Four or five years from now Montgomery Mall as local residents know it could be a thing of the past. Planned renovations to the popular local mall aim to add more than 300,000 square feet of additional retail space, shops that can be accessed from outside of the mall, and a new, larger parking garage.
Mall officials say that the new mall will be a community friendly place for one-stop shopping. Residents of the surrounding neighborhoods aren’t so sure.
One of the main goals of the renovation is to provide the mall with an identity that it currently lacks, said Jim Agliata, a senior vice president of The Westfield Group, the international shopping center group that owns and operates Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery. The mall’s original name was Montgomery Mall, and most locals still refer to it as such.
“One of the problems is that this center never really had a front door,” said Agliata. “We’re trying to create the sense of a front entrance.”
The mall is located at 7101 Democracy Boulevard in Bethesda. It is bordered to the east by I-270, to the south by Democracy Boulevard, to the west by Westlake Drive, and to the north by Westlake Terrace.
The proposed main entrance would sit along Westlake Terrace. It would be a concave area of shops and possibly restaurants that are accessible from the outside and that would flank a landscaped, ground-level parking area that Agliata referred to as “a common area.” In addition to serving as the main entrance and face of the renovated mall, the common area could also periodically be used to show outdoor movies or host flea markets and other community-oriented events, said Agliata, speaking at a meeting of the Land Use Committee of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board on Monday, Aug. 13.
Currently all stores at the mall must be accessed from the inside. Agliata said that the move toward ground-level shopping reflected an industry trend toward so-called ‘lifestyle’ retail that is inviting to passersby and typically features awnings and other features to make businesses look aesthetically appealing from the outside, not just the inside.
“We think this is a project that will work for our community, that will work for our retailers, and that will work for our customers,” Agliata said.
The plan presented on Monday was a scaled-down version of a previous plan, Agliata said. That plan was reduced after concerns were expressed from the surrounding community that the expansion was too large.
Westfield is scheduled to present its plans to the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday, Sept. 20, Agliata said. Agliata said that barring any planning or construction delays the expansion of the mall could be completed in 2011 or 2012.
WHILE AGLIATA characterized the proposed expansion of the mall as something that would benefit both the mall and the community at large, local residents present at Monday’s meeting expressed concern over both the nature of the plans as well as what they call the lack of communication with Westfield officials.
The increased retail and parking capacity will result in additional traffic that will be pushed onto Westlake Terrace and particularly onto Westlake Drive where the new, larger parking garage is planned, said Pete Downes, the president of the Montgomery Mall Citizens Advisory Panel.
“We do represent the 15 different communities that make up the area around the mall. Literally we have hundreds of signatures of people who support us,” Downes said of the panel. The members of those communities are worried about increased traffic that will make their drives more difficult and will make pedestrian travel more dangerous.
The ground surrounding the new garage will slope down and then stop at a 10-foot wall that will drop down to the sidewalk, said Jack Cochrane of the Seven Locks Civic Association. That wall would provide an 800-foot long barrier along Westlake Drive that would thwart pedestrian access from apartment and condominium communities such as Bethesda Court, Lakeview House Apartments, and Magruder’s Discovery that sit across from the mall and include some affordable housing, Cochrane said.
Pedestrians from those communities who use public transportation would also have a longer walk to catch a bus, as the existing transit center on Westlake Terrace would be pushed further east along the mall’s property, according to the renovation plans.
“What this does is create a significant barrier between the residential and the retail [areas],” said Cochrane. “It’s a prime pedestrian crisis right there.” Cochrane said that the proposed wall along Westlake Drive should be broken up with entrances to the mall and that islands should be added in the median of Westfield Drive to enhance pedestrian safety.
“We want mobility as well as safety,” Cochrane said. “Their idea of protecting pedestrians is not to let them cross the street.”
Aside from the traffic and pedestrian issues, there are aesthetic concerns about the garage as well, Downes said.
“It’s not only that, but that that garage is such a large mass that it’s really obtrusive.”
Scott Davenport of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board asked Agliata if Westfield had considered building underground to minimize the obtrusiveness of the parking structure.
Agliata said that studies have shown that women do not feel safe in underground parking facilities due to the lack of natural light. Building underground is also more expensive, Agliata said.
“Those two factors caused us to eliminate [that option],” Agliata said.
The best way to mitigate the litany of concerns surrounding the new garage would be to shift the structure — and the mall’s expansion in general — away from the residential areas to the west and closer to I-270 to the east, Downes said.
THE PROPOSED mall and parking expansion would sit in part on what is currently Westlake Crossing, a small strip mall at the intersection of Westlake Terrace and Westlake Drive. That is something that should not be overlooked, said Eric Eisen, the general counsel for the Montgomery Mall Citizens Advisory Panel. The stores in Westlake Crossing offer local conveniences that Montgomery Mall does not, such as dry cleaning, eyeglasses, beer and wine and a quick cup of coffee, Eisen said. Eisen said that Westfield officials have said they might put in a P.F. Chang’s restaurant franchise in that part of the mall.
“It’s that vision of that destination,” said Eisen of Westfield’s plans. That vision is not locally minded enough for Eisen, who said that local shops and conveniences should be kept there. “That’s not happening here.”
The most troubling aspect of Westfield ’s expansion plan is the lack of dialogue that the group has had with the community, said Downes. White Flint Mall in Rockville is currently going through a similar renovation planning process and Downes pointed to that as a model of open dialogue. Downes said that while his group has not directly contacted Westfield to set up a meeting, he has contacted the county’s planning staff and members of the County Council over the last several months to alert them that his group is available for discussion, but he has heard nothing back.
“There has been a tremendous effort to have interactive discussions with the communities and the businesses around White Flint Mall [regarding that mall’s proposed renovation] and we would hope the county would give us the same consideration,” Downes said. “To date they have not done that.”
“I don’t think what we’re asking is unreasonable. I think if we can sit down we can reach some agreements on some things, probably not on some other things,” Downes said. “If we can’t get communication we’ll have to sit down and ask a guy in a black robe to make a decision.”
Westfield officials at Monday’s meeting indicated that they would like to meet with Downes and his group. On Tuesday, Aug. 14, Downes said that a meeting date of Aug. 22 or 23 is possible, though the exact time and place has not yet been determined.