Never a firm to be stampeded into rapid development of the land it bought in the 1890s, the Chevy Chase Land Co. has decided that now is the proper time to invest in new apartments on vacant fields it owns straddling Connecticut Avenue in Maryland.
The company has been paying taxes on the 22 acres for nearly 90 years. Last year alone the bill came to $35,281.
Ever since Francis G. Newlands, a Nevada senator who made a fortune from the Comstock lode, came to Washington and invested in real estate, the company he helped found has been converting the farms of lower Montgomery County into high-priced housing and commercial developments.
It has, however, been a slow and deliberate process. In the village of Chevy Chase, the land company conceived and built one of the nation's first planned communities - complete with its own trolley line, maids' quarters and restrictive covenants that preciuded the construction of any house costing less than $5,000 along Connecticut Avenue and $3,000 on the side streets.
Appealing to the growing class of civil servants and "persons of intellect" according to the sales promotions of the time. The land company never rushed to build anything when a delay might convert a site to a more lucrative use in keeping with their vision of Chevy Chase.
Now, the land company believes, the time is ripe for two of the few remaining parcels of undeveloped land. Not far from the big Tudor and Cape Code houses surrounded by trees and tasteful shrubbery, the company wants to build new "mid-rise" apartment buildings.
The plans have aroused relatively little opposition, partially because the property is two miles north of the center of Chevy Chase. The most vocal critics, residents of the area, have complained about increased traffic and parking problems. But others say they think the land company, a powerful and paternalistic community institution with millions of dollars in land holdings, has the right to develop its land as it sees fit, particularly since the zoning has been granted since 1966.
Still others wince at the thought of the multi-storied buildings in their midst, saying it is a "pity" that the land company won't change its mind.
But Hunter Davidson, the firm's president, said he can't be expected to propose single-family residences for the land. "I won't get rich doing that. The ground should be built to its economic expectations."
There is more than a touch of notoriety and glamor associated with the project between the village and various sections of Chevy Chase and the Capital Beltway. The two proposed apartment sites have been important parts of the land company's role in Chevy Chase throughout the century.
On one plot of eight acres on the west side of Connecticut Avenue, the popular Chevy Chase Lake Swim Club stood for 47 years - until it was bull-dozed by the land company in 1972. Here, mid-rise apartments, perhaps 10 stories high may stand eventually, according to "very preliminary" plans.
Across the avenue, beside the Chevy Chase Library. Chevy Chase Land is considering building garden apartments no higher than five stories. This 14-acre parcel lies next to the now-drained Chevy Chase Lake, where dance bands and strings of electric lights drew throngs on warm summer nights at the turn of the century.
Today, standing at the windows of his office on the 10th floor of the Chevy Chase lake Building, Davidson surveys the world his company has helped to build.
"There are the Preston View apartments," he said, reviewing the scenery. "We maintain the property as if they were our own homes. The quality is superlative . . . We own the Chevy Chase Bank Building. We built it for the bank when it formed eight years ago. The Chevy Chase supermarket is superior . . . people come here who would never think of going (elsewhere.)"
There is more. Practically every parcel in Chevy Chase has a history associated with the land company.
"Why do I say these things?" he asked, pausing briefly. "Because we do these things in taste. This is not a 'spec' (speculative) office building. We expect to be here for 50 years. That is our purpose for development, to build for investment."
North of the Chevy Chase Lake Building, which stands at the Chessie System railroad spur tracks crossing Connecticut Avenue are two vacant 18-acre parcels the land company still holds for the future. In 1970 it tried to build a Bloomingdale's department store there but lost to neighborhood opposition. Bloomie's went to White Flint mall.
As president, Davidson, a soft-spoken man who chooses his words carefully, "serves" the related families who have owned the Chevy Chase Land Co. since its inception in 1890 - the Johnstons and the Farrs. "That is Francis Newlands Johnston - not any old Johnston you pick off the street - and William Sharon Farr," he said, accenting the middle names. "I make the public appearances with Gavin Maloy Farr."
The Farr and teh Johnstons are descendants of Sen. Newlands, who in 1890 quietly began assembling 1,750 acres of land along what is now Connecticut Avenue from Calvert Street to the present Chevy Chase. In those days this entire strip was countryside.
As it developed the village lots, the land company added a sanitary sewer system, housing for domestic help and a trolley line to downtown. Twice a day, the trolley delivered mail and groceries.
"In those days," a village historian recalled, "you could maintain a large house, for everyone had at least two servants, often more."
Before the turn of the century, Chevy Chase Lake was a popular getaway spot with merry-go-round rides, ice cream and a dance pavilion, where the U.S. Marine Band and other groups played. At night red, white and blue electric lights shone on strings around the lake and visitors rented rowboats for five cents per half hour.
The Tudor-style Newlands Mansion, later called the Corby Mansion or "Ishpeming" after it changed hands, stood prominently on Chevy Chase Circle. The land company sold or leased lots for community amenities - the Chevy Chase Country Club (originally for fox hunts), Columbia Country Club, the library, the womer's club, the fire department, the churches and schools. And of course the swimming pool.
In 1925, Chevy Chase Land Co. began leasing the site for the Chevy Chase Lake Swim Club, a community pool for families who couldn't afford to join the local private clubs or didn't want to wait months for their applications to be processed.
In 1972, amid accusations of "greed" from the 3,000 members the land company razed the pool to build high-rise apartments even though it had obtained none of the necessary sewer and building permits.
The gesture fostered bitterness toward the firm that had long prided itself on its relationship with the community.
"There were little kids going around with petitions and with a canoe. We put on a floating protest, recalled activist Carlos Van Leer. "We marched in a torchlight parade to one of the owners' homes but they still smashed the pool up."
The apartment plans fell through because of the county's sewer moratorium.
Weeds grew over the site and the company looked westward where it was engaged in another bout with the community over the expansion of the Chevy Chase Shopping Center in Friendship Heights. Residents won that battle and eventually the outrage over the pool subsided.
"We have been trying to build on that land for 10 years," said Davidson, indicating the pool site.
The lifting of the sewer mortatorium last May and the building of a private sewage plant to serve the land company's property put the project back onthe drawing boards.
Now the plans, according to Davidson, are in the "very preliminary stages. Between 600 and 800 apartments could be built on the two parcels but restrictions imposed by plannerscould reduce the total as much as 50 percent.
The closest residential neighborhood to the project is The Hamletwhich Chevy Chase Land Co. began developing after World War II. The residents association there gave qualified approval to the apartment project if its members would be sparedfrom parking congestion.
"We don't want to become a parkinglot for the maids who will work in those apartments," said James W. Shields. The Hamlet association president. "We have that commitment. The thing is that if they don't develop it, they'll sell it, and if someone else develops it, they most likely won't care about the neigborhood like the land company does."