Testimony of The Chevy Chase Land Company Regarding the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan Staff Draft
The following is the testimony that was delivered to the Planning Board by Steven Robins, our attorney, and myself on behalf of the Chevy Chase Land Company on Monday, July 16th:
Good afternoon Chair Carrier and Members of the Montgomery County Planning Board. For the record, my name is Steven Robins and I am an attorney with the law firm of Lerch Early & Brewer located in Bethesda, Maryland. I am representing the Chevy Chase Land Company of Montgomery County, Maryland, which we will refer to as “the Land Company” throughout our testimony. I am joined here today by Lisa Fadden, Vice President of Public Affairs, for the Land Company. Thank you for providing us the opportunity to comment as the Board deliberates about whether to release the Staff Draft Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan for public hearing in its present form.
As a preliminary matter, I would like to thank the Planning Board and the Council for supporting a brief delay in the Plan so that the Land Company could reach out to the surrounding community and stakeholders in an effort to close the gap on the views concerning the future of the Chevy Chase Lake area. We have spent an enormous amount of time on this effort. Ms. Fadden has taken the lead on community outreach and she is here to speak to you about that effort and the proposed Staff Draft. We have worked closely with the Connecticut Avenue Coalition as well as many other civic and community leaders and we truly believe that this effort has been very productive.
Just a few matters I’d like to address up front before turning to Lisa. First, we are concerned that staff’s transportation analysis is flawed. The traffic counts used are from a variety of different years, and we have been informed some are very old. We know from experience with intersections all around the County that traffic has decreased. By contrast, Wells and Associates conducted traffic counts for the Land Company as recently as October of 2011. Additionally, while staff acknowledges that the BRAC improvements will have a positive impact on the intersection of Jones Bridge Road and Connecticut Avenue, they don’t acknowledge the positive impacts on any other intersections downstream from this intersection. From the outset of this plan, The Land Company has known that traffic would be a concern of this community and have tried to brainstorm possible intersection improvements in order to alleviate traffic congestion. We look forward to sharing those recommendations with you during the process. We are disappointed that staff has essentially taken a pass on looking for possible solutions to the Connecticut Avenue congestion issues.
Secondly, it is not clear to us that the plan that staff recommends is actually feasible. While the assertion is made that the shopping center area could be rezoned to accommodate 750,000 square feet of new development after the Purple Line, our studies show that with the heights and FARs recommended by staff, the actual development that could be achieved, after accounting for open space and amenities is likely less than the amount proposed. In addition, at these heights, what the staff is suggesting would result in a product that is bulky and takes up nearly the entire block, which we think runs contrary to what the community actually wants. I’d now like to turn it over to Lisa to cover the staff recommendations.
Good afternoon, for the record, my name is Lisa Fadden, and I serve as the VP of Public Affairs at the Chevy Chase Land Company. We’re excited about the opportunity at Chevy Chase Lake and as Steve mentioned we have met with hundreds of community leaders over the past twelve months or so in what has been a collaborative effort. We’ve heard a few major themes from the community in discussing this plan – additional retail and restaurant options are wanted and needed in Chevy Chase. The community would like quality open space where they see their neighbors regularly, and they would like the area to be more pedestrian friendly.
Many of you have visited Chevy Chase Lake and are familiar with the area. We are lucky to be very close to Rock Creek Park, and have some beautiful forested areas around portions of our property. One of the things I want to clarify though is that while staff spends much time in the draft referencing the lush greenery of Chevy Chase Lake, the town center area to be redeveloped is 61 year old strip shopping center. The continued references to preservation within the plan concern us, because we have a property that is ripe for redevelopment into something much more pedestrian friendly, vibrant and transit oriented.
- Plan Vision/Phasing – What is the vision for the Chevy Chase Lake Plan? The Plan recommends little change in Chevy Chase Lake until the Purple Line is “funded for construction.” While we understand that one trigger point for additional development is the coming of the purple line, we question the Plan’s vision until that point is reached. Leaving the area as the “status quo” does little to take advantage of the excellent location and resources that the Chevy Chase Lake has to offer. For example, the Plan recommends that, as part of the “Enhanced” phase (Phase I), the Chevy Chase Lake Shopping Center are should accommodate 250,000 square feet which, coincidentally, is the amount of density already approved on the site. The 250,000 square feet is a total development number, so if we wanted some of our current buildings to remain on the property, we’d achieve even less than the 250,000 square feet.
