Montgomery County planners suggested zoning and pedestrian improvements they hope can help revitalize Long Branch in a meeting with about 30 residents Monday night.
In presenting their preliminary recommendations for the Long Branch Sector Plan, they also acknowledged the Planning Department only can do so much to help the aging inner-ring suburb of strip malls, apartments and single-family housing along Piney Branch Road, Flower Avenue and University Boulevard.
“Land use and zoning will not fix these problems,” said chief planner Melissa Williams, who presented recommendations for better accessibility, commercial and residential rezoning and improved use of the area’s park land. “There has to be county buy-in and community activism.”
The challenge in creating a more continuous, vibrant commercial development in what now is an area dominated by surface parking lots depends heavily on plans for the Purple Line, the proposed 16-mile east-west light rail that would run from New Carrollton to Bethesda.
“That’s a concern in this area because it’s already a high-density area,” said Nicole Brisker. “When it’s done well, it’s fantastic. The concern is, are you going to do it holistically, keeping in mind all the stakeholders?”
Williams said many owners of the roughly 200 small businesses in Long Branch are taking a wait-and-see approach. Long Branch residents spent $112 million at area businesses and spent $238 million outside the area, according to Planning Department research. Williams said that was a significant gap compared to other areas in the county.
“There’s really nothing to go to in shopping centers currently,” Michele Gaidelis said. “But I’d like to see it easier to walk around.”
The Purple Line would include two stops in Long Branch, on University Boulevard just south of Piney Branch Road and on Arliss Street just north of Piney Branch Road. It would run at street level in a middle lane along University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road, an addition that would allow for wider roads and sidewalks and safer intersections, according to the plan.
The recommendations also point to redevelopment around the vacant 1950s-era Flower Theatre, which the county’s Historic Preservation Commission designated as historically significant.
Much of Williams’ presentation focused on how zoning could improve quality of life in what planners labeled a “gateway” community for many immigrants.
According to research planners presented during the original preliminary recommendations in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the more than 20,000 residents in the Long Branch study area are foreign born. More than 45 percent of those older than 5 speak a language other than English and 15 percent speak English less than “very well,” compared to 32 percent and 8 percent county-wide rates in those categories, respectively.