As Master Plan Ages, Bethesda Keeps Building Up
On Nov. 1, developer Washington Property Company will ask the County Planning Board for permission to make part of its building at 7100 Wisconsin Ave. 120 feet high, 45 feet higher than the most recent zoning guidelines allow for. The problem, according to many who see Bethesda as uniquely suited for such development, is that those most recent zoning guidelines are from 1994. The 1994 Bethesda CBD Master Plan, the document that set zoning codes and development objectives for downtown Bethesda, will be almost 20 years old when planners begin work on an update in April 2014, according to Planning Department spokeswoman Valerie Berton. A master plan can take a few years to complete. Many at a recent meeting of the Woodmont Triangle Action Group suggested it's already outdated. "What that causes is no one is looking at the cumulative impact," said Jon Weintraub, chair of the Downtown Bethesda Condominium Association, in a phone interview. "Because of the current process in Montgomery County which approves each individual project based on its own merit, no one is looking at how it all affects the schools, the traffic, the additional people on a Metro system that as of late has often failed the riding public." In documents it submitted in August to the Planning Department, Washington Property Company makes its case in part by showing the heights of surrounding existing buildings that already dwarf the 75-foot height number recommended in the 1994 plan. The company's original plan called for a 90-foot apartment building on the site of the Eastham Exxon Station. The 14-floor office building across the street at 7101 Wisconsin Ave. is 134 feet. Another on nearby Miller Avenue is 144 feet. Developers can seek amendments to zoning recommendations from a master plan. But the plans also address broader issues of transportation, urban design, green spaces and public facilities. Those issues are what some residents think have fallen by the wayside as the Bethesda CBD Master Plan ages. "We fully support development," Weintraub said. "What we care about is keeping up the jewel of Montgomery County, which is Bethesda, because of its downtown and its lifestyle." With more than a dozen apartment or condominium projects either under construction, under review or in planning stages (including at 7100 Wisconsin Ave.), finding the proper balance between residential and public-use space is a concern. Members of the Woodmont Triangle Action Group, in their meeting earlier this month, floated the idea of a letter to the County Council urging the Planning Department to move the Bethesda Master Plan update earlier on its schedule. The problem is the glut of master plan work ahead in line, including a few plans necessary to outline development options around prospective Purple Line stations. In July, the Planning Board presented the County Council with a new master plan schedule that would ease its workload. At that time, it consisted of work on eight master plans over a 15-month span. According to Council staff analysis, the Council's goal has been to review three master plans a year and it has never completed more than four in a year. Berton said the division chief in charge of the Bethesda plan has heard nothing about moving it up on the schedule.