For planning purposes, the section of Chevy Chase sandwiched between Norwood Local Park and Bradley Boulevard has been labeled “South Bethesda.”
Some who live there are wondering why, wary that the area’s inclusion in the Bethesda Downtown Plan will mean new zoning, development and the loss of low-rise condo and apartment buildings that anchor the predominantly residential neighborhood.
On Monday, Planning Department Director Gwen Wright and lead downtown Bethesda planner Elza Hisel-McCoy met with a group of about 30 neighborhood residents crammed into the lobby of the five-story Bradley House condo on Chevy Chase Drive.
They questioned the two on what zoning changes could be coming, complained about how the development already happening in downtown Bethesda is affecting them and made it clear they weren’t interested in similar density in their community.
“You’re creating a cookie-cutter environment,” said one participant. “All these wonderful imperfections are going to go off into the distance.”
Planning Department staff has yet to present any zoning recommendations in the Downtown Plan, a rewrite of the area’s 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan.
But Wright and Hisel-McCoy said they don’t anticipate a Bethesda Row-style build-up of mixed-use properties in the area.
“This area is an important transition and that transition needs to be maintained,” Wright told the residents. “To be honest, we’ve had the same issue in the north and west and east edges of Bethesda.”
Just south of Bradley Boulevard and west of Wisconsin Avenue, the section planners have tentatively called South Bethesda includes a number of four- and five-story rental properties from Bethesda property manager Aldon, some townhomes and brick condo buildings.
The planners said all signs point away from the intense mixed-use development of Bethesda Row or the 17-story apartments sprouting up in Woodmont Triangle. But with aging buildings, one major property owner has expressed some desire to redevelop.
Hisel-McCoy said Aldon Management has been in to talk to planners in general terms about what could be possible for its properties in the new Sector Plan. The Bethesda Fire Department, which is having internal discussions about redeveloping its Fire Station #6 at Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue, has yet to talk to planners.
A Bethesda Fire Department board member said the group envisions a mixed-use residential development to help pay for a new, modernized fire station facility.
“Some level of change is inevitable with time,” Wright said.
Some of the residents at the Monday meeting said the developers — with lawyers tasked to the process full-time — have a built-in advantage in the process. That’s a characterization Hisel-McCoy and Wright denied.
County planners have held dozens of meetings with civic groups, county government officials, law firms that represent developers, property owners and individual businesses.
As for why the area with a Chevy Chase address was included in the Bethesda Downtown Plan, Wright said it’s common to include areas that can be significantly affected by downtown development in larger master plans. The section was included in both the 1994 and 1977 downtown Bethesda Master Plans.
And although it’s outside of the formal Central Business District, Wright said being included in talks about a new downtown Bethesda was a benefit — not something to be afraid of.
“If you’re part of it, you have the ability to affect how that change will happen in your neighborhood,” Wright said.
The next formal meeting of the Bethesda Downtown Plan is set for the morning of Saturday, May 17 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. More details are coming soon.