SILVER SPRING — The Montgomery County Planning Board held a public hearing to get input from the community on the Forest Glen/Montgomery Hills Sector Plan.
The public hearing, held on May 30, was led by the chair of the planning board, Casey Anderson and filled the hearing room in Silver Spring to near-capacity.
The area up for redesign stretches between the commercial area of Montgomery Hills and the Forest Glen neighborhood, which is located between 16th Street and North Medical Park Drive.
Other sector plans in the area were launched in 1996 and 2000, but, according to the planning board, these plans need to be updated because of recent changes to the area.
More recently, the sector plan for the Forest Glen and Montgomery Hills area was launched in 2017 and included a study of traffic conditions, which many members of the community brought up during the public hearing.
According to the planning board, this sector plan is organized around three key themes: reconnect, reinvest and reimagine.
The planning board highlights the introduction of measures such as Vision Zero for the area to “reconnect” and to restore safety conditions for pedestrians, bikers and cars. To “reinvest,” the board notes the importance of encouraging equitable development for residents in its theme of reimagining the area. The board focuses on affordable housing and green space to improve the ecological health of the area in their theme of “reimagine.”
As a whole, many of the community members were supportive of the sector plan, which would allow for greater density and development in the area. A common theme around traffic safety was one developed for community members who chose to testify before the board.
“Everybody knows that (Georgia Avenue) is very dangerous; 84,000 vehicles a day travel down it, (and there is) a higher rate than average crash rate, too,” said Peter Gray, who was testifying on behalf of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), where he is a board member. “For a pedestrian or a cyclist to get through that portion of the plan that is located at the bridge that goes over and under the beltway through 16th Street is extremely hazardous, I’m a very confident cyclist, and I have no desire to be on Georgia Avenue.”
Gray explained that options listed in the sector plan will provide a safer crossing and a more-comfortable Georgia Avenue for those on foot or on a bike.
The sector plan includes at least seven locations for recommendations on bike improvements, with many more options to make those improvements, like adding two-way bike lanes and side paths and improving lane signals.
Another area of interest for many community members was that of housing and commercial development.
The sector plan includes guidelines to increase density and to concentrate new housing conveniently near public transportation. The plan also recommends providing affordable housing through different methods such as tax credits and public-private partnerships.
Allison Gillespie, who was at the hearing as a private citizen, said she was in support of the sector plan and of creating more-affordable housing for the area.
“In general, I want to say that I am really happy about the proposed zoning for density at the intersection of Georgia and Forest Glen,” she said. “I think we have a rare chance to do the right thing; we have a really rare chance to make smart growth happen, and I’m super excited to see that happening in my neighborhood. I think there would be a lot of people who would live there and use the Metro, and that would be great.”
She went on to note just how badly the county needs affordable housing.
But not everyone expressed support of further development. Peter Frandsen, who was also attending the public hearing as a private citizen, said he was opposed to tall buildings being built to increase density.
“Twelve-story buildings don’t match the area and would be disruptive of the neighborhood,” he said. He also noted that heavy traffic flow has restricted the growth of the area.
Andy Banks was another individual who said he was against the call for more density in the area. He attended the public hearing representing the Americana Finnmark Condominium.
He noted that those calling for more development in the area live in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed location for construction, not in it.
He explained that the proposed plans exclude the area around the Americana Finnmark, a condominium community that is called East Forest Glen.
Banks proposed changing the sector plan to avoid building the 120-foot apartment buildings and providing safer walking conditions for residents of East Forest Glen.
Anderson, explained that having public forums like this one helps the board gain a better understanding of what work needs to be done and how the community feels about a project.
“I have familiarity with the area, but I don’t know every nook and cranny of every block, so we’re looking for some of the local knowledge that comes from people literally living right there on the spot,” Anderson said.
He said that the planning board has the ability to change the sector plan as they see fit to meet the needs of the community.
Anderson noted some key takeaways from the hearing. For instance, there was the consensus that Georgia Avenue needs to be redesigned so that it is safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
“Everyone really wants to see Georgia Avenue recalibrated so it’s not just a highway for people coming from points north to commute into downtown Silver Spring and the District of Columbia,” he said. “Obviously, there is some disagreement over how much development should be permitted, but even there I think there’s pretty broad agreement that it shouldn’t be a surface parking lot, so I think that’s really good.”
Anderson said that the next step for the sector plan will be for the planning board to review input from the community.
The board will hold its first work session on the sector plan on June 20.