As Westbard Plan Hits Council, Marc Elrich Says Affordable Housing Promises Are Excuses For Overdevelopment

Elrich, an outspoken skeptic of new development around the county, questioned the Planning Board’s recommendations for the Westbard area of Bethesda


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Marc Elrich (file photo)

Aaron Kraut

The arguments over development, traffic and school capacity of past Westbard Sector Plan meetings didn’t quite materialize during the County Council’s first public hearing on the plan Tuesday night.

For the most part, council members remained quiet and listened as 34 speakers—about half who spoke in opposition to the level of redevelopment proposed for the area around River Road and Westbard Avenue—made their points during a two-hour session.

After the meeting was a different story.

With few people remaining in the council’s hearing room in Rockville, council member Marc Elrich and Planning Board Commissioner Natali Fani-Gonzalez got into a heated exchange about the plan’s promises for additional affordable housing.

Earlier Tuesday, during the council’s regular session, Elrich made clear he thinks the affordable housing ideas in the Planning Board-approved plan are a guise to allow for overdevelopment.

Elrich told Fani-Gonzalez that the ideas were “BS” after the hearing Tuesday night.

“You’re going to say no to HOC?” Fani-Gonzalez responded. She was referring to the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission, which is hoping to build a new affordable housing structure on a parking lot behind its existing Westbard Avenue apartment building.

“I’m not gonna say no to HOC,” Elrich said.

A resident listening to the conversation jumped in, asking Fani-Gonzalez how much affordable housing the Planning Board expected to establish in downtown Bethesda. The Planning Board is currently working through a sector plan for that area.

“We haven’t talked about that yet,” Fani-Gonzalez responded.

“Virtually nothing,” said Elrich, indicating the Planning Board wouldn't require more than the existing minimum 12.5 percent affordable housing rate. “You get 12.5 percent everywhere, that’s what you all do.”

County law requires at least 12.5 percent of units in all new multi-family residential projects must be affordable housing.

“Don’t mess with affordable housing,” Fani-Gonzalez said as she began walking away. “That’s all I’m telling you.”

Elrich, who long has been an outspoken skeptic of new development in the county, then explained his concerns in more detail to a reporter.

“It’s a joke. In the first place, it’s no guarantee that you get the housing to the workforce,” Elrich said.

Two speakers at the public hearing said they supported the affordable housing goals of the plan because they would give employees of the area’s retail and grocery stores an opportunity to live near where they work.

But Elrich raised doubts about whether the development that could be allowed by the plan would provide enough affordable housing and questioned why the Planning Board would encourage the development of affordable housing away from a major transit station.

The Westbard area is about two miles from the Friendship Heights Metro station and downtown Bethesda.

The plan, which will be the subject of another public hearing Thursday night and at least three council committee work sessions, is expected to go before the full council for final approval this spring.

Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson said Tuesday that more affordable housing, environmental improvements, improved sidewalks and more desirable retail areas were four goals of the plan that could be achieved through redevelopment of some of the area’s major parcels.

“Effectively, redevelopment is the currency by which many of these improvements can be made,” Anderson told the council Tuesday afternoon during a briefing on the plan.

In addition to the HOC proposal, the owners of the Park Bethesda apartment building agreed to designate 15 percent of any new units built on surface parking lots at its property as moderately-priced dwelling units, a form of income-restricted affordable housing. Ten percent of any new units would be workforce housing, another form of income-restricted affordable housing.

Montgomery County also asked and got Planning Board approval for new zoning of the Little Falls Library site that could one day allow for a new library co-located with an affordable housing complex.

Greg Ossont, deputy director of the county’s Department of General Services, reiterated during the public hearing Tuesday night that the county has no immediate plans for redevelopment of the library site and in fact plans to begin a nearly $1 million “refresh” of the existing library this spring.

But Elrich, who was the lone council vote against similar master plans for Chevy Chase Lake and Kensington, criticized the Planning Board’s proposal.

“I’d also point out that when you guys are preaching [transit-oriented development], those rare moments when you used to be, you were talking about the criticality of locating working force housing near transit so they don’t have to be far away from transit,” Elrich told Anderson and Planning Department Director Gwen Wright Tuesday afternoon during the council session.

“Now, you’re talking about locating working families in a place where there is no transit,” Elrich continued. “You guys sell one story when you’re selling one project and then you morph the story when you’re selling another project. …You’re singling out for major redevelopment a place that isn’t an activity center and that isn’t served by transit.”

Elrich said he’ll spend “as much time” as possible attending work sessions on the Westbard plan to be held by the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

The first committee work session is scheduled for Feb. 29.

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