A key property owner on Bethesda’s Metro Plaza doesn’t think a new park to revitalize the spot is financially feasible without a new building to support it.
Simon Carney, regional counsel at Brookfield Properties, said the company’s idea to build a new building and new retail space on the plaza would be the best way to improve it.
“Our goal here is not to just to build a building, but it is to build something that is for the community and that has an organic feel to it,” Carney told members of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board on Monday.
Brookfield, which owns 3 Bethesda Metro Center, says it’s in the preliminary stages of designing a new building that would go in the center of the plaza near the Metro station’s bus bay escalators. Carney said the company hasn’t determined if that building would be residential, office, retail or some combination of those uses.
The desire to make the Metro Plaza a more welcoming and active civic space has been among the top issues discussed while planners revise the downtown area’s master plan.
Brookfield’s concept for a “Bethesda Central Park” would be behind the Hyatt hotel building, an idea that’s directly in contrast with a proposal from neighboring property owner Clark Enterprises.
Clark hired architect David Kitchens, known for his work on Bethesda Row, to come up with a great lawn design called Bethesda Metro Park that would be placed right at the major intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue.
There would be no additional development on the plaza.
The group presented the concept to the same Advisory Board group last month, claiming that building the new open space behind a new building wouldn’t be as inviting.
But it’s Brookfield that has the ground rights from WMATA to develop on the plaza.
Whether Brookfield could develop under existing zoning is an open question debated at length a few years ago. Then, the previous owner of 3 Bethesda Metro Center had proposed a 16-story office building known as 4 Bethesda Metro Center for the former home of the Plaza’s food court and the current home of real estate analysis firm Streetsense.
Bob Harris, the attorney who represented the previous owner and who now represents Brookfield, told the Advisory Board that the project had widespread support from the community and Planning Department staff. But the Planning Board deemed that it didn’t fit the area’s 1994 master plan after a number of neighboring property owners protested, including Clark Enterprises.
“We’re back again,” Harris said,”asking for community support again. But the plan has developed some.”
At the time, Clark Enterprises, Chevy Chase Land Company and Chevy Chase Bank all fought the proposal, claiming it would ruin views from their buildings and hurt any chance at meaningful improvement to the public space.
The presentation on Monday was the latest in what’s been a largely unspoken, but apparent debate over the future of the Metro Plaza.
When an Advisory Board member asked why Clark Enterprises would put forth their own proposal despite not holding the land rights, Harris said that question should be asked of Clark.
Both Brookfield and Clark are using public relations firms to help make their case. Both asked for support from the Advisory Board, a group of residents and business leaders that regularly makes recommendations on Bethesda issues for county leaders.
The Planning Department will likely make some recommendation as to the future of the Metro Plaza when it finalizes its Bethesda Downtown Plan rewrite next year. After planners briefed the Planning Board on their progress last Thursday, Clark Enterprises released the following statement:
Today’s briefing was very informative. Obviously there’s a lot of interest in the future of Downtown Bethesda and a huge appetite for more visible green space since most the current options are hidden interior spaces. We feel strongly that a large community green above the Metro — at the symbolic gateway to downtown along Wisconsin Avenue — is very much in line with what planners are seeking when they talk about enhanced gathering spaces and green practices. The Metro plaza is clearly the only opportunity for a park of significant size.
WMATA, which owns the Metro station and bus bay below the plaza, might have the biggest say when it comes to the future of the space.
Last month, Kitchens said he didn’t think it was a good idea to develop a new building requiring columns and other structural changes to the Metro facilities below. On Monday, Carney said part of the development would involve improving the bus bay area.
Carney also said Brookfield’s plan would bring a net increase in green space and useable green space to the Metro Plaza without adding any parking spaces.
Photos via Boris Feldblyum, Planning Department, Clark Enterprises/Cooper Carry