For decades, the radio towers near the Beltway and I-270 spur have been a local landmark and popular spot for dog walkers.
Now, they sit on the biggest property in Bethesda to come on the market for a long time. Is the land destined to become just another residential subdivision, or could we get something more?
Priced at $75 million, the 75-acre Cumulus Radio property presents an interesting conundrum. It’s visible from the Beltway and I-270 and a stone’s throw from Rock Spring Park, arguably Montgomery County’s premier office park, home to major companies like Marriott and Lockheed Martin.
Yet it’s embedded deep within a residential neighborhood, with no existing access to major roads.
Right now, the site is zoned for single-family homes, and anyone who purchased it would immediately have the rights to build about 300 homes there. But a developer might be reluctant to do that.
First, any development on this property would require dismantling the radio towers and cleaning up the site, which adds extra expense. The costs of site preparation and the land itself are the same regardless of how much gets built. So it’s desirable to spread out those costs among more stuff.
So any new owner will ask: What else could happen with this land? Seventy-five acres doesn’t come along often.
It dwarfs other big development sites in Bethesda, like Westwood Shopping Center (22 acres) or Grosvenor Mansion (35 acres). And despite the site’s challenges, the opportunities are numerous.
The new owner could get a special exception for certain commercial uses, such as a hotel or resort, a school, or medical facilities. Or the new owner could rezone the property, creating even more options.
A large company or institution would love to have a campus visible from the Beltway, not unlike the medical research complex Northern Virginia’s Inova Hospital is planning at the soon-to-be-former ExxonMobil campus along the Beltway in Fairfax County.
Another possibility is building a mix of housing types, including townhomes, apartments and some single-family houses. That responds to huge demographic shifts, from aging Baby Boomers to Millennials just starting out, that are creating more demand for multi-family homes, especially in close-in areas like Bethesda.
Meanwhile, community members should ask themselves now what they want from this property. Nearby schools are bursting at the seams, like Ashburton Elementary School, which has nearly 900 students in a space built for 628.
The surrounding neighborhood doesn’t have many parks within walking distance. Of course, neighbors will worry about traffic from any new development overwhelming local roads, given the difficulty of accessing the site.
The property is big enough to accommodate many kinds of private development while having space left over for public amenities. That’s a bonus, especially if any development here creates more demand for schools and parks.
The new owner won’t be required to donate or sell the county land for those things. However, both the special exception and rezoning processes involve multiple layers of review, public hearings, and community input. Offering to set aside land for community benefits could help the owner build community and political support for a rezoning or exception.
The Cumulus Radio site is large and complicated enough that any proposed development is likely to be controversial. But this site might be able to offer something for everyone. Of course, that all depends on what the new owner wants to do with the property. We’ll have to wait to find out.
Dan Reed is an urban planner who grew up in Montgomery County and remembers eating Gifford’s ice cream before it was on Bethesda Row. He sits on the board of Action Committee for Transit, an organization dedicated to sustainable transportation in Montgomery County. He also writes at Just Up The Pike, a blog about Silver Spring, and Greater Greater Washington, a regional blog about planning.