Montgomery County Parks officials are trying to establish the need for more and more well-suited parks in a downtown Bethesda area without enough of them.
But as developers build apartment projects at an aggressive pace, a few hard-to-overcome roadblocks have left creating new parks and improving existing ones difficult.
“Our first step is to document the need,” said Brooke Farquhar, supervisor of Park and Trail Planning for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and lead researcher on the department’s 2012 PROS Plan. “It’s a very methodical way because when we get into these urban areas, they’re very expensive. There’s a lot of competition for the land.”
The PROS Plan, short for Park Recreation and Open Space, identifies inside-the-Beltway urban areas including Bethesda as lacking a sufficient amount of park space for a growing population.
Bethesda “consistently” showed field shortages, for example, and the county needs to focus on providing more of the types of facilities that urban residents want, such as dog parks, community gardens, flexible grassy open spaces and urban wooded areas.
Farquhar indicated park planning in the area was handicapped by an aging Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan that puts little emphasis on parks.
Developers are required to provide a certain amount of public space to satisfy a Montgomery County Planning Department points system, but residents often claim all that means is a small pocket park that provides little use.
“What I keep hearing is that too often the public spaces are for art, seating or a plaza that serves some use,” Farquhar said. “We hear a lot of people say, ‘Maybe we need more grass. Maybe we need to push these developers to provide a big grassy area,’ but that takes more maintenance. Too often maybe we get a tot lot and an indoor fitness center and that’s it. That satisfies the guidelines.”
Farquhar said she hopes the zoning code rewrite will include recreation guidelines that include uses better targeted at the population.
“Meanwhile, I guess the question for us is ‘Do we have any kind of a policy hook to try to get a park done?’ There’s nothing in the master plan that says it needs to be here,” Farquhar said. “It’s very difficult for us to say this property that’s zoned for a 15-story building should have a park there. We don’t have master plan status to back that up.”
Parks staff is beginning to look at the amount of parkland per population, she said, as a way to advocate for more park planning in Bethesda and perhaps White Flint, which is on the verge of massive development.