A proposal to replace four apartment buildings with a new residential complex cleared one of its first hurdles in the development process, but at least one Montgomery County councilman thinks the plan will price more residents out of Bethesda.
The council approved a zoning change Sept. 25 that would allow higher density at 4857, 4858, 4890 and 4900 Battery Lane. The site currently is occupied by 260 units.
The owner, Glenwood Glen Aldon, proposed to replace the 50- to 60-year-old apartments with about 700 total units. Currently envisioned by the owner is one building with as many as five stories, and two high-rise buildings, one as tall as 79 feet and another as tall as 110 feet.
The project would include 104 affordable units under the county’s moderately-priced dwelling unit program, which are rental rate protected by the county for 99 years. An additional 10 units is proposed to be like the county’s workforce housing program which has a higher income requirement, but only protected for 20 years.
The zoning change request passed 7-1, with Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park voting against the proposal. Elrich said the plan takes apartments renting at a lower market rate and replaces them with apartments that likely will command higher rates, along with some affordable housing units.
“It’s affordable for people who could not otherwise afford housing in Bethesda,” he said of the current units. “It’s not like we’re talking about unemployed people who are sucking at the public tit, these are people who go out and work every day, and the government can’t afford to subsidize them.”
The median rent in Bethesda was $1,677 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Monthly rent in unrenovated Battery Lane apartments is $1,340 for a one bedroom and $1,705 for a two bedroom.
“There is nothing to prevent the owners from making significant improvements to the interior and raising the rents,” said the project consultant Doug Wrenn, a principal at Rodgers consulting in Germantown.
To be eligible for the MPDU rental program in Montgomery County, an individual must make at least $30,000 and no more than $49,000 for a garden style apartment and no more than $52,000 for a high rise, according to the county Department of Housing and Community Affairs website.
Workforce housing is intended for individuals and families whose incomes are too high to participate in the MPDU program, households earning between 70 and 120 percent of the Washington metropolitan area median income, according to the website. No workforce housing rentals have ever been built in the county, according to the MC311 website.
Elrich said it is time for council to institute a policy that would mandate no net loss of affordable housing. He said there is a whole row of apartment buildings on Battery Lane that could be replaced with higher density, more expensive housing.
“There’s pressure on us to rezone that whole area,” he said. “We have something of value that serves a good function. To wind up with less of it isn’t good public policy.”
Wrenn said the owners are committed to mid-range, not luxury housing.
“What this organization has had a great deal of success with is providing units that are not at the very top end of the market,” Wrenn said. “Consequently they are in very high demand. There is a lot of study that needs to go into this.”
The project would create a net gain in officially designated affordable housing, said Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda.
“In the scheme of things in Montgomery County, they are still among the most affordable, but they are not ‘affordable housing’ in any sense,” Berliner said. “They are just less expensive housing. In our affordable housing program, we make sure that units are actually occupied by people whose income fits that designation. That’s not true for any of these units.”
The project would require preliminary and site plan approval from the county planning board, a process that could take a year, said Nancy Regelin, an attorney at Shulman Rogers in Potomac. She said the owner has no immediate plans to file.
“At this point we are all very happy that we got the rezoning approved,” she said. “There is no instruction to move forward with a particular building yet. This gives them a plan over the next 10, 20 years of what direction to head.”