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Developers Unveil New Plan for Converting Bethesda Parking Lots to Parks … and Apartments

Proposal calls for turning Farm Women’s Market into a food hall

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VIA PEXELS.COM

Bethesda and Chevy Chase community advocates have been searching for ways to turn two county-owned parking lots behind the Farm Women’s Market into a sea of green.

Now, developers are saying they have a plan for granting that wish. Partially.

They say a proposed parking lots-to-parks transformation could come by redeveloping land around the historic women’s market that has sold jams and jellies on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda since the 1930s. In a Wednesday evening presentation to Town of Chevy Chase residents, representatives of the development firm EYA pitched their plan for a project that would expand on an earlier proposal for the site.

That original development scheme called for construction of high-rises on the Villain & Saint property and across the street, replacing the Starbucks and other low-rise storefronts. But this plan would leave untouched the two surface parking lots—Lot 24 and Lot 10—on either side of Leland Street, potentially squandering an opportunity to convert this space into a green swath stretching from Elm Street Urban Park to Walsh Street, EYA representatives said.

In recent weeks, Montgomery County has been working with developers EYA and Bernstein Management Corp. on a new proposal that would include the two surface lots. In exchange for burying the public parking spaces, the developers would receive rights to build multifamily housing, townhomes and retail space on the property. EYA said this arrangement would enable the firm to carve out about 2.67 acres of green space from the parking lots and market site, yielding a total of about 4.8 acres of parkland when combined with Elm Street Urban Park.

“This should be something really special in the heart of Bethesda,” McLean Quinn, EYA vice president of land acquisition and development, told the 100 or so people who attended the session at the Town of Chevy Chase office building.

The original plan, brought forward earlier this year by Bernstein, was for a 175-foot-tall residential high-rise on the Villain & Saint site at 7121 Wisconsin Ave. The height limit for that site is generally 150 feet, but Bernstein was hoping to qualify for a 25-foot height bonus in exchange for improving the adjacent market property.

But county leaders and community members have pushed for this development to happen in tandem with the creation of new parks on the two existing county parking lots.

Lots 24 and 10 are shown in orange at the lower right. Credit: Montgomery County government.

County Council President Hans Riemer said while he’s glad that the new EYA proposal incorporates the lots, it’s not quite what officials had in mind.

“We called for turning the parking lots into parks, and this is a proposal to develop the parking lots. So we want to stick to the vision of creating a fantastic park asset,” he said in a Thursday phone interview.

The revised development proposal now under consideration by Bernstein and EYA would include the 175-foot high-rise and also feature a 70-foot-tall building that would span most of what’s now the parking lot behind the market, extending to Leland Street behind the Ford Building at 7101 Wisconsin Ave. The designs are still in early stages, but Quinn estimated the mixed-use project would yield about 325 apartment units and 18 townhomes, which would stand on what’s now Lot 10.

The Farm Women’s Market would be restored as a modern food hall, with the asphalt surrounding it replaced by green space. The mixed-use project would provide about 30,000 square feet for retail, some of it in the rehabbed market and some in the newly constructed buildings, he said.

The current plans would involve digging one level of underground parking for public use and another for residents in the new housing, with the proposed garage opening onto Leland Street.

The park space created from the former parking lots would sit behind the new construction, running along 46th Street from Willow Lane to Walsh Street. Park amenities could include playgrounds, a dog park, a splash pad, lawns, gardens and a civic or retail plaza.

However, some community members would prefer less development on the two lots, identified by county leaders and residents as one of the only viable locations for a prominent downtown Bethesda park. The Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, approved by the County Council last year as a long-range blueprint for growth and public improvements in Bethesda, identified the market property and the lot behind it as “a prominent civic space” that would connect with the Elm Street Urban Park.

The challenge is that the plan being formulated by EYA and Bernstein assumes the developers would bear the full expense of replacing the roughly 300 parking spaces with an underground garage. At an estimated cost of about $50,000 per underground space, the undertaking could require the project partners to shell out about $15 million, company representatives said during the meeting.

“We believe that this is the amount of development that you would need to have on Lot 10 and Lot 24 for us to be able to say that we can underground the parking and build the park that’s envisioned in the downtown plan,” Quinn said.

He estimated about 65 percent of Lot 24 and about 37 percent of Lot 10 would be reserved for park space under the current proposal.

At the same time, the plans are still in flux, and leaders in the Town of Chevy Chase are exploring options for helping to finance the parking project. Mayor Barney Rush told the group at the session that he’s working with the county to find these funds so the developers can reduce the size of the proposed buildings.

In particular, Rush said he’s concerned with preventing the proposed 70-foot building from acting as a barrier between open space at the Farm Women’s Market and the new parks created from a portion of the lots.

The Bethesda sector plan envisions the market property as a civic space opening into the parks behind it, he said. The existing development plans do provide for a 40-foot-wide passageway through the seven-story building, leading pedestrians from the south side of the market building to the park space. But even with the underpass, the building would stand in the way, he said.

“This very long, seven-story building on Lot 24 will really, in my view, be a blockage between the Farm Women’s Market plaza and the parks,” Rush said in a Thursday phone interview.

Riemer, who also said he’s interested in securing county funds to cover the cost of underground parking, said he’s open to some development on the county parking lots but wants to make sure the final outcome doesn’t stray from the vision laid out in the Bethesda sector plan.

“I want to see this park come into reality, and I want to see this community resource happen,” he said. “It’s exciting when you think about all the thousands of people who are going to be living in Bethesda in the future. You need something at this kind of scale to make it all work. It’s a big missing piece.”

Other residents on Wednesday evening emphasized the importance of the parking capacity provided by the surface lots and expressed concern that the new retail activity would increase the demand for parking. A couple commented that drivers heading in and out of the new garage could cause traffic problems on Leland Street.

On the other hand, Rush said he and other residents are pleased there is some movement on converting the asphalt lots to green space.

EYA representatives said while they are still working with Bernstein, the county and the community to formulate the project, they are on a tight timeline for figuring out if the concept is feasible. They said they’re looking to make the determination before the year’s end.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com

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