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Council Hashes Out Building Heights, Zoning Changes At Chevy Chase Lake

By Aaron Kraut

Tuesday - 7/9/2013, 5:25pm  ET

Rendering of Chevy Chase Land Company's proposal for a 150-foot building at Chevy Chase Lake, via Chevy Chase Land CompanyA bid to limit the proposed centerpiece of residential redevelopment at Chevy Chase Lake to a 90-foot height was denied Tuesday by the Montgomery County Council.

Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) sent a letter to colleagues on Monday proposing a 90-foot amendment to the Council Planning Committee-recommended 120-foot height.

Berliner had Council staff member Jacob Sesker do a financial feasibility study of a 90-foot building at the site, on the east side of Connecticut Avenue just north of a planned Purple Line station. Sesker’s analysis found a 90-foot building, as first proposed by county planners then changed to 150 feet by the Planning Board, would be economically feasible.

The developer, Chevy Chase Land Company, has argued it wouldn’t be economically feasible to build anything lower than a 130-foot residential building.

The Land Company recently proposed a 130-foot compromise, down from the Planning Board recommendation. Residents in a group called the Connecticut Avenue Corridor Committee wanted the height to remain at 90 feet because of concerns about additional traffic before agreeing to 120 feet before the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan was sent to the Council.

“I respect the views of those who believe that because this parcel sits next to a future stop for transit, that we ought to maximize the housing thats available there. I would say to you that I do think it’s important also, another value, is harmonizing redevelopment, particularly in the downcounty with the existing character and integrity of a neighborhood,” Berliner said. “Are we really retreating on some fundamental principal on smart growth when we’re giving up 75 units and still creating 1,450 new units?”

The 1,450 unit figure is roughly the amount of new units recommended for the entire Chevy Chase Lake Sector.

Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At large) supported Berliner’s amendment, but the other seven councilmembers voted against it.

“We’re starting a dangerous precedent. Can you really ever build anything in Montgomery County, can you attract additional investment?” Councilmember George Leventhal said. “Now you need to convince not just the Planning Board but former planning staff [referring to Sesker]. That’s not going to be great for our business climate in the long run.”

An amendment from Councilmember Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) to make the height 130 feet was also voted down, so the height will remain 120 feet as recommended by the Planning Committee.

The Council agreed to move up the redevelopment of the Housing Opportunities Commission apartments to the pre-Purple Line phase of the Master Plan in order to accelerate the development of affordable housing.

By an 8-1 vote, the Council also agreed to change the trigger for the second phase of redevelopment. Now, construction on phase two projects will only be allowed to begin once construction on the Purple Line starts. Councilmembers were concerned the recommended approach, which would allow phase two development to begin once the Purple Line is funded, would leave significant lag time between the new development and the opening of the Purple Line.

Berliner and other councilmembers said phase two development shouldn’t be allowed to go forward without the new transit system to help transport new residents and visitors to the already traffic-clogged area.

“I feel like that’s been the fundamental promise that we’ve wanted to make to our community,” Berliner said.

On the controversial Newdale Mews apartments, Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At large) proposed an amendment that would allow building owner Rob Bindeman to build up to 50 feet on the Purple Line side of the apartments and remain at the recommended 45-foot limit on the side that backs up to a neighborhood. The building wouldn’t rise above four stories.

The existing height of the apartments is 35 feet. The amendment passed by a 6-3 vote, with Berliner, Elrich and councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At large).

Rendering via Chevy Chase Land Company