Opinion: In a new decade, Bethesda is rising to the occasion
As plans advance or stall, benchmarks play a part in development
Now that 2020 has arrived, it is worth asking: Where do things stand for Bethesda as we begin the next decade of development? We know one thing for sure: Bethesda is “growing up.”
Several cranes line the downtown Bethesda skyline, resembling pencil marks etched on a doorframe indicating a child’s growth spurt from year to year. Pedestrians attempting to navigate the new construction sites are increasingly seen gazing upward.
So here is a look at Bethesda by the numbers as the decade begins:
The immediate downtown Bethesda area has more than 25 new development projects either under construction, approved, or proposed. Ten of those projects are slated to reach heights of 200 feet or higher.
The tallest building in Montgomery County is currently North Bethesda Market at 290 feet. It will not hold that honor much longer.
As we start the year, the foundation of the Marriott headquarters project has reached street level and will eventually rise to 300 feet. Construction on the Apex building is about to top out at 290 feet. And workers are still digging down at the site of the Avocet building (the old police station site), which is zoned for 250 feet, but will rise up to 290 feet with the rooftop structure.
These major development projects will be complete in the next few years. Many new ones will have broken ground. Inevitably, some proposed projects will stall.
The timeline for redevelopment is not always predictable. It often seems as if the downtown skyline is growing at a record pace, but other times, people are left wondering, what is taking so long?
For example, the site of the old Ranger Surplus store at 8008 Wisconsin Ave. has been closed for more than five years and is approved for residential redevelopment, with little movement.
The property at Wisconsin Avenue and Montgomery Lane, which once housed a gas station and is directly next to the Metro, might finally see redevelopment after being vacant for more than 10 years. A senior living high-rise is now proposed there in the early part of this decade.
According to the Planning Department’s tracking and monitoring website, downtown Bethesda has approximately 23.3 million square feet of development built on the ground. The website also indicates there is close to 6 million new square feet of development in the “tracking” phase, referring to projects that have final preliminary or site-plan approval and may proceed (though developers may chose not to proceed).
The plan area is capped at 32.4 million square feet of total development. That means between what is built on the ground and projects being tracked, there is just under 3 million square feet of development remaining in the “monitoring” phase before downtown development reaches the allowed cap. The monitoring phase also includes a number of projects that have initial sketch-plan approval.
This is just a current snapshot. These numbers will fluctuate considerably as projects move forward or backward, and sometimes disappear and reemerge later.
Renderings of commercial projects in Bethesda, include, clockwise from top left: 8280 Wisconsin, 7272 Wisconsin, Marriott HQ and Hotel, and the Avocet building.
Of the 25 projects under construction, approved, or proposed, all except 3 ½ of them are new residential buildings. (One project, the Apex building, is split between residential and commercial.)
Downtown Bethesda has slightly more than 3,000 residential units in the “tracking” pipeline. However, that number is also just a snapshot and is always shifting.
For example, the project at 7900 Wisconsin Ave. (also now known as 8001 Woodmont Ave.) was approved for 450 units, but the developer recently applied for an amendment to provide 322 units. If approved, there would be fewer units, but they would be larger.
Almost 1,200 of the 3,000 units in tracking are under construction and will be complete in 2020 or 2021. And nearly all of the new residential buildings are intended to be rental rather than condo, although that can change due to market forces.
Whether downtown development maintains this pace depends on a number of factors, including the market, incentives, the development cap, and an accounting for the “transit” part of transit-oriented development.
The council did not require “staging” to be part of the Downtown Plan, but it did recommend a non-auto driver mode share (NADMS) target of 55% for Bethesda commuters by the time the development on the ground and in the “tracking” phase hit a benchmark of 30.4 million square feet.
If this target is not achieved through greater commuter transit use, biking, and walking trips, council members may issue a “flashing yellow” pause for development approvals to allow the numbers to catch up.
As of the last self-reported survey in Fiscal Year 2016-17, which only included area employees, the NADMS for Bethesda was generally holding steady around 37%.
The next set of data are scheduled to be released in March. They will also incorporate resident commuting modes of travel for the first time, affecting the overall NADMS percentage.
The council may eventually have to weigh this mode share data against the development tracking and monitoring numbers to determine if commuter modes of travel have kept pace with the goals of transit-oriented development in Bethesda, and thus how development should proceed.
Of course, over the next decade, Bethesda will not just be judged by the quantity of new buildings and the numbers above, but even more so by the quality of the design of the buildings and the delivery of critical infrastructure, including green space, affordable housing, bike lanes, and classrooms.
In just a few short years, with more realities in place instead of just renderings and words on paper, it will start to become clear whether the new master plan was successful in helping downtown Bethesda “grow up” as promised.
Amanda Farber has written about the impact of planning, zoning and development issues on the quality of life in Bethesda, where she has lived since 2000 with her husband. They have two sons and several four-legged family members. She serves on the East Bethesda Citizens Association, Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents Board, Conservation Montgomery Board and the Bethesda Implementation Advisory Committee.