Construction and real estate giant Clark Enterprises has renewed its campaign to stop a next-door property owner from building a high-rise on the Bethesda Metro Plaza with a website titled “Protect Bethesda Open Space.”
The effort, which comes as the Montgomery County Planning Board prepares to send the downtown Bethesda master plan to the County Council for final review, is a response to the general desire among residents and planners for more park space in downtown Bethesda, according to Clark Enterprises Managing Director Bob Eisenberg.
“You’ve got this prime open space that is central to the downtown area that is already here as protected public open space,” Eisenberg told Bethesda Beat Wednesday. “While we think the county planners and staff have gotten a lot right with this plan, on this point we just think they’re missing the mark. This is valuable public open space and it can be made even better.”
The plaza is not one of the locations planners are targeting for park space and the board has tentatively agreed to allow a building of up to 290 feet tall on the spot. The space is mostly concrete and sits on top of the Bethesda Metro station in the center of the central business district.
The active civic space envisioned in the 1994 downtown Bethesda master plan never materialized and it’s not widely used other than for getting to and from the Metro station below.
Clark and neighbor Brookfield Properties, which is seeking new zoning through the update of downtown Bethesda’s master plan to allow for a high-rise likely to be at least 200 feet tall, have been trading barbs and looking for public support for much of the past two years.
Clark Enterprises launched the Protect Bethesda Open Space website in May and Eisenberg said the company will likely present support from area residents to the council when it considers the master plan later this year.
The Bethesda Metro Plaza today. Credit: Aaron Kraut
The website’s focus on the Metro Plaza open space and not on other open spaces around downtown Bethesda is made clear in a community survey that asks “How satisfied are you with Brookfield’s current proposal to build over the current open space at Bethesda Metro Plaza with a new 290-foot tower that would include 0.22 acres of public space, out of public view, & couched between the new building and surrounding buildings?”
Eisenberg said Clark is being “very transparent in our outreach” and the website provides a link to Brookfield’s “Bethesda Connected” website, which shows renderings of its plans for the plaza and a new park of its own.
Brookfield has argued the new high-rise on the plaza, for which it has a ground lease from Metro, would allow it to help fund major improvements to the Metro station bus bays below and create a new, green public park on the west side of the building away from the busy intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. The company has promised to make the park lively by maintaining an active schedule of events.
Brookfield officials have also said Clark, which in 2008 opposed a similar high-rise proposal by a previous property owner, doesn’t intend to pay for its proposal to make the Metro Plaza a half-acre green area and hasn’t contributed to improving the space over the past few decades.
The 2008 high-rise proposal was rejected by the Planning Board. It was a rare public spat between developers that included allegations Clark was against the building because it didn’t want its employees’ view of downtown Bethesda blocked.
Brookfield's rendering of a new park space just west of the Bethesda Metro Plaza. The new high-rise is pictured near the upper right corner of the image. Via Brookfield Properties
Flier distributed last year by Clark Enterprises urging community members to tell the Planning Board not to allow a high-rise on the Bethesda Metro Plaza. A Brookfield official said the flier was presenting "a false choice." Credit: Clark Enterprises
Eisenberg said Wednesday Clark is willing to make “a seven-figure contribution” toward improving the Metro Plaza. He also said the plaza’s location above a Metro station and important bus terminal could result in additional funding tied to transit improvements that would help pay for an improved plaza park.
“Brookfield does have a say in what happens on that property and so that’s a bit of a hurdle to making the space activated,” Eisenberg said. “I think we need to hold every property owner that has public open space on their property accountable.”
When asked why Clark Enterprises is so concerned with a property it doesn’t own, Eisenberg said A. James Clark, the company’s former CEO and owner who died last year, was involved with conceiving and building the Metro Plaza space more than 30 years ago when Clark built its 200-foot-tall Old Georgetown Road headquarters building.
“Mr. Clark was involved in the design of it back then. Clark paid for the plaza construction in its initial development,” Eisenberg said. “Mr. Clark was just passionate about the space and remained that way even as he was ill in his later years. We’re going to carry on this fight to do what we think is right and this is what’s right for the public.”