In Md. town, anxiety over 'revitalizing'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Amid the sprawling Montgomery County suburbs, the 116-year-old town of Kensington prides itself on its village charm. It's a place where many of the 1,900 residents know each other and visitors can stroll between Antique Row and stately Victorian homes mixed with post-World War II colonials and ramblers.

Beyond its leafy neighborhoods and historic district, Kensington's business hub - the area that most people see as they drive through on frequently jammed Connecticut Avenue - consists largely of gas stations, garages and tired-looking strip malls.

Montgomery planners have proposed redeveloping the area over the next 20 years into a vibrant town center where people live and work above storefronts and walk along tree-lined sidewalks to cafes, shops and public gathering spots. Such developments, which would include more tall buildings than residents are accustomed to, also would help communities in Montgomery's densely populated southern areas absorb much of the county's population growth, planners say.

While planners draft new regulations governing such mixed-use developments, some residents in Kensington, Takoma Park, Silver Spring and North Chevy Chase are questioning whether their communities will become high-rise mini-cities with even worse traffic jams and more children in their crowded schools.

"It's an urban scale of density which is totally out of scale and out of character for a historic town," said Kensington Town Council member Lydia Sullivan, who writes a blog called Snoburbia. "We're fighting for the soul of Kensington."

Sullivan said that residents welcome revitalization. However, she said, many seem unaware that the town's population could more than double with the amount of development allowed under the proposed plan. The number of new apartments and condominiums allowed could end up far outnumbering the town's 526 single-family homes, she said, which make up 80 percent of the town's housing.

Montgomery planners say they are also trying to reduce traffic congestion by changing the suburban zoning laws that have long separated many neighborhoods from businesses. That separation, planners say, forces many suburbanites to drive between homes, shopping centers and office parks, increasing traffic jams and gasoline consumption.

"If you're looking for ways to reduce the size of your carbon footprint, you need to create places where people can walk to things," said Fred Boyd, a Montgomery planner.

'Freshened up'

Kensington's current plan, approved in 1978, allows for buildings as tall as 94 feet, although the town's two tallest buildings are about 60 feet. Under the new plan, Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman said, they would be capped at 75 feet. The nearby White Flint area of North Bethesda has a 300-foot limit.

Developers often seek approval for high densities for mixed-use projects, usually in the form of taller buildings. They say they need the revenue from that additional space because such developments are relatively expensive to design and build. Landowners also say they need to offset the financial risk of forgoing rental income while buildings are torn down and new ones are built.

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