Questions Linger On Glenmont Plan

An architect's rendering of the mixed-use development proposed for the area around the Glenmont Metro station.
An architect's rendering of the mixed-use development proposed for the area around the Glenmont Metro station. (Courtesy Of The Lessard Group)
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

The County Council has instructed a developer to analyze further how increased traffic from a proposed residential and retail project at the Glenmont Metro station would affect a major intersection nearby, raising questions about the validity of a long-used county method for measuring congestion.

Although the council's decision pertained only to the Glenmont project's zoning application, it could have an impact on future cases, particularly development around Metro stations. Such "transit-oriented" development, the kind the county encourages in its growth policy, generally seeks to limit traffic congestion by concentrating dense growth around Metro stops. The problem: Denser development risks adding traffic to those areas.

When applying for a zoning change, developers must specify how they'll prevent "adverse impacts" on the surrounding area, including public utilities, schools and roads. The Glenmont case highlights potential problems with the method that the county has relied upon for years to calculate how well nearby intersections function, now and for the future.

"We've had a standard in place for many years, and I accept that the standard may be flawed," said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who voted for more analysis.

Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), one of the members who opposed it, said it was unfair to "change the rules midstream" for the developer.

The council voted, 6 to 3, to send the project back for study.

In a hearing last week, council members were told that experts say the type of analysis used by the developer, the kind the county has long required, might underestimate how well more traffic will move through an intersection. That's because the model, they say, doesn't account for the fact that some intersections appear to function reasonably well only because they are so jammed that relatively few vehicles can squeeze through before the light changes. If the model doesn't capture current conditions accurately, critics say, it can't reliably predict what will happen when traffic worsens.

Case in point, critics say: the severely congested intersection at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, which is near the proposed Glenmont project.

After a three-hour hearing, the council voted to require the developer, Glenmont Layhill Associates, to use a different method to predict how far traffic would back up at Georgia and Randolph after people begin driving to and from the new homes, restaurants and shops. Glenmont Layhill is an affiliate of the JBG Cos., which is based in Chevy Chase.

The proposed project would include as many as 1,550 residential units and 90,000 square feet of retail space. The 31-acre site, which now has aging garden apartments, is northeast of Glenallan Avenue, between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road. The developer's attorneys said the project would revitalize the Glenmont area and help to "establish a sense of place" for the surrounding community.

"This cannot become a missed opportunity for redevelopment in Glenmont," attorney Steven Robins told the council.

Robins said his client followed the planning department's rules by hiring a traffic expert to estimate the "critical lane volume." That measures how well vehicles move through an intersection, in all directions, during peak hours. The intersection of Georgia and Randolph is indeed congested, Robins said. However, he said, the consultant's study showed that the developer's plan to add two lanes to Georgia Avenue would keep traffic moving within the county's limits, even with new traffic.

But Francoise Carrier, a hearing examiner appointed by the council to recommend decisions in land-use cases, said those results didn't jibe with what's already happening. Local residents testified that the intersection is so jammed during the morning and evening rush hours that vehicles get stuck and block the intersection to oncoming traffic. Drivers can sit through several rounds of green lights -- sometimes for up to nine minutes -- before they get through, residents said.

Before deciding whether the project would cause "adverse impacts" on the intersection, Carrier said, she needed additional data to show how far traffic would back up on Georgia and Randolph after the new businesses and homes open.

So far, Carrier told council members, "The evidence in this case did not demonstrate to me that this project would not have adverse traffic impacts."

Several residents told the council that widening Georgia Avenue wouldn't help. Instead, they said, the area needs safer crossing points for pedestrians and more transit, such as a bus connecting Olney and Glenmont, to handle any increased traffic.

"We need transit solutions, not roadway solutions," said longtime local resident Michael McAteer.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company