County Housing Commission Buys Westbard Apartment Property at Center of Recent Protests

Officials will not say whether they will evaluate historic African-American cemetery site


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Westwood Tower

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The Westbard apartment complex at the center of a battle over a long-forgotten African-American cemetery has changed hands.

The Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission in December bought the Westwood Tower property in a $20 million transaction, buying it from a developer with plans to reinvent the neighborhood. The commission has been leasing the complex at 5401 Westbard Ave. since 1997, but the purchase gives it control over the land’s hotly debated future.

Led by a Baptist congregation, community activists have spent months demonstrating and testifying for the protection of a historic African-American burial ground in Westbard. While the exact boundaries of the cemetery are undetermined, county planners have pointed to the area behind the apartment building and near the Willett Branch stream.

Members of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda are seeking a historic designation for the site and a memorial for those buried on the land and for the black community that existed in Westbard a century ago.

It’s not clear how the change in ownership will impact the future of the HOC property and the church’s chances of preserving the cemetery location as a historic site. In November, after several church-organized protests at the HOC, the commission released a statement acknowledging it had considered options for redeveloping the Westwood Tower site. However, the statement went on to say the commission had no plan to develop it in the near term, although it did intend to purchase the property. Its lease with the building owner, Equity One, provided an option for the HOC, an agency funded through public grants and rent proceeds, to buy the property in the 20th year of the agreement, or in 2017.

The commission in December decided to draw up to $20.5 million on a real estate line of credit with PNC bank to finance the purchase of the Westwood Tower property. The commission members voted on the transaction in a closed session and later ratified it during a public meeting in January, after the deal had closed.

The sale was first reported by Maryland Newsletter, a subscription-only real estate news publication.

HOC representatives declined to comment on whether the commission would carry out a historical or archaeological evaluation of the site.

“As the new owners of the Westwood Tower property and as a member of the Westbard community, we are committed to making responsible decisions about how best to serve the people of Montgomery County,” the HOC members said in a provided statement. “At this time, there is no new construction planned for Westwood Tower or its parking lot and we do not anticipate any changes in rent for residents. We will operate the building in its current state and continue to listen to the concerns of the community.”

The 212-unit apartment complex provides market-rate housing as well as housing affordable for lower-income families.

Last February, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved an early proposal for a large-scale development for the Westwood Shopping Center and several neighboring properties on Westbard Avenue. The developer, Equity One, had included the HOC apartment complex in the initial design, but the board excluded the apartment site from the plan approval. Development plans for the HOC property couldn’t move forward until Equity One commissioned an archaeological investigation to determine whether graves still existed on the property, board members decided.

Rendering of Equity One's original plan for the Westwood Shopping Center. Credit: Equity One.

A real estate investment trust, Regency Centers Corp., has since acquired Equity One in a merger and assumed control of the Westwood Shopping Center project. Earlier this month, Regency decided to abandon the sketch plan in favor of a downsized development proposal, which it will present during a community meeting Jan. 31.

Since the original plan approval is now void, the developer doesn’t have to move forward with the archaeological study, according to county planners.

Last year, the county planning department also agreed to pay for an academic review of the archeological analysis that Equity One was supposed to complete.

But over the following months, the relationship between the church, county and planning department unraveled. Members of the congregation ended up in mediation with the county, planning board and HOC representatives. Those mediation sessions, aimed at resolving issues related to the cemetery, stalled and later ended.

Gwen Wright, county planning director, said her department has been trying to work collaboratively with Macedonia Baptist in the four years since learning of the burial ground.

“The Montgomery County Planning Department has been committed to honoring the heritage and history of the Westbard area since the sector plan process was launched in 2014,” Wright said in a prepared statement.

The cemetery dates back to the 1910s, when an African-American benevolent association bought the land for a burial ground. The land was sold and developed several decades later, and it’s not clear whether human remains were removed in the process and if any graves still exist at the site.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who has been leading the activist efforts at Macedonia Baptist, could not be reached for comment on the Westwood Tower change of ownership.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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