Apex Building Redevelopment Project Gets First Approval

Complex proposal involves three high-rises, major implications for the design of the Bethesda Purple Line Station


The existing Apex Building in Bethesda

Aaron Kraut

One of the largest redevelopment proposals in downtown Bethesda—and perhaps the most consequential—moved forward Thursday with Sketch Plan approval from the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Developer Carr Properties announced late last year it has an agreement in place with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the group that owns the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., to take ownership of the office and retail structure.

According to the developer’s plan, the building would be demolished and in its place would go three towers, two residential and one office, proposed to be either 250 or 290 feet tall. The pharmacists group, which has its headquarters in the Apex Building, would relocate to Carr’s office building at 4500 East West Highway.

Because the site sits on top of the existing Capital Crescent Trail tunnel and the location of a planned Bethesda Purple Line station, final approval of the project and demolition of the building could allow the state and private contractors to design a more spacious station with a new bicycle and pedestrian tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue.

But that requires the timing of the project to match up with the Maryland Transit Administration’s construction schedule for the Purple Line, the 16-mile light-rail set for a groundbreaking either late this year or early next year.

Alternative 1 for the Apex Building redevelopment proposal, which includes 250-foot towers and the Community Paint and Hardware building (in red). Via Planning Department

The Bethesda station will be the system’s western terminus and the county rezoned the property with more height and density in 2014 to entice the pharmacists group to redevelop.

On Thursday, an attorney for Carr Properties told the Planning Board the developer must be allowed to build up to the 250-foot height and 937,184-square-foot density maximums if the project is to move forward.

“We’re presented here with one last opportunity to really build the right Purple Line station and in fact to get a Purple Line station there,” Bob Harris said. “But it only works if we can get [the maximum density] and 250 feet of height.”

Harris also said that without the redevelopment, the state must address the fact it doesn’t currently own enough right-of-way in the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel for the light-rail station.

“The trail area through the site is far too narrow for the train tracks, two tracks and the platform,” Harris told the Planning Board. “So that would have to be widened and they don’t have any ownership interest in that today.”

Presumably, the state would have to buy the right-of-way from the property owner. Harris said the right-of-way issue wouldn’t come into play if Carr Properties’ redevelopment bid is given the green light.

“The good news is that because of Carr’s commitment to work with [the Maryland Transit Administration], all of those issues can go away,” Harris said.

Alternative 2 for the Apex Building redevelopment proposal, which includes 290-foot towers and doesn't include the Community Paint and Hardware building. Via Planning Department

Details of the station design could be revealed at the Preliminary Plan and Site Plan stages of the project approval process. Carr Properties CEO Oliver Carr told the Planning Board his company has “been working feverishly” with Montgomery County and the transit administration on how the project would sync up with the Purple Line station below.

Robert Sponseller, an architect with Shalom Baranes Associates who helped design the project, showed off the plan for a proposed pedestrian plaza at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street that would serve as the main access point to the light-rail station below. It could also include a bank of high-speed elevators to the Bethesda Metro station platform.

Carr Properties says that plaza would be larger if county historic preservation officials allow the developer to relocate or demolish the Community Paint and Hardware building that’s located on a mid-block Wisconsin Avenue portion of the property.

The building, now a United Bank branch, has been designated historic and was moved about 50 feet to its current spot in 1988 to make way for construction of the existing Apex Building.

Planning Department staff said Thursday that Carr Properties is considering asking the county’s Historic Preservation Commission to rescind the structure’s designation as a historic building, which would allow for the building’s demolition.

The developer is also asking for a 290-foot maximum building height on the site through the county’s rewrite of downtown Bethesda’s sector plan. That process, which is separate from the current project approval process, is expected to last into at least this summer.

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