5 Things To Know About the Bethesda Downtown Plan
County planning staff recommendations include new parks, development and ideas for preserving affordable housing
Allowable maximum building heights recommended for downtown Bethesda by Montgomery County planners
Via Montgomery County Planning Department
There’s a lot happening in the 158-page Bethesda Downtown Plan released today by Montgomery County planners.
And changes are likely to be made to the plan, meant to shape downtown Bethesda over the next 20 years, when it goes before the county Planning Board and County Council.
The so-called Staff Draft will be presented May 21 to the Planning Board, with a public hearing tentatively set for June 25.
We identified five key recommendations:
Controversial Development Recommended For Fire Station
Planners recommended mixed-use zoning with 70-foot heights on the site of Fire Station 6, the aging station run by the Bethesda Fire Department at Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue.
That’s sure to draw opposition from neighbors in the Chevy Chase West community, who have already organized against development of any sort of commercial space at the site.
The Bethesda Fire Department, a nonprofit that’s distinct from county government-operated fire services, has examined allowing a developer to build a six-floor, roughly 180-unit apartment building that could have ground-floor retail.
Preliminary development concept for Bethesda Fire Station 6. Credit: Bethesda Fire Department
The concept would allow the department to finance a new fire station on the same lot, perhaps on an open grassy area that’s just west of the existing station.
Planners also recommended mixed-use zoning for the site of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad at Old Georgetown Road and Battery Lane.
Sitting on a valuable piece of downtown Bethesda property, the rescue squad is also hoping to cash in. Planners recommended zoning on that site that would allow a residential building with ground-floor retail that’s up to 120 feet tall.
No Go On Chevy Chase’s Hopes For A ‘Bethesda Commons Park’
As a way to buffer itself from development and to add much-needed park space, the Town of Chevy Chase proposed a 2.6-acre “Bethesda Commons Park” to be built on what’s now two Montgomery County-operated public parking lots between Walsh Street and Willow Lane.
Claiming the parking lot land is too valuable to be used for a park, planners instead went forward with their suggestion of an Eastern Greenway that would provide a 70-foot-wide strip of green space between new development on the lots and the town’s border.
They recommended building heights of up to 70 feet on the metered lots, known as Lot 10 and Lot 24.
Despite shooting down the idea of a large park on the parking lots, planners did recommend new park space, including three strategically placed “civic greens.”
One would extend Veteran’s Park at Norfolk and Woodmont avenues to Wisconsin Avenue, just next to the Tastee Diner.
“This green open space would allow for more formal community events and programming, but also casual informal lunchtime or dinnertime picnicking, reading and sunbathing,” planners wrote.
A second would extend Elm Street Park to the historic Bethesda Farm Women’s Market. A third, called The Capital Crescent Civic Green, would create a .7-acre lawn at the existing open space across from the Barnes & Noble store at Bethesda Row.
Planners also recommended adding space to Battery Lane Urban Park, and extending Norfolk Avenue along the edge of the park to connect to Battery Lane.
Proposed new parks in Bethesda Downtown Plan. Credit: Montgomery County Planning Department
Preserving Affordable Housing By Selling Density Rights
The density transfer process—by which a property owner can sell unused density to a developer—has been used before as a way to preserve small businesses in Woodmont Triangle.
Now, planners want to use the concept on a larger scale and as a way to preserve some of the cheaper apartment buildings on Battery Lane and Bradley Boulevard.
Planners recommended creating a Bethesda Overlay Zone, essentially a new zoning category specific to downtown Bethesda. It would identify properties that should be allowed to sell unrealized density to developers of new projects in the downtown area.
Those property owners then might have less incentive to expand their own properties and risk wiping out naturally occurring affordable housing.
“Priority Density Transfer Sites” could also include historic sites such as the Farm Women’s Market.
Quality Public Open Spaces
Planners want better public open spaces from developers, not necessarily more.
Long a chief complaint of community leaders, the seldom-used pocket parks and interior open spaces that are required of some development projects are a big emphasis of planners.
“Too often in the past, the goal of obtaining public open space has resulted in site layouts that provide the required amount of space, but in a way that fails to enhance the public realm,” planners wrote.
To address the issue, planners suggested a fund that developers could pay into rather than building open space that is “too small,” “fails to enhance the public realm” or that “prevents a building from activating the street.”
That fund would help pay for more substantial open space projects in downtown Bethesda, such as the new park concepts mentioned above.