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Donohoe, Carr Cos. Aim To Revitalize Friendship Heights With New 18-Story Development

A rendering of Wisconsin Avenue showing the planned 18-story multifamily tower in yellow and the existing hotel in blue.

The posh Maryland-D.C. border neighborhood of Friendship Heights has suffered from the demise of traditional retail, with multiple department stores closing and a shopping mall going through foreclosure, but the developers behind a new project aim to reverse that trend.

Donohoe Cos. Senior Vice President Jad Donohoe tells Bisnow that the company's new mixed-use project at 5500 Wisconsin Ave., in partnership with Carr Cos., is an effort to bring a more modern style of retail to the neighborhood.

The project, first reported by UrbanTurf, is planned for an 18-story tower with 380 apartments and 15K SF of retail. It would replace a 45K SF retail structure, built in 1970, that is occupied by Brooks Brothers and other soft goods stores. 

The development team acquired the property in January, along with the adjacent 226-room hotel, for $74M. The property sits less than a quarter-mile from the Friendship Heights Metro station on the Maryland side of the border with D.C. 

"You have a lot of aging retail there in Friendship Heights, and there's no secret that it hasn't done well," Donohoe said. "We're at a point where both jurisdictions and the property owners and citizens have realized that what used to work for Friendship Heights with regard to retail no longer will."

The retail would sit along a 47-foot-wide, woonerf-style street in between the hotel and the new building. Donohoe said it is being designed for the pedestrian experience with glass storefronts, café tables and loading in the back of the buildings, compared to the area's older retail that has been designed for people visiting by car. 

"We believe in more of a focus on retail for the neighborhood rather than for people who are driving to come to the region," Donohoe said. "Friendship Heights doesn't need to be that kind of regional draw. It can be a great place without having four department stores."

The team plans to invest around $100M in the project, Donohoe said. It would retain the existing hotel on the site, the Courtyard by Marriott Bethesda Chevy Chase, while making some minor upgrades. The new multifamily tower would reach 18 stories, with seven-story "shoulders" on either side. 

The property at 5500 Wisconsin Ave., occupied by Brooks Brothers, with the Courtyard by Marriott Bethesda Chevy Chase hotel on the right.

The developer is working with SK + I Architecture as its architect, Parker Rodriguez as its landscape architect and Miller Walker Retail Real Estate as its retail consultant. Donohoe said Miller Walker's advice was that more residential density is required to support street-level retail in today's market.

"With Amazon and food delivery and everything else, the amount of physical retail a given number of households can support seems to be going down," Donohoe said. 

The development team presented the project at a community meeting this week, and it plans to submit a sketch plan to Montgomery County next month, Donohoe said. He then aims to file a site plan this winter and break ground on the project around the end of 2022. 

The neighborhood could also soon feature a major development on the site of the Mazza Gallerie shopping mall. The 1970s-era mall lost multiple anchor tenants, including Neiman Marcus and the AMC movie theater, and it went through foreclosure before Tishman Speyer acquired it for $52M last month. The developer plans to build 350 units and 26K SF of retail on the site, according to EagleBank, the project's lender. 

"What Friendship Heights needs is more investment, and that can take a lot of different forms," Donohoe said. "Everyone would agree that Mazza was not what it needed to be, even before the pandemic."