Developers Want More Out of Bethesda Downtown Plan

Dozens of property owners asked Planning Board for more height, density


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Building heights recommended by Planning Department staff in the staff draft of the Bethesda Downtown Plan

Via Montgomery County Planning Department

On the table now is the potential for a 20-percent increase in density and almost 4,000 more rental units in downtown Bethesda.

To dozens of downtown property owners— and the land use attorneys that represent them—those recommendations for growth as part of the Planning Department’s rewrite of the area’s sector plan aren’t enough.

“The recommendations are somewhat tepid and I’m concerned that they simply reaffirm the status quo that currently exists,” said Pat Harris, a prominent land use attorney from the Bethesda-based firm of Lerch Early & Brewer.

Harris was one of the many who testified Wednesday in favor of more density at a Planning Board public hearing on the draft of the plan put together by department staff.

Most asked for allowances for more density, more height or both on specific properties.

Some pointed to a property’s proximity to the Bethesda Metro station as justification. Some pointed to higher recommended densities and heights at properties on the same block or just across the street.

An attorney representing the developer that recently finished an office building at 4500 East West Highway said the property needs a higher height allowance because it could one day add floors.

The developer, Carr Properties, is also concerned that if the building next door redevelops, the office building’s new outdoor plaza wouldn’t get sunlight.

“We’re an urban environment,” Harris said. “We need to be more so."

Most of the residents who testified Wednesday shared concerns about either Fire Department 6, proposals for the Bethesda Metro Plaza, buffer zones to single-family neighborhoods or Battery Lane Park

For nearly all of the property owners, the concern was development potential for the life of the Bethesda Downtown Plan, which could last as the zoning standard for the next 20 or 25 years.

Even those who own some of downtown Bethesda’s most successful and stable properties—ones that aren’t likely to redevelop any time soon— asked the board for more flexibility.

“While we recognize Bethesda Row is established, there do remain some redevelopment opportunities,” said Evan Goldman, vice president of development for Bethesda Row developer Federal Realty Investment Trust. “We too want the opportunity to take advantage of the environment. Our first concern is height.”

The Planning Board will hold work sessions on the plan through the rest of the summer before it submits its version to the County Council.

Land use attorney Bob Dalrymple, who testified Wednesday on behalf of seven different property owners, joked that the process will be much like a delicate dance between attorneys, developers, residents and the board members.

Tom Keady, president of developer Bainbridge, said his concerns about the company’s project for the former Exxon gas station at 7340 Wisconsin Ave. are more immediate.

The developer already submitted plans to the Planning Board for approval of a 14-story, 225-unit apartment building on the site–which sits across the street from the Bethesda Metro station elevators.

Keady said the developer stopped pursuing approval of the project, expecting the Bethesda Downtown Plan to provide more allowable density and height.

Planners recommended more allowable height for the site, but not the significant addition of density that Keady and Bainbridge were hoping for in the core of the downtown area.

Harris told the board that downtown Bethesda could end up being an attractive alternative to Washington, D.C., for development and new residents—if the Bethesda Downtown Plan provides more room to build.

“I recommend a more surgical look to evaluate which properties truly have the potential to redevelop,” Harris said. “The recommendations call for increased density, but not enough to really incentivize redevelopment if you have an existing property.”

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