In Md. town, anxiety over 'revitalizing'

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; B01

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.

Mixed-use developments are a key part of a "science city" recently approved for part of Gaithersburg west of Interstate 270 and a recently approved plan to redevelop the White Flint area. In addition to Kensington, such developments also are being considered - or will be considered soon - for Takoma Park, Wheaton, Chevy Chase Lake and the Long Branch area of Silver Spring, planners said.

Fosselman, an urban planner for Rodgers Consulting, whose clients include developers and builders, said the town needs to offer higher densities to entice developers who would otherwise pursue higher rents by building in White Flint and other parts of Bethesda.

"Kensington needs to stay in the game and be freshened up, or we'll become the new blight because everyone around us is revitalizing," he said. "People are willing to take the density in mild doses to get the redevelopment."

The new apartments and condominiums would provide more housing options, particularly for young people seeking more affordable homes and retirees who need single-level homes, Fosselman said. Those objecting to the plan are a "vocal minority," he said. The Kensington Town Council unanimously approved the plan in July 2009, before Sullivan was elected.

Concerns about scale

The question of how many new buildings and people Kensington can - or should - absorb is heating up neighborhood e-mail groups and dividing residents. Although public officials have been discussing the plan for three years, some residents said they had just recently learned the details as the debate has intensified.

"I just think the scale of development in that plan seems so massive," said Dan Radack, a 21-year resident who said he learned of the proposal a month ago. "It just seems like it would overwhelm the town and change the feel."

But Darin Bartram, who has lived in Kensington for 13 years, said he doesn't think new buildings would ever reach the maximum levels of density allowed in the plan, particularly because Kensington isn't near a Metro station, where developers like to build.

"I don't mind more people," Bartram said. "It's sort of nice to imagine a town with people living above breakfast places or a farmers market out walking our streets and shopping in stores. To me, that's a good thing for Kensington."

Boyd, the Montgomery planner, said the Kensington proposal respects the town's smaller scale and historic character by calling for a "modest increase" in density at Connecticut and Knowles avenues. If history is any guide, he said, it is "very unlikely" the town would be developed to the maximum density and height limits.

"We're not promoting a mini-Bethesda there," Boyd said. "We recognize Kensington is not Bethesda, and we have no intention of turning it into Bethesda. But we do think some reasonable number of additional people can be accommodated there."

The community's role

Sullivan said she's concerned that planners will make it too easy for developers to build to the maximum heights, which she thinks should be 45 feet. For example, she said, developers are allowed to build at higher densities and provide fewer parking spaces simply for building near a transit stop. That includes the Kensington MARC station, even though a MARC official said the commuter rail line carries 135 to 150 passengers daily from Kensington, a number that pales in comparison with Metrorail station traffic. The closest Metro station is two miles from Kensington.

County transportation planners found that new development could cause Kensington's traffic volumes to increase 35 percent, from 132,000 vehicles daily to 177,000.

Leaders in other communities said they share Sullivan's concerns that planners will give developers too much leeway to build what's most profitable rather than what's best.

Developers seeking higher densities are required to include some public amenities, but they may choose those from a list of options, which include planting trees, providing public art and building pedestrian connections between streets.

"People are concerned there will be no role for the community now," said Montgomery council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), who lives in Takoma Park. "A developer could check off three things he has to do to get the density and then say 'I don't have to listen to you.' . . . There's a feeling the community will have less impact on what projects are going to look like."

Jim Humphrey, who lives in Bethesda and oversees land-use issues for the Montgomery Civic Federation, said he's concerned that developers won't choose more expensive options, such as setting aside land for playgrounds.

"We'll end up with areas like downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring, where we'll have no green areas or parks," Humphrey said.

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