Development Proposal Puts Spotlight on Downtown Bethesda’s Residential Edge

Chevy Chase developer pitches unique architectural features to shield neighborhood from taller building heights, but some neighbors are skeptical


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Massing diagram shows redevelopment envisioned for 6800 block of Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda

Via Montgomery County Planning Department/SK+I Architecture

It would be one of the most unique buildings in downtown Bethesda, a twisting, turning structure that shifts from high-rise to low-rise all in the space of one block.

The proposal, preliminary designs of which were first shown publicly at a Dec. 15 Montgomery County Planning Board work session, is perhaps the best example yet of how developers hope to squeeze in projects on the edges of Bethesda’s central business district.

It’s also another example of how residents in single-family home neighborhoods immediately next to those properties remain worried about urban building heights and density.

“The problem is we need the central business district to function like a central business district and be, I’ll say the dirty word, urban,” said Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson during the Dec. 15 meeting. “And at the same time, we need it to be compatible with the houses and people who live just one block to the east. We’re trying to balance those two things.”

The site in question during the discussion includes 6801 and 6807 Wisconsin Ave., two one-story retail buildings, and part of a surface parking lot that serves the retail buildings and the St. John’s Norwood church just to the south.

The Jaffe Group, the developer leading the way on the project, has an agreement in place with the church to pursue redevelopment that would maintain the church’s Memorial Garden and provide parking within the site to prevent vehicle back-ups that sometimes happen behind the church on West Avenue.

To accommodate the church’s desires and the recommendation of Planning Department staff for a green buffer between the development of Wisconsin Avenue and the neighborhood to the east, the developer and architecture firm SK+I presented a proposal for a building that slopes from 145 feet tall on Wisconsin Avenue to 50 feet tall on West Avenue.

 

The proposed building, via Montgomery County Planning Department/SK+I Architecture

The project, as presented during the Planning Board work session, would also be set back about 40 feet from the West Avenue curb, allowing trees and other landscaping to be planted immediately facing the single-family homes to the east.

“We actually have an opportunity to do something special here,” said Stacy Silber, the attorney representing Chevy Chase-based The Jaffe Group, during the meeting.

Planners had originally recommended a maximum allowable building height of 120 feet for the property along Wisconsin Avenue and a maximum allowable building height of between 35 and 70 feet for the property along West Avenue.

While the Planning Board will make its final decision on the building height in January, all five commissioners expressed a willingness to allow a 145-foot height on Wisconsin Avenue if doing so ensured 50-foot heights on West Avenue and the green buffer—which planners have labeled the Eastern Greenway.

The Eastern Greenway concept from county planners, with the property highlighted in this story at the bottom right corner, via Montgomery County Planning Department

Some residents of the single-family homes to the east, part of the Town of Chevy Chase, still have concerns.

“Many of us did not know that a building of this scale was being proposed, even though we’ve been involved from the earliest stages of the Bethesda Downtown Plan,” John Friedman, a resident who lives on nearby Ridge Street, said during the Dec. 15 meeting. “Ridge is a very small street. We have a lot of young kids on the block.”

Friedman was among a group of Town of Chevy Chase residents who wrote the Planning Board of their concerns before the plans were revealed Dec. 15.

The Town of Chevy Chase, which borders downtown Bethesda from Bradley Lane to Elm Street Urban Park, hasn’t taken an official position on the property. The town’s council will hold a public meeting Jan. 4 in order to “formulate the town’s position” for the Planning Board’s next work session Jan. 7.

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