Clark Enterprises has put up for sale its headquarters building overlooking the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza, a site that has become the focus of a long-running feud about the best use of prized downtown open space.
News that the construction company was seeking buyers for its 16-story office building at 7500 Old Georgetown Road drew vastly different responses from both sides of the plaza debate. Brookfield Property Partners, a developer that has long been at odds with Clark Enterprises , sent out a message arguing the potential sale reveals the construction company’s true motivation for opposing Brookfield’s building plans for the plaza. Brookfield noted that Clark had spearheaded the Protect Bethesda Open Space campaign with the stated goal of advocating for a plaza plan that would meet the community’s needs.
“Now we know the truth about Clark’s game plan. Their priority was not to serve the best interests of the community. Rather, it was to protect their interests by moving our new building out of their view to protect their building’s sales prices,” Brookfield wrote last week in a community email titled “Clark Abandons Bethesda Metro Center.”
Rebecca Owen, president of the Clark affiliate that handles property transactions, said Brookfield’s finger-pointing email incorrectly casts a community-led effort to preserve Bethesda open space as a battle between powerful real estate interests.
“Clark initiated the Protect Bethesda Open Space movement in 2014 in response to the County Planners request for feedback from property owners on the new Downtown Plan. Clark heard calls from the community and took the initial lead to promote the Bethesda Metro Plaza area as a true public amenity—a large, visible, iconic, community gathering space,” Owen wrote in a Monday email.
Clark put the building on the market as part of a strategy to honor the final wishes of company CEO Jim Clark, who died in 2015, Owen wrote. Clark left the majority of his estate to a charitable foundation and asked that it be given away to nonprofits over a period of time. The sale of assets including the building, the construction company and other real estate holdings are furnishing cash for donation to charitable causes, she wrote.
“The recent decision to list the Clark Building for sale is expected to garner a price in excess of $170 million, which will enable us to fund many more charities in the near future,” Owen wrote.
But even with the sale, Clark has no intention of pulling out of its Bethesda headquarters, she wrote, adding that the company plans “to remain here under leases that continue for years.”
Moreover, some local residents who are displeased with Brookfield’s proposal are vowing to continue the push for a different plaza plan, with or without Clark’s involvement.
“Clark may have started the PBOS [Protect Bethesda Open Space] campaign, but we the residents are 100% behind a large, street-facing, open and big green space at Bethesda Metro Plaza,” Bethesda resident Patricia Kolesar wrote last week in an email to Brookfield. “We are grateful to Clark for bringing the severity of the issue to our attention. Bethesda residents don’t like your plans.”
Brookfield has drawn up plans for a roughly 500,000-square-foot building that would sit on the plaza near Clark’s headquarters. A three-story structure that is attached to 3 Bethesda Metro Center and serves as office space for Streetsense would be torn down to make room for the new, 290-foot high-rise.
The developer is looking to put retail space on the first level but hasn’t yet decided whether the other floors will become housing or office space.
The development vision also calls for improving and invigorating the plaza, which has been criticized for its awkward design and general lack of activity.
Brookfield’s proposal for the improved plaza, top (click to expand). Below, renderings of Brookfield’s vision for the open space. Credit: Brookfield.
Brookfield’s plan for the open space would give rise to a plaza near the Metro access along Wisconsin Avenue. A promenade lined with restaurants and shops would lead pedestrians between the Hyatt Regency Bethesda and the new building, ending at a central lawn that could accommodate pop-up programs, concerts and outdoor movie nights, according to the company’s plan. A quieter “gallery” corridor would run past 3 Bethesda Metro Center toward the Clark building.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity to improve a plaza that’s in a sorry state in downtown Bethesda,” said Simon Carney, regional counsel for Brookfield.
But Clark has critiqued the proposed plaza layout for enclosing too much of the open space, hiding the plaza behind tall buildings and isolating it from the bustle of Wisconsin Avenue. The construction company has countered with its own proposal that would downsize Brookfield’s high-rise and position more of the open space near the roadway.
An image of Clark Enterprises’ proposed layout for open space and a new building at the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza (click to expand). Credit: Clark Enterprises and Sasaki Associates.
Carney said Clark’s proposed alternative was clearly driven by a desire for unobstructed views from its building at 7500 Old Georgetown and argued that structural limitations and county requirements shaped Brookfield’s project design. Carney said, for instance, that any new building must be constructed on existing columns and supports.
“Cartoons and bubble drawings as proposed by Clark of other building locations ignore these factors as well as the requirement for a practical floor plate size which will be needed to adequately finance this project,” Brookfield wrote in a recent submission to county planners.
And other residents have expressed support for Brookfield’s design.
Bethesda resident Richard Hoye said he prefers the Brookfield proposal to the Clark design.
“I think the Brookfield plan is much better for Bethesda residents because it does so much more for the streetscape at this very empty corner, which is the heart of downtown Bethesda, by filling that empty space with a beautiful, tall building that would greatly enhance the walkability of sidewalks around that intersection,” Hoye said.
But Kolesar said she’s encouraging other residents to show up at a June 27 meeting before the Bethesda Downtown Design Advisory Panel to advocate for a “large, street-facing open space.”
The panel, comprised of industry and community representatives chosen by the Montgomery County Planning Board, will offer guidance to Brookfield on its project plans. Carney said that after planning officials look at the project sketch plan, Brookfield will submit a more detailed site plan, possibly in September or October.
He also said Brookfield is always interested in investing in properties around Bethesda and would consider the Clark building.
“We’ll certainly take a look at what they’re offering,” he said.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com