Planners Start Bethesda’s ’20-Year Checkup’

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It’s time for Bethesda’s 20-year checkup.

Planning Department Director Gwen Wright says her agency’s upcoming rewrite of the Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan, the document that provides zoning guidelines and development strategies for downtown Bethesda, won’t start from scratch.

“A lot has changed in the last 20 years and Bethesda has changed in the last 20 years,” Wright told a crowd of about 130 residents, business owners, lawyers and developers on Monday at a Bethesda Downtown Plan “kickoff” meeting. “It’s not that we think Bethesda is problematic. We think that actually, Bethesda is a wonderful community. By most standards, it would be considered an enormous success from a livability standpoint, a design standpoint.”

Still, updating the 1994 Sector Plan will be a large and time-consuming task.

Consider just some of the feedback planners got on Monday, roughly a year before the Planning Board starts its approval process of a new Sector Plan to send to the County Council.

In 30 minutes of brainstorming, different attendees said parking is a problem, parking is a strength, there is too much density, not enough density, a need for bigger buildings, too much disruption from construction, a lack of vitality block to block, a good number of sidewalk cafes, a need for more late night activity and too much late night noise.

“We have things that have worked really well,” Wright said. “We have seen things that have not worked as well.”

A common complaint on Monday was the Bethesda Metro Station plaza, which in the 1994 plan was envisioned as a space to “listen to a band concert in summer or ice skate in winter in the center of town.”

The ice rink closed in 2002 and the plaza serves as a prominent reminder of the downtown area’s lack of civic or community space, an issue the Sector Plan will have to tackle.

Many spoke about the apparent divide between the older, mom-and-pop dominated Woodmont Triangle and Bethesda Row, the more recent development increasingly populated by national chains.

Many pointed out strengths of both sections of town — the ethnic eateries in the Triangle and the pedestrian walk-thru on Bethesda Lane, for example. But some said the two sides of downtown are growing further apart, in no small part thanks to a difficult to cross Old Georgetown Road and one-way Woodmont Avenue.

Another less mentioned issue the Sector Plan will likely address is the so-called “Metro Core,” the section of downtown immediately around the Metro station. The 1994 Plan called for office and commercial uses. With a down office market, apartment projects are already planned or in the approval process for the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Commerce Lane, the shuttered Exxon gas station and the existing site of the 2nd District Police Station.

The event on Monday was the start of an aggressive outreach campaign by the Planning Department.

There is a Twitter account and website with which planners hope to receive comments and generate discussion. There will be two open house sessions — one Wednesday, Nov. 6 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Imagination Stage (4908 Auburn Ave.) and one Thursday, Nov. 14 at The Writer’s Center (4507 Walsh St.).

“We want a level of participation in this plan that we maybe haven’t had in other plans,” Wright said. “We want to reach people who maybe haven’t participated in a planning process before.

“The goal here isn’t to say, ‘Let’s start from square one.’ It’s more of a checkup or a tuneup,” Wright said.

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