Montgomery County has a new vision for growth in Bethesda over the next two decades.
The Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, a document that has been years in the making, cleared the county council on Thursday morning by an 8-1 vote. The plan will pave the way for 4.2 million square feet of development beyond what was previously allowed and sketches out a future Bethesda that boasts more community gathering spaces and affordable housing options.
Council President Roger Berliner alluded to the jockeying interests that officials have had to consider as they crafted the plan and said there’s no possible outcome that would’ve satisfied everyone. But the finished product does do a good job of harnessing development potential while protecting existing neighborhoods.
“This plan, my judgment, comes real close to finding that sweet spot of creating a vibrant community and taking care of those who are there today,” Berliner said.
Council member Marc Elrich cast the only opposing voice, saying he couldn’t support a plan that lacked certain controls on the pace of development. The elected leaders considered a provision that would’ve halted development at 30.4 million square feet until the downtown area reached certain transportation benchmarks meant to ease congestion.
Instead, the council went with what Berliner called a “flashing yellow” by setting up goals for Bethesda commuting patterns and requiring transportation officials to track progress.
Elrich said his colleagues were making a “serious mistake” by opting against a more rigid staging system. He also found fault with the plan for leaving too much to chance and not offering residents a clear picture of where the tallest, most intense construction would take place.
“This plan is Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ and I would’ve preferred Bruce Springsteen’s ‘A Reason to Believe,’” Elrich quipped.
Council member George Leventhal fired back that no master planning process provides a crystal ball for an area’s future, since development decisions ultimately lie in the hands of private property owners.
“We develop a broad outline. We do not dictate who gets to build and when,” Leventhal said.
Leventhal and Elrich have both announced they are running for county executive in 2018, while Berliner has said he’s considering a bid for the post.
While the plan’s passage ends one chapter of a process that began in 2014, county officials are still working to finesse major elements of the growth strategy. A key piece of the plan involves letting developers buy building density by contributing to a special fund for parks. That pool of density has yet to be created through a zoning text amendment that is scheduled for a public hearing before the council in mid-June. Council members also have to set the cost to buy additional density.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County planners are crafting design guidelines for new buildings in the downtown area. Staff are preparing a draft that they hope to present to the planning board in early July.