Empty land waiting for transformation into a community park is scarce in downtown Bethesda, but a coalition of local residents has one idea about where to find the space: four county-owned parking lots.
Burying or otherwise relocating the roughly 500 parking spaces contained in these lots could free up large tracts of land in prime locations in downtown Bethesda, the idea’s proponents contend.
Cumulatively, these sites could yield about 5 acres of green space that residents and downtown workers badly need, especially considering the ambitious plans for development in Bethesda, proponents say.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place to retreat to, to get away from all the lane closures and the cranes?” said Mary Flynn, executive director of Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents. “In the midst of a highly urbanized, changing environment, people need to have some way to gather, to have a sense of community.”
The parks would also benefit business, she said, by making the area more appealing as a destination.
Flynn’s group is one of several asking county officials to flesh out the strategy for the parking-to-parks idea in the proposed Bethesda Downtown Plan, which is under review by the County Council. While the concept of converting Bethesda’s parking to parks is not new, the idea now seems to be gaining momentum.
On Monday, council President Roger Berliner said he’s open to it.
“We own these surface parking lots. Do I think they are a prime candidate for parks? I do,” he said.
Berliner said he’ll ask the county’s transportation director to evaluate Bethesda’s parking needs as an initial step in exploring CBAR’s suggestion.
Council member Hans Riemer is asking staff to look at options to pay for the project of converting the lots, like a special property tax levied in the central business district. Riemer said he’d like to include this funding mechanism in the final downtown plan. Not only would officials need a way to pay for creating the parks, but they’d have to fund construction of underground garages or other parking facilities to replace the lost spaces.
Lots 25 and 44—on Highland Avenue and West Virginia Avenue respectively—could provide about 2 acres of parkland, advocates of the idea point out.
The coalition has also proposed combining lots 10 and 24 with Elm Street Park and space in the Farm Women’s Market on Wisconsin Avenue to create a southern civic space. These two Leland Street lots add up to about 3 acres.
Lots 10 and 24 are at the southern end of the district, while lots 25 and 44 are to the north. Credit: Montgomery County Department of Transportation
Riemer said the county should also buy and include the farm market property so that the new park would front Wisconsin Avenue.
“It has to be open and inviting to all of downtown Bethesda,” Riemer said.
Elected leaders in the Town of Chevy Chase have long advocated for creating green space from the lots around the market, which is near the municipal line. For Town Council member Barney Rush, predictability is one advantage of reusing the surface lots rather than acquiring land for parks. County officials would need to buy a number of adjoining properties to bundle together enough land for a park, and the process could get bogged down by uncooperative property owners or fraught real estate negotiations, Rush said.
“There’s a lot of risk that the county could lay out a fair amount of money to buy individual parcels and not have a park. In the case where the county already owns the land, it can make decisions whenever it wants to and create the park,” Rush said.
Casey Anderson, the county planning board chairman, said the idea has potential but isn’t simpler than other approaches. Reusing the lots would mean negotiating with the county’s transportation department, which owns the property, he said.
Moreover, there’s no existing source of money for replacing lost parking, and the cost of doing so isn’t clear, he said. The county or Chevy Chase might be willing to kick in funds, he said, but that would have to be worked out.
“I don’t doubt that it can be accomplished. The question is: Who is willing to give up what in order to get it?” Anderson said.
The town of Chevy Chase, where Flynn is also a council member, co-signed a letter with CBAR and a number of other community groups asking the council to make a variety of changes to the downtown plan passed by the Montgomery County Planning Board. One of the suggestions was to reserve the four lots for park space.
Flynn said CBAR is running a petition drive through March in support of turning the lots into parks. The online effort has several hundred signatures, and organizers will be going door-to-door and standing outside shopping centers to gather more, she said.
“It’s now or never. The alternative is that these lots will be sold for new building development,” the Change.org petition states.
With reporting by Andrew Metcalf.