The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to bring as many as 1,200 new townhouses and high-rise apartments to Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood, ending months of bitter debate over a plan that some residents contend will alter the suburban character of the community a mile north of the District line.
The housing — including as many as 275 income-restricted or “affordable” apartments and homes — is part of the Westbard Sector Plan, a 30-year blueprint for growth in the southwest county area bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, Little Falls Parkway, Dorset Avenue and the Springfield neighborhood. It also includes a renovation of the Westwood Shopping Center on Westbard Avenue. A private developer, Equity One, bought the center and surrounding properties totaling 22 acres in early 2014.
Most Westbard residents supported upgrades to the 1960s-era strip center. But many balked at the county’s vision of a “town center,” where housing and retail would be combined at greater density than the area had ever seen. Critics charged that the plan imposed a new urbanist approach deeply at odds with the community’s existing makeup.
The council downsized the project by about half from the original version approved by the Montgomery Planning Board. The revisions drew support from established neighborhood leaders but kindled outspoken opposition from residents who organized into a group called Save Westbard.
Council members said the project addressed several goals that made its passage imperative. These include more housing opportunities for moderate-income families as well as teachers, police and other government workers. It is also consistent with the county’s push toward new construction that is less car-dependent and more compact. The shopping center — dominated by a massive asphalt parking lot — was regarded as a prime area for such an approach.
“We now know with scientific certainty what the combustion engine is doing to our planet,” said Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “Building homes on what is already a giant parking lot just a mile from two Metros and from the D.C. line is far better for our environment than developing a farm, or bulldozing a farm an hour north on 270.”
The shopping center is actually 2.2 miles from the Friendship Heights Metro station and 3.3 miles from the Bethesda stop.
Save Westbard presented survey data suggesting widespread opposition within the community. They said that approval of the project reflected a land-use policy process dominated by developers.
“The Westbard experience has united and mobilized communities across Montgomery County with the common view that the overall Montgomery County planning process is broken,” opponents said to county officials in an e-mail Tuesday. It was signed by members of Save Westbard and activists from Rosemary Hills, Lyttonsville, Damascus and Luxmanor — communities that anticipate some of the changes faced by Westbard.
The activists said they would use “every legal and political means at their disposal to reform the planning process, to put an end to unwanted overdevelopment, and to create a process that involves maximum citizen participation .”
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda), who represents Westbard and led the effort to downsize the original Equity One project, said he understood the reaction.
“Planning for the future is a hard job, particularly in places where the present is, for the most part, quite nice for the surrounding neighborhoods.” But Berliner added that planning in the county is not done “by plebiscite,” and that the council relies on the best judgments of professional planners.
“And then we make the judgments we were elected to make. And every four years, our residents get to pass their own judgment,” he said.