2014 | News

Future Of Bethesda’s Metro Center Plaza Could Revive Old Controversy

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Bethesda-based Clark Enterprises is trying to get the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza back on the radar, while also making the case that the best future for the space doesn’t include development of another building.

Clark officials and architect David Kitchens on Monday presented plans for a revitalized Bethesda Metro Park, this time in an effort to garner support from a group of residents and business leaders on the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board.

Clark Enterprises, which has its corporate headquarters just northwest of the Plaza, hired Kitchens to come up with two concepts for fixing what has been one of downtown Bethesda’s most disappointing open spaces.

To make it happen, Clark is trying to get a park concept into the Bethesda Downtown Plan — the ongoing rewrite of the downtown Bethesda Sector Plan that county planners will kick up to the county Planning Board early next year.

Brookfield Office proposal for a new building and new Bethesda Metro Plaza park, via Planning DepartmentBut Clark isn’t the only one looking for big changes to the space.

Brookfield Properties, owner of the 3 Bethesda Metro Center office building on the Plaza and next door to Clark, revived the controversial idea of erecting a new building on the Plaza during an Oct. 29 Planning Department forum.

Architect Mark Regulinski presented Brookfield’s very preliminary concept for a new mixed-use building on the Plaza near Old Georgetown Road, effectively blocking the open space from Bethesda’s biggest intersection — and blocking the view of Clark Enterprises.

“If the [Sector] Plan and the residents of Bethesda want to reserve this as a great lawn, you’ve got to figure out how to pay for the renovations, and we’ve attempted to be pretty modest,” Kitchens told the Advisory Board. “If you look at this, as opposed to trying to put a building here which has columns that could affect the tunnel below, we feel it’s better to be as open and visible as possible at the street.”

The 16-story office building proposed by previous property owner Meridian in 2008, via Planning DepartmentThe controversy over more development on the Bethesda Metro Plaza dates back almost 10 years.

In 2006, the previous owner of 3 Bethesda Metro Center proposed a 20-story condominium that was later revised to a 16-story office building known as 4 Bethesda Metro Center where the Plaza’s food court was. (That space is now being leased by real estate firm Streetsense.)

In a rare public spat between developers, Plaza neighbors Clark Enterprises, Chevy Chase Land Company and Chevy Chase Bank all fought the proposal, claiming it would ruin views from their buildings and hurt any chance at improving the public space.

The Planning Board killed the proposal in 2008. In 2011, Brookfield bought the property from Meridian, the previous owner, for $150.1 million with the idea to develop another building on the Plaza.

On Monday, Clark Enterprises general counsel Rebecca Owen said Clark will be talking to Brookfield and other neighbors about the future of the space, but also said the best way to “energize the plaza” would be for it to be open to the street.

During their Oct. 29 presentation, Regulinski, Brookfield’s Simon Carney and land use attorney Bob Harris said they share the same goal as Clark — to create a better open space for the residents and workers of Bethesda.

“We welcome them to step up and give us their ideas,” Carney said of Clark’s plan.

But there is already zoning to construct another building there.

“It’s a site where development can be accommodated with the least impact, it’s zoned for more,” Harris said at the forum.

Both Clark and Brookfield pitched a large, grassy park space with new connections to Bethesda Row, programmable areas and possibly new retail in an effort to activate what is essentially the center of downtown Bethesda.

In the 1994 Bethesda CBD Sector Plan, the Plaza was envisioned as one of the city’s most active public areas, with an ice skating rink just steps away from the Metro station entrance.

But the ice skating rink fizzled, the food court in the 3 Bethesda Metro Center pavilion didn’t last and the area has never been able to sustain a real retail presence, another subject on which Clark and Brookfield apparently don’t see eye-to-eye.

“We have the bandwith as a company to really make the retail pop at this location,” Carney said on Oct. 29, referring to Brookfield’s size and its recent major projects in Manhattan and Los Angeles.

“I think we’ve got retail problems here,” Kitchens told the Advisory Board on Monday. “The buildings aren’t designed well for retail.”

Next month, a committee of the Advisory Board is set to hear from Brookfield. On Monday, Clark’s Alex McSpadden asked the Advisory Board for a letter of support to get at least the general concept of an open park back on the radar of county planners.

In their Concept Framework Plan, planners identified six downtown areas where new or expanded parks and public space should be a priority. The Bethesda Metro Plaza wasn’t one of them.

Images via Clark Enterprises/Cooper Carry, Montgomery County Planning Department