Why So Many Cantilevers in Downtown Bethesda Development Plans?

Design panel asks developers to justify use of the architectural feature


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Early designs for a cantilevered office building at 8280 Wisconsin Ave., where the Sunoco gas station is now located.

Via Donohoe/StonebridgeCarras

There’s been something hanging over discussions about redevelopment projects in downtown Bethesda.

It came up during a meeting about conceptual designs for construction around the Farm Women’s Market and has figured in architectural plans for a project at the site of La Madeleine on Old Georgetown Road and one at the Sunoco gas station site on Wisconsin Avenue. 

What’s at issue is the cantilever—a structural projection that can create a building overhang and that has appeared in a number of development designs for the downtown area.

“You don’t want to see an architectural feature repeated endlessly,” says Naomi Spinrad, a Chevy Chase community activist who’s paid attention to many of the projects.

The design guidelines for downtown Bethesda, approved last year to supplement Montgomery County’s new sector plan for the community, also have something to say about cantilevers. In the section offering suggestions about adding variety to building facades, the guidelines encourage developers to “avoid cantilevering the majority of the building mass over the Frontage Zone, public sidewalk or public open space to prevent interfering with street trees and blocking access to sunlight and sky views for pedestrians.”

Instead, the guidelines favor buildings that are largest at the base and step back after several stories, like a tiered cake. Elza Hisel-McCoy, a master planner and regulatory supervisor for the Montgomery County Planning Department, said this design avoids the sheer-cliff effect of a tower that rises in a straight line from the sidewalk.

The design guidelines provide an illustration of a building that steps back. Via Montgomery County Planning Department.

Despite these directives, the Bethesda Downtown Design Advisory Panel has seen its fair share of cantilevers in the architectural drawings that the panel has reviewed in the past seven months. Karl Du Puy, one of the panel members and a registered architect, said during a recent meeting the downtown area is at risk of becoming a “cantilevers ‘r’ us.”

George Dove, an architect who sits on the appointed, five-person panel, said cantilevers aren’t necessarily a bad design feature. The overhangs can create visual interest and even protect passersby from the elements, he said.

At the same time, there are also drawbacks to designs for more top-heavy buildings, he said.

“Many people use them as a way of creating greater open space at the ground level, but the buildings tend to look like they’re being suspended from a sky hook,” Dove said.

Whereas the cantilevers can overshadow passersby, the tiered, step-back approach is a way of preventing high-rise towers from blocking out the sky and sunshine for pedestrians, he added.

So why are many downtown Bethesda developers inclined to use the cantilever?

Hisel-McCoy said one factor could be that developers are asked to leave 25 to 30 feet of space between the street curb and their buildings if their project borders an urban boulevard such as Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. Sometimes, that buffer zone can actually intrude on the property line, potentially reducing the potential size of the building footprint. By cantilevering the building back out toward the property line, the developer can add square footage higher up and “recapture” some of the lost density, he said.

Preliminary building sections for 4540 Montgomery Ave., left, and 7607 Old Georgetown Road also include cantilevers (click to expand). Via Promark and Washington Property Company.

The guidelines for downtown Bethesda are not rigid requirements, and developers have flexibility to deviate from them to pursue “truly exceptional and unexpected creative solutions to improve the downtown,” the design document states.

For instance, community members and planning officials have held up the development plan for 7359 Wisconsin Ave. as an example of outstanding design that strays from some of the guidelines. The project to construct a 250-foot tower on the old police station site calls for a large public plaza tucked underneath a roughly 45-foot overhang. Spinrad said she can appreciate the feature here because it’s essentially creating an outdoor room for the community.

Rendering of the proposed plaza with an overhang at 7359 Wisconsin Ave. Via StonebridgeCarras.

She said in other cases, cantilevers can limit tree planting along the sidewalk or seem to loom over open space. And they shouldn’t start popping up everywhere, she added.

“They can be aesthetically pleasing when used appropriately. It becomes kind of trite when used over and over again, and I appreciate that the design advisory panel is looking closely at it,” she said.

In the case of proposed projects at 7121 and 7126 Wisconsin Ave., the design panel asked developers to rework their concepts for two high rises near the Farm Women’s Market.

The developer at 7126 Wisconsin Ave. had plugged its proposed cantilever as a way to “frame” the historic market for people making the approach along Bethesda Avenue, but panelists seemed unconvinced.

Conceptual illustrations of buildings at 7121 Wisconsin Ave., left, and 7126 Wisconsin Ave. (click to expand) Via Bernstein Management Corp./Foulger-Pratt.

Damon Orobona, a panelist who is also a partner in a local development firm, said projects in downtown Bethesda are slated for high-value properties, and their owners are pouring money into planning iconic, standout buildings.

“I think what we’re seeing is that quite a few projects are coming up with these unique designs and cantilevered designs and (developers are) kind of saying that their project is unique and trying to get an exception to the guidelines,” he said. “We’re trying to press applicants to dive in a little deeper and tell us why they need the exception.”

He said the design panel is trying to head off any major architectural issues when the proposal is still conceptual, so applicants don’t have to go back to the drawing board late in the planning process.

His panel is advisory and doesn’t approve or deny projects. However, it does offer input to the Montgomery County Planning Board, which determines whether projects meet certain criteria for design excellence.

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

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