Opinion: ‘I Hate What Bethesda Has Become’

New development is stripping downtown Bethesda of its charm and appeal


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Editor’s Note: The following view is that of the writer and does not reflect the opinions of Bethesda Beat staff. 

When we moved to Chevy Chase from Northern Virginia in 1988, we immediately fell in love with Bethesda. It had the feel and charm of a small town, but was in close proximity to a major city. In those days, Wisconsin Avenue was shut down for a parade, complete with marching bands and fez-wearing Shriners driving go-carts. 

My wife Lucy, our daughter, two sons and I enjoyed the feeling of community that Bethesda and Chevy Chase had. We used to talk about going to “Downtown Bethesda” to run an errand, using air quotes because there was little “downtown” about it, traffic was not a problem and parking was plentiful. 

While I loved the “old” Bethesda, I am hardly an anti-growth NIMBY kind of person. In fact, I have welcomed development in Bethesda for a long time. The arrival of new and more restaurants and larger and cleaner grocery stores, plus having a Metro stop, have all made Bethesda a better place.

But Bethesda Beat’s recent report that the Barnes & Noble on Bethesda Row will close at the end of 2017 hit a nerve. The store has been a downtown hub and gathering place for 20 years. (In how many other downtowns is a bookstore the anchor tenant?) That announcement was close on the heels of the news that the Tastee Diner, a fixture since 1958, might close as well.

Bethesda Beat reported that the diner’s owner may sell his property to the developers of the new Marriott corporate headquarters planned for next door. The 22-story headquarters building and adjacent 230-room hotel would dominate the block—and take over the public parking garage across Woodmont Avenue.

The closing of the Tastee Diner, with its greasy-spoon ambiance, would be another in the litany of Bethesda institutions that are no longer around. Eastham’s Exxon had been at 7100 Wisconsin Ave. since 1929 until it made way for a 17-story, 70-unit luxury apartment building. My sons and I spent many an hour at the Ranger Surplus store farther along Wisconsin Avenue. Where else would we buy Army surplus footlockers for kids to take to camp? I have fond memories of going to the Hot Shoppe at the corner of Wisconsin and East West Highway, now the site of Chevy Chase Trust building. Further up north on Wisconsin there were a couple of family-friendly seafood restaurants, Bish Thompson’s and O’Donnell’s.

With the closing of so many beloved businesses and the recent run of high-rise development and influx of chain restaurants and stores, I hate what Bethesda has become—the overbuilding has hit a saturation point and traffic is a nightmare. 

We are told the Montgomery County Planning Board has a “Master Plan.” As best as I can tell, the Master Plan is to allow Bethesda and presumably anyplace else with a Metro stop to become antiseptic places of concrete, steel and glass, with no charm or personality—just tax revenue for the county.  

My personal (and admittedly futile) plan is to vote against all Montgomery County government incumbents unless they pledge to restrain the overbuilding of Bethesda. Until my wife and I finally give up and move away, it seems like the only thing to do.

A Chevy Chase resident for nearly 30 years, Charlie Cook is one of the country’s leading political analysts, and is editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report.

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