2017 | Government

Council Looks at Major Cuts to Building Height Caps in Proposed Bethesda Downtown Plan

Staff plan focuses tallest buildings near Metro station and future Marriott headquarters

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Montgomery County Planning Department

A County Council adviser has recommended slashing maximum building heights across a number of sites in the proposed Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan in order to concentrate the tallest buildings in the urban core.

Under the plan backed by the Montgomery County Planning Department, high-rise projects at Bethesda’s fringe could exhaust the pool of allowable development activity and create a sunken skyline, argued legislative analyst Marlene Michaelson.

“Instead of having a tent effect, you could end up with what someone called the ‘bowl effect,’ ” Michaelson said.

The current rendition of the plan, a vision-setting document for growth over the next 20 years or so, could also allow a small number of residential projects to eat up the density and edge out the commercial development that officials long to attract, she said.

Michaelson spoke Thursday to a council committee that is reviewing the sector plan approved by the Planning Board and under consideration by the council. The changes she presented would lower height caps in border areas and east of Wisconsin Avenue.

For example, Michaelson advised altering the Planning Board’s vision for buildings of up to 145 feet tall near the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Bradley Boulevard. Instead, Michaelson advised a 90-foot limit for the properties currently occupied by Trader Joe’s and St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Jaffe Group site at 6801-6809 Wisconsin Ave.

County planners explained that allowing taller buildings in this area might encourage construction, enabling them to work with developers on creating a greenway between the high-rises and the neighborhoods to the east. 

“If they don’t get the height, there’s a strong possibility they wouldn’t develop at all,” Planning Director Gwen Wright said.

The three-member committee expressed divided views on heights at the location; council member George Leventhal said he disagreed with limiting the heights to 90 feet, while council member Hans Riemer sided with Michaelson.

“I don’t think anybody needs to go higher than 90 feet in this location,” he said.

Council member Nancy Floreen, the committee’s chair, said the group’s opinion was unresolved on that issue.

Michaelson also advised a number of height reductions near the intersection of Wisconsin and Norfolk avenues, next to the future Marriott International headquarters site. The Planning Board’s sector plan draft would allow 290-foot buildings at 7820 Wisconsin Ave. and the Union Hardware property, and 250-foot buildings on other nearby sites, including the Acura dealership.

Michaelson’s version would drop maximum heights to 225 feet for the Union Hardware site and even lower for surrounding properties. 

Riemer said he’d like to look at allowing a 200-foot height limit at the Acura site, where Michaelson’s plan would place the height cap at 145 feet.

Overall, Michaelson said she favors a tent-shaped height pattern in downtown Bethesda, with the tallest spires focused in two hubs—the Metro station and the proposed Marriott headquarters. Others have suggested allowing even more height centers throughout the downtown area to create a more varied look.

The council committee will review more of Michaelson’s recommendations at a meeting in two weeks.

Following the meeting, Riemer posted on an online community forum his breakdown of building height caps suggested by the planning board and Michaelson for the area east of Wisconsin Avenue, from Middleton Lane to Chestnut Street:

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