Developer shops 'big box' plans
Apr. 21, 2004
Matt Boyd
Staff Writer

Opinions vary

on proposal for Burtonsville Town Square

The owners of the Burtonsville Shopping Center are floating a proposal to redevelop the site into a high-end shopping plaza with specialty shops and cafes. But not everyone is pleased with the proposal to include a "big box" retail store, something the developers say is needed to make the center cost-effective.

And because the center would be built on land currently zoned for rural residential housing, it isn't possible to build it soon.

Chris Jones of Bethesda Management has been quietly addressing community groups with a proposal for the Burtonsville Town Square, a collection of pedestrian-friendly restaurants with elaborate streetscaping and architecture.

"Feedback has been enthusiastic for the most part," Jones said.

As envisioned, the project would be built in three phases. The first to be built would be the village shopping center, a series of freestanding stores along two streets running north and south. Second would be the first anchor, a grocery-store-sized building at the north end of the village area. Last would be the second anchor, a 130,000-square-foot building to the west of the grocery store designed to attract a "big box" retail chain.

The big box would be needed to pay for the construction of the other two phases, Jones said. The village center would require expensive streetscapes and finished architecture on all four sides of the buildings.

The development, especially the village area, is meant to give the area a sense of place, essentially putting the 'ville back in Burtonsville, Jones said. One message he repeats when explaining the development: "This was a country crossroads that became a suburban crossroads. Now they've taken away the crossroads."

Jones is referring to the State Highway Administration's construction of an overpass at the intersection of Route 198 and U.S. Route 29, moving the actual intersection east and isolating the commercial area there now from north/south traffic. In addition, as part of the widening of Route 198, the SHA is planning to build a median, preventing left turns into businesses on the north side of the road. Many sidewalk breaks will also probably be closed, further limiting access.

This is going to be devastating to the business community there, Jones said. The master-planned solution to the problem is an access road that runs behind the current Burtonsville Shopping Center, but that alone won't prevent the decline, he said.

The 1997 plan calls for a redeveloped Burtonsville Shopping Center, but not along the lines of what Jones is proposing, said Stuart Rochester, chairman of the Fairland Master Plan Committee. He respects Jones, but "any idea of a big box would be totally incompatible with the master plan concept," he said.

The committee is absolutely opposed to a big box as it would completely change the character of Burtonsville and undermine the smaller-scale "village center" concept the plan calls for, Rochester said.

In 1997, the committee gave the shopping center extra acres of commercial zoning, with the understanding that Bethesda Management would renovate the center that had fallen into disrepair under a previous owner, Rochester said. The committee is willing to grant considerable leverage and flexibility, but not to the point of a big box store. "We believe it would have impacts in terms of changing the whole density and scale of Burtonsville," he said.

The plan is still in flux, but the box would be hidden from view, much like the Home Depot at the corner of Route 29 and Cherry Hill Road, Jones said. Lines of sight would be broken up by the freestanding village stores as well as the Burton Oaks, a trio of 200- to 250-year-old trees that would be in the middle of the center, he said.

Zoning is another obstacle, since much of the property is zoned for rural residential housing. Jones can file for a change either by arguing that the zoning was a mistake or arguing the rezoning would be compatible with existing development.

"There are problems in either case because the master plan was so clear on trying to contain development in the Burtonsville area," said Piera Weiss, a community planner with Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

This property was discussed in great detail during the 1997 Master Plan process, Weiss said. Bethesda Management was granted an extra three acres of commercial zoning with the agreement that the remaining 11 acres would be restricted from development as a forest conservation area with a stormwater management facility.

In addition, part of the property lies in the Patuxent River Primary Management Area, which limits impervious surfaces to 10 percent of the property. That would be tough to get around, Weiss said.

Jones said he feels that there are better ways to address the site's environmental issues than limiting the impervious surface due to heavy erosion that is already taking place. The best stormwater management issues should always be used, he said. The mature trees in the northwest corner in the stream valley area would also be preserved, he said.

Shelley Porter of the Burtonsville Umbrella Regional Team, a network of community representatives, said Jones had given a presentation to her group that was well received. She said she is very excited about the project, big box and all. She understands that a group of small specialty stores may not support the economics of the center.

"The only problem is, of course, when homeowners are thinking about big box, some candidates are more attractive than others," Porter said.

The tenant situation is a chicken and egg problem, Jones said. With the zoning issues, Bethesda Management is at least five years away from breaking ground on the center, if it happens at all. Until the firm has some sense of the timeline, it can't begin negotiating with tenants, he said.

However, the 130,000-square-foot box isn't large enough to accommodate, say, a Wal-Mart supercenter, Jones said. Bethesda Management would try to get something upscale that would mix well with the other stores in the center, not a Wal-Mart, he said.

Members of the Burtonsville Elementary School PTA are excited about the improvements being proposed for the area, outside of things like the big box that aren't in the master plan, said Diane Parris, president of the group.

Their main concern, however, is still the access road that the county is building that would provide entry to nearby businesses and cut near the elementary school. The PTA has argued that people will use the road as a bypass and park in the school's parking lot.

"The access road is being put in to facilitate the changes being proposed for that shopping center," Parris said. "We see them as conjoined items."