Planning Board approves Wisconsin Place project

by Catherine Dolinski, Staff Writer

April 16, 2003

[copied from the Gazette]

Expectations of "perfect" can be "the enemy of good," members of the county Planning Board warned after residents lined up Thursday to critique a developer's plans for a mixed-use residential, retail and office project in south Chevy Chase.

The board voted unanimously at the hearing to approve Massachusetts-based New England Development Corp.'s proposal to incorporate a grocery store into Wisconsin Place, a "smart growth" development planned for the Hecht's site at the corner of Wisconsin and Western avenues. The developer also asked to convert part of the project's original office and retail components to housing, citing shifts in the real estate market.

As amended, the plan includes:

* a 305,000-square-foot office tower (originally proposed: two towers, 450,000 square feet);

* 433 housing units, including 28 priced for people with moderate incomes (originally proposed: 275 units);

* 265,000 square feet of retail space (originally proposed: 300,000 square feet);

* two parks and several paved courtyards, connected by a system of pedestrian walkways;

* drop-off access for the Friendship Heights Metro station,

* 1,749 parking spaces (originally proposed: 1,649 spaces);

* and a 20,500-square-foot community center.

Julian Mansfield, Village of Friendship Heights manager, stressed the project's benefits to the community.

"We think New England Development and its consultants have done an excellent job in opening up the site and making it pedestrian friendly," he told the board. "We think the major public park at the corner Western and Friendship Boulevard, and the many public courtyards throughout the site, will serve the project and the surrounding communities well."

"The fact that the residential component is increased is terrific," said Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage. "We need that, especially close to Metro ... Only 12 percent of our housing is that close to a Metro station."

Planning Board Commissioner Meredith Wellington agreed. "It works better in the market, and it's extremely compatible."

But where Planning Board members saw progress, some residents found need for still more improvements.

Jim Norton of Chevy Chase, board member of the Coalition for a Better Community Center, presented an alternate design for the project, anchored by a community center more than twice the size of that proposed by New England. . . .

Ideally, Berlage said, the community center would be larger and more comprehensive. But since the area sector plan recommends a facility with a minimum of 12,000 square feet, "I have absolutely no basis in which to require a larger community center," he said. . . .

Several residents of Kenwood Condominium on River Road testified not in opposition to New England's plan, but against the county planning staff's strategy for handling traffic in and out of Wisconsin Place. Kenwood sits about two miles away from the future development, but residents said they would be negatively impacted by the staff's proposal to widen River Road with new right-turn lanes at the intersection of Little Falls Parkway.

"River Road already has six lanes," said Kenwood resident Henry Kahn. "Adding more lanes will increase more pollution at the intersection because additional traffic will build up idling while waiting for the lights to change . ... Trees lining the street will have to be cut down. ... Another negative effect will be the noise pollution."

Transportation Planner Ron Welke said his staff had already heeded residents' complaints. He proposed canceling the recommended southbound turn lane, and evaluating the need for a new northbound lane once a new traffic study is completed.

Motioning for approval, Wellington commended the developer for responding to community needs and "remaining true to your word" throughout the planning process. While there is always room for improving any plan, she said, "all I can say is the 'perfect' is the enemy of the 'good.'"

New England's attorney Steve Robins said construction of Wisconsin Place would probably begin next year. "I can't wait to break ground on this," he said.

^ [Return to the beginning of this document]   [Back to home]