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Tensions High As Equity One's Contentious 1.8M SF Westbard Project Moves Forward

New York-based developer Equity One's ambitious plans to build a 1.8M SF mixed-use development in Bethesda's Westbard neighborhood have sparked passionate neighborhood opposition, but the proposal took a big step forward last week. 


After a four-hour Montgomery County Planning Board hearing Thursday that featured more than two dozen community members speaking out about issues of public space and the possible disruption of an African-American cemetery, Equity One's sketch plan received approval with conditions. 

On the west side of Westbard Avenue, currently a one-story shopping center, the developer plans to build three 60-foot-tall retail buildings totaling 405k SF with a Giant grocery store and a fitness center. Behind those, Equity One plans several rows of townhouses totaling 117k SF. 

On the opposite side, a bowling alley would be razed to make way for a mixed-use building with 251k SF of residential space above 63k SF of ground-floor retail. Another two-story building would be demolished for Equity One to build a mixed-use building with 127k SF residential atop 64k SF of retail. The area in between those two sites has caused much of the controversy surrounding the project.


The approved sketch plan left out a major chunk of Equity One's proposal, which would keep the existing Westwood Towers building in place and add two smaller buildings in front and a parking garage behind it.

This piece of land was used as a graveyard for an African-American community that was paved and developed on after the land was sold in the 1950s. Historians believe the graves may have been moved during the sale, but no official record of that move can be found.

Equity One has retained an archeological firm to investigate the property for remains, a process it expects to take about two months and which will be reviewed by the planning department. Once the investigation is completed, the developer will have to submit a sketch plan amendment for that portion of the project that the board will consider separately. 


More than a dozen members and supporters of the Macedonia Baptist Church, the last remaining symbol of the once-thriving black community, spoke at Thursday's hearing aiming to halt the development all together. The church has held rallies with hundreds of people at the development site demanding recognition of the cemetery. Even though the burial site was left out of the approved sketch plan, they argued that moving forward with the rest of the project before the archeological study would make building on the controversial site inevitable, given that it contained most of the affordable housing the county requires of the project.

Some members wanted the piece of land given back to the church, while others asked that Equity One build a memorial or museum on the site to honor the history. Ronald Cunningham, who grew up in the neighborhood, said his ancestors are buried under the site and he visits it every Sunday to remember them. He broke into tears while telling his story to the planning board and making a plea to the developer. 

"I think Equity One should give us that piece of land, should actually give it to us," Cunningham said. "We shouldn’t be in here arguing about something that we know was there. That was my ancestors. They took that from me a long time ago and I want it back. We want it back."


Equity One executive vice president William Brown said he wants to wait until learning the results of the archeological investigation to decide what to do with the piece of land.

"I can understand and appreciate the concerns," Brown said. "What happened in the '50s may never be known. What we have to do is find out what we have today so we can move on today ... We met with the church and we understand their passion and emotion and are trying to work with [the] county to make sure we’re being sensitive to those needs."

While they were the greatest in number and passion, the concerns over the cemetery site were not the only opposition Equity One faced in moving forward with the development.  


A group called Save Westbard has filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The group argued the revised Westbard sector plan, which the planning board passed last year outlining the density and uses approved for the site, did not take adequate public comment and did not assess environmental impacts. One of the group's attorneys, Michele Rosenfield, also argued at Thursday's hearing that Equity One's plans should have been submitted as multiple sketch plans because of the project's size and that the plan does not conform with the goals of the sector plan. 

The group also submitted an online survey it conducted by sending it on community email listservs, which it said should be considered statistically significant. The survey found 79.3% favored the previous zoning before the board's 2016 changes, and just 3% supported the 2016 plan with increased density. Additionally, 94% of respondents said Equity One's proposal does not have enough public space and 85% believe any cemetery on the site should be protected.

"We can be confident that an overwhelming majority of residents oppose the 2016 sector plan revisions and have substantial concerns with major aspects of Equity One’s sketch plan, including proposed height and density and sufficiency of public open space," Save Westbard member Leanne Tobias said.  

Residents also expressed concern over what they call an inadequate amount of public green space on the site. The project includes two one-third-acre parks and a walking area around the Willett Branch stream, which runs through the Equity One-owned land. The developer is giving piece of land with the stream back to the county and helping the parks department refurbish the stream valley, but issues remain over the developer seeking to build in a stream buffer zone that the planning board created in the sector plan. 

Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright

Montgomery County planning director Gwen Wright noted the Westbard sector is currently 95% impervious surfaces, so the parks and stream improvements will help make it more appealing. 

"The project really takes an area that needs to be refreshed and it does that while really achieving goals we think are really important related to affordable housing, parkland and environmental stability," Wright said. 

The controversial section of the sketch plan will be decided on this spring after the archeological investigation, but Equity One can now begin more detailed plans and designs for the remainder of the site. The planning board will then consider the developer's preliminary plan and site plan before construction can begin. 

This project and the rest of the county's development pipeline will be discussed at Bisnow's Montgomery County State of the Market on May 8.