Bethesda Downtown Plan Garners Public Support at Second Hearing

Owners of La Madeleine restaurant among those looking to maximize development potential of their properties


The Rev. Sari Ateek, center, rector at St. John's Episcopal Church on Wisconsin Avenue, addresses the County Council on a zoning issue affecting his church.

Douglas Tallman

The Bethesda Downtown Plan, which faced searing criticism from residents Tuesday night, received far more support Wednesday night during the second of three Montgomery County Council hearings on the land-use guide.

Unlike the onslaught from homeowners the previous night, many individual property owners or their representatives supported the broad framework of the plan, which will allow greater building heights in parts of the community, among other changes.

The update of the master plan designed to guide the development of downtown Bethesda for the next 20 years has been two years in the making and was approved by the Planning Board in July. The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is likely to take up the plan by the end of November or the beginning of December.

More than 110 people attended the first hearing and Wednesday night’s session, which lasted less than two hours, drew about 60 people. About 35 people testified. The council will hold a third hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday at the council’s Third Floor Hearing Room.

A lawyer representing the owners, both in their 90s, of La Madeleine restaurant at 7607 Old Georgetown Road says the owners are asking for the maximum zoning density and height for the property so a mixed-use residential and retail transit-oriented project can be built there.

C. Robert Dalrymple of the firm Linowes and Blocher said the property, located only a few hundred feet from the Bethesda Metro, is under contract with Washington Property Co.

“If not here, I would ask you, where should there be transit-oriented development?” Dalrymple said.

Dalrymple said the owners believe the new project could help define Bethesda’s skyline.

Jeffrey Kanne of National Real Estate Advisors asked for the greatest allowable height and density for a parcel bordered by Wisconsin Avenue, Montgomery and East lanes and Elm Street. Kanne said his company, Washington Property Co., and the Chevy Chase Land Co. had assembled the large parcel, which is near the Bethesda Metro and the Purple Line.

He also asked the county to abandon “the very lightly used” section of Hampden Lane between East Lane and Wisconsin to create a large public park.

Jane Lyder from Action in Montgomery, a nonpartisan, multifaith organization that works for social change, asked the council not to reduce the number of moderately priced dwelling units in the 550-page plan. As of June 29, she said, 34,245 people were on waiting lists for affordable housing in the county.

Not everyone who spoke Wednesday night supported the plan. Graham McGrath, a sixth-grader at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, spoke about schools and buses crowded by children from high-rise apartments and condo buildings.

Deborah Ingram, a 30-year resident of the Town of Chevy Chase, described how the plan lacks protection for quiet residential neighborhoods that existed in the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan, which the new plan is replacing. Without that protection, a business with an incompatible height, density or land use could build alongside a neighborhood. Properties that face the business could then, in turn, be turned into more business uses, she said.

“My guess is many of them will be picked off because they will no longer be fit for residential use,” Ingram said.

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