Bethesda is about to get its marching orders for growth and development over the next couple of decades.
The Montgomery County Council in recent months has been working on the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, and on Thursday, members are scheduled to take the final vote on it. The decision will mark the culmination of years of planning and debate about such topics as building heights, parks and affordable housing and where to locate the highest-intensity development.
As the council ties a bow on the plan, here are a few important facts about it:
The plan opens the door to about 4.2 million square feet of additional development.
That might sound like a lot, but the county planning director and the chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board assert that the proposed Bethesda plan is modest in scale.
To put the number in context, county staff reports show that 23.6 million square feet of development existed in Bethesda as of September 2014. Ongoing and approved projects add up to another 4.6 million square feet. Included in that number is a roughly 940,000-square-foot redevelopment plan for the site of the Apex building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave.
What’s not included? Marriott International’s proposal to construct roughly 400,000 square feet near Woodmont Triangle for the company’s headquarters and a flagship hotel. That project will consume some of the 4.2 million square feet of new building space allowed by the Bethesda plan.
The council decided not to include a “hard pause” on development.
Members talked about it. Community advocates, including the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents, asked for it.
Council staff had recommended halting development at 30.4 million square feet until Bethesda reached certain benchmarks for shared transportation. Once the requirement was fulfilled, construction work could continue until Bethesda was built to the 32.4 million square feet allowed under the plan.
But ultimately, council members decided that a rigid staging system would do little to achieve these objectives. Instead, they set up goals for Bethesda commuting patterns and required transportation officials to come up with a strategy for achieving them. They also decided to establish progress checks.
Council President Roger Berliner compared staging to a “red light” and the council’s approach to more of a “flashing yellow.”
The council lowered building height limits proposed by the Planning Board.
Both the planning board and council focused the greatest potential height near the Bethesda Metro station and the future Marriott headquarters at 7750 Wisconsin Ave.
However, the council brought down heights for many properties east of Wisconsin Avenue and those bordering established neighborhoods.
County planners had pitched the idea of creating “gateways,” with taller, signature buildings at the entrance to the downtown area. They recommended heights of up to 145 feet along Wisconsin Avenue, south of Stanford Street.
The council never warmed to the gateway concept and limited heights to 90 feet for the Jaffe property at 6801-6809 Wisconsin Ave., the Trader Joe’s site and the St. John’s Episcopal Church property. The council also set a 90-foot cap on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue, across from these properties.
The changes didn’t satisfy all residents concerned about the potential for high-rises near their homes. However, CBAR did praise the council for listening to residents and modifying the plan accordingly.
The plan identifies three main major civic spaces.
Finding ways to create more parks and gathering spots in downtown Bethesda was one of the major stated goals of county planners.
The version before the council this week plans major civic spaces near Veteran’s Park in Woodmont Triangle and the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market on Wisconsin Avenue and where the Capital Crescent Trail crosses Woodmont Avenue. The plan also recommends neighborhood greens, several parks along trails or in gateway areas and a few park expansions.
And the council added language specifying that several public parking lots should be converted into parks, if possible.
However, these plans depend largely on the availability of funding and the county’s ability to acquire land from the property owners. In some cases, creating the proposed green spaces relies on building projects that require developers to contribute land.
The process is far from over.
A key piece of the plan involves allowing developers to purchase building density by contributing to a special fund for parks. That bank of available density has yet to be created through a zoning text amendment, a measure that the council is expected to take to a public hearing in mid-June. The council must also determine the rate that developers must pay for the density and set affordable housing requirements for building projects.
Another round of debate will center on the design guidelines for new buildings in the downtown area. County planners are working to write rules that they hope will encourage excellent architecture and active public spaces. They’re looking to present their working draft to the planning board in early July.