Crossing Connecticut Ave. Photo by author.

Chevy Chase Lake is where the Interim Capital Crescent Trail crosses Connecticut Avenue. This area is likely to soon transform into a vibrant urban node, but the magnitude of the change is still up for debate.

The area is now a collection of small shops including Starbucks, two gas stations, a supermarket, a lumber yard, and the 13-story Chevy Chase Land Company office building containing City Bikes. Residential buildings on Chevy Chase Lake Drive are also part of the sector. Parking lots cover much of the area.

Two big projects are coming that will change the trail and Chevy Chase Lake: the Purple Line and the Chevy Chase Lake redevelopment.

The Purple Line

The safety and convenience of crossing Connecticut Avenue on the CCT will improve greatly when the Purple Line is built. The plans call for the CCT to cross Connecticut Avenue on a trail bridge alongside the Purple Line light rail bridge.

The trail will have a direct connection to the elevated station platform on the east side of Connecticut Avenue. The MTA aerial photograph below shows the route of the Purple Line and CCT through Chevy Chase Lake, and the location of the station platform. More aerial maps are available at MTA’s Purple Line website that show better detail.

Future CCT bridge crossing of Connecticut Ave.

The CCT will be elevated through much of the Chevy Chase Lake sector, on the bridge over Connecticut Avenue and at the transit station platform, and on the trail ramps that approach from both sides. This may become important, because future development may bring much local pedestrian activity to the sector. The trail elevation will allow us to keep trail/local pedestrian conflict areas limited to the designated trail access points.

Two competing visions for the Chevy Chase Lake redevelopment

On April 27, the Chevy Chase Land Company (CCLC) presented its vision for Chevy Chase Lake to the public at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center. That presentation is available as a YouTube video. Several illustrative drawings from that presentation were also shown in the Purple Line Progress Report that PLN President Ralph Bennett presented to the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County on May 9.

Chevy Chase Land Company illustrative site plan.

The CCLC vision is for transit oriented development of up to 4,000,000 square feet of mixed commercial/residential uses, with about 3/4 of the development being residential (up to 3000 residential units). Building heights transition from 6 stories high at the edges to up to 19 stories high near the center. The plan features a local street grid with extensive public spaces, a public plaza at the Purple Line station, and neighborhood oriented ground level retail.

CCLC illustrative drawing of proposed Main Street public spaces.

Looking west on the proposed Main Street. (The arrow at the left side marks the CCT ramp up to the light rail station and bridge over Connecticut Ave.

Montgomery County planning staff released a narrated video to present their very different recommendations for the new Chevy Chase Lake sector plan on June 8, 2011. That video is available on their Chevy Chase Lake webpage.

The planning staff is recommending to the Planning Board that a smaller portion of the Chevy Chase Lake Sector be rezoned to allow slightly over 1,000,000 square feet of mixed use (commercial/residential) development, 250,000 square feet now and another 800,000 square feet to be allowed when Purple Line construction begins.

This is only slightly greater than that approved now under the current zoning. Building heights would be limited to 65 feet, only about six stories. (The CCLC building already on the site is 13 stories high, and a residential building now stands immediately south of the site alongside the Columbia Country Club that is 18 stories high.)

The CCLC and the Montgomery County planning staff visions differ greatly on the density to ultimately be allowed at Chevy Chase Lake. The planning staff recommends only a marginal increase in the number of residential units over that already approved. The Montgomery County planning staff will hold a public meeting to present its recommendations at 10 am to noon Saturday, June 18 at the Chevy Chase Village Hall, 5906 Connecticut Avenue.

Does the density at Chevy Chase Lake matter to trail users?

The major features of the CCT itself will not be impacted much by the different levels of density being proposed for Chevy Chase Lake. The trail ramps and bridge will not change, and most of the trail will be separated from the local pedestrian activity by being on elevated structure.

Both the CCLC and the planning staff visions call for a public plaza at the Purple Line station, and the CCT would pass through that plaza area. A higher density would make this a more pedestrian active area. But careful design of the pedestrian crossing paths in this plaza will be mandated by the need to keep pedestrians clear of the light rail activity that parallels the CCT. Pedestrian crossings will likely be focused to only one or two points and this will minimize the trail/pedestrian conflict areas.

A higher density at Chevy Chase Lake will have a bigger impact on trail users when they leave the primary trail in this area. Higher density with taller buildings makes it more likely we will have a good local street grid with public spaces, like that envisioned by CCLC.

If the building height is limited to 65 feet as called for by planning staff, then a developer must cover more available land with low buildings to get up to the floor-area ratio allowed by the zoning. A smaller project will also give less economic justification to set aside space for wide streets and public spaces, and the County will have less leverage to require these amenities as a condition for the project.

There may be less local pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic in a smaller project, but the local street grid may be more limited, streets may be narrower, and space set aside for public use may be smaller so biking conditions could feel congested even with less traffic. Smaller may not be better for bicycle friendly conditions overall.

Trail users don’t have a strong reason to enter the discussion of density at Chevy Chase Lake to protect or advance the CCT. We have other reasons to join the discussion about how our region will grow, however, as members of the community. Trail users are likely to have diverse views about “smart growth” and “transit oriented development”.

I’m joining the discussion as an individual in support of a higher density at Chevy Chase Lake. Opportunities for transit oriented development are very limited. We have a strong need for more residential housing to balance with jobs in the Bethesda area — especially for housing close to the National Naval Medical Center, where up to 2500 new staff positions are coming with BRAC. If we won’t allow more residential housing units here, then where else should it go that is better?

And besides, I want one of those residential units. I’d love to live in a place like this.