County Council Members Focus on Building Heights, Density at Initial Meeting on Bethesda Downtown Plan

Committee takes first look at 20-year proposal guiding development

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Rendering of a remade Norfolk Avenue in Woodmont Triangle, as envisioned in the Bethesda Downtown Plan

Montgomery County Planning Department

Until a future day when commuters can fly around like the Jetsons, Bethesda’s development potential is capped by road and rail limitations, a Montgomery County Council analyst joked on Monday.

And council members are looking to get the greatest payoff for the possible building space that remains.

On Monday, a council committee cracked open the proposed Bethesda Downtown Plan and gave initial impressions before delving into the minutiae in coming weeks. Members praised the updated 20-year guiding document for its fresh approach and sensitivity to market forces. But some also shared concerns that it would leave too much in the hands of property owners and would fall short of achieving the economic vibrancy and park expansion they desire.

“I really do think this gets away from fundamental principles of planning,” council member Marc Elrich said during the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee meeting.

The updated downtown plan was crafted after months of public hearings and work by county planners. The committee is now reviewing the document before sending it to the council for consideration.

Elrich said he’d like to see the proposed sector plan exert more control over the type of development so that a surge of new housing doesn’t edge out commercial construction.

To others, the proposal’s flexibility is its strength. Montgomery County Planning Board member Norman Dreyfuss said it sets out a holistic vision without micromanaging.

“Which puzzle piece we put in first is not as important as what the puzzle looks like when it’s complete,” he said of the plan his board endorsed in July.

The proposed plan would permit an additional 8.8 million square feet of development beyond the 23.6 million that currently exists in Bethesda. Past planners have used a model called “tenting,” seeking to focus the tallest, most dense development around the Bethesda Metro station, with the building intensity tapering off as distance increases from the urban core. The drafted proposal would introduce a different philosophy by identifying three more focal points for dense development.

Council member George Leventhal said the latter approach could create a more interesting skyline in Bethesda, but he wants a better sense of the difference in visual effect.

And council member Nancy Floreen said she and her colleagues will take a close look at the edges of the high-rise areas, paying attention to the neighborhoods of surrounding residents who might feel dwarfed.

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