Westbard Redevelopment Still in Holding Pattern

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 - 10:55am

In May 2017, we posted the following copied below.  In the past six months, there has been very little new news. 

Two things to report: :

Cemetery Delineation Mediation Process has been Suspended.  This was announced in September.  There are no plans to resume the mediation and the fate of the cemetery is still unclear.  See HERE for more information.  

Regency Centers Has Talked to Neighbors about Revising the Plan for Westbard Redevelopment.  Several neighborhood groups have met with representatives from Regency Center to give their input into the proposed development.  There has been no official action from Regency Centers following these meetings, so the project remains in a holding pattern.

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Update from May, 2017.

It's been a long time since we have updated people on the Westbard development and where the process is. While much has happened since January 2017, the Westbard redevelopment is in a holding pattern and it's been on hold since the Planning Board hearing, February 23, 2017. At that time, the Planning Board approved the Equity One/Regency Centers Sketch Plan minus the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) property which includes the Westwood Tower apartment building and the surrounding parking lot. The HOC property is the site of African American Cemetery that was destroyed in the 1960s. A cemetery delineation is planned for the site and NO decisions on what will be built in the area can be made until the cemetery issues is resolved.

The next step in the planning process is a Preliminary Plan approval. Equity One submitted a Preliminary plan for the development in late 2016, but the plan cannot be approved until the HOC property is resolved. There is no timetable for approval at this time and the Plan is still being reviewed by the planning staff, county permitting departments and other interested agencies. 

The naturalization of the Willett Branch and creation of a Willett Branch Greenway is the major public amenity in the plan.  The new park is still a main focus of the development process and there are ongoing discussions with Montgomery Parks and the Planning Staff on what the park should look like and how buildings will be sited in relation to the new creek.   Letters of support are still needed!  Visit HERE for sample letters!

Recommendations for Building on HOC Property Postponed until Cemetery Delineation

Little Falls Watershed Alliance, along with neighborhood civic groups oppose any new building in the stream buffer as it would threaten the health of the restored creek. Environmental guidelines in Montgomery County specify that creeks need a 100 foot buffer to protect their health; this will be especially important to ensure the success of the naturalization. The major bone of contention is the proposed six-story addition to the Westwood Towers sited behind and beside the building within 25 feet of the creek at some spots. To “keep eyes on the Willett Branch,” it was the planning staffs’ suggestion that the addition include three levels of apartments over a three-story 150-space parking garage.

Moreover, HOC property is also the site of an early African cemetery which was bulldozed and covered over in the 1960s when the Westwood Tower Apartment was built. There is overwhelming evidence to believe that the bodies were never removed from the area. The planning board approved the staff recommendation that this parcel be removed from the any decisions about building in Westwood until cemetery delineation can be done and the issue studied properly. Equity One has committed to doing the delineation.

Depending on the outcome of the cemetery delineation, Equity One could be permitted to continue with the plans for the six-story building. So this is an area that we are watching closely.  Surrounding communities and the Citizen’s Coordination Committee for Friendship Heights are also unified in their opposition to building in the stream buffer and cemetery grounds.

Church Leads Charge for Cemetery Delineation

Members of the Macedonia Baptist Church (MBC) located on River Road by Clipper Lane, the descendant community for the cemetery, have been leading the charge to make sure that the cemetery delineation is completed in a meaningful way. They are actively advocating for preservation of the land as sacred space regardless of the outcome of a cemetery delineation. The MBC has been holding weekly protests at the Planning Board and Council Building to call attention to the issue. 

Since December 2016, the MBC has been in discussions with the planning department regarding the cemetery delineation process. Commonly, the applicant, i.e., the developer, is responsible for a cemetery delineation study. Due the sensitive nature of the project, the MBC asked for a central role in determining who would conduct the cemetery delineation study and how it would be accomplished. Communication between the Planning Staff and MBC has broken down over this issue. Although background studies have been done regarding the property, the field work necessary to determine if there are any human remains is temporarily halted until all parties can come to an agreement on MBC's role in the study and who should fund the work.

County Executive Ike Leggett has recommend mediation to help move the process along. Mediation meetings with MBC, Equity One and the Planning Staff should be starting soon. 

Originally the Planning staff expected to brief the Planning Board on the results of the cemetery delineation study by mid-May. That was pushed to June 9, but that date has recently been rescinded. As of this writing there is no new date.

Preliminary Plan Submitted

Development requires three stages of planning board decisions – the sketch plan, the preliminary plan and site plans. The plans go from general to very specific. Each plan is reviewed by the planning staff and county departments for compliance with county codes, regulations and the Sector Plan. The first submission is the sketch plan – this is where the developer gives a sense of what they want to do and it is reviewed to make sure it’s legal and conforms to the County’s zoning regulations and vision for the area or Sector Plan. For example, the sketch plan cannot show town houses if the area is zoned for single family. The Preliminary Plan gets into the details – building heights, traffic lights, road alignments, stormwater management plans. Finally, the site plan is the final design.

Equity One submitted their Preliminary Plan in November, 2016. It was reviewed by the Department Review Committee (DRC) in early January and the DRC submitted comments. Equity One is required to address these comments before the preliminary plan can be approved by the Planning Board. No hearing date has been set for the preliminary plan, nor has there been a call for public comments or a staff report.

Preliminary Plan Fails in Environmental Issues

Environmental issues are addressed in two major areas in the preliminary plan – stormwater management and forest conservation. Equity One is asking for a 65% waiver to treating stormwater on site. The plan was rejected by the Department of Permitting. It should be noted that the Sector Plan specifically calls for ALL stormwater to be treated on site with limited waivers. The Sector Plan also calls for a stormwater buffer between the proposed town houses on what is now the Giant Food parking lot and the Kenwood Place Condominiums. Equity One’s plan does not show this buffer. They are also proposing to remove trees in what is designated as a Forest conservation area.  

Equity One has not submitted new plan or responded to the staff comments in a meaningful way at this time.

LFWA Website Has History Information

Little Falls Watershed Alliance History Committee has done considerable work researching the history of the cemetery. The cemetery was established in 1911 and bodies were moved there from the Tenleytown cemetery in 1921 by an act of Congress.  We have not found any historical documents that would prove that these bodies and those of others buried there until the cemetery was sold in 1958 were appropriately removed and reburied when the Westwood Tower building was developed. Further there is much oral history suggesting the bodies are still in the ground under the asphalt and fill from the construction of the apartment building. 

You can find more information about the River Road African American community on our website at http://www.lfwa.org/updates/equity-one-do-cemetery-delineation-westbard-site 
and at 
http://www.lfwa.org/westbards-forgotten-history-plantations-emancipation-and-jim-crow-era

Staff Recommendations for Sketch Plan Online

If you want to read the staff recommendations, they are online at http://www.montgomeryplanningboard.org/agenda/2017/documents/item9_StaffReport320170010postcs-signed.pdf
Additional slides presented at the meeting can be seen at
http://montgomeryplanning.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Sketch-Plan-presentation-2-23-17-Latest-Official.pdf