Developers and Montgomery County have been working on plans to build at the bustling intersection of Woodmont and Bethesda Avenues since 2005.
Only now, a few weeks after construction started on the project that forced the closure of Woodmont Avenue south of Bethesda Row, are many residents and businesses starting to take notice.
Many of their reactions have not been kind.
“To drive down Woodmont and suddenly dead end into a wall of construction, only to have to detour either left into hell, or right into hell!,” wrote Bethesda resident Deborah Stevens in a letter to The Gazette newspaper last week.
“I’m starting to think of other ways to get around,” said Joanna Colbourne, a Bethesda resident who works in an office building on Bethesda Avenue just west of Wisconsin Avenue.
She said afternoon rush hour congestion on Bethesda Avenue means cars leaving her office parking garage are backed up to the second level. A trip that typically took 30 seconds can now take eight minutes.
Zen Tara Tea, also on Bethesda Avenue, tweeted that construction has caused sidewalk disruption in one of Bethesda’s most walked areas. A temporary pedestrian crossing has been constructed just north of the road closure.
Stevens admitted “I don’t think anyone saw it coming.”
At a meeting of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board on Monday night, a group of residents from the Crescent Plaza Condominium on Woodmont Avenue spoke to County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) about the disruptions.
One was surprised to learn one of the permanent changes of the 20-month project will be a median on Leland Street. Drivers will not be able to make left turns onto Woodmont.
Last week, county traffic chief Emil Wolanin said the closure, in general, has affected traffic and congestion as officials expected.
The county’s Department of Transportation added some signage to Leland Street to keep motorists from cutting through the residential neighborhood.
StonebridgeCarras, the lead developer of the project, is building a parking garage under what is now Woodmont Avenue, part of its agreement with the county to buy the publicly-owned parking lots and redevelop them with two apartment buildings.
Wolanin said the 20-month closure was unavoidable because of the large scale nature of the project.
A discussion of apartment owner Glen Aldon’s proposal for three new apartment buildings on Battery Lane turned into a debate on best affordable housing practices. The four- and five-story red brick buildings just west of Woodmont Avenue have long featured some of Bethesda’s cheapest housing, though they technically cost more than current workforce housing rates.
Typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the current Battery Lane apartments is less than $1,700. In August, according to one real estate website, the average rental rate in Bethesda for a two-bedroom was more than $2,300. The average rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,775.
In a 7-1 roll call vote, the Council approved recommendations by Hearing Board Examiner Lynn Robeson that will allow for owners to pursue three new high-rise buildings with 692 total units and 41 moderately-priced housing units, (MPDUs) controlled rent apartments that exceed the County mandated 12.5 percent affordable housing rate for new developments.
Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) questioned Robeson’s argument that many of the current tenants on Battery Lane were doctors or professionals that could afford higher rents in newer buildings. She cited Battery Lane’s proximity to NIH, just to the north, and the Bethesda Central Business District, to the south, as evidence that people of higher incomes were attracted to the location despite the age of the buildings.
“We don’t have any evidence either way about who lives in the building. How many doctors can you point out and how many who aren’t doctors can you point out,” Elrich said. “I don’t think the case is made on either side of this. I think there’s value in maintaining supply. We are clearly going to lose a supply of affordable housing.
“I don’t see this as a reflection of good housing policy,” Elrich said. “I think it bodes ill for the rest of Battery Lane. I just think we’re kind of operating in a wishful thinking mode here.”
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) voted for the proposal, but also questioned whether it was consistent with the county’s goal of “no net loss” of affordable housing units in new apartment developments.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to achieve,” Leventhal said. “I can believe buildings like these have reached the end of their useful life. They need renovations. They’re relatively affordable and they will go away and they will be replaced by more desirable housing and they will be more expensive.”
County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) cited Glen Aldon’s track record in providing cheaper housing as a reason to rule in its favor.
The company wants to build three buildings on where the 4857, 4858, 4890 and 4900 Battery Lane buildings currently stand.
“Now they want to increase the number of units and they’ve expressed an interest in continuing their approach,” Riemer said. “We can’t guarantee that they will, but they have a track record of doing that, whereas if they wanted to sell tomorrow they could certainly do that.”
The 6th Annual Taste of Friendship Heights is this Saturday, an appetizer of sorts before the Oct. 6 Taste of Bethesda, which will feature food from 55 restaurants in Woodmont Triangle.
The Friendship Heights event will feature restaurants from Chevy Chase and just inside the Washington D.C. border from noon to 5 p.m. at The Village Center (4433 South Park Ave.) in Chevy Chase.
Participating restaurants include Rosa Mexicano, Maggiano’s Little Italy, P.F. Chang’s, The Capital Grille, Potomac Pizza, Frosting A Cupcakery and Indique Heights.
Lia’s and Whole Foods will put on food demos and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School jazz band will perform.
The event will go on rain or shine. Free parking is available behind the Courtyard Marriot and a portion of the proceeds will go toward the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place.
For more information, visit the event website.
After the NIH revealed an antibiotic-resistant “superbug” led to the death of six hospital patients last year, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said the Federal agency should have notified the county of the outbreak.
Last week, after it was revealed a seventh patient had died from the bacterium this month, Berliner and County Executive Isiah Leggett requested a meeting with NIH leadership.
“NIH has been very forthcoming and indicated they would be more than happy to sit down with our county and work out a memorandum of understanding so that we have the kinds of communications that are appropriate when bad things happen,” Berliner said Monday. “I have no desire to step on their toes and get involved in things that are internal to their operation. But at a point in time, if they were to conclude they don’t have a handle on this particular situation, then there’s a possibility it may affect the broader community. Then, yes we need to know about that.”
NIH doctors and researches believed they had the superbug under control when they released information on the infection in a scientific journal in August.
The seventh victim, a young patient from Minnesota, arrived at the hospital in April. NIH says it was the first infection of the superbug since January.
Dr. Henry Masur, chief of the hospital’s Critical Care Medicine Department, state health officials and county health department staff are due to meet in October to discuss the outbreak and recommended revised protocols between NIH and the county.
Berliner and Leggett’s letter to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins requests another meeting, “to discuss the latest outbreak, how it could have been prevented, and ways we can jointly address community concerns.”
More on Eastham’s Service Station — The longtime Wisconsin Avenue gas station will close at the end of the month to make way for a new apartment project. [ABC7]
Maryland SAT Scores On The Decline — SAT scores in the state slipped this year, in line with the nationwide trend. In Montgomery County, the average combined SAT score was up, but large gaps remained between white students and black and Hispanic students. [The Gazette]
Pepco Fights For Surcharge — The power company asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to allow it to continue collecting a surcharge from customers for lost revenue during the first 24 hours of a power outage. [The Examiner]
Pepco Workers Strike Remains A Possibility — Meanwhile, Pepco is dealing with a potential strike or lockout if linemen, electricians and other workers vote down a new contract proposal on Wednesday. It would be the second work stoppage in the company’s 116-year history and first since 1985. [Washington Post]
Flickr pool photo by AmyMarieMoore