The developer hoping to put a new building on Bethesda Metro Plaza and a new park next to it says the space would turn into a combination of Bethesda Row and Rockville Town Square, complete with promenades featuring high-quality retail and an events calendar featuring some of Bethesda’s most prominent arts organizations.
The competing plan from next-door neighbor Clark Enterprises, meanwhile, would never actually get funded, said Simon Carney, regional counsel for Brookfield Properties.
“What we’re proposing is something that’s going to be financed completely by Brookfield,” Carney told Bethesda Beat. “What Clark has suggested is nothing like that. They have no plans to fully fund it. They have been here, a neighbor to this plaza, for 30 years. And it isn’t until people, owners, decide to make development plans for this plaza that they get very active.”
Rendering of Brookfield Properties’ proposed Bethesda Central Park, via Brookfield Properties
Clark Senior Vice President Rebecca Owen has told the Montgomery County Planning Board that the company is willing to contribute an unspecified amount of money toward its proposal for a green park in the plaza.
Brookfield, which owns the ground lease for the Metro Plaza from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is stepping up its efforts in a months-long fight with neighbor Clark Enterprises over the future of the space.
In downtown Bethesda’s last master plan, completed in 1994, the Metro Plaza was imagined as a civic gathering space in the center of downtown Bethesda and on top of the Bethesda Metro station.
Landowners, county officials and residents agree that the space has become stale and uninviting instead.
Brookfield, which bought the space in 2011, says it’s trying to change that by developing a new high-rise building near the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue, building Bethesda Central Park and improving the Metro station bus bay below.
Clark, which in 2008 opposed the previous Metro Plaza leaseholder’s plan for a high-rise building on the spot, claims Brookfield’s park would be “ancillary” and “interior.”
The general contracting giant has its corporate headquarters right next door. It took the extraordinary step of hiring architect David Kitchens, well known for his work on Bethesda Row, to come up with a park concept of its own for the plaza—a space it doesn’t own.
The result has been a public relations fight over the future of the plaza in front of the county’s Planning Board, which is reviewing a new sector plan for the area that, for now, allows development of a building of up to 290 feet in height on the plaza.
“We have developed a plan for the plaza that we think will be great for Bethesda and [Clark] is again trying to promote a green park for Bethesda,” Carney said. “But for 30 years, they were very silent on that idea. We think it’s very coincidental.”
In public hearings before the Planning Board last month, a number of residents from surrounding neighborhoods testified in support of Clark’s vision for the plaza, a “Bethesda Metro Park” that would function mainly as a large green space exactly where Brookfield hopes to put its new building.
Clark representatives and Kitchens say the park, a large swath of green space, will be more active and accessible because it’s closer to the intersection. They’ve also pointed to other “interior” open spaces in downtown Bethesda that haven’t worked, such as the plaza near the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center or the plaza behind the Bethesda Place apartments.
“I think when anybody puts a large green space in the middle of a city, there’s going to be people that like to see that concept,” Carney said of Clark’s public support. “I would tell people that that concept is a very unlikely event, because Clark doesn’t have the wherewithal and hasn’t offered the funds to develop that park.”
Image Clark Enterprises representatives distributed showing their vision for a ‘Bethesda Metro Park’ compared to a supposed Brookfield high-rise, via Clark Enterprises
Owen, in addition to saying Clark was willing to help pay for its proposed park, said Clark founder and CEO Jim Clark, who died in March at age 87, wanted to preserve the space “to retain this public benefit for his beloved Bethesda.”
Clark’s vision for the plaza even got the support of two elected state officials—District 16 Dels. Ariana Kelly and Bill Frick—illustrating the difficulty county officials might again face in going against the wishes of one of the country’s largest private construction companies that has made downtown Bethesda its longtime home.
In 2008, Clark Enterprises, the Chevy Chase Land Co. and Chevy Chase Bank fought a proposed 16-story office building from Meridian, the plaza’s previous owners, in a rare public spat between developers.
Clark and the others claimed it would ruin views from their buildings and hurt any chance at improving the public space. Despite planning staff’s recommendation to approve the building, the Planning Board rejected it.
Before last month’s public hearings, a public relations firm hired by Clark circulated handouts showing a rendering of Bethesda Metro Park compared to a 290-foot tall high-rise with the message, “Your choice for Bethesda Metro Plaza.”
Carney said the building Brookfield is considering, while not fully planned, would “more likely than not be less than 290 feet,” and more similar in size to Clark’s building next door.
The project would include filling in a hole in the middle of the plaza that accommodates a fountain. It would also mean moving the Metro escalator that connects with the plaza and installing a cover over it.
Planners made the 290-foot height recommendation, which would allow downtown Bethesda’s tallest building, based on the fact the plaza sits in the very core of downtown, on top of the Metro station and in a spot they said should merit the most density.
This week, the leader of Arts Brookfield—the developer’s in-house arts programming division—met with officials from Round House Theatre, Imagination Stage, the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District Board and others to discuss the possibility of performances and events in a future Bethesda Central Park.
The developer has also hired its own public relations firm to help make its case for the plaza.
While Clark officials argue the park would be hard to access and rarely used because it wouldn’t be seen from the street, Carney and Arts Brookfield’s Debra Simon say the opposite.
“It’s not really an interior park,” Carney said. “It will have a retail promenade, signage from the [Metro] busbay. It’s going to draw people here and let people know that this is for them and it’s not just a corporate park.”
Arts Brookfield would find local arts groups and set those groups up in or around the park with events that could include roving theater acts, outdoor movies or tap dancing.
Simon says Brookfield’s programming and marketing of events at similar plaza spaces in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Toronto and other Brookfield-owned properties has been “visionary,” and unique for a major property owner.
The company spends upwards of $3 million a year on its arts program, which also includes art exhibits and performances inside its properties’ lobbies. In one instance, it meant a dancer performing on one of the building’s escalators.
“We actively work to get the public to use our spaces,” Simon said. “We’re very much ahead of the game in our understanding of how important our public spaces are.”
Performance of “Australia’s Strange Fruit” at Brookfield Place in New York City. Credit: Ryan Muir via Arts Brookfield.
Carney said ground-floor retail in the new building and in the existing Bethesda Metro Center 3 building would also help draw people to the park.
“What I don’t want to do is put a Starbucks in there and check the box and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a Starbucks,’ and then go on from there,” Carney said. “The retail needs to be not only something that people want to shop at, but really services the community.”
While Brookfield hasn’t decided if the new building would be residential or office, Carney said the company is ready to move forward with a proposal soon after the county finishes work on the new sector plan.
He predicted it would take another six or seven years to get through the sector plan process, approval process for the individual building and construction.
As for Brookfield’s relationship with Clark, Carney indicated there has been very little communication between the two since the debate over the plaza began.
“We made the attempt,” Carney said when asked if Brookfield ever reached out to Clark. “It hasn’t gone very far.”