Bethesda Metro Center Plaza Developer Leaning Toward Residential High-Rise

Design panel considers updated plans for high-rise proposal


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Rendering of Brookfield's plan for the Bethesda Metro Center plaza

Via Brookfield Property Partners

Developers for the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza told county planners and a crowd of interested onlookers on Wednesday that they’re leaning toward building a residential high-rise.

Until now, Brookfield Property Partners hasn’t let on whether their proposed 500,000-square-foot project will provide new housing space or offices, and while both options are still on the table, they did finally hint at what they have in mind. The news that Brookfield is focusing on the residential option for the prominent Metro plaza location was well-received by a couple local residents and members of the Bethesda Downtown Design Advisory Panel.

“I think it’s important to have a residential building here, so that [the plaza] is activated 24/7. If it’s office, I think there will be dead times, and I don’t think that will help the whole project,” Naomi Spinrad, a Chevy Chase resident, told the panel during Wednesday’s meeting.

While most panel meetings are sparsely attended by the public, the discussion of project designs for 4 Bethesda Metro Center drew several dozen people, about 15 of whom signed up to testify. Some were supportive of Brookfield’s plans, but others wanted to address longstanding concerns about the developer’s proposal for the plaza. Almost everyone agrees that the patch of open space is a precious commodity in downtown Bethesda and has potential to be a community destination, but there are major differences over how to achieve the goal.

Brookfield had revised its open space plan slightly in response to comments the advisory panel made in a prior meeting about the project, widening a promenade that connects a plaza near Wisconsin Avenue and a lawn area near 3 Bethesda Metro Center.

George Dove, an architect who sits on the design panel appointed by the planning board, described the prior open space design as “two separate spaces connected like a dumbbell.” With the revisions, he said, “it’s a series of spaces that flow seamlessly from one to the other.”

Diagram of the open space plan for the Bethesda Metro Center plaza (click to expand). Credit: Brookfield.

But Bethesda residents Patricia Kolesar, Leanne Tobias and others are still opposed to a plan that would put such a large chunk of the gathering space at a distance from Wisconsin Avenue. In her comments to the panel, Tobias said Bethesda’s popular open spaces such as the Farm Women’s Market and the area in front of the former Barnes & Noble have one thing in common: They face the street.

“Hidden space is wasted space, and Brookfield seeks to foist yet another interior plaza on Bethesda residents,” Kolesar said.

Other residents, including Spinrad, have argued that putting the lawn area near Wisconsin Avenue would be undesirable because of the proximity to noise and fumes.

Simon Carney, Brookfield’s regional counsel, said a nearby property owner, Clark Enterprises, is responsible for stirring up opposition to the high-rise project. Brookfield has accused the company of undercutting the plan out of concern that the new, 290-foot-tall tower might block the views from Clark’s headquarters building at 7500 Old Georgetown Road.

Clark representatives have rejected this claim and say their concern is making sure that the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza is used to its maximum community benefit.

Rebecca Owen, president of the Clark affiliate that handles real estate transactions, said Clark is supportive of a 290-foot building as long as it’s positioned on the footprint of the existing, three-story Streetsense structure. A now-defunct development plan for the plaza did, in fact, propose a new structure in that location, she noted.

However, Brookfield representatives have said their proposed building alignment is based on structural, regulatory and financial constraints.   

In a straw vote Wednesday, members of the design advisory panel unanimously supported the proposed project, with some suggested changes.

Owen wrote in an email that she was disappointed by the design meeting.

"We continue to support the Community's demand for a new Brookfield building to be set back on top of the footprint of the existing Street Sense building in order to allow for a large, visible, and usable open space in the heart of Bethesda that will be treasured by the community, and we hope the planners will do the same," she wrote.

This article was updated to correct the spelling of Naomi Spinrad’s name.

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

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