Frustrated by accusations that it plans to build a parking garage where an African American burial ground once stood, a Montgomery County commission laid it out on paper last week: That’s not happening.
The long-lost cemetery is said to have been located on land north and northeast of the Westwood Tower Apartments in Bethesda, which was paved over as a parking lot decades ago. For years now, the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission has met fierce backlash from activists from nearby Macedonia Baptist Church — a surviving vestige of the area’s historic black community — who claim any development on the property, as well as the existing parking lot, desecrates their ancestors’ bones.
Yet the commission, which controls the site, has had no intention of building a parking garage on the lot, said Shauna Sorrells, the commission’s director of legislative and public affairs. The allegations are based on sketches drawn up two years ago as part of a master plan process that were never acted upon.
“Have we moved forward with initiating development beyond the master plan and sketch plan process? No we have not,” Sorrells said, calling charges to the contrary “a false narrative.”
The statement issued last week reads, in part, “at present, and for the foreseeable future, the Commission has no plan to develop the property.”
“It’s not new,” Sorrells said.
Church members are unmoved. They plan to protest in front of the church Sunday and deemed the commission’s statement a “whitewashing.”
“It’s unacceptable. That’s the short of it,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of Macedonia’s social justice ministry.
The long of it is that the parking lot adjacent to the apartment tower sits atop the burial ground, church members say. They are demanding a museum or memorial on the property honoring the black community that once lived in the area. They also say the statement from last week gives no indication that the commission won’t change its mind on building the parking garage later on.
The statement says that the commission will conduct a study of the site if it decides to move forward with any development.
Last month, tension between the housing commission and the church boiled over after county-sponsored mediations between the groups fell apart and church members protested at the commission’s monthly meeting.
And Oct. 31, the Montgomery County Council voted unanimously to protect and inventory historic cemeteries that could lie in the paths of new development projects.
Controversy surrounding the burial ground has become a focal point of concern over broader plans to redevelop the Westbard neighborhood.
Yet it is only one piece of the grievances that vocal residents have raised with the county and Regency Centers, a Florida-based company and a major property owner in Westbard, including the Westwood Shopping Center.
The Westwood Tower property is owned by Regency and has been leased by the commission since 1997 to provide affordable housing. Sorrells said the commission will be purchasing the land early next year.
Regency said the commission’s stance on not developing its lot has no bearing on Regency’s own projects in Westbard. Details of those plans are expected to become public early next year.
A citizen’s group, called “Save Westbard,” says the entire Westbard redevelopment project — complete with new townhouses, high-rise apartments and a modernized shopping strip — will further crowd schools and roads.
Residents who oppose the increased density say the developer, Equity One, and the county colluded to bring urban development into a traditionally suburban neighborhood. Regency acquired all of Equity One’s holdings in March.
A lawsuit pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court alleges that the county’s planning board did not complete environmental assessments required by county law, that proper public hearings on the sector plan were not held and that the plan itself violated contract zoning laws. Macedonia Baptist Church is not a party to the lawsuit.
Michele Rosenfeld, who is representing residents in the “Save Westbard” suit, said her clients agreed with church members that the commission offered little assurance that it would not build a parking garage in the future.
As for the rest of the Westbard development: “We’re still waiting for a decision from the court,” she said.