For thousands of motorists, Chevy Chase Lake amounts to a two-block stretch of Connecticut Avenue where rush-hour traffic crawls between the District line and the Capital Beltway.
If it weren’t for red-brick shopping centers with matching green awnings straddling Connecticut — one with the 54-year-old Chevy Chase Supermarket and the other with a Starbucks and Einstein Bros Bagels — the area of southern Montgomery County might pass by unnoticed.
But Montgomery planners say construction of a light-rail Purple Line would change that, along with life for residents of Chevy Chase Lake’s leafy neighborhoods. Planners say their newly proposed 20-year growth strategy would take advantage of a proposed light-rail station to focus new building, encourage walking and create a town center to unite the 380 acres between East-West Highway and Jones Bridge Road.
“Connecticut Avenue is a very powerful force and really divides the town center,” said Montgomery planner Elza Hisel-McCoy. “They’re missing the connectivity across Connecticut Avenue.”
On Monday, Hisel-McCoy is scheduled to present the planning staff’s vision for the area to the Montgomery County Planning Board. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for mid-September. The County Council would have to approve the plan.
Because of Chevy Chase Lake’s location, the impact of its growth is likely to ripple far beyond its residents. In addition to being a rush-hour bottleneck on the Connecticut Avenue corridor, Chevy Chase Lake handles some east-west traffic between downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring. Thousands of commuters who work at the nearby National Institutes of Health, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and in downtown Bethesda also travel through the area.
Under the planning staff’s latest recommendations, the two mostly single-story shopping centers could be replaced with buildings up to eight stories tall. The area could get up to 1,000 more townhouses, apartments and condominiums. There also would be a new public park and playground, improved bike trails and pedestrian crossings, and a compact “town center.” The maximum 1.5 million square feet of new development would be limited to the 25-acre town center along Connecticut, between Manor Road and Chevy Chase Lake Drive.
Chevy Chase Lake poses a challenge, planners say, because it is one of the longest-established residential areas along the proposed route for the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Planners in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are factoring the state’s $1.93 billion project into local growth plans, even though it has no construction funding.
“The important question that’s going to be answered by this is what does transit-oriented development look like in these communities that are established?” Hisel-McCoy said.
Many in the area say they would welcome more restaurants and shops within walking distance.
“We’re inside the Beltway — the urban, dense development is coming,” Mike Koch, a Chevy Chase resident, said as he left the Starbucks in Chevy Chase Lake one recent morning. “If you want to live in the suburbs now, you have to go to Frederick.”
Others question how much new construction the area can absorb. A light-rail line running east-west would do little to offset the additional traffic, most of which runs north-south, some say. Some with children question how many students new housing would add to the area’s crowded public schools.
“It feels like we’re in danger of becoming a mini-Bethesda or a mini-Silver Spring when we all chose to live here because we wanted a place that was quieter, more residential and peaceful without buildings towering over our homes,” said Julie Buchanan, who lives in the Chevy Chase Hills neighborhood behind Starbucks. “It would be going from the suburban life to urban-suburban.”
Major change is still some ways off, local officials said. Even if the County Council approves the new zoning plan within the next year, the development approval process would take an additional three to five years before construction could begin — and that’s if the economy has rebounded to developers’ satisfaction.
Moreover, most of the development — up to about 1.25 million square feet — couldn’t be built until the Purple Line clinched federal and state construction funding. State transit planners say the earliest they hope to do that is 2014. But federal transit funding is highly competitive nationwide, and Maryland transportation officials have said the state would have trouble affording its share of the Purple Line’s construction without a state gas tax increase. A proposed gas tax increase never gained traction in this year’s legislative session.
Lisa Fadden, a spokeswoman for the Chevy Chase Land Co., said the company’s plans to redevelop its two shopping centers are “still evolving” but call for more development than the recommended zoning plan would allow. Fadden said the company has scaled back the 4 million square feet of new construction it proposed last year to 1.4 million square feet. Buildings that the company once envisioned to reach up to 20 stories would be a maximum of 13 stories, she said, with most ranging between three and 12 stories. The tallest building in Chevy Chase Lake now is about 13 stories, but most of the commercial area is zoned for two stories.
“We obviously want to maximize what we think is a great opportunity around a Purple Line inside the Beltway,” Fadden said. “We want to put something here that serves the whole community for a long time.”
Even before the Purple Line is funded, the company would be allowed to proceed with up to 250,000 square feet of construction already approved for the area east of Connecticut at Manor Road, where the Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center now sits.
Planners note that they can do little to reduce the pass-through commuter traffic but said improving sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths would reduce driving among residents.
Bruce Crispell, the Montgomery schools’ long-range planning director, said new classroom additions would enable now-crowded schools to accommodate the 120 or so new students predicted to live in those 1,000 additional housing units in the next two decades.
Most — about 90 children — would come from homes that could not be built until after the Purple Line is funded, he said. By then, Crispell said, the new classroom additions would be finished.
Phil MacWilliams, president of the Coquelin Run Citizens Association, said he’s concerned the school system’s estimates are too low and don’t account for the growing number of young families moving to the inner suburbs.