Friday, May 23, 2008

Plans shift for Gaithersburg property

Public park, doubled retail space envisioned

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A new plan is taking shape for the roughly 20 acres at the northeast corner of Darnestown and Quince Orchard roads in Gaithersburg, where the Johnson Family Flower and Garden Center stood for nearly 50 years.

Aiming to balance family priorities, the concerns of neighbors and an expansion plan for the existing Safeway supermarket, Johnson family representative Russell Johnson told neighbors last week that most of an 8-acre area could be turned into a public park, while the Safeway would double in size, to go along with more retail space.

The garden center closed at the end of 2005, making room for a Chevy Chase Bank, CVS pharmacy and three eateries, Johnson said. The bank is already open.

The Johnsons had wanted to double the size of the garden center, but as planning dragged out amid community unrest, the ballooning costs for construction — to at least $3 million — prompted the family to consider other options.

About a dozen residents and two officials from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission attended the recent meeting of the Orchard Hills Homeowners’ Association, where Johnson emphasized that the idea is in only in its very early stages.

‘‘The county gets their park, you guys get your buffer, Safeway gets their expansion. ... And it works, if everybody comes in and agrees with it,” Johnson said.

The county would get about 7 acres for a community park. A park in that neighborhood is called for in the update to the Gaithersburg West Master Plan, which heads for County Council approval as early as this fall.

The empty 8 acres are currently zoned for residential use, and would otherwise hold about 30 homes, Johnson said.

Safeway wants to double its current 52,000 square feet, and additional retail could bring commercial space to as much as 140,000 square feet, Johnson said.

Safeway has 27 years left on its lease, he said.

A Safeway spokesman did not return a call from The Gazette.

With the prospect of more noise and traffic, Orchard Hills resident Lisa Konecke cautioned neighbors to avoid rekindling the ill will that dominated earlier talks.

‘‘You have to sort of look at the big picture, and you may not want a park in your back yard,” Konecke said. ‘‘But let me tell you, it’s in your best interests if you choose to participate, give your two cents.

‘‘Trust me, it’s better to come participate in this process, give your opinion. He’ll listen; that’s why he’s here.”