The group that owns the Apex Building said a deal to tear it down is possible, though it reiterated its view that the increased density offered by the Planning Department is not enough to attract redevelopment.
Montgomery County and the Maryland Transit Administration are hopeful the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), which owns the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., will raze or sell the building so a better Bethesda Purple Line station can be built underneath.
In December, the Planning Board approved a Minor Master Plan Amendment that would allow whoever redevelops the building to build to 250 feet.
At the County Council public hearing on the Plan on Tuesday, ASHP Senior Vice President and COO David Witmer again said the additional height is not enough to attract a developer to buy the property and raze it.
The MTA plans to build the Purple Line in the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel under the building, using the existing columns and structure to shape the station.
The optimal design officials are pushing for can only happen if the Apex Building is demolished, allowing the state to build a more spacious station with a separate tunnel for the Trail and an elevator connection to the Metro Red Line on the same side of Elm Street. Otherwise, Trail users will have to go on nearby roads to cross Wisconsin Avenue.
But the optimal design would leave the redeveloped building without any identifiable space for underground parking, which Witmer said was the most prominent issue deterring redevelopment interest. It’s also unclear if the ground floor of the redeveloped building could be occupied by retail.
Councilmember Nancy Floreen, who chairs the Council’s Planning Committee, asked Witmer if a deal to raze and redevelop the building is possible.
“Is it possible that you would do this? I just have to ask because it’s an extraordinary request, an extraordinary situation in which to find yourself,” Floreen said. “Is there a circumstance under which you people would say, ‘Sure, we’ll evict our tenants, we’ll take down our building.'”
Witmer said a deal is possible, though the extra zoning alone does not make it financially feasible for ASHP.
“It would have to be a scenario in which we can assure we’re adding value to our organization,” Witmer said. “That said, we do think it’s possible and we wouldn’t be engaging experts and meeting with developers and doing the other work we’re doing if we didn’t think there was some possibility of success.”
Witmer also mentioned a report from an economic consultant hired by the Planning Department that found rezoning the property won’t cover the potential losses for the ASHP. The report, which came out in September, said $5 million to $10 million of public money could be required to close the gap.
After planners presented the Minor Master Plan Amendment, Councilmember Roger Berliner said one of his concerns was preserving and improving the small grassy area near the Trail tunnel known as Woodmont Plaza.
“People are concerned with not having enough green space,” Berliner said. “We have an opportunity to create a really fine public space there. The plans haven’t done that.”
If the Apex Building is not redeveloped and the default Purple Line station is built, planners have warned that “tail tracks” of the light rail system could extend into the Plaza and a required ventilation tower would serve as an eyesore.
Berliner said he’s wary that a redevelopment deal for the Apex Building might encroach on that space, near the Landmark Bethesda Row Theatres. There are also unresolved questions about which land owners own which parts of the space.
“It just breaks my heart how long this space has sat there,” Berliner said. “It is such a prime space for something wonderful to happen.”
The Council’s Planning Committee will take up the Plan on Jan. 27. Witmer said the short timetable for making a deal — the MTA wants a decision early this year as it pitches the Purple Line to federal officials — is also making the process more difficult.
“Thank you for engaging with the county. I know this wasn’t something that you sought out,” Councilmember Hans Riemer told Witmer. “If we’re able to bring this together, it’s going to be a huge benefit to Bethesda, to Montgomery County.”
Image via Montgomery County Planning Department