Wave Of New Developments Give Friendship Heights 'A Sense Of Actual Change'
It has been more than a decade since new housing units were built in Friendship Heights as the traditional luxury shopping district declined, but hope is on the way.
Up to 1,300 units could be created across four projects in the neighborhood’s pipeline: Tishman Speyer’s redevelopment of the recently foreclosed-on Mazza Gallerie mall, Federal Realty Investment Trust’s proposed redevelopment of Friendship Center at 5333 Wisconsin Ave., Donohoe Cos. and Carr Cos.' joint venture at 5500 Wisconsin Ave. and Donohoe's proposed redevelopment of 5151 Wisconsin Ave.
Friendship Heights’ sudden embrace of multifamily development occurs as the area, which straddles the border between Maryland and Washington, D.C., around the intersection of Western and Wisconsin avenues, contends with more than 500K SF of empty retail space left gutted by the coronavirus pandemic and consumers’ embrace of e-commerce.
“There is the realization that something needs to be done,” said William Rich, the president of local commercial real estate research firm Delta Associates. “The status quo has not resulted in what we want for the neighborhood.”
The planned projects could bring a welcome infusion of new residents to support more locally focused retail, Donohoe Cos. Senior Vice President Jad Donohoe said. Spokespeople for Tishman Speyer and Federal Realty declined to provide details for their upcoming developments.
“Any one project is going to be a drop in the bucket, but the fact that there are a number of different projects moving forward in the coming years really presents a sense of actual change in Friendship Heights,” Donohoe said.
Donohoe’s 5500 Wisconsin project on the Chevy Chase side of Friendship Heights could be the first of this cluster of developments to deliver, he said, although he doesn’t expect construction to start for another 16 months. That project, which would redevelop the Brooks Brothers on the site, would include 380 apartments over 15K SF of retail.
Last week, Donohoe also submitted plans to redevelop 5151 Wisconsin Ave. NW across the border in D.C., the former WTTG-Fox 5 headquarters, into a new multifamily development with ground-floor retail.
Further into the future, WMATA’s Western Bus Garage, which sits directly opposite Mazza Gallerie, is due for a replacement in 2025, according to an April Urban Land Institute report about the neighborhood. Its authors recommended shrinking the footprint of the new garage to make way for new mixed-use development or potentially turning the now-closed Lord & Taylor across the street into a replacement facility.
The ULI report, sponsored by the D.C. Office of Planning, WMATA and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, found that, in addition to its retail struggles, Friendship Heights suffers from a lack of identity and appealing pedestrian experience.
“The streetscape isn’t quite hospitable to the retail experience that the general public comes to expect now for retail destinations,” said Rich, who was a contributor to the report. “Those streetscape improvements should be a part of whatever is going to happen in Friendship Heights in order to attract and maintain what’s currently there in terms of retail.”
Bill Miller, principal of retail real estate brokerage Miller Walker, said streetscape changes to meet those needs are already underway. The Collection at Chevy Chase, Chevy Chase Land Co.’s redevelopment anchored by a new Amazon Fresh grocery store, is one such example of the future of Friendship Heights, Miller said.
“I think where a lot of projects are sort of refocusing their efforts is to make sure they’re taking really good care of that dense, wealthy, well-educated neighborhood,” Miller said.
Many of the area’s residents acknowledge the need for a demographic shift. The Friendship Heights neighborhood has fewer than 6,000 residents, roughly a tenth of the population of Bethesda, according to the report. Within a half-mile radius of the Friendship Heights Metro Station, the median household income is $129,749, well above the District’s median. Even more unusual: 29% of Friendship Heights residents are over 65, compared to D.C.’s overall rate of 12%.
Local developers say more housing is necessary in Friendship Heights because the area, once a luxury retail destination, is transitioning into a new role as a “tweener” community struggling to compete with ascendant Downtown Bethesda, Arlington and D.C. neighborhoods.
AvalonBay Vice President of Mixed Use Katie Bucklew, a co-author of the report, said in a webinar discussing its findings that Friendship Heights’ low population likely exacerbated the retail challenges in the area.
“The lack of bodies contributes to the lack of vibrancy on the street, so one thing we really looked at is how do we get more bodies into the area,” Bucklew said. “And that comes with development.”
Miller isn’t so down on Friendship Heights. He said the greater Chevy Chase area is still a “unicorn” in fashion retail, given high-end retailers like Saks and Bloomingdale’s have remained open. He anticipates the retail mix of the future in the area will maintain a connection to luxury while incorporating a mix of local-focused restaurants, bars and coffee shops to appeal to a growing resident population.
Bob Peck, principal at Gensler and the report’s other co-author, said developers and public entities have previously struggled to come together when imagining a future for the neighborhood. Friendship Heights contains both D.C. and Maryland portions divided by Western Avenue, complicating efforts to coordinate.
To solve this, Peck and Bucklew recommended forming a “Friendship Heights Alliance” that could operate similar to a business improvement district and coordinate efforts to provide outdoor amenities for office workers and residents. Peck said that would likely be the first step toward reimagining the neighborhood and making it a prime destination for real estate development once again.
“Everybody does recognize this potentially needs to be planned as much of a whole community as it can be,” Peck said during the webinar. “You can pass through Western Avenue pretty easily, there's no passport control, so it needs to be considered together.”
CORRECTION, NOV. 11, 4:30 P.M. ET: Donohoe Cos. and Carr Cos. are equal joint venture partners in the 5500 Wisconsin Ave. redevelopment. A previous version of this story omitted Carr's involvement. This story has been updated.