Lessons Learned from Wisconsin Avenue

A tour of downtown Bethesda's main street is eye-opening




Illustration by Anne Bentley

I think of Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda as a moat stocked with alligators: too perilous to cross on foot. Typically, I walk to downtown Bethesda from my nearby home to do errands, attend meetings, dine out or see a movie. Yet I drive to do those same things along Wisconsin, which used to be Bethesda’s main street. In 16 years of living within walking distance of Wisconsin Avenue, I’ve rarely crossed the busy thoroughfare on foot. I never thought much about why, other than the obvious: too much traffic. Then I met Heather Arnold. 

Arnold, 46, is a partner at Streetsense, the international design and strategic planning firm based in Bethesda. I recently called Arnold to interview her about something else. She happened to mention that when the firm moved its offices from the east side of Wisconsin to Bethesda Metro Center, on the west, Arnold and many of her colleagues found a new go-to coffee shop, even though their old favorite was only about a block away. They didn’t want to walk across Wisconsin. Unlike me, Arnold knew precisely why.

Retail customers, it turns out, favor streets with some traffic, but not too much. “Research about successful retail in urban environments says that the perfect number of average daily car trips on a street is somewhere between 6,000 and 16,000,” Arnold says. “You have to have at least 6,000 to attract enough customers for businesses to be viable,” she says. “When you start to get over 16,000, then you become more vehicle-oriented.”  

The average number of daily car trips on Wisconsin, Arnold says, is 60,000. Suddenly, my aversion to strolling Wisconsin Avenue at rush hour makes perfect sense.

Arnold specializes in analyzing retail markets. She lives in a suburban cul-de-sac in Rockville with her journalist husband and two kids, ages 8 and 10. But she works for clients all over the world. A self-proclaimed data nerd, Arnold can tell you—just off the top of her head—the average revenue a restaurant makes per dining chair in a city in Angola versus one in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. 

She describes the work she does at Streetsense as “a little bit anthropology and a little bit like being a therapist when we are working with a community. It’s also a bit like being a forensic scientist. We come together and use all these tools to get to the root of a problem.”

She views Bethesda as a perfect retail design lab. “The thing I love about it is that, with the exception of outlet malls, every type of retail is represented here,” she says. “We have the strip mall centers. We have in-line independent retailers. We have the big-box retailers. We have the great, immersive ‘new town center’ concept. And we still have the little pieces of the old downtown. It’s all here.”

Streetsense recently did a retail market analysis of downtown Bethesda, identifying and analyzing several distinct subsections in varying stages of redevelopment. “Everybody is trying to understand what Bethesda is and where it is going,” she says.

I asked Arnold to give me a walking tour of downtown Bethesda so I could see my town through her eyes. 

We met one evening outside of Barnes & Noble in the glossy, high-rent Bethesda Row district. Bethesda Row has, of course, become a mecca for well-heeled customers willing to travel from as far as an hour away to dine, shop and stroll here. The wait for an Apple Store Genius Bar appointment is often hours or days long now. “Many of the stores here that are national brands are among the highest performing across the country,” says Arnold, whose company has done work for Federal Realty Investment Trust, Bethesda Row’s developer.

The slow-moving traffic on Bethesda Avenue, which locals curse, is a boon for retailers, Arnold says. Drivers moving very slowly or stopped in traffic might spot interesting merchandise in store windows and return to shop. Pedestrians leaving one store often jaywalk from one side of the street to the other to continue shopping. Arnold calls that “cross-shopping” and says it is “the lifeblood of retail districts.”

In the 7200 block of Woodmont Avenue, we stop to consider the line of restaurants with sidewalk dining—Bethesda’s version of the Champs-Elysées. Dining tables here, unlike many other places, sit close to parked cars at the curb, not up against the restaurants and storefronts. That leaves a wide, inviting swath of sidewalk so pedestrians can window-shop as they pass and maybe drop in to spend some money. 

Critics lament that high rents have driven independent restaurants and retailers from this part of downtown. “For people who have studied urban planning or retail environments, Bethesda Row is probably the gold standard,” Arnold says. “It is one of the best.”

Arnold has more than a professional interest in helping create vibrant retail districts. Her parents own a children’s clothing shop in her hometown of Danville, Pennsylvania. She has an undergraduate degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cornell University. She authored Vibrant Streets Toolkit, which teaches communities how to attract the right mix of businesses to make neighborhoods more successful and livable.   

As Bethesda changes, and new high-rise offices and residences are built taller and in greater numbers, Arnold thinks it is important for each of the downtown retail districts to retain their distinct characteristics so that they complement one another and don’t compete for the same customers.

We walk over to the Woodmont Triangle area of downtown, where some mom-and-pop retailers or restaurants in dowdy buildings now share their block with newly constructed high-rise condos or offices. We stop at the corner of Woodmont and Norfolk, from which we can see both the Tastee Diner, a squat-but-beloved Bethesda icon, and a slick-looking new alternative diner called Community. The new diner has floor-to-ceiling windows and a hipster, retro décor. 

If Bethesda Row is the attractive “teenager” among downtown’s retail districts, Woodmont Triangle “is the middle-ager who is changing careers,” Arnold says. “It’s seen some life, had some experiences. It had an identity for a long time. That identity is changing. Change is scary.”

Arnold wants me to see the “baby” of Bethesda’s retail areas: the Pearl District. To do that we have to cross Wisconsin Avenue to East Bethesda. “Hold onto your hat,” Arnold says as we race across the street to the sound of trucks grinding gears and belching exhaust. 

On our way, we pass the Chevy Chase Trust building, which is bordered by Wisconsin and East West Highway. The office building is shielded from the busy streets by what looks like a garden. Arnold and I walk up a few steps to check it out. The garden is lovely—simple, elegant, serene and inviting, with benches. We both wonder why we’ve never visited the garden before. Arnold, of course, comes up with the answer.

To reach the garden from the sidewalk, you must walk up a few stairs. Changing levels seems like a barrier and it doesn’t feel right to cross it unless we have legitimate business in the building. “This is almost like the front porch for this office building,” Arnold says. “While you might walk past and admire it, you wouldn’t necessarily go up on it unless you were invited.”

We walk a few blocks to the Pearl District, which turned out to be a short street running between East West Highway and Montgomery Avenue. There is a newly constructed office building here, a few small businesses, such as an eyebrow-threading salon, and not much else. The new construction is only along one side of Pearl Street—for now. That won’t last. 

Bethesda is constantly changing. Most of us who live here are changing too, readjusting our habits to fit the new realities of our environment. I could walk from my house to the Pearl District in 20 minutes to get my eyebrows threaded. But I won’t.

The barriers and boundaries of our streets are every bit as real as rivers, canyons and moats. And I know myself. I’m sticking to my side of Wisconsin Avenue. 

April Witt (april@aprilwitt.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda. 

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