Only one village resident wrote in opposition — Roger Cochetti.

• Of the seven residents who testified at the Village Council public hearing about the project, five people spoke to support the project (including me) and two opposed it (including Cochetti).

Also, of the letters received by the village, 11 supported the project, two opposed it and one was neutral, according to Julian Mansfield, Friendship Heights’ village manager.

The Village Council does not represent the interests of village residents and is, in fact, out of step.

Cochetti also wrote: “The tower would dominate the local skyline and block views of the sky.” This is Friendship Heights, a village of residential high-rise buildings.

The project, an 18-story high-rise, is designed to minimize shadows and limit bulk in the building near the ground.

The tower part of the project is much smaller than the ground-level footprint of the project, unlike other Friendship Heights apartment buildings. (Go to https://www.5500wisconsin.com and click on “view our updated presentation slides” at the bottom of the page to see plans for the project.)

Cochetti lists “myths” he supposes exist about the project, including that the project will not solve all of the problems in Friendship Heights.

Certainly, one project is only a part of revitalizing Friendship Heights. Opposing this project could limit other potential developments. As California has learned, NIMBYism harms all development, not just one.

The proposed 380-unit building will bring moderately priced housing near a Metro station and will help Montgomery County by increasing affordable housing. The project will attract younger residents, and given apartment costs and sizes, is an excellent start toward attracting a more diverse set of residents in Friendship Heights.

The project, an apartment high-rise with commercial space on the ground level, is in the Village of Friendship Heights, the home of high-rise residential buildings. Montgomery County should support locating high-rise housing and commercial buildings near Metro stations to achieve countywide transportation and environmental goals.

This is smart growth. The reason we and others live in Friendship Heights is because of the urbanity and access to transportation.

Commercial and housing real estate in Friendship Heights — both in D.C. and Maryland — need more and better retail, restaurant, and housing options, not an unthinking NIMBY response opposing new development.

Friendship Heights has lost a competitive edge in both the retail and housing market, resulting in a declining neighborhood and fewer thriving retail, restaurants, and housing options. Our community is not appealing to younger shoppers and potential residents.

Based on an Urban Land Institute report to the D.C. Department of Planning, called Reimagining Friendship Heights, the 5500 Wisconsin Ave. project will be the first new residential development in both the Maryland and D.C. sides of Friendship Heights in over 14 years (see p. 23 of the Urban Land Institute report).

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, local businesses in Friendship Heights were in decline and anchor stores such as Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus have closed. And no new housing, especially affordable housing units, has been built in over a decade.

The 5500 Wisconsin Ave. project has the potential to meet neighborhood needs, including moderately priced apartments and commercial businesses useful to residents. Similar projects (mixed-used redevelopment) have been proposed in Friendship Heights.

The Montgomery County Planning Board has recognized the need for this project and on Dec. 23, 2021, unanimously approved a sketch plan for it.

Often, a problem that dampens upgrading communities is that proposed developments face reactive opposition to any change. Cochetti’s piece and the Village Council majority vote are examples of such thoughtless opposition.

Friendship Heights has the transportation and urbanity to become a very attractive community again if the commercial sector — shopping and restaurants — helps return us to the vibrant and active community of our recent past.

Daniel Dozier lives in the Village of Friendship Heights and was an active member of the Citizens Coordinating Committee of Friendship Heights for many years.