Tool To Preserve Bethesda’s Small Businesses Could Become More Common
Jeff Black does restaurants. The developer building a 17-story, 250-unit apartment building around the corner from his Woodmont Triangle restaurant does construction.
For that reason, the veteran restaurateur said it made sense to sell that developer a little more than 7,000 square feet of unrealized density on his land, effectively giving up the rights to redevelop his own building through a process called a density transfer.
The Planning Department put the idea in motion in its 2006 sector plan amendment for Woodmont Triangle, a commercial-heavy section of one- and two-story Bethesda buildings home to the bulk of its locally-owned restaurants and retailers.
One of the goals, according to Bethesda area Planning Chief Robert Kronenberg, was to preserve those restaurants and retailers by allowing their building owners to sell density to other sites in the area.
Since 2006, 13 properties have sent density to four high-rise apartment and condo projects, saving tenants in those properties from the specter of redevelopment.
Another three properties have agreed to do the same with a 16-story apartment project on St Elmo Avenue that’s yet to be fully approved.
“That was the goal and if it has preserved 13 sites for retail, I think it’s been pretty good,” Kronenberg said.
Black, who owns the building that houses his Black’s Bar & Kitchen at 7750 Woodmont Avenue, sold the density to developer JBG for a total he said was in the tens of thousands of dollars. He used the money to improve the restaurant and to finance his Republic restaurant in Takoma Park, which opened in late 2013.
JBG got more space to build more units in its 7770 Norfolk Avenue project.
And Bethesda restaurant-goers don’t have to worry about losing Black’s popular restaurant to a future redevelopment project in the foreseeable future.
“The county gets more density near the Metro. It puts more people in Bethesda. I get more residents who live right around the corner from my restaurant,” Black said. “It’s a win-win all the way around.”
The concept — called “density averaging” in the county’s new zoning code — could get more play thanks to the Planning Department’s ongoing rewrite of the downtown Bethesda sector plan.
“I think there’s clearly going to be some new opportunities in the areas that we’re kind of targeting as the activity centers,” Kronenberg said. “If we’re looking at Woodmont Triangle, that means the Veterans Park area. The intent is still there to try and encourage preservation of the businesses, or at least to the extent that we can from a zoning perspective.”
Despite its reputation as more funky and independent than clean-cut Bethesda Row, a Planning Department-commissioned retail study from real estate firm Streetsense found Woodmont Triangle was one of downtown’s least promising commercial areas.
Streetsense found smaller spaces in older buildings that were less conducive to successful retail. That in turn has led to lower rents and higher turnover in Woodmont Triangle.
Some members of the Woodmont Triangle Action Group (WTAG) — an advisory board of residents and civic leaders established by the 2006 sector plan amendment — have wondered whether those older buildings are holding the area back.
While Black owns the building that holds his restaurant, the same is not true of the tenants in most of the other properties that have transferred density.
According to some on the Action Group, that has led to smaller property owners reaping the rewards of the density transfer process without putting that money into improving their properties.
The WTAG would like to see a more unified look to Woodmont Triangle, especially along a Norfolk Avenue with better lighting and streetscape features.
Instead of parking in a garage, going to dinner and immediately getting back in the car, people should stay and walk through Woodmont Triangle. At least that’s the hope of some on the WTAG who see major retail anchors such as Barnes & Noble and the Apple store creating that effect at Bethesda Row.
Kronenberg said the density transfers so far are consistent with the intent of the Woodmont Triangle amendment.
Tenants in the three other properties that sold off density to the 7770 Norfolk Avenue project (formerly known as 4900 Fairmont) include a consignment shop, baby boutique and batch of office businesses on Rugby Avenue.
The owner of the Capital One Bank building at Cordell and Woodmont Avenues sold nearly 10,000 square feet of density to the 7900 Wisconsin apartment project.
The owner of the historic Golden House Chinese food restaurant property on Wisconsin Avenue sold off 3,500 square feet of density for the 17-story, 200-unit Bainbridge Bethesda apartment project, which opened last year.
The owner of the Del Ray Avenue building home to the W. Curtis Draper Fine Tobacconist also sold off density for the Bainbridge project. So did the owner of Cordell Avenue building home to Chaos Salon.
Others around Bethesda have taken notice, including homeowners in the Sacks Neighborhood sandwiched between Bethesda Row, the Capital Crescent Trail and Bradley Boulevard.
For now, density transfers are restricted to property owners in commercial mixed-use zones selling to other property owners in commercial mixed-use zones.
Kronenberg said planners have met with Sacks homeowners five or six times, but wouldn’t consider rezoning until all homeowners are on board.
“You have two different crowds. While we’ve definitely listened to the people who have come and talked to us, we’re not considering it at this point,” Kronenberg said. “We do have a couple other neighborhoods that have asked the same question.”