Monday, April 18, 2022

east county could get a new grocery store and senior housing, and some neighbors fear the worst

Montgomery County envisions a new town center along Route 29 in White Oak, and after a decade, plans are finally moving forward. But at one local church, there's a disagreement about whether "love thy neighbor" extends to a proposed development next door. 

A rendering of the proposed grocery store and senior apartments, with East Randolph Road on the right. All images from the Planning Board report.

This Thursday, the Planning Board will hold a public hearing on and review Conley Square, a proposal to build a small grocery store and 234 homes, including affordable senior apartments, townhomes, and stacked townhomes at the intersection of Old Columbia Pike and East Randolph Road. Today the vacant 11-acre property is zoned for single-family homes on half-acre lots, so the board will recommend whether to rezone the nearly 11-acre property to allow mixed-use development ahead of a hearing at the Board of Appeals on May 2.

If built, Conley Square would be one of the first new developments along Flash, a bus rapid transit line between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville that opened in 2020. It’s next to the Tech Road station and a few other projects moving forward, including a shopping center with an Amazon Fresh grocery store and 390 apartments and stacked townhomes.

People are mad

Over the past month, members at the Southern Asian Seventh-Day Adventist Church - which sits next door to the proposed development and would share an entrance with it - have sent form letters to the Planning Board opposing it.

The letters claim that a new grocery store and homes will “will bring in undesirable people into the peaceful surrounding,” adding, “Some of the concerns are drugs, prostitution, vandalism, theft, and crimes.” Some letters implied that, as many members are of East Indian descent, the development would lead to anti-Asian violence.

Neighbors said the proposed development shown here could bring drugs and prostitution.

Planning staff pushed back against those claims. "It is widely accepted that the more activity and people there are in a specific area the safer the area becomes," notes their report, referring to "eyes on the street," the idea that people living and shopping in an area would help discourage criminal behavior.

The church, which has worked closely with Chevy Chase-based developer Nova Ventures on the design, wasn't happy about their parishioners' letters. In a letter signed by six church officials, they note that 90% of its members at a 2019 meeting voted to support Conley Square.

“We vehemently disagree with any characterization that the proposed development…will be detrimental to our Church community,” reads the letter. “The plans will create an attractive new intergenerational neighborhood,” adding that it “will serve a growing senior population within the community that, as an institution, we believe deserves our respect and reverence.”

A site plan of Conley Square. Southern Asian Seventh-Day Adventist Church borders the property to the left, and another church owns land at the bottom.

The site's other neighbor - another congregation that's planning to build a church - isn't opposed, and other churches and residents wrote the Planning Board in support. “I like maintaining trees and do not want more traffic - however, I also want affordable housing options,” wrote one neighbor.

How East County got so many churches

Southern Asian Seventh-Day Adventist Church is one of a wave of houses of worship that opened in East County beginning in the 1980s. There are so many churches, temples, and missions in the area that New Hampshire Avenue is jokingly called the Highway to Heaven. How did this happen?

East County grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, including thousands of apartments and townhomes clustered a proposed rapid transit line that was never built. Some neighbors were unhappy about this and open about their disdain for renters, even calling them “undesirables” and “transients.” Meanwhile, environmentalists were worried about water quality in the Paint Branch and the Patuxent River, which provides drinking water to much of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

In response, Montgomery County placed a bunch of development restrictions there, such as limits on impervious surfaces and downzoning vacant land from allowing apartments and townhomes to allow only single-family homes on big lots. For nearly 20 years, the county simply refused to approve large developments in the area due to traffic concerns, so development just headed further north to Howard County.

These rules impacted religious buildings too—and community members had fought some of those as well. But in 2000, then-president Bill Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which said that zoning couldn’t exclude houses of worship. East County had lots of vacant land and that you couldn’t do much else with anymore, so more congregations moved in. 

This is what East County needs

Today, East County is one of the region's most diverse communities but lacks basic amenities. That's slowly changing. The Food and Drug Administration and Washington Adventist Hospital both relocated here, bringing thousands of jobs. In 2013, MoCo approved the White Oak Science Gateway plan, which would replace an aging office park with a hub of biotech companies, researchers, shops, and housing in a compact, walkable community. Flash’s opening finally fulfilled the promise of rapid transit along Route 29, sort of.

A birds-eye view of the Conley Square proposal, showing the Southern Asian Seventh-Day Adventist Church parking lot on the right.

Like the DC area as a whole, Montgomery County now has a major housing shortage. County planners note that we may have too many big, expensive single-family homes, and need more apartments and townhomes.

Unlike in the past, East County community members actually want lower-cost homes, according to a Planning Department report of recent community engagement, along with better transit options and more stuff to do nearby, like restaurants, grocery stores, recreational activities, and community events. Officials at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church world headquarters, literally across the street from the Conley Square site, say it’s “hard to recruit Millennials” to work there because “there’s no Metro here.” 

In supporting Conley Square, the Adventists are showing what it means to be a good neighbor. This project will provide the housing its community members want and need, as well as access to fresh food, transportation, and good jobs, things that are key to a good life. In turn, it'll help East County get the critical mass it needs to draw even more of the amenities residents want. 

Now what?

The Planning Board will review Conley Square on Thursday, and if you have comments about or want to support this project, you can write them at by 12 noon on Wednesday or sign up to testify.

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