This week, the Montgomery County Council reduced planned development in Chevy Chase Lake and recommended the same for Long Branch, both home to future Purple Line stations. Residents say new development will lead to traffic and, in Long Branch, gentrification. But making it harder to build around transit may make those issues worse.

Rendering of the future Chevy Chase Lake from the Chevy Chase Land Company.

Now that Maryland has a new transportation funding source, work on the $2.2 billion Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton could open as early as 2020 if the state can get matching funds from the federal government. Naturally, people will want to locate near the line, so Montgomery County’s working on plans for neighborhoods along the corridor to accommodate new residents, businesses, and public amenities.

This week, they passed a plan for Chevy Chase Lake, while the council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee gave recommendations on a draft of the Long Branch Sector Plan, which the council will vote on this fall. Both plans call for turning the neighborhoods’ 1950’s-era commercial cores into compact, urban neighborhoods, with taller, mixed-use buildings, new public spaces and streets that accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders, not just drivers.

Neighbors in Chevy Chase Lake fought their plan, saying it would exacerbate traffic. In Long Branch, residents worry that redevelopment will push out the area’s large immigrant community and destroy local landmarks, like the historic Flower Theatre. So councilmembers have scaled back both plans in the name of reducing traffic and preserving affordable housing.

Council backs down on taller buildings in Chevy Chase Lake

On Tuesday, the County Council voted 8-1 to pass the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, but with much shorter buildings than county planners or developers wanted.

The Planning Board endorsed the Land Company’s “compromise” for a handful of buildings around a Purple Line station.

The Chevy Chase Land Company, a major landowner that first developed Chevy Chase Lake over a century ago, originally sought to build nearly 3,000 new homes in buildings up to 200 feet tall, or about 19 stories, around a future station on Connecticut Avenue. Neighbors said it was too much and county planners generally agreed.

The Planning Board offered a compromise, allowing buildings between 100 and 150 feet tall next to the station and buildings no taller than 55 to 80 feet surrounding it, providing a transition to surrounding single-family homes. They also called for staging requirements to ensure that the Purple Line was in place for major redevelopment could occur.

But a group of neighbors called “Don’t Flood the Lake” pushed for even less. And the County Council gave in, setting maximum heights of 150 and 120 feet for 2 buildings next to the station, followed by 90 feet for adjacent buildings, and 50 feet in surrounding areas. Still, not everyone was happy. Councilmember Marc Elrich, the only one to vote against the plan, said the Council and Planning Board had “utterly … [disregarded] the wishes of the community.”

Committee allows new development in some parts of Long Branch, but not others

Councilmembers also decided not to upzone 3 garden apartment complexes in Long Branch for higher-density development, saying it would preserve affordable housing. Groups like CASA de Maryland worry that the Purple Line, which will have 3 stops there, will price out the local immigrant community.

Last May’s Long Branch Super Block Party. Councilmembers voted to rezone the shopping center in the background, but not the apartments. Photo by the author.

Today, a 3-bedroom apartment rents rents for $1471 a month, less than the cost of some studios in downtown Silver Spring. But the Planning Board felt that redeveloping the apartments was the best way to preserve affordable housing, both by increasing the overall supply of housing and because the county requires new buildings to set aside units for low-income households.

It’s true that new apartments in Long Branch will be more expensive than what’s there now. But not building them means that landlords in old buildings will just raise the rent when the Purple Line opens because there will be more demand to live there.

Fortunately, the PHED committee did endorse taller buildings in the Superblock, an area bounded by Flower Avenue, Arliss Street, and Piney Branch Road that’s home to 3 strip malls. The Planning Board called for buildings 65 or 75 feet tall, or about 6 to 7 stories, but property owners said that wasn’t enough to build an economically feasible project. Instead, the councilmembers recommended buildings up to 120 feet tall.

The Flower Theatre at night. Photo by Chip Py on Flickr.

The committee also voted 2-1 to only designate the facade of the Flower Theatre, a vacant Art Deco movie house, as historic. Preservationists want to preserve the entire building and adjacent strip mall, arguing that new development can work with old construction, like CItyline at Tenley, a condominium built atop a former Sears in Tenleytown.

But Stacy Silber, representing owner Harvey Companies of Bethesda, says that the strip mall’s layout and structure can’t accommodate future redevelopment, like apartments or structured parking. Councilmembers Leventhal and Nancy Floreen, which voted to save just the facade, agreed.

“If it were financially viable to run a theatre here, there would have been a theatre here a long time ago,” said Leventhal. “What is there today is not desirable.” But councilmembers did get to look at some proposals for repurposing the theatre from the Flower Theatre Project, a group I co-founded last year, and decided to add language calling for “some kind of performing arts use” there, even if redevelopment occurs.

Doing nothing is not an option

Next up, county planners are working on a plan for Lyttonsville, a historically black neighborhood between Chevy Chase Lake and downtown Silver Spring. The council already approved a plan for Takoma-Langley Crossroads that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties worked on together.

The Purple Line will have a huge impact on the communities it serves. Many of them will be positive, but there’s also potential for displacement and disruption. However, keeping things as they are isn’t an option. Not creating more opportunities for people to live in close-in, transit-served neighborhoods like Chevy Chase Lake or Long Branch will push up housing prices and make traffic worse because more people have to commute from far away.

Even with the DC area’s extensive transit network, land near transit stations is a limited and precious resource. We can’t afford to waste it.