The relationship between the Chevy Chase Land Company and the longtime civic activists living around it was tenuous at best when Lisa Fadden arrived in August 2011.
The Land Company, founded in 1890 when Sen. Francis G. Newlands of Nevada bought more than 1,700 acres from Dupont Circle to Jones Bridge Road, wanted to rebuild the 1950′s style Chevy Chase Lake East and West strip malls into a massive 4-million-square-foot development of 19-story residential buildings and retail and office space.
In the the time since Fadden became the Land Company’s point person on the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, figures on both sides say that relationship has drastically improved thanks to the developer’s outreach efforts and a scaled back plan reducing building heights and densities in the mostly residential area along Connecticut Avenue between Chevy Chase Lake Drive and Manor Road.
A day before an important County Planning Board work session on the Sector Plan, which would rezone the area of the shopping mall to allow for more density around a planned Purple Line station, that outreach is paying dividends.
Even if the parties involved still don’t completely agree.
“It’s still a lot better to have had very open conversation and to have the reason understood as to why we disagree,” said Chevy Chase Village Board Chair and veteran land use activist Pat Baptiste. “It may seem odd to you, but it’s remarkably better than it was before. They had a lot of repairing to do. But Lisa Fadden has completely changed that.”
The Chevy Chase Land Company’s offices are on the Penthouse floor of the high-rise at 8401 Connecticut Ave. A portrait of Newlands hangs in the conference room. Fadden’s office overlooks the Capital Crescent Trail and the shopping center, both very much in the company’s backyard.
“Over time, a lack of communication had bred a lack of trust in the community,” Fadden said. “We sought, quite deliberately as a company, to fix that.”
Baptiste said residents’ previous experience with the Land Company, when it pushed and eventually built the high-end Collection at Chevy Chase shopping center on Wisconsin Avenue in 2005, left the groups on poor terms.
The company brainstormed ways to avoid a repeat.
Last October, after it engaged in a series of contentious meetings with civic and neighborhood groups, the developer asked for a nine-month extension to redraw plans for the Sector Plan project.
In February, the company presented a scaled down version.
In July, Planning staff presented a staff draft of the Sector Plan. In it was the replacement of all single-use zoning with mixed-use retail and residential zoning and, if the Purple Line is built, 1.5 million more square feet of development in the “Town Center,” including 1,000 more residential units.
In the meantime, Fadden and the company built a website about their goals for the project and sent out a mini-survey via its email list.
“It’s very time intensive but it’s worth it in terms of people knowing they have a person that they can come to and talk to about stuff,” Fadden said. “It’s going to breed mistrust if you don’t tell people what you want to do. In order to be sincere, you have to.”
Town of Chevy Chase Vice Mayor David Lublin, like Baptiste, still has concerns about the effect added density would have on already clogged Connecticut Avenue traffic and crowded area schools.
The two are members of the Connecticut Avenue Corridor Committee, an umbrella organization of area civic and municipal groups keeping tabs on the Sector Plan.
“Even if neither side ends up totally happy, they’ll end up better as a result because it’s in the interest of the developers,” Lublin said. “If the residents understand development imperatives, why a certain location is important for a certain type of building, I think that’s very helpful to the community.”
“It doesn’t reflect the future,” Fadden said. “I think we can build something here that suits the neighborhood, that gives people a local place to shop. The single biggest thing we hear on a daily basis is people want more restaurants without having to go to Bethesda.”
The Land Company hopes (and the Planning Department staff recommended) those zoning changes be made regardless of the fate of the planned Purple Line station.
The Purple Line, a $1.9 billion, 16-mile light rail from New Carrollton to Bethesda set to be completed in 2020, is in preliminary stages but is unfunded.
Baptiste and Lublin said residents recognize the need for more mixed-use residential zoning around transit centers.
But they’re hoping Planning staff introduces binding language that would restrict the most dense redevelopment until the Purple Line is built to support it.
“Connecticut Avenue is already a parking lot during rush hour, so how much worse is it going to be,” Lublin said. “It’s not a question of density or change being inherently bad. It’s just a question of having infrastructure that can support this.”
Baptiste will also be watching to see if the Planning Board allows more than the staff-recommended 1.5 million square feet of development. The height of a proposed high-rise building just north of the planned station is also a topic of disagreement.
But unlike before, Baptiste said those disagreements have been less antagonistic and more constructive.
It’s one thing both the developer and the community can agree on.
“I think we’ve reached people and they understand that something is happening here,” Fadden said, “something really positive.”