by Myra Mensh Patner, Staff Writer
A $400 million plan was unveiled this month that would transform the Hecht's property in Friendship Heights into an urban retail and residential complex similar to Reston Town Center.
The name of the project is Friendship Place. Drawings show a 13-story office high-rise on Wisconsin Avenue; a 12-story Western Avenue apartment house; an eight-story hotel on Friendship Boulevard; a new Hecht's at Friendship and Western and another major department store on Willard Avenue. There would be street-level retail shops on the first two floors of the taller buildings, so that people can stroll and window-shop at their ease.
The blueprint drew cries of delight - and dismay from two Chevy Chase activists.
"There's a lot to be said for the design,'' said Bob Cope, chairman of the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Friendship Heights (CCCFH), a coalition of 15 homeowner associations that serves as a watchdog on Chevy Chase development.
But Cope predicted there could be a battle ahead unless the height of the proposed office building is lowered, and more traffic mitigation is offered by the developer.
The Planning Board has set a tentative date of Feb. 4 to review the plan.
St. Louis-based May Department Stores -- which owns the eight-acre property at Wisconsin and Western avenues -- filed a blueprint Oct. 12 with the Planning Board that shows more than 1 million square feet of new retail, office and residential space.
Friendship Place's signature would be a circular, central, open courtyard with outdoor cafes and shops that can be reached by walkways from all sides of the tract.
"It will be a European-style retail promenade. The key to this plan is that we've opened it up to the street,'' said Steve Robins, an attorney in the Rockville office of District-based Hogan & Hartson who represents May Department Stores, which owns the property, and New England Development of Boston, which is developing the property.
"It has a human scale that everyone is going to enjoy,'' added Robins, who said construction will begin by 2000.
Plans also show a one-acre public park at the corner of Friendship Boulevard and Willard Avenue, a 12,000-square-foot community center for public use and a lower-level gourmet grocery store plus 2,300 underground parking spaces.
The activist coalition applauded the plan's openness to the outdoors, especially the central courtyard, pedestrian walkways and wide promenades.
But one local architect said the size of the project feels overwhelming.
"It could be like downtown Manhattan at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street,'' said Allison Fultz, a Brookdale resident and architect who will serve as a CCCFH liaison between the developer and the community.
Fultz said she has serious concerns about the height of the 13-story office high-rise because it would have larger-than-typical floor heights that rise to 183 feet. That would make it the tallest office building in the area. The Metro building across the street is 143 feet tall.
A 183-foot structure could block sun, light and air, Fultz said.
She also criticized the design of the proposed community center, saying it should offer better amenities than simply the meeting rooms that have been discussed.
Carolyn Hufbauer, a planner for the county Planning Board who is working on Friendship Place, said the board will likely hold a public meeting in Friendship Heights in a few weeks to learn what residents want in the community center.
A special feature of Friendship Place will be underground entrances for service trucks so neighbors and others will not be bothered by operations that maintain the complex.
"I feel the plan was extremely carefully worked out. There has been a lot of thought put into it. In terms of broad brush strokes I commend them,'' said Fultz of the CCCFH, which last year lobbied successfully to cut about 100,000 square feet of retail space from the project before it was recommended in the Friendship Heights Sector Plan.
The County Council approved that plan in January and now May Department Stores and New England Development are seeking Planning Board approval.
Fultz faulted Robins for waiting until plans were filed before consulting with neighbors, but Robins said New England Development intends to make changes so everyone is satisfied.
"We want something the whole community can enjoy and be proud of," he said.
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