The county’s new blueprint for downtown Bethesda calls for more parks, but questions remain about the timing and who will pay for them
On a warm evening in late June, dozens of dogs frolicked as their owners and others enjoyed live music under the shade trees of Elm Street Urban Park in downtown Bethesda.
Normally a quiet 2-acre oasis a block east of a busy commercial stretch along Wisconsin Avenue, the park had gone to the dogs for “Yappy Hour,” an event featuring food, drinks, entertainment and temporary enclosures for large and small canines to romp at will. Co-sponsored by the Montgomery Parks department and the Bethesda Urban Partnership, Yappy Hour is an example of how county officials are working to provide more interactive events to draw residents into county parks.
Surveying the crowd of people and dogs inside the large dog enclosure, Mike Riley, director of Montgomery County’s park system, talked about finding partners to increase the number of live events, including arts fairs and music festivals, in downtown Bethesda. “We want to get the message out that the parks are open for these [events],” he said.
Riley says potential co-sponsors are warming to the idea of partnering for such events, but that hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when those who were interested in using parks for community gatherings were reluctant to run afoul of nearby residents who tended to regard open spaces, such as the Elm Street park, as little more than passive green buffers between themselves and the noise and congestion of the downtown area. In turn, that reluctance helps to explain why Bethesda’s central business district has transformed from suburban village to urban downtown without an accompanying expansion of parkland.
“The residential community was more concerned about not having tall buildings approaching their neighborhoods than they ever were concerned about parkland in the downtown,” says Gus Bauman, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board during the late 1980s and early 1990s, recalling the debate on his watch that produced the 1994 sector plan for Bethesda’s central business district.
At the time, Bauman says bluntly, “The downtown was the enemy. It was to be constrained.”
Amid the smart growth policies of subsequent decades, what was once the “enemy” has become a desirable amenity in the eyes of many newer residents in or near Bethesda’s 450-acre downtown. “What I keep reminding people is that the value proposition for Bethesda is a quality of life proposition, because we’re never going to be the cheapest office space or cheapest apartments,” says developer Jad Donohoe. “And parks are part of that value proposition for Bethesda.”
Donohoe co-chairs the advisory committee of business and resident interests overseeing implementation of the Bethesda Downtown Plan, the successor to the 1994 sector plan. The latest blueprint, enacted last year by the county council, aims to remedy the dearth of downtown park space—which now stands at just under 10 acres, little more than 2 percent of the downtown area. The new plan aspires to more than double that, identifying more than 13 additional acres for parks.
While acknowledging that “it’s highly unlikely we’re going to get every single one of these” additional acres for new parks, current planning board Chair Casey Anderson quickly adds: “The point was to try to figure out where there could be an opportunity so that, when the time comes, we can take advantage of it.”
Anderson and other officials are highlighting what they see as a couple of big wins in the year since the downtown plan’s enactment: the acquisition by the Montgomery Parks department of private land amid the bustling Bethesda Row shopping area for a 0.4-acre “civic green,” and progress by a private partnership toward purchasing the historic 0.7-acre Farm Women’s Market property adjacent to several planned high-rise buildings along Wisconsin Avenue.
If all goes as hoped, the Farm Women’s Market property would become a privately owned public space. In return for buying and managing the space as a publicly accessible civic green, the two firms that comprise the partnership—Columbia Realty Venture and Foulger-Pratt—would receive additional square footage or “density” for planned developments nearby.
“I think a lot of folks were somewhat skeptical about how committed the plan was to actually creating this open-space network,” county planning department Director Gwen Wright observes. “But I hope they understand—and now believe—that there is a huge commitment to doing that, and that we are really moving forward aggressively.”
But skepticism remains among Bethesda park advocates who note that it will be another four to five years—a quarter of the approximately 20-year lifespan of the newly adopted downtown plan—before the Bethesda Row property along Woodmont Avenue is operational as a park. Formally designated as the “Capital Crescent Civic Green,” that land is currently a staging area for construction of the adjacent station for the light-rail Purple Line, which is scheduled to begin service in 2022.
The creation of a civic green on the Farm Women’s Market property faces a similar timetable, with acquisition of the property by the private partnership—which is tied to planning board approvals for the redevelopment of other properties—not expected until 2019, followed by another two to three years of work before the green would open to the public.
The timeline for realizing other acreage designated for park space in the downtown plan remains uncertain. Some of it is contingent on negotiating concessions of land from private development that’s not yet underway. At the top of an informal priority list at the planning department, along with the Capital Crescent Civic Green and the Farm Women’s Market site, is an expansion of the half-acre Veteran’s Park in Woodmont Triangle—possibly to include land from the current Union Hardware property to the east or other properties immediately to the north and west.
“At this time, we don’t have anything happening on either of those options,” Wright says, noting that the owners of the properties involved have not submitted applications for redevelopment.
More broadly, Bethesda park advocates are concerned about how the projected $151 million public cost of acquiring and developing acreage identified in the plan—the Montgomery Parks department’s estimate provided to the county council last year—will be underwritten. The so-called PIP (Park Impact Payment) that’s paid by developers in return for additional density for their projects is estimated by Anderson to cover “something north of $50 million of that,” leaving county bonds and general revenues and limited state aid to cover the remaining roughly $100 million over a two-decade period.