Tight Space in Downtown Bethesda Creates Challenge for Apartment Tower Developers

Design panel wonders about the future of the block south of Fairmont Avenue


Preliminary designs for an apartment tower on Wisconsin and Fairmont avenues.

Via Design Collective

The uncertain future of the properties south of Fairmont Avenue in downtown Bethesda could complicate the design of a 30-story apartment tower on that block.

A design review panel Wednesday wrestled with some of these challenges while reviewing plans to build the 314-foot high-rise in a relatively tight space, where the 7-Eleven and EagleBank buildings now stand. The neighboring properties south on Wisconsin Avenue are identified in the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan as potential sites for expanding Veteran’s Park, but their owners could also pursue redevelopment plans.

Some panel members said their advice for designing the apartment tower would be different depending on whether it’ll abut green space for public use or another high-rise. Because the project site is so small, designers have little room to spare for setbacks, they said.

The initial concept drawings show the building a bit removed from the property boundary on the street-facing sides, but hugging much of the south edge, next to the Union Hardware and Reddz Trading properties. That could spell trouble if those sites are redeveloped, panel member George Dove said.

“The space between the buildings is going to be pretty awful. So we better pray for a park,” he said.

Some panel members suggested redistributing the setback space from the Fairmont Avenue side to the south side, in case the rest of the block is redeveloped. However, panel member Rod Henderer said that in either scenario, he was concerned about the building’s bulk.

“It just consumes the site,” he said of the proposed tower. “I find some aspects of it hard to take, to be honest.”

The six-person Bethesda Downtown Design Advisory Panel was created this year to provide guidance to developers, with the goal of supporting architectural excellence in the downtown area.

Designing this particular project could mean balancing two priorities of the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan—the goals of design excellence and supplying affordable housing, planning staff members said.

The properties at 7820 Wisconsin Ave. and 7815 Woodmont Ave. have a general height cap of 225 feet. The developers, Bethesda Land LLC and Bethmont LLC, would get permission for a taller building by offering to dedicate a quarter of the apartment units to affordable housing.

The Bethesda plan, a long-range growth document for the downtown area, requires at least 15 percent of units in a development to be devoted to moderately priced housing. But the plan also offers incentives, including additional height allowances, to developers who surpass this threshold.

In this case, scaling back the building’s size to create an airier design could force the developer to cut down the amount of affordable housing, project representatives said.

Planning Director Gwen Wright encouraged the project team to explore creative solutions to the problem.

“I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing situation,” she said.

Bethmont LLC and Bethesda Land LLC, whose representatives are Olga Russell of Leonardtown and Aris Mardirossian of Potomac, respectively, aim to file a sketch plan application with county planners this month.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

Preliminary designs for the apartment project at 7820 Wisconsin Ave. and 7815 Woodmont Ave. Via Design Collective.

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