Proposed zoning changes on Chelsea School site concern some Silver Spring residents
Developer plans to build townhomes on Chelsea School site
A local developer hoping to build townhomes on a tract of land adjacent to downtown Silver Spring may end up facing opposition from a citizens' association every step of the way.
EYA, a Bethesda-based development company, filed an application in mid-December with Montgomery County Park and Planning to change the zoning of the land now occupied by the Chelsea School to allow for townhomes. The 5.45-acre site, located at 711 Pershing Drive, is now zoned for single family homes or another school. The county accepted the application Jan. 5.
But some community members find the proposed development of 66 market rate and 10 moderately priced townhomes an encroachment of downtown growth on a residential neighborhood.
The Seven Oaks Evanswood Citizens' Association, with members from a community of 750 homes immediately northeast of downtown Silver Spring, voted against changing the zoning to allow for the townhome development at a meeting in September, said Anne Spielberg, chair of the Chelsea School task force, a citizens' association subcommittee formed to explore zoning implications on the neighborhood.
"We all love our neighborhood," Spielberg said. "We all love that accessibility. But at the same time we have for many years wanted to protect our neighborhood as well from development that's just too dense."
Bob Youngentob, president of EYA, said he disagrees that townhomes unreasonably increase density. A townhome development, he said, is a great transition from high-rise downtown developments to single-family homes. The concept that if one block turns to townhomes another will follow is groundless, he said. Unlike the Chelsea School site, neighboring blocks have many individual owners. Persuading all those individuals to sell their property to a developer would be near impossible, he said.
"If this county stops growing, it's going to die," Youngentob said. "So we have to have some level of growth. Where we should be locating that growth is in urban areas like Silver Spring or on top of Metro stations."
EYA works under the motto "life within walking distance." The company selects properties to develop based on their proximity to public transportation, shops, restaurants, grocery stores and other urban amenities.
"Every house will be designed to LEED standards," Youngentob said, referring to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a green building certification system. "That's EYA. That's what we do. We believe that not only should the locations represent smart growth, but the actual construction should as well."
Two acres of the site will become privately owned and maintained but publicly accessible park space. One park abuts Pershing Drive and the other sits on Ellsworth Drive, catty-corner from the existing Ellsworth Park.
Clustered in the middle of the site, the townhomes will be accessible by internal streets and alleys. Each unit will have two parking spaces. And the end units of the strings of townhomes that face existing houses will have porches to give the illusion of single family homes. EYA will preserve the historic Riggs-Thompson House as a single family home.
"I think in most cases people recognize us for very high quality, fitting in with communities, working very closely with neighborhoods through the process, and ultimately being very successful," Youngentob said.
But the neighborhood, Spielberg said, feels pressure from the downtown extending beyond the Cedar Street border, which marks the edge of the central business district. Those developments now allowed under the zoning single family homes or a school would be fine. Townhomes, though, would overwhelm the site.
"I just think we're concerned also about the precedent this might set," Spielberg said. "If we go against the master plan planning principles with this site, it could happen on other sites. The master plan is in place for a reason. It was for long term planning. It was done in the context of a developing urban core. We just really believe that you have to abide by those principles."
The citizens' association will oppose the rezoning of the Chelsea School site at all stages of the process, Spielberg said.
A zoning text amendment first goes to the Montgomery County Planning Board, and the board then makes a recommendation to the county hearing examiner, said Valerie Berton, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Park and Planning. The hearing examiner then holds a hearing at which project stakeholders testify and then submits a recommendation to the Montgomery County Council. Finally, the council votes to approve or deny the zoning changes.
This amendment will reach planning board and the hearing examiner in May, Youngentob said, and will likely go before county council in June or July.
Still, the anti-townhome sentiment isn't shared by all. Mark Posner, a Seven Oaks Eastwood resident since 1987, said he thinks the development is appropriate because it's located on the edge of the residential community.
"It's almost immediately adjacent to the downtown development, to an apartment building across the street, and apartment homes that will eventually be built on Cedar," Posner said. "The developer in particular is looking at making sure that the traffic that would be developed by the new development would not unduly impinge on or unduly burden the residential community that's immediately adjacent to it."
This development should not be precedent for any other development that might involve tearing down existing housing to build denser residences, he said.
Chelsea School representatives sought out EYA when deciding to whom they should sell the land, Messina said. Though other companies put offers on the table, they did not provide development plans that seemed to fit well with the neighborhood.
"[EYA's] community focus and sensitivity to the needs of the adjacent community members for us was huge," Messina said. "We could, I suppose, have just sold the place and made money, but we didn't feel the same comfort level, and we wanted to leave here knowing that we left as good friends and good neighbors and didn't leave in a hostile environment."
Another school, Messina said, would be quite large compared to Chelsea School and generate a significant amount of traffic in the residential community.
Chelsea School serves approximately 80 students grades five through 12. Most students at Chelsea School have a language-based learning disability that affects their performance in acquiring basic reading, writing and math skills.
School officials are looking to move to Prince Georges County, Washington, D.C., or both, said Tony Messina, head of the Chelsea School. But an exact location is still a big unknown. The projected moving date is summer 2012. The move will ensure long-term financial stability for the school.
Construction of the townhomes would take approximately 24 months from the time the school is demolished, provided the county council votes to rezone the property.