Preliminary sketch plan of proposed project as of 2019. Credit: Montgomery Parks.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3: 30 p.m. to include comment from County Executive Marc Elrich.

The Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market first opened in 1932 in downtown Bethesda to provide farm women a venue to sell their freshly grown produce, crafts and artisanal works. More than 90 years later, plans are moving ahead to revitalize the existing Wisconsin Avenue market, convert two nearby public parking lots into urban parks, and build an underground parking garage plus housing and retail space.

In a public-private partnership, Montgomery County, the state and the adjacent town of Chevy Chase are helping developers EYA and the Bernstein Management Corp. pay for the $27.7 million project to build 3.35 acres of parks and a 200-spot underground garage that will replace the existing surface parking.

In late November, the County Council unanimously approved an $11.75 million contribution to the project. Other funding includes $4.5 million from the town, $8 million from the project developers and $3.5 million from the state. 

The garage and parks will be built by the developers, which also are planning to build 320 multi-family dwelling units, with about 48 designated as moderately priced, and to increase the amount of existing retail space from 17,500 square feet to as much as 32,000 square feet on the site, according to council documents. An existing parking lot directly behind the market and another lot between Leland and Walsh streets will be converted into park space. 

The longstanding project, first proposed in 2018 and revised since then, also includes renovation of the market, also long known as the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market, and placing utilities underground. 

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According to officials, the redevelopment and expansion of the Farm Women’s Market is expected to be completed in late 2026 or early 2027, while the park scheduled to be built on the adjacent lot between Leland and Walsh should be finished later in 2027. 

County Executive Marc Elrich referred to the development as “an exciting project in Bethesda, which will help reimagine the area surrounding the Farm Women’s Market on Wisconsin Avenue.” In a December weekly update, Elrich stated, “This development will enhance the Historic Women’s Farm Co-Op, while also bringing new opportunities to downtown Bethesda.”

Council Member Andrew Friedson said in a statement that the Farm Women’s Market project is “a shining example of what can be accomplished when government at every level, the private sector, and residents work together towards a common goal.” 

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Transforming the parking lots “into public amenities and much-needed housing was a central part of the Bethesda Downtown Plan and will ensure significant public open space to serve community needs while preserving and reinvigorating one of Bethesda’s historic treasures,” he said.

McLean Quinn, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based EYA, noted that the pandemic reinforced the importance of outdoor gathering places in communities.

“Bethesda [Farm Women’s] Market will create the dynamic civic destination Bethesda lacks and will deliver on the community vision captured in the Bethesda Downtown Plan,” Quinn said in a statement. “Building a significant spectacular urban park, underground public parking, and restoring and celebrating the historic Farm Women’s Market structure will have an enduringly positive impact on downtown Bethesda and create a destination for residents county-wide.”

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Even though the planned park space will be located just outside the boundaries of Chevy Chase, the town decided in 2021 to contribute funding to the project.

With the proposed parkland “directly adjacent” to the town, Chevy Chase Mayor Barney Rush said the added amenity will be accessible to Chevy Chase residents who walk into downtown Bethesda “so it will be very well used by a number of residents in Bethesda and Chevy Chase and … also, we do have the resources and we care about having a broader public involvement with Bethesda.” 

In addition to the town, the project’s partnership includes the county Department of Transportation, the developers and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which oversees Montgomery Parks. 

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Montgomery Parks Director Mike Riley wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that the project is exactly what the county’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan calls for: “more urban green spaces for people to enjoy a unique and active park experience.”

Rush said the project grew out of the county review process for the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan. Approved by the council in 2017, the plan outlines the county’s vision and priorities for development in the downtown area. 

“A lot of us in the communities, not just the town of Chevy Chase, but all the communities in the Bethesda area, organized and reviewed this plan very carefully,” Rush said. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, anyhow, there’s going to be a massive amount of additional development in Bethesda.’ The only logical, feasible way in which to increase the amount of urban green space is going to have to be a plan to convert the surface parking lots into parks.”

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Christopher Conklin, director of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, wrote in an email that the department was happy to help facilitate the redevelopment of the parking lots into community-oriented park spaces.

“The project will provide replacement parking to serve the needs of the restored Farm Women’s Market and other community use in the area,” Conklin wrote. 

Rush said sketch plans for the project were approved by the Planning Board in September 2019. 

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“That [approval] finally sort of set up the basic sightlines of the project, which has really remained unchanged [to date],” he said.

The plan was to start financing for the project once sketch plans were approved, but the pandemic stalled the process for two years, Rush said. In May 2021, the developers began talks about financing and in November of that year, the Chevy Chase Town Council voted to contribute funds to the project, he said.

The next steps include a public charette process to elicit community input for the project, Rush said.

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“To really be futuristic about it, I don’t think there’s any doubt that this will be a transformative project for Bethesda and that generations from now, people will say, ‘Thank heavens that they were farsighted enough to recognize the importance of preserving this additional public green space that allows and gives ourselves some additional breathing room,” he said.

Apps Bichu reports on growth and justice. She can be reached at apps.bichu@bethesdamagazine.com