Credit: Aaron Kraut

The developer hoping to tear down Bethesda’s Apex Building and redevelop the site into three high-rises with about 600 residential units and 350,000 square feet of office space knows it must move quickly.

“We’re under a time constraint,” said Bob Harris, one of the attorneys representing developer Carr Properties. “We want to catch the Purple Line.”

Harris, Carr Properties president and CEO Oliver Carr III and architect Robert Sponseller revealed the project for the first time Monday at a public meeting required before they submit their official sketch plan application to the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The project’s location and size—at 250 to 290 feet, the three buildings could end up being the tallest in downtown Bethesda—would typically be enough to attract plenty of interest.

But many of the roughly 40 people at the meeting Monday were most concerned with the Bethesda Purple Line station set for the existing Capital Crescent Trail tunnel below the property.

Harris said the developer is working to get the Apex Building demolished in time for Purple Line construction, which, according to a County Council staff analyst in attendance Monday, could start as soon as late 2016 or early 2017 and last for five years.

Since 2013, county and state officials have said razing the Apex Building would allow for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) and a yet-to-be-picked team of private concessionaires to build a more expansive “optimal” design for the Purple Line station.

In September 2014, the County Council considered but decided against offering the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the building’s owner, a financial incentive package encouraging the group to find a development partner that would raze the structure in time for Purple Line construction.

Late last month, Carr Properties partner Alony Hetz Properties and Investments announced the companies had agreed to buy the Apex Building from the pharmacists group for $105.5 million. As part of the deal, which is expected to close early next year, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists will relocate its headquarters from the Apex Building to Carr Properties’ 4500 East West office building nearby.

Carr Properties will file a sketch plan and alternative concept plan with the county that assume the “optimal” Purple Line station design, which could also mean a new tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue for Capital Crescent Trail users that’s separate from the light-rail tunnel. It would also allow for easier access to a bank of high-speed elevators to Metro’s Red Line and more space for the light-rail station platform.

“It’s so much easier if it can be done in conjunction with the Purple Line,” Harris said. “It’s better for the building developer. It’s better for the Purple Line. It’s better for the [Capital Crescent] Trail.”

But challenges remain with timing, cost and the historic Community Paint and Hardware building at the southeast corner of the property.

Harris said Carr Properties hopes to appear before the Planning Board with the sketch plan by February and that, despite project approval processes that typically take at least a year, the board “understands the importance of a prompt decision” in this case.

The developer has also been in touch with the MTA. Last month, a spokesperson for the transit agency said the optimal Bethesda Purple Line station design is still possible even though the 16-mile light-rail project went out for bid with the “default” station design that includes only a 5-foot-wide walking path along the light-rail tracks.

Then, there’s the matter of who would pay for the separate Capital Crescent Trail tunnel. In 2013, MTA officials estimated the new tunnel could cost between $15 million and $30 million. At the time, it was assumed the county would pay for the tunnel.

Without the separate tunnel, bicyclists using the trail would likely have to cross Wisconsin Avenue at its intersection with Bethesda Avenue.

The county has already programmed almost $60 million in its capital budget for the bank of high-speed elevators to connect the Purple Line station to Metro’s Bethesda Red Line station about 100 feet below.

A county spokesperson said Monday that county officials hadn’t yet communicated with Carr Properties about the project.

The developer will submit the sketch plan and alternative concept plan to the county, one with the historic Community Paint and Hardware building remaining in its existing spot, the other with the building removed.

In October, project attorney Bill Kominers asked the Planning Board to consider allowing the relocation of the historic building (now a United Bank branch) as part of the county’s ongoing rewrite of downtown Bethesda’s master plan.

The Planning Board agreed. Sponseller, a principal with Washington, D.C.-based architecture firm Shalom Baranes Associates, said Monday that relocating the historic building off the property would allow for basement commercial space that could be home to a movie theater. The existing Apex Building has a Regal multiplex cinema that would close if the redevelopment goes forward.

Relocating the historic building, which was moved about 50 feet in 1988 to make way for the existing Apex Building, would also allow for a more spacious entry plaza to the Purple Line station mezzanine on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street.

The developer will also be watching the master plan rewrite, expected to be approved by the County Council next year, to see just how high it is allowed to build.

The current maximum allowable height of 250 feet could be revised to 290 feet and Sponseller said the developer is prepared to build a project that fits either parameter.

The office space would be concentrated in the high-rise that would front Wisconsin Avenue. The approximately 600 residential units and 580,000 square feet of residential space would be split between two high-rises immediately to the west on the 2-acre site.

All buildings could have ground-floor retail and the more expansive public plaza on Elm Street and Wisconsin Avenue would allow for direct access to the two residential buildings.