One of Bethesda’s most visible open spaces has a fresh look this week, a welcome sign for some who say the area has been a wasted asset.
Property owner Federal Realty has put in new landscaping and some new turf to Woodmont Plaza, the section of grass in front of the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema that has served as a de facto public space in an area largely devoid of them.
Councilmember Roger Berliner, who had been pushing for a more welcoming look for Woodmont Plaza, said he recently walked the property with Federal Realty President and CEO Don Wood.
“It’s one of the aspects of Bethesda that has driven me crazy for years. It was just a wasted asset,” Berliner said. “On their own nickel, they’ve decided to make something nice happen there. It’s not going to be an eyesore anymore.”
Woodmont Plaza is often the place where Haagen-Dazs customers eat their ice cream, where Capital Crescent Trail users stop for a rest and where, on some weekends, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students train for the school’s club crew team.
But it was also slated for a hotel, to be developed in partnership by Federal Realty and neighboring property owner JBG, before the deal fell through earlier this year and left the space with an uncertain future.
To make matters more complicated, Woodmont Plaza is located just west of the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel — the future site of the Bethesda Purple Line station.
State transit planners have said the light rail station could require “tail tracks” that would extend into the grassy area. In September, state officials seemed to hedge on those claims by saying the tail tracks could be shortened to fit into the station.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County planners say Woodmont Plaza should be one of six enhanced public gathering spaces to come out of the Bethesda Downtown Plan — a rewrite of the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District Sector Plan.
The improvements made by Federal Realty last week include a new stone pathway from the area in front of the Cinema to the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel, a new stone structure meant to mitigate the effects of stormwater on the grass, new sod and new planters.
“I’m proud that Federal Realty is being a good community partner and not waiting for some development approval, making something happen now,” Berliner said. “I think it’s going to be a real plus for the community just to have a little space to sit and sort of expand the effect that space in front of the Barnes & Noble has.”