Developers, officials and community members on Thursday voiced the unanimous opinion that county planners are headed in the right direction with design guidelines for downtown Bethesda.
It was in their caveats that their differences started to appear.
Land use attorney Bob Harris told the Montgomery County Planning Board he liked “90 percent” of the ideas that staff presented. But he advocated for a little more flexibility in the final product.
“Good design is not paint-by-numbers,” he said.
As currently envisioned, the guidelines would promote buildings that have distinct base, tower and top sections in a style that some compare to a wedding cake. Many of the world’s most famous buildings don’t fit within these parameters, Harris noted.
Mary Flynn, president of the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents and mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase, pushed an opposing point of view and argued that giving the design principles some backbone is essential in empowering planning staff to quash ugly architecture. Otherwise, the downtown area might end up with more eyesores like the building at 7101 Wisconsin Ave., she said.
“People call it the Darth Vader building. I call it the Borg building because it’s a cube. It’s a big, black cube,” Flynn said.
The design guidelines that are under development will help define the look and feel that planners want to encourage in downtown Bethesda. The rules are coming as a companion to the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan that the County Council approved last week and are being written after a series of public outreach meetings.
On Thursday, county planning staff gave board members an overview of their vision for the guidelines and asked for direction before they release a working draft in July.
Like representatives of the planning industry, board member Norman Dreyfuss cautioned against stifling creativity by making the design guidelines too rigid. The planning department and board already have broad authority to reject building plans that are ugly and wouldn’t contribute to downtown Bethesda’s success, he argued.
Board member Natali Fani-Gonzalez said planners last week gave approval to a glass-box building, and she’d like to see standards that would promote better architecture.
Planning Director Gwen Wright argued for striking a balance between being too prescriptive and too permissive. Creating a clear vision will help planners evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“Guidelines aren’t supposed to be a cookbook,” she said. “We’re a very wonky county. We like formulas. We like numbers. … One of the things I’ve been trying to push against is that kind of very quantitative numerical analysis of things. I think we do better when we are able to negotiate.”
Through the guidelines, planners hope to achieve active, vibrant streetscapes and deter the construction of imposing, bulky buildings. They want downtown Bethesda to be greener and offer more civic gathering spaces to residents and visitors.