Friday, March 1, 2013

chevy chase lake plan a compromise between developers, neighbors

2008 07 16 - 6011 - Chevy Chase - MD 185 at Manor Rd
Chevy Chase Lake today. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
The disagreement over what should happen in Chevy Chase Lake wasn't surprising: developers wanted taller buildings and higher density, while neighbors wanted the opposite. What's surprising is that both sides found a compromise in the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, now going before the Montgomery County Council.

Located on Connecticut Avenue just south of the Beltway, Chevy Chase Lake was originally an amusement park at the turn of the 20th century, built by developer and Senator Francis Newlands at the end of the streetcar line he built down Connecticut to downtown DC. Newlands also used the streetcar to draw homebuyers to several neighborhoods he built along Connecticut Avenue, including Chevy Chase.

The lake, the amusement park and the streetcar are all gone, and in their place are a couple of strip malls, some garden apartments, and a lot of traffic on Connecticut Avenue.

The Montgomery County Planning Department recently finished work on a sector plan for Chevy Chase Lake in anticipation of the Purple Line, which when built will have a stop there. They envision creating a compact, but dense neighborhood around the station, with housing, shops and a new urban park, and a stretch of Connecticut Avenue into a real main street.

Disagreement over future of Chevy Chase Lake

The Chevy Chase Land Company's 2011 vision for Chevy Chase Lake.

However, the size and scale of that neighborhood was up for debate. In 2011, the Chevy Chase Land Company, which was originally founded by Senator Newlands and still owns several offices and shops in Chevy Chase Lake, proposed building up to 4 million square feet of new development there, including up to 3000 new homes and several buildings up to 19 stories tall.

Transit advocates supported their vision, arguing that concentrating housing around the future Purple Line will help alleviate congestion in the future, but some neighbors were upset about the amount of development, fearing it would cause traffic. They found common ground with county planners, who sought a more nuanced approach to development in Chevy Chase Lake.

"There is no transit system in the world that creates 18-story buildings at every transit stop," wrote then-planning director Rollin Stanley. "Not every transit station has to be downtown Silver Spring or Bethesda. In reality, the best transit systems have a very diverse network of transit stops."

Site Plan, Chevy Chase Lake Development
What Chevy Chase Land Company proposes today. Image courtesy of the Chevy Chase Land Company.

The resulting plan, which was approved by the Planning Board in January, calls for 2.2 million square feet of new development, including about 1300 new homes, in the entire commercial district. Most of it won't be built until after the Purple Line is funded and built; until then, most properties would either stay the same or be allowed slightly more density than there is today.

Instead of 19-story buildings throughout the commercial district, there would be three buildings between 100 and 150 feet tall adjacent to the Purple Line station. Elsewhere, building heights would be restricted to 55 to 80 feet, while townhouses would form a transition to adjacent single-family homes.

Connecticut Avenue would be transformed from a traffic sewer into a main street, with on-street parking, new traffic signals, and sidewalks with streetscaping. New bike paths, trails and improved connections to the Capital Crescent Trail would knit the commercial center into the community, making up for the area's disconnected street network.

Proposed Plaza, Chevy Chase Lake
Mid-rise buildings and a plaza would replace the Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center.

Meanwhile, the Chevy Chase Land Company's plans have been downsized, with just 1.5 million square feet of development and fewer than 900 apartments, and broken up into three phases. The first, which would occur before construction of the Purple Line, would replace the Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center at Connecticut Avenue and Manor Road with 3 buildings containing a mix of apartments and retail space around a half-acre park.

Once the Purple Line is built, later phases would replace their headquarters building at Connecticut Avenue and Chevy Chase Lake Drive and the Lake West shopping center across the street with additional retail, apartments and townhouses, and a new headquarters.

Neighbors use Purple Line to discourage development

purple line at east-west highway
The Purple Line and Capital Crescent Trail in Chevy Chase.

While this is much less than what the Land Company first wanted, not everyone's satisfied. Some neighbors formed a group called Don't Flood the Lake, raising concerns about traffic and calling the plan "wildly out of scale with the area." They also question whether we should allow new development around the Purple Line when there's no money for it yet.

It's unclear whether this group has any connection with Save the Trail, an anti-Purple Line group that's campaigning against funding for the Purple Line and other transportation projects. But not building the Purple Line or development associated with it won't fix traffic. No Purple Line means people have fewer alternatives to driving, while no new housing in Chevy Chase means people working next door in Bethesda, one of the region's largest job centers, have to commute from further away.

1300 new homes in Chevy Chase Lake will be far less of a burden on Connecticut Avenue than the influx of thousands of workers, patients and visitors who currently drive on Connecticut Avenue to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

Legation Street, Chevy Chase DC
Single-family homes and mid-rise buildings coexist in Chevy Chase, DC. Why not in Chevy Chase Lake?

Besides, the scale proposed at Chevy Chase Lake isn't much different than what Senator Newlands built around streetcar stops just a few miles down Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, DC: mid- to high-rise apartments interspersed with shops and offices and steps away from quiet streets lined with single-family homes. If this could work a century ago, why can't it work today?

Traffic is a big issue in Greater Washington and will continue to be so as the region grows. Yet the answer, in Chevy Chase Lake or any other neighborhood, isn't to stop anyone new from moving there. If neighbors don't want to see more traffic on Connecticut Avenue, they should join groups like Get Maryland Moving to ensure that the Purple Line gets the funding it needs.

And they should support the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, which will not only give them a great town center within walking distance and allow others to live in a place where they don't have to drive everywhere.

The Montgomery County Council will hold a public hearing on the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan next Tuesday, March 5 at 7:30pm. To sign up to testify or to send written comments, visit the County Council's website.


Robert said...

You said: "If neighbors don't want to see more traffic on Connecticut Avenue, they should join groups like Get Maryland Moving to ensure that the Purple Line gets the funding it needs."

Yet Connecticut Avenue through Chevy Chase Lake carries north-south traffic; very little of it would be going to Bethesda or Silver Spring. The Purple Line, if built, would potentially replace some east-west traffic from Bethesda to and from Silver Spring and beyond. It is unlikely to have much effect on Connecticut Avenue traffic.

jabb said...

The neighborhoods that surround Chevy Chase Lake all believe that the Planning Board went wildly over the top in terms of what it approved, and hope that the County Council will be more modest in its approach, and look to what the area can realistically support rather than jamming development in every corner of MoCo.

Dan Reed said...


"rather than jamming development in every corner of MoCo."

While I appreciate that some neighbors are unhappy with the Chevy Chase Lake plan (or any development anywhere in the county), I'd have to contest this statement.

For starters, one-third of Montgomery County is in the agricultural reserve. Combine that with our park system and over 40% of the county has been set aside as open space forever. Most of the remaining area (in acreage, not in population) has been set aside for single-family homes, and it's already been built out.

We've purposely made the choice as a community to preserve vast swaths of our land (and limit much of the rest to low-density uses), so where does the rest go? In underutilized commercial districts like downtown Bethesda, downtown Silver Spring, Chevy Chase Lake. The vast majority of future development will occur in places like this because it's the only place we have left for it to go. But it's by far a small portion of the county's total land area.

We can disagree on the Chevy Chase Lake Plan, but saying the county's trying to "jam development in every corner" is incorrect.