For two decades, Montgomery County has created and nurtured the up-scale, revenue-producing enclave of Friendship Heights just across the District line, with its towering condominiums, large office buildings and haute couture shops catering to the rich.
Now, the District government is envious and wants its share of the big development that extends north of Western Avenue into Maryland. The city is welcoming developers with open arms as they start to parade onto a five-acre tract of land at Wisconsin and Western avenues NW, immediately south of the Maryland border, in hopes of building a massive collection of offices, shops, apartments and a hotel.
For its part, the District government figures it will at long last corral many of the shopping dollars and real estate tax revenues that have flowed into Montgomery County, as well as generate new jobs.
"It's a golden opportunity to capture the market that might be there," said Alfredo D. Echeverria, the city's associate planning director.
The D.C. Zoning Commission, after lengthy hearings, may act today on the first of the proposals, a large-scale development plan offered by the Donohoe Cos. and the Chevy Chase Land Co., two of the Washington area's largest builders. The developers are hoping to erect a $90 million complex at the Wisconsin and Western intersection that would have an entrance into the Friendship Heights Metro subway station, include a 200-room hotel and have a large office building that would surround a huge atrium filled with shops.
But much more development is planned for the large block bounded by Western, Wisconsin, Jenifer and 43rd streets and Military Road NW. The Miller Cos., developers of the downtown Connecticut Connection shopping and restaurant mall, own the tract adjoining Donohoe's and are seeking to build more office and retail space, as well as 30 to 60 apartments or condominiums.
Meanwhile, Abrams & Associates, a Bethesda developer, is hoping to build another office, retail and residential development at the southern edge of the block along Jenifer Street NW, but it has yet to complete its plans. Sandwiched in the middle of the tract is a small parcel owned by Clyde's Restaurant, which may develop another restaurant or sell its land in exchange for a location in one of the shopping areas.
"This area has been waiting for years for a developer to bring it off," said J. Kirkwood White, one of Miller's attorneys. "Now three developers are putting it together in a way the planning office wants."
While Echeverria and others see tax revenue -- perhaps $8.5 million annually from the Donohoe and Miller developments alone -- and more jobs, Friendship Heights residents see nothing but traffic jams that some predict will result in a gridlock at Wisconsin and Western avenues during rush hours or new congestion and noise on their neighborhood streets.
Norman Knopf, a lawyer for the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights, a coalition of 14 civic groups, complained that because the developments will "create jobs, [the District government] doesn't give a damn what it does to the community or the streets. They have sat by and watched Maryland develop and they want their share.
"We're not against development; we're against up-zoning" such as Donohoe is seeking approval for from the Zoning Commission, Knopf said.
Another citizen activist, Walton Francis, a representative of the Military Road Homeowners Association, said bluntly, "The city has done nothing positive to mitigate the traffic." He said his group is particularly concerned about truck traffic on their neighborhood streets.
Under a 1973 agreement between city and Maryland planning officials, the District agreed to limit Friendship Heights development so that new commercial and residential development on its side of the border would generate no more than 2,329 more vehicle trips through the community during the peak evening rush hour between 5 and 6 p.m.
D.C. planners now estimate that the Donohoe project would add 793 extra trips through the Wisconsin-Western intersection. With other nearby D.C. and Maryland development in Friendship Heights, including the Miller and Abrams projects, the city's public works department predicted there would be "substantial congestion and delay at this intersection."
Virginia Sager Spevak, president of the Friendship Neighborhood Coalition, said the Donohoe proposal is "too big, generates too much traffic and doesn't buffer the neighborhood."
Echeverria said that while "there is no question that any new development is going to generate more traffic, we feel confident it can be handled properly."
But for Echeverria and other city officials, the bottom line is simple:
"The comprehensive plan clearly states this is to be a regional commercial center," he said.