Is a More Urban Bethesda Inevitable?

Is a More Urban Bethesda Inevitable?

The Montgomery County Council is about to consider a plan that calls for more development and taller buildings in downtown Bethesda, but many local residents disapprove

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It’s an evening in early October, and Town of Chevy Chase Councilmember Barney Rush is at a standing-room-only meeting of local residents, painstakingly outlining details of county planners’ latest vision for Bethesda’s urbanized core a few blocks to the west.

Rush seeks to put in perspective the amount of square footage—“density” in urban planning speak—that could be used in the construction of additional commercial and residential buildings in the downtown area. He points to 4.2 million square feet still available from a Bethesda downtown sector plan enacted in 1994. He adds in another 4.6 million square feet contained in the new sector plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board last summer and now before the county council.

By the planning board’s own figures, it makes for a total of nearly 9 million square feet of additional development within the 450 acres that define Bethesda’s central business district. “You could ask yourself, ‘What does that mean?’ ” Rush says. There’s an audible reaction from several audience members when Rush points out that the Pentagon comprises 6 million square feet.

Many of those present already are keenly aware that the plan would allow tall buildings—up to 250 feet, or roughly 25 stories—to replace several low- and medium-rise structures on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue, the town’s informal border with downtown Bethesda.

Protest signs declaring “Communities Not Canyons” dot lawns in the Town of Chevy Chase, as well as to the north in East Bethesda, where there are similar nervous visions of a wall of high-rises abutting a neighborhood of single-family homes.

Town of Chevy Chase Mayor Scott Fosler (left) and Councilmember Barney Rush stand along Wisconsin Avenue just to the west of the town. In the background behind Fosler is the Apex Building, soon to be demolished to make way for a structure that would be allowed to rise as high as 290 feet. Photo by Darren Higgins

“We know there certainly are people who would love to see no change at all, and keep things the way they are,” Rush, who chairs the committee formulating the town’s response to the Bethesda plan, tells the audience. “I think most of us on the committee know that’s not going to happen, there is going to be development. And, in fact, for many of us, development is good.”

Rush then confronts the pejorative often heard by those who are critical or skeptical of growth. “…Those of us who are town officials, we do hear, ‘Oh, you people in Chevy Chase are just NIMBYs, you don’t want any change, you don’t want any growth.’ So our message has been, ‘No, that’s not the point. Our point is trying to determine the difference between…what is a reasonable amount of development that is sustainable and supportable by the infrastructure, versus what might be an excessive amount of development that could really cause problems for this community.’ ”

The planning board’s response came a couple of weeks after Rush’s presentation, as the county council opened a debate into the matter that’s likely to stretch into late winter or early spring.

“This is a very moderate plan,” said Montgomery County Planning Department Director Gwen Wright, who later provided figures indicating that the proposed square footage is barely two-thirds of what was approved in the previous plan two decades earlier.  

Planning board Chairman Casey Ander-son assured the council that there isn’t enough square footage being proposed in the new plan to build the number of tall buildings feared by neighboring communities.

Anderson spoke in patient tones, but his words suggested an impatience with resistance to additional growth in Bethesda.

“When you hear that Bethesda has reached its limit, that there’s already too much there,” he said, stopping in midsentence before continuing. “The previous generation of planners and the previous generation of officials who in 1994 voted to take a step forward in the face of very similar objections about traffic, development, overcrowding, school capacity…were vindicated.”

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The current county planning process came into play in the early 1970s, with “master plans” guiding land use and zoning for specific areas of the county, and “sector plans” dealing with a portion of a master plan area that was targeted for intense development. And because sector plans set long-term development, intense and sometimes acrimonious debate followed.

The most contentious fight in recent memory occurred over the Westbard Sector Plan that was approved by the county council in 2016. Westbard is a section of Bethesda off River Road that features mostly low-rise commercial development and is surrounded by neighborhoods of single-family homes. The Westbard Shopping Center and Bowlmor Lanes are located there.

While sector plans are usually reviewed about every 20 years, the Westbard plan hadn’t been updated for more than 30 years. Royce Hanson, a two-time planning board chairman, chuckles that he successfully kept Westbard off the board’s agenda “because I know those folks.”

Royce Hanson, a former planning board chairman, oversaw the first Bethesda sector plan, in 1976, that determined where the Metro station—pictured behind him—would be located. Hanson also had to convince adjacent communities that “the central business district is just not going to flow into Edgemoor and Chevy Chase and East Bethesda and all of the other neighborhoods.” Photo by Darren Higgins

Plans for redevelopment of the area by New York-based Equity One, which purchased the shopping center and some surrounding properties in 2014, forced the issue back onto the planning board’s agenda. Open warfare followed.

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