The controversial apartment planned for a townhouse-lined section of West Lane will go forward after the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday shut down opponents’ claims that the building will be incompatible with the neighborhood.
Residents of a few condo and townhome properties near 4831 West Lane have been fighting for more than a year with D.C. developer SJG Properties, which wants to build a seven-story, approximately 120-unit apartment rental project less than 1,000 feet from the Bethesda Metro station.
Residents from the City Homes of Edgemoor and the Edgemoor Condominium Residences say the building, five feet taller than the 1994 Bethesda CBD Master Plan recommends, will be too dense for the neighborhood and will hurt traffic flow and pedestrian safety on the narrow street.
But new development is often approved for more height and density than recommended in area Master Plans and the attorney for SJG Properties argued Monday that the seven-story building with a 73-foot setback from West Lane will actually be more compatible with the Sector Plan than the very properties opponents live in.
“Quite frankly, of the nine buildings adjacent or abutting the City Homes, this is set back the farthest,” SJG attorney Pat Harris said in oral arguments for a zoning text amendment before the Council. “The City Homes itself does not conform with the sector plan recommendations, with 27 units per acre and a suburban townhouse layout with an orientation perpendicular to the street. This is exactly the type of product that we want and should be promoted within 900 feet of a Metro station.”
To get the added density, SJG must provide 15 percent (or roughly 18 total) moderately-priced dwelling units, above the county’s 12.5 percent MPDU requirement for new development.
Harris argued a mix of housing supply — the area now includes high-priced luxury townhomes and condos, including the 100-foot high Edgemoor Condominium Residences to the east — was exactly what the Master Plan called for and was in line with the county’s housing policy.
The Council, by an 8-1 vote, agreed. Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large) voted in favor of opponents, who argued the Master Plan included recommendations for a “tenting effect” from the largest buildings on Woodmont Avenue, closest to the Metro station, to the shorter residential buildings on Arlington Road.
“What we’re dealing with here is a D.C.-based developer that is pressing to build a structure that might be appropriate on a D.C. block but that is wholly inconsistent with the Montgomery County Master Plan for a mixed street,” argued Andrew Niebler, a Edgemoor Condominium resident opposed to the project.
Hearing Examiner Lynn Roberson, who ruled in favor of the developer earlier this year )prompting the oral arguments in front of Council), said the concept of a “mixed street” was not a binding aspect of the Master Plan.
Harris argued the developer’s traffic studies, which included 120 hours of video footage from two locations on the property, showed minimal affect on traffic and no examples of the road being blocked.
Opponents argued delivery and service trucks already block the area.
“Thirty-six percent of renters in this Census designated area don’t even own a car,” Harris said. “This is precisely who would live here.”
Harris said the developer determined that making the building smaller and losing space for units would mean it could only be profitable as a luxury condo building. The site has a previous approval for a smaller building from a different developer, a plan Niebler and City Homes of Edgemoor attorney Stan Abrams said they had no problem with.
“We’re not here to provide the profit motive for development in Montgomery County,” Abrams argued.
Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Chevy Chase) questioned why opponents were opposed to five more feet of building height.
“I’m sitting here going, ‘Really? Five feet and an additional 20 units is what destroys the mixed street concept?'” Berliner said.
Read the full Council packet here.
Rendering via Montgomery County Planning Department