Dozens of residents almost uniformly criticized the Bethesda Downtown Plan at a Montgomery County Council public hearing Tuesday night, faulting the land-use guide because it lacked sufficient parkland, provisions for new schools or upgrades to transportation. They also called for lower maximum building heights of buildings, especially for properties close to single-family homes.
Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Scott Fosler testified the plan could increase the number of buildings taller than 20 stories from four to 32, making Bethesda second only to Baltimore in the state when it comes to the number of very tall buildings in a community.
Foster called for building heights of no more than 60 feet on property next to the Bethesda Sport and Health Club on Montgomery Avenue, 90 feet east of Wisconsin Avenue and south out of Leland Street and 120 feet next to the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market on Wisconsin Avenue.
Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson, however, said the new plan, and the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan it replaces, contain enough capacity for only seven projects similar to that of Marriott International’s proposed headquarters. The company announced Tuesday it would relocate from its Fernwood Road location and build a 700,000-square-foot building to house 3,500 employees and a hotel in downtown Bethesda.
In responding to Fosler, Anderson said: “It is literally impossible from a physical amount of space available and an amount of capacity available in the plan to reach that level” of development.
More than 110 people attended the hearing, the first of three to be held the council’s hearing room in Rockville. Nearly 40 people testified in a hearing that lasted just more than two hours. More testimony on the plan is expected during sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday nights.
The update of the master plan designed to guide the development of downtown Bethesda for the next 20 years has been two years in the making and was approved by the Planning Board in July. The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is likely to take up the plan by the end of November or the beginning of December.
Mary Flynn, speaking for the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents, noted that the plan has a “laudable” goal of increasing the number of parks in the downtown area. However, she said the plan’s proposals are inadequate.
Proposed parkland amounts to 4 percent, and acres per 1,000 people is 0.54 acres.. The city of Washington, D.C., she claimed, provides 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 people. Although Flynn was representing CBAR, she is also a member of the Town of Chevy Chase Council.
She and others noted that county-owned surface parking lots could be converted to parkland.
Anderson, however, testified that the plan was designed to rectify issues with the 1994 downtown sector plan.
“This plan does make an unprecedented commitment of real resources, and I think credible mechanisms for achieving some of the goals of parks and open space, affordable housing, and also better design because we heard loud and clear and agree that those were shortcomings of the ’94 plan goals that were not achieved and we believe our plan can achieve them,” he said.
Residents believed the plan underestimates the amount of traffic that would result from new development, and asked that the University of Maryland be requested to conduct its own traffic analysis of the plan. David Belkin, a Chestnut Street resident, decried the current traffic problems getting onto Wisconsin Avenue.
“Try getting out of my neighborhood onto or across Wisconsin anytime from about 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, and you would have enough time to read a short novel,” he said.
He asked council members that when they consider how tall buildings can be, they should also ask how many cars are going to be added to “overburdened” roads from the people who live in them.
Residents also asked for Montgomery County Public Schools to sign off on the plan, fearing that the number of new housing units allowed by the plan would stress already overcrowded schools.
Many in the audience wore green stickers that said, “Protect Bethesda Green Space,” handed out by three young men who would not identify themselves. One said they worked “on behalf of” Clark Construction, which has a building adjacent to the Bethesda Metro Station.
Clark has sparred openly with Brookfield Properties, which has a ground lease for the Metro property. Brookfield regional counsel Simon Carney has said his company wants to develop the site, with plans for green space, but has held off on specifics until the Bethesda Downtown Plan is complete.
Several speakers criticized the Planning Board for not using a citizens advisory board to help guide the plan’s drafting.
Outside the hearing, Anderson defended the outreach by planners that accompanied the plan’s development as it moved through the process, which included social media, live streaming of proposals, happy hours, meetings of small groups of five or six residents and large meetings of 100 or 200 people.