We disagree with this approach and would respectfully suggest that enough density is made available in the earlier stage to allow for meaningful development to occur that complements and advances the Plan’s vision.
Any development in the initial stage still would need to address the adequate public facilities ordinance and certainly would be subject to Planning Board approval. The Plan should not be designed to unnecessarily and arbitrarily restrict a certain amount of development that is poised to come on line earlier in the process.
- Heights – We fully support the use of the CR zone in achieving the vision for the Chevy Chase Lake area. However, the heights recommended in the Plan fall short of a vision that ultimately will take advantage of the area’s proximity to the purple line and create a new development that the community can enjoy.
Our major differences with Staff regarding height relate to the shopping center parcels and the 8401 Connecticut Avenue office building parcel – and, more particularly, the property fronting Connecticut Avenue. The Plan currently recommends height limits of 70 feet with a 90 foot height limit adjacent to the Purple Line (but only in the “create” phase).
Heights on the 8401 Connecticut Avenue parcel are limited to 70 feet. Staff fails to consider (or severely discounts) that 8401 presently built to 160 feet (180 feet to the top of the Penthouse). The Hyatt Residence across Connecticut Avenue also has a similar height (16 stories). These two buildings alone suggest that heights of greater than 90 feet for development in close proximity (i.e., adjacent) to the Purple Line station should be acceptable and thus, recommended in the Plan.
Staff’s recommendation that the existing 8401 building be replaced with development of up to 70 feet, essentially prevents any redevelopment of that parcel. As a practical matter, it is highly unlikely that any development scenario would ever come to fruition with a 70 foot height limit and thus, the recommendation on the 8401 parcel, in a sense, becomes meaningless. The development on the shopping center parcel that is in close proximity to the proposed Purple Line station and to the 8401 building should also be afforded greater heights, particularly adjacent to the Purple Line station.
- Public Open Space/Urban Park – The Plan calls for the establishment of a central public park on the Chevy Chase Shopping Center parcels. The Land Company has spent a significant amount of time working with the various stakeholders on a public use and open space plan for the property. It is our understanding that the Montgomery County Parks Department is requesting that a park be dedicated for public use on the property – a park that would be owned, operated and maintained by the Parks Department. We object to this recommendation and believe that it would detrimentally impact not only the Land Company but the community at large. The Land Company and the community cannot be subject to budgetary constraints and risk having a park that is poorly maintained and operated in the middle of our transit oriented development. The Land Company is willing to provide high quality open space that remains in private ownership and is privately maintained.
- Multiple Sectional Map Amendments – The Staff Draft Plan unnecessarily recommends that the zoning changes be implemented through multiple SMA’s. The first SMA would rezone only the commercial land on Connecticut Avenue for mixed use, but at currently approved development levels. The second SMA would rezone most of the Town Center for mixed use, at increased development levels, after Purple Line funding. Two separate rezoning actions are unduly complicated and excessively process oriented. Phased development can occur through a staging plan contained in the Sector Plan. This is how the Council staged development in White Flint and the Greater Seneca Science Center Corridor Plans. Delaying or postponing the comprehensive zoning does not appear to have any advantages. We are not aware of any other plan that has been staged in this fashion.
- 8401 Connecticut Avenue – Lastly we are concerned about the density recommended on the block where our current office building sits at 8401 Connecticut Avenue. Due to the recommendation for a 70 foot tall building, where a 160 foot tall building sits today, the density that staff assigns to that parcel is “phantom density”. No redevelopment of that building would occur with the zoning recommendations set forth in this plan.
There is one other issue that has come to our attention that merits the Board’s consideration. As the Board may know, the Purple Line is proposed to be elevated over Connecticut Avenue and onto the Land Company’s property. MTA recently indicated that the line is being redesigned so to include engineered fill underneath the elevated tracks. This redesign will have two significant and, we believe, undesirable, effects. First, a fill condition would likely eliminate the opportunity to provide a road connecting Manor Drive and Chevy Chase Lake Drive. This connection is recommended in the Staff Draft Plan and we agree, is important. Second, a fill condition would serve as a barrier to the station and development around it from properties like 8401 Connecticut Avenue and those farther South. This is contrary to sound TOD principles. We would request the Planning Board and Staff to engage MTA on this issue so that the above referenced concerns are satisfactorily addressed and we can work together on how to best activate this Purple Line station.
We think it would be helpful for the Board to provide guidance on some of these issues to Staff so that they are able to address them in their Draft Plan for the public hearing.
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