Montgomery County planners and members of the local development community held a robust discussion Friday about rules for designing downtown Bethesda’s future streetscape.
The set of design guidelines in progress will work in conjunction with broader vision laid out in the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, which is heading toward a final vote before the County Council next week. The Friday morning gathering of about 50 was hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and gave local developers, land use attorneys and architects a preview of what county planners have in mind.
A number of them were less than overjoyed by the presentation.
County planners want the downtown to become a “rich environment” for pedestrians, with street-level windows, landscaping and diverse facades rather than expanses of blank wall, said Laura Shipman, urban designer with the planning department. They’re looking to avoid imposing high-rises and to prevent tall buildings from blotting out the sky, so they’re favoring structures composed of a base topped with narrower towers.
But some said the county’s approach denies Bethesda’s growing urbanization and would force the downtown into a more sterile, suburban look. The industry representatives called for more flexibility so that they can tailor designs to property location, market demands and ever-shifting aesthetics.
“None of us can predict the future,” land use attorney Bob Harris said. “Don’t lock us into a one-size-fits-all solution.”
A couple people even pointed out the 12th-floor window of the meeting room at Bethesda buildings that don’t fit into the design guidelines as presented.
And the prospect of designing commercial buildings limited to 15,000 square feet per floor did not sit well with many of the industry representatives. Such a restriction would put Bethesda office owners at a competitive disadvantage with D.C. or Alexandria, where corporate tenants could rent the required amount of space spread across fewer levels, said Christopher Bruch of the Donohoe Cos. Raising the cap to 25,000 square feet per floor would enable the construction of office buildings with a lower chance of sitting vacant, he added.
“The office market in this county is in distress, and we don’t want to contribute to that in the future,” Bruch said.
Shipman noted the square-footage limit would be one way of managing building mass and preserving air and light on downtown streets. But the guidelines as envisioned will feature a “menu” with other potential options—like varied tower placement or creative building geometries—for achieving the same goal, she said.
The design framework under development will also include site-specific guidelines for key locations such as the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza, Bethesda Farm Women’s Market civic space, Veteran’s Park civic space and Capital Crescent Trail civic green, she said.
Shipman said county planners are looking to brief the Montgomery County Planning Board on the design guidelines in early June. By early July, they’re expecting to have a working draft of the guidelines, she said.