Planning Board Approves—But Questions—Development Proposal for Bethesda Bioscience Building

Leggett has designated the effort a strategic economic development project


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A rendering of the sketch plan design for a bioscience building at 8280 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda.

Via Donohoe/StonebridgeCarras

A project to erect a glass-clad bioscience building at Wisconsin Avenue’s northern approach to  downtown Bethesda has already gotten support from County Executive Ike Leggett and caught attention from a couple of prospective tenants.

But the redevelopment proposal for the lot, where there’s now a Sunoco gas station, still hasn’t completely won over the Montgomery County Planning Board.

On Thursday, the board gave approval to the sketch plan for the 145-foot-tall building that could supply up to 185,000 square feet of office and lab space. However, before the vote, a couple of board members said they had some issues with the design.

In particular, they were bothered by a proposed cantilever that would project over the Wisconsin Avenue sidewalk, extending about eight feet into the public right of way. 

“How many buildings do we have to keep approving that are just like this?” board member Natali Fani-Gonzales said. “We keep getting the same thing on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s not OK.”

A diagram showing the proposed cantilever that extends across the right-of-way line. Via Donohoe/StonebridgeCarras.

Board Chairman Casey Anderson agreed that the building overhangs are popping up somewhat frequently in development plans for downtown Bethesda.

“I do share Natali’s concern that we don’t want to see cantilevers as being, like, the default option all over Bethesda,” he said.

Doug Firstenberg, a principal at StonebridgeCarras, which is developing the property with The Donohoe Cos., said the proposed architecture would create a sense of drama that would be lost if the building’s upper floors were set back from Wisconsin Avenue.

“This does represent, in my own personal opinion, something that does harken to a great gateway building for Bethesda,” he said.

Planning board member Gerald Cichy said he didn’t mind the cantilever and described the design as “innovative.”

Firstenberg said the site at 8280 Wisconsin Ave. is ideal for the life sciences market because of its proximity to the nearby National Institutes of Health and to the energy of downtown Bethesda. Much of the county’s bioscience industry is concentrated in suburban office parks along Interstate 270, but the trend has shifted toward locating lab and research space in more urban areas, Firstenberg said.

“People are looking for two things: A great urban environment, which Bethesda has, and intellectual horsepower. Well, NIH is the largest funder of bio grants in the world,” he said.

In late May, Leggett issued an executive order declaring the development a strategic economic development project and directing all executive-branch agencies to give it “immediate attention” as it passes through the planning and permitting process.

The order estimates the building could accommodate 600 full-time workers and generate an additional $600,000 in annual property taxes for the county.

Firstenberg said a couple of potential tenants have already emerged, but he declined to name them. 

The developers would have to contribute roughly $934,000 in park payments to the county to make the building as large as they’ve proposed, according to a staff report. That money can be used to create new parks in Bethesda.

Proposed access points to the building at 8280 Wisconsin Ave. would funnel cars into the garage at Battery Lane and allow pedestrians to enter along Wisconsin Avenue. Via Donohoe/StonebridgeCarras.

The East Bethesda Citizens Association submitted a letter expressing concern about the proposal to put the garage entrance and exit and access to the loading bay on Battery Lane. A county planner said he and his colleagues have brought similar questions to the developers, although planning staff does think this proposed traffic flow is preferable to situating the garage entrance on the Wisconsin Avenue side.

Anderson and Fani-Gonzalez both noted the design guidelines recently crafted to pair with the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan encourage use of a larger building base topped by a narrower tower. While there is flexibility in the guidelines, the board members have noticed an emerging pattern of developers arguing their projects should be the exception to the general rule.

Planning Director Gwen Wright said staff share this observation but that she does appreciate the developers’ desire to create a building of artistic value—“something where the building itself is somewhat abstract and becomes a piece of sculpture.”

Now that the board has given a nod to the project’s sketch plan, developers must refine their proposal and bring it back for final approval.

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

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