Chevy Chase Residents Gear Up For Fight Against Redevelopment of Edge Property

Plans for a 145-foot-tall building at what’s now a set of low-rise buildings have suddenly become one of the hottest debates involving the Bethesda Downtown Plan


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Massing diagram showing redevelopment envisioned for 6800 block of Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT/SK+I ARCHITECTURE

The yard signs are out, the emails are flowing into the county Planning Board and last Wednesday—in a Town of Chevy Chase meeting room packed with more people than seats—residents who live near the site of the project pitched for the Jaffe property on Wisconsin Avenue made their opposition loud and clear.

“This is the biggest robbery that’s ever happened,” said Fred Cecere, a town council member who addressed County Council member Roger Berliner at the meeting. “This is a 40,000-person community, with hundreds of developers. [The Planning Board] gave away the richest land deal in history.”

While Cecere’s complaints were directed broadly at the board’s ongoing Bethesda Downtown Plan process, they were also critical of Chevy Chase-based developer The Jaffe Group’s proposal for a 145-foot-tall apartment building near the south end of downtown Bethesda.

As proposed and as allowed by the zoning that the board has tentatively recommended for the site, the building would scale down to 35 feet immediately facing the residential street of West Avenue, which is part of the town.

The proposal, which would mean the redevelopment of The Jaffe Group’s low-rise commercial buildings at 6801 and 6807 Wisconsin Ave., has become one of the most fiercely contested in the board’s deliberations over downtown Bethesda’s master plan. It was first discussed in pubic during a December board hearing.

The “Communities Not Canyons!” yard signs, designed by Chevy Chase resident Evan Hirsche, line streets near the property. Residents have taken to calling the proposal the “Jaffe Tower,” in the dozens of emails sent to the board asking commissioners to nix the developer’s request for 145 feet in building height.

The Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents, a new group organized by Chevy Chase resident Mary Flynn that hosted the meeting with Berliner, has made the fate of the property a major focus.

Residents are concerned the project would bring more traffic to West Avenue and that the building would overshadow their homes.

“It’s brazenly out of character with the community,” Hirsche told Berliner at the meeting last week. He went one step further, claiming St. John’s Norwood church just to the south of the property “has been extorted” into supporting the proposal.

Gary Jaffe, head of The Jaffe Group, told Bethesda Beat that’s not the case and his development group is “bending over backwards” to accommodate the church by providing a large setback between the church property and the proposed building. Jaffe rents out parking spots on his property to the church, which has long faced a parking crunch.

A yard sign showing one Chevy Chase resident's opposition to redevelopment on the nearby edge of downtown Bethesda. Credit: Aaron Kraut

Jaffe said the 145-foot-tall building height is necessary on the Wisconsin Avenue side of the property to help finance the expensive prospect of building underground parking. He also said that architect SK+I has helped conduct shadow studies that show the new building wouldn’t impact sunlight reaching nearby homes.

“I have to make a lot of people happy,” Jaffe said. “If we weren’t asking for any additional density, we’d have exactly what is there right now. A lot of people are actually looking forward to it.”

Among the emails sent to the Planning Board are at least three in support of Jaffe’s proposal.

Christina Tang, a resident of the Adagio condominium building across the street, wrote that “as a younger resident who hopes to live here for many years to come, I want to help shape the future of Downtown Bethesda.”

“Bethesda needs to evolve in order to attract and retain young residents and reinvestment along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor is critical to this effort,” Tang wrote.

Rebecca Wright, another Adagio resident who wrote the Planning Board in support of Jaffe’s proposal, wrote that she “likes how the building transitions down in height to West Avenue” and that the “signature building at this location, with higher heights along Wisconsin Avenue, will reflect the character of Downtown Bethesda and define this entrance into Bethesda.”

But Berliner indicated during the meeting last week in Chevy Chase he’s not supportive of the idea that Bethesda’s gateway needs a signature building.

“There's a concept called gateway. That's animating a lot of this, the notion of you as you drive up, go north on Wisconsin Avenue and enter Bethesda, that you want to see an 'Oh my god,' building,” Berliner said, eliciting a chorus of groans from the residents.

“I'm not suggesting this was your idea. I've had these conversations,” Berliner said. “I've expressed my doubts with respect to the great gateway concept.”

It was one of the few opinions he shared on the Bethesda Downtown Plan after telling the concerned residents he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for him to make judgments on the plan until the board approves its version and sends it to the County Council, expected to happen this spring.

Residents at the meeting made it clear their minds were already made up.

“When I look at Friendship Heights, I see a wasteland,” said Chevy Chase resident Julie Hart, referring to existing high-rise development near the Washington, D.C., line. “What we have now is a village and you won’t be able to get it back.”

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