A proposal to build the county’s tallest tower for the world’s largest hotel company passed muster with county planning officials Thursday.
The forward movement on the Marriott headquarters project follows the developers’ tight schedule for completing the corporate base in downtown Bethesda. Marriott leaders have said they want to relocate their headquarters from Fernwood Road to the $600 million campus at Norfolk and Wisconsin avenues by July 2022.
Keeping the 3,500-employee company headquarters in Montgomery County has been a high priority for state and local officials, who have offered Marriott $62 million in incentives if it stays. County incentives account for $34 million of the total, while the state is pitching in $28 million.
On Thursday, planning board member Norman Dreyfuss said he didn’t want his panel to throw a wrench in the works.
“We’ve got the Marriott corporation coming to downtown Bethesda. It’s what everybody dreamed of. Let’s not make a mess of it,” he exhorted fellow board members.
The planning board unanimously approved the project plans after sorting through some final questions about how much the developers, Boston Properties and Bernstein Companies, should contribute toward improving sidewalks and ramps around the project site.
The project architects have designed a 300-foot headquarters building that would be L-shaped to fit around the Tastee Diner and Woodmont Grill. A 246-room flagship hotel will stand just to the south of the office tower, with a plaza running in between the buildings and connecting Woodmont and Wisconsin avenues.
Greg Rooney of Bernstein Companies said Marriott chose downtown Bethesda in part because it will allow more employees to travel to work without driving.
“Marriott’s investment in Bethesda is an investment in their workers’ future,” he said.
Community members have hailed the redevelopment that could energize the block with hundreds of hotel employees and guests.
“We really do want to welcome Marriott to the neighborhood,” Bethesda resident Amanda Farber told the planning board.
However, she laid out several concerns that she and other members of the East Bethesda Citizens Association share. The flow of traffic around the site will require careful consideration, she said.
She also urged the planning board to take advantage of the opportunity to improve the sidewalks on Norfolk Avenue and other streets surrounding the headquarters site.
A county policy requires certain developers to determine whether walkways within 500 feet of their project site comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. If any sidewalks, ramps and crosswalks fail to meet the law’s standards, the developer must fix them or fund upgrades.
Representatives of the Marriott project said they’d had a different interpretation of the policy and thought they were only required to improve sidewalk ramps. Fixing those alone would cost an estimated $90,000 to $150,000, and adding sidewalks and other infrastructure to the mix could double or triple that amount, land-use attorney Bob Dalrymple said.
He said other properties could develop within the 500-foot radius and should bear some responsibility for the upgrades.
Planning board members agreed with Dalrymple that Marriott developers should get more clarification and predictability. They asked Boston Properties and Bernstein Companies to survey the 500-foot area, then negotiate with planning staff on the fair scope of work.
The board members also discussed a design panel’s suggestion that architects consider making the top of the headquarters building more eye-catching. Dreyfuss said he didn’t want to delay the project quibbling over the architecture.
“Generally, I find people don’t look beyond a certain point on buildings,” he said. “And I don’t think King Kong is going to walk on the top of the building.”
A planning staff member said the Marriott tower will be an important element in Bethesda’s skyline. Dalrymple said the project team will continue refining the design.
The developers aim to break ground on the project next year.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.