The Bethesda Arts Center could one day bring a black box theater, dance studio, artist work space and pedestrian plaza to Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle.
The concept is in the works for the block of buildings across Woodmont Avenue from Veterans Park and near the top of the list of Planning Department priorities for the ongoing Bethesda Downtown Plan. Planners showed two drawings of an expanded Veterans Park and mentioned a black box theater in an update last week to the Planning Board.
David Goldberg, co-owner of Union Hardware at the corner of Norfolk and Wisconsin Avenues, is a driving force behind the idea, one that he said has picked up plenty of momentum in the last few months.
Chevy Chase-based developer JBG has been involved in talks with Goldberg and county planners about what it would take to build the facility with a new residential building above.
Goldberg owns the building that houses Union Hardware’s showroom and warehouse and said he has support from the owner of the next-door building at the corner of Norfolk and Woodmont Avenues. It’s not yet clear how exactly the redevelopment would take place, but those involved have already discussed details about studio space, a more pedestrian-friendly Norfolk Avenue and reserving an upstairs condo unit for the director of the Arts Center.
“I only believe in win-wins,” Goldberg said. “My gut feeling is very simple: Give the community what they want. They’ve wanted a black box theater since 2006 and no one has been able to do it. It just seems like this is going to be the pride of Bethesda.”
Goldberg joined the board of Bethesda’s Arts and Entertainment District last year. The board is a collection of local business owners, developers and county officials that operates under the umbrella of the Bethesda Urban Partnership. Its aim is to help build art facilities and create arts events around downtown Bethesda.
One of the group’s long-term goals has been a black box theater — a flexible theater space that could serve as the focus of Bethesda’s arts scene. As Union Hardware’s business model changed to specialty bathroom and kitchen fixtures, Goldberg realized he needed to downsize in a new location.
A few months ago, Goldberg told employees of the 100-year-old business that Union Hardware will likely move some place else in the area. As for the existing showroom and warehouse, Goldberg came up with the idea to use it as the starting point for a redevelopment project that would include the arts facility.
As envisioned now, the Bethesda Arts Center would include the black box theater, a dance studio and art studio space for rent in a way similar to the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria.
A major part of the Arts Center would be Norfolk Avenue between Woodmont and Wisconsin Avenues. Planners have developed basic drawings depicting a new street with bricks and bollards that could be shut down to vehicle traffic on the weekends. There would be space for a plaza and outdoor stage across from the Tastee Diner.
Goldberg envisions the Arts Center as a true gateway to Woodmont Triangle, the civic gathering space that downtown Bethesda lacks and a way to connect all the arts facilities of downtown Bethesda.
“There’s really nothing that’s kind of a gateway to Bethesda,” Goldberg said. “It just seems so simple in retrospect.”
While the concept has progressed in the last few months, it’s far from a done deal. Based on what county planners have shown so far, it seems very likely to be included in final recommendations to the Planning Board. The Board and then the County Council must work through and finalize any rezoning and land use guidelines that would be involved.
There’s also the tricky matter of getting buy-in from all property owners on the block. Goldberg is confident that will happen, though it will require agreement from EagleBank, which has its main Bethesda location at 7815 Woodmont Ave., and the owner of the building that houses the 7-Eleven at 7820 Wisconsin Ave.
“It’ll all work out because the community wants it,” Goldberg said. “You do the right thing and everything will work out fine.”