For years around this time of year, residents of Friendship Heights used to brace themselves for congested roads and crowded sidewalks as shoppers flocked to the district’s high-end retail center for their holiday shopping. Tom Quinn, advisory neighborhood commission chair and neighborhood resident of 20 years, remembers the chaos that used to come to the northwest corner that was once a magnet for customers from as far as seventy miles away.
Today, though, during the first weeks of December, the shops and streets are much quieter. Stores like World Market and Old Navy that may have once been popular destinations for buying gifts have since abandoned the now nearly empty Chevy Chase Pavilion mall on the corner of Wisconsin Ave. and Western Ave.
In a latest attempt to revive the area, the local leaders have turned to developers to add more residential spaces and bring more neighbors to Friendship Heights. Leading the way along the neighborhood’s main corridor of Wisconsin Ave. is a mixed-use project by Federal Realty Investment Trust. After almost a year and a half of planning and debate, commissioners approved the project proposal in a 3 to 1 vote during a special meeting last Thursday.
“We have an obsolete building that we would like to revitalize,” Geoff Sharpe, vice president of development for Federal Realty, said at the meeting. “I’m speaking personally as someone who lives across the line in Maryland, who shops in Friendship Heights every week: It’s the right thing to do to revitalize the neighborhood.”
The existing building, Friendship Center, is a collection of storefronts: Maggiano’s, Marshalls, Sheyla Vie and DSW. Rebuilding on this space, the new multi-story project will include approximately 350 apartment units along with 10,500 to 14,000 square feet of retail space.
The project will bring the largest addition of affordable housing to the northwest area so far, Sharpe said. These units, in particular, will hopefully attract younger residents, said Richard Bradley, executive director of Friendship Heights Alliance, an organization concerned with economic development in the neighborhood.
“There’s a joke that goes around that says that if you want to visit your parents, you go to Bethesda; if you want to visit your grandparents you go to Friendship Heights,” Bradley said. “It’s an active but it’s an aging community, so obviously, we want to shift that.”
The project’s emphasis on residential space was a point of contention for commissioners and residents alike. Ali Gianinno, the one “nay” vote, said she was conflicted about what she felt was still missing from the project; her biggest concern is too little retail space.
“[Friendship Heights] is supposed to be a hub for jobs, retail, transit and housing. And I think that this project doesn’t do enough to meet a lot of those pieces,” Gianinno said. “It’s going in the right direction, and I don’t want to slow progress. But I also know that I feel very strongly that we have to focus on the fact that Friendship Heights is a regional center.”
Multiple residents, including Ryan Keefe, spoke at the meeting in favor of the project, specifically the additional housing.
“We should set a precedent in [the area] that would say yes to development, yes to neighbors and frankly yes to a lot of affordable housing,” Keefe said.
Tracy Hadden Loh, who lives next door to the redevelopment, said she hopes this will be the first step in bringing new neighbors to the area.
“This is a really good thing for my immediate community,” she said. “People are telling on themselves super loud if they’re thinking something otherwise.”
“I have spent my life advocating for housing reform in this city. It is something I care about so much,” Loh added.
Bradley said there are plans to bring more development projects like this to Friendship Heights, including a redevelopment where the Mazza Gallerie mall is currently, adding around 400 new apartment units.
“It’s all part of a both immediate change and a longer range change that sees Friendship Heights transitioning into a more affordable, inclusive, but still vibrant and interesting area of the city,” Bradley said.