Developers and planners in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are already factoring a light rail link between Bethesda and New Carrollton into their business and growth plans even though a 16-mile Purple Line has yet to win highly competitive construction money.
A debate in Montgomery highlights the balancing act that officials face in both counties. Land-use planners are seeking to focus growth and rejuvenate older suburbs near 20 potential Purple Line stations, but some residents are concerned that too much redevelopment would swamp their roads and schools and drastically alter the character of their communities. Developers argue that a certain level of density is needed to make projects profitable.
Although county officials have broad visions for what they would like to see at the stops, in most cases there are few specifics.
In the Chevy Chase Lake area of north Chevy Chase, many residents say they would welcome a more walkable community of apartments, condominiums and offices above street-level stores and restaurants. The Chevy Chase Land Co. has proposed a cluster of 23 buildings at a Purple Line station that would be located at Connecticut Avenue about a mile inside the Capital Beltway.
Such developments have been popular with commute-weary residents and often fetch premium prices.
“Here you can have a mixed-use transit [development] where you can live, eat and work in the same area,” said Scott DeCain, managing partner of Bald Eagle Partners, which is working with the Land company on the project. “There’s much less impact environmentally because you have the ability to do much of what you need in the community.”
But some say the developers’ 49-acre proposal,which includes buildings 10 to 19 stories tall, would overwhelm the critical Connecticut Avenue commuting corridor, which runs from the District line to Kensington, Wheaton and Olney. Motorists from any new development would come on top of the additional 3,550 vehicles projected daily for that section of Connecticut Avenue after the nearby National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda completes its expansion in September as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program.
“It’s already a disaster from a commuting standpoint,” said Geoff Gonella, a board member for the nearby Columbia Country Club, which has opposed the proposed Purple Line route through its golf course. “Our fear is too much development in Chevy Chase Lake is only going to make that worse.”
‘Here’s an opportunity’
In a preliminary proposal, Montgomery planners have recommended far less new building, suggesting that the County Council approve only about 1 million square feet of new office, residential and retail space out of the more than 4 million square feet that the Land company has proposed.
Most of that — about 800,000 square feet — would be permitted only after Purple Line construction begins. Planners also have recommended limiting building heights to about six stories to better blend with surrounding houses. The planning board is scheduled to make a recommendation this fall to the County Council, which will make the final decision.
“Not all stations are created equal,” said Montgomery Planning Director Rollin Stanley. “Chevy Chase is not downtown Bethesda. There’s not a lot of traffic capacity on Connecticut Avenue or East West Highway. Even if you put in the Purple Line, it will not help.”
The area that would be redeveloped has single-story strip malls, which include Chevy Chase Supermarket on one side of Connecticut and a Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels on the other.
“So much of what’s occurred is this mundane sprawl,” DeCain said. “This is one of those wonderful opportunities where you can take advantage of transit. Instead of everyone living further out here’s an opportunity to do infill, an opportunity to leverage off of mass transit.”
‘People don’t want a city’
The Land company’s proposals are some of the most concrete plans to emerge for development along the proposed rail line.
As a single land owner, it also has a significant advantage because redevelopment efforts can stall when developers must piece together smaller parcels owned by different people.
Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said current Chevy Chase Lake residents stand to benefit. Proximity to a Purple Line station would increase their property values, he said, and redevelopment would bring more stores and restaurants within walking distance.
“The folks around [the development] will have a nice little windfall,” said Leinberger, who reviewed Land Co.’s development plan. “They’ll be living in suburbia and will be able to walk to great urbanism and a transit stop.”