New Report Shows Race Is On for Limited Supply of Downtown Bethesda Building Density

Eleven sketch plans have been filed for area since May 2017


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VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT

In the first year of downtown Bethesda’s brand-new growth plan, the development project for Marriott International’s global headquarters has been cleared to go forward.

The Montgomery County Planning Board has signed off on plans for a 250-foot-tall “trophy” tower that will bring a hotel and 400,000 square feet of office space to the corner of Wisconsin and Montgomery avenues.

Since May 2017, developers have submitted a grand total of 11 sketch plan applications for downtown Bethesda projects, and the county has bought a slice of land next to Bethesda Row for the future Capital Crescent Civic Green.

And with developers hurrying to stake their claims to a limited pool of building density, only about 5.1 million square feet remains available for future projects.

It’s been a busy year, says Leslye Howerton, a county planner coordinator for downtown Bethesda.

List of development proposals for downtown Bethesda (click to expand). The two monitoring and tracking charts will be updated within the next week per the planning board’s direction. These figures are not final and are subject to change. Via Montgomery County Planning Department.

“I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on, and we really haven’t been at this a year in terms of implementation. It’s more like five or six months,” she said Wednesday. “There’s a long way to go, but we’ve got the tools in place so we can implement these things, and the public can follow along with us.”

Howerton on Thursday presented to the board the first annual report on progress with the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, a document that will guide the area’s growth over the next two decades. The report offers updates on issues central to the plan: development, transportation networks, school capacity and the creation of new parks.

Howerton says one big accomplishment in the past year has been the launch of a monitoring and tracking website that allows the public to keep tabs on individual projects in the downtown area and gauge their cumulative impact on available building density.

The sector plan capped overall development density in downtown Bethesda at 32.4 million square feet. Bethesda’s existing buildings eat up more than 23.3 million square feet of this total, and projects in later stages of the approval process account for another 3.9 million square feet.

Breakdown of allowable building density in downtown Bethesda. Via Montgomery County Planning Department.

That leaves about 5.1 million square feet up for grabs. Several developers with projects in earlier phases are already eying some of this density, but Howerton noted that these proposals could change significantly before they are finalized.

The building cap has set off a scramble among developers, who are angling to snap up some of the density before the supply is exhausted.

“Because of the cap, it’s first come, first served, and we fully expected projects to come in rather quickly,” Howerton said.

The annual report also looks at the impact construction will have on student enrollment in local schools. Estimates show that when the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster is fully built, there will be space shortages at the elementary school and high school levels, if no more classroom capacity is added. Elementary schools will be at 111 percent capacity, while B-CC High will be at 116 percent capacity. The report notes that Montgomery County Public Schools is about to embark on a capacity study for elementary schools in the cluster and will consider redrawing attendance boundaries or reopening Lynnbrook or Rollingwood elementary schools as two potential solutions.

Addressing space deficits at B-CC High is more complicated. A project is currently under way to build an addition at the school, but the property is too small to allow for further expansion, according to the report.

Katya Marin, an East Bethesda resident, said she hopes MCPS comes up with a permanent fix for elementary school needs rather than kicking the can down the road with a boundary change.

“Reopening Lynnbrook as is proposed in the master plan would be an excellent solution and one that would give us some breathing room for the students we know are coming,” she said.

The parks section of the report notes the county in December spent $8.5 million to acquire about a half-acre across from Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row Cinema. Ultimately, the site will become a park and civic space in the downtown area.

The downtown sector plan also laid the groundwork for a new program designed to generate funds for creating new parks in Bethesda. The county is on course to collect more than $7.7 million in funds from developers of the Marriott headquarters and the hotel and office tower at 7359 Wisconsin Ave.

Several projects—the Marriott headquarters, 7359 Wisconsin and the development at 7900 Wisconsin Ave.—will also provide open spaces that will serve the public.

Examples of civic space included in developments at 7900 Wisconsin Ave., top, and for the Marriott International headquarters. Via Montgomery County Planning Department.

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

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