Sidwell Friends’ Bethesda Campus Likely to Draw Big Offers, Big Worries

Sidwell Friends’ Bethesda Campus Likely to Draw Big Offers, Big Worries

School plans to sell 5.5-acre campus in neighborhood within walking distance of Bethesda Metro station

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Aaron Kraut

The Sidwell Friends School doesn’t plan to leave its 5.5-acre Lower School campus in Bethesda until 2019.

But when the property goes on the market this year or early next year, some in the development industry say it could draw offers upward of $10 million. The sale has already raised concerns about redevelopment of the site among many who live in the neighborhood around it.

“I think everybody’s concerned,” said Judy Gilbert Levey, president of the Edgemoor Citizens Association.

The Lower School has been situated on Edgemoor Lane since 1963. It’s a short walk from Bethesda Elementary School, the Bethesda Library and Arlington Road—seen by many as the official buffer between the high-density buildings of downtown Bethesda and the high-priced single-family homes of Edgemoor.

The Bethesda Metro station—the justification for much of the downtown area’s transit-oriented development—is just a half-mile walk from the school.

Levey said Wednesday afternoon she has heard from many in the neighborhood “expressing alarm” over the sale since the school announced it Tuesday afternoon.

She posted a message to the neighborhood listserv emphasizing the school plans to lease the space until September 2019, when construction is finished on its new Lower School next to its existing Middle and Upper Schools in Washington, D.C.

“There are a lot of steps that are going to need to take place in order for this to happen,” Levey told Bethesda Beat. “There’s no clear answer now.”

Robert Kaufman, senior vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Building Industry Association, said he expects the site to draw huge interest from builders.

The Maryland Building Industry Association represents home builders and developers, many of whom have been active tearing down old single-family homes and building new ones on existing lots in the Edgemoor neighborhood.

“If I were a developer, I would be salivating,” Kaufman said.

The site is zoned R-60, which allows single-family homes. But it’s possible a new owner could attempt to subdivide it or apply to Montgomery County for new zoning.

The Sidwell Friends School Bethesda property, shown in the center of this map, is zoned for single-family homes just west of downtown Bethesda, via Montgomery County Planning Department

Patrick O’Neill, a land use attorney based in Bethesda who specializes in private schools, said another school or government building could also come into play for the site. He said town homes, not an apartment or condominium building, would likely be the goal if the new owner wants to redevelop it.

“I don’t think multi-family would have any chance of flying at that location,” O’Neill said.

Kaufman said a mix of housing types, including mid-rise buildings, a park and even retail geared toward local residents, would be “incredibly positive” for the area, providing housing affordable enough for millennials and others who might not otherwise be able to buy in Bethesda.

“You’re going to have this natural conflict between people that exist and fear change because they’re afraid it’s going to affect their quality of life versus people who recognize that if you want to survive and grow, you need to manage that growth in a way that opens up opportunities for people to share in that quality of life,” Kaufman said.

Early speculation among some builders is that there would be too much community opposition to get the zoning changed to allow more density. There are also questions concerning whether the two-lane roads around the site would be able to handle that level of development.

Levey told neighbors that the civic association’s three-person Land Use Committee will be looking into the process. The group will be especially interested to see if the Sidwell Friends School pursues subdivision during the sale process.

Levey said the neighborhood didn’t receive advanced notice of the sale from the school, which in its announcement said it was time to consolidate all of its schools on its main campus on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C.

O’Neill added that the Sidwell Friends School must deal with “a lot of moving parts,” including completing the purchase and rezoning of the land for its new Lower School adjacent to its D.C. campus.

The land the school is buying is now home to an assisted living community, serving residents who would have to move out if the deal goes through.

“It has practical and public relations challenges, so anybody that’s going to [buy the Bethesda site] is going to have to work with Sidwell and be flexible enough to allow them to navigate those processes,” O’Neill said. “The timing in all of this is always a big challenge.”

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