Once a magnet for crime, tunnel is on its way out
Developer wants to fill in pedestrian path under Stedwick
There could soon be no way in or out of one of Montgomery Village's most reviled visual blights and magnets for crime, once intended to serve as a safe way for pedestrians to cross a busy road.
A developer who wants to bring upscale retail and restaurants to the site of the former YMCA wants to fill in a 80-foot-long pedestrian tunnel carved some 40 years ago under Stedwick Road.
On Thursday, the county Planning Board will review the proposal from the J Donegan Co., the developer of Montgomery Village Marketplace a 26,000-square-foot shopping center.
The Vienna, Va.-based developer bought the YMCA property for $4 million in 2007 and wanted to close the tunnel almost immediately after buying the site. County police, the Montgomery Village Foundation and residents of nearby neighborhoods agree the tunnel leads to more harm than good.
County officials barricaded the tunnel last year after settling a decade-long debate with the Montgomery Village Foundation over its ownership. It would be the first of the dozen pedestrian tunnels in Montgomery Village to be filled in.
Like several of the dozen pedestrian tunnels in Montgomery Village, the Stedwick tunnel had become a magnet for graffiti and a bane to police and private security at the Village Center Shopping.
"Everyone is in agreement that it is not a safe means of access. It just isn't," said Jay Donegan, the company's CEO. "It hasn't been well maintained and it's just not a viable option, nor has it ever been."
Police reported 37 robberies and 161 assaults in the tunnel's immediate vicinity between June 2006 and June 2009. In "numerous incidents," criminals fled through the tunnel from the shopping center, according to a staff report prepared for the Planning Board session.
"I think with the tunnel removed and we come in with a first-class project, my hope would be that it be an active, safe place," Donegan said.
That still leaves them to work out pedestrian flow and safety of crossing Stedwick Road.
Three Ride On bus routes stop at four intersections nearby and students from three schools walk home along Stedwick Road. Two pedestrians have been hit by vehicles on Stedwick between Montgomery Village Avenue and Watkins Mill Road between 2003 and 2007, according to the planning report. Planning staff wrote that adding pedestrians to Stedwick Road will slow vehicle traffic.
With outdoor dining at the Marketplace and improvements to Stedwick Road's intersections with Montgomery Village Avenue and Watkins Mill Road, the project will redefine the feel of Stedwick Road into something more pedestrian. Those plans are being finalized.
Donegan wants to break ground on the project in the fall.
Chevy Chase Bank is lined up as a stand-alone building and the 15-20 restaurants and retailers in the two larger buildings will be set after county planners approve the proposal, Donegan said. Pending a decision on closing the tunnel, planners are expected to take up the Marketplace proposal in the fall or winter.
"I'd expect that within nine to 12 months that we open," Donegan said.