Westbard Developer Meets With Curious Public
The developer that hopes to bring large-scale redevelopment to the Westbard area of Bethesda didn't reveal much about its plans during an open house on Wednesday. Equity One is the national real estate investment trust that has bought up most of the area including and surrounding the Giant Food store (5400 Westbard Ave.). The company hosted the event in a local ballroom with the stated goal of getting input from residents on what they want to see in redevelopment. But details of what Equity One plans were scarce. In a 30-minute presentation of guiding principles and through four breakout groups, it's clear the company is looking to redevelop the area into a mixed-use center of some sort and will need a revised Westbard Sector Plan to do it. Matt Bell, the main architect on the project, told a standing-room only audience of more than 200 area residents the project will require new zoning as part of a rewrite of the 1982 Westbard Sector Plan. "The last time there was a sector plan in this area was 1982. That qualifies as a long time. One of the things that we're looking to do is to use this process to hopefully convince Park and Planning, the Planning Board, to take up this area," Bell said. "We are hoping this process can influence the Planning Board in March and April of this year to take up this sector plan and I think that it's about time." Planning Department Director Gwen Wright and Bethesda area chief Robert Kronenberg attended the event. The Westbard Sector Plan rewrite sits last in the queue for Planning Department sector plan work, with an anticipated start of work in 2016. The process can last two years. Kronenberg said the Planning Department hasn't heard from Equity One with regards to any specific plans for the area, but he assumes the redevelopment will require new zoning in a new sector plan. The Planning Department work schedule is often changed during budget season in the spring. A work schedule change would require County Council approval. Bell said Equity One was looking at a mix of uses in the area. Equity One bought Westwood Towers, Springhouse by Manor Care, Bowlmor Lanes and two Citgo stations last year. It will finalize the acquisition of Westwood Shopping Center and Westwood Center II early this year. Bell compared the Westbard area, at least in its size, to downtown Annapolis. A transportation consultant taking questions and concerns about traffic said she was "surprised" by the amount of available transit in the area. There is a Ride On bus route and Metrobus route that services the area. Residents gave their input -- intersections they wanted to see improved and new retail they wanted to see put in -- but many were obviously wary of what could be coming. A number of citizens association members were in attendance, including Phyllis Edelman of the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, a coalition of 18 different community organizations in the area. It was also clear Equity One wants to start on good terms with those groups. Equity One Executive Vice President of Development Michael Berfield talked about growing up in Bethesda. The company has hired a Rockville public relations firm with experience representing developers to help in the process. It's hosting another open house at the same location (The Ballroom at 5521 Landy Lane) on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. Equity One said it will take input from the public workshops and post those notes on its website by Feb. 14, allow public comment on those notes until Feb. 24 and host another public meeting on Tuesday, March 4 to present its "draft principles."