County Council Pulls Staging Out of Bethesda Plan, Includes Progress Checks Instead

As featured in Bethesda Magazine

All but Elrich endorse two-decade growth plan in straw vote

County Council members on Tuesday stripped staging out of the downtown Bethesda growth plan, producing a version that all but one of them could get behind.

A council committee and staff recommended halting development at 30.4 million square feet, which would allow about 2.2 million square feet beyond what is currently standing and approved in Bethesda. To build the rest of the 4.2 million square feet permitted under the plan, Bethesda would have to meet certain targets for reduced reliance on single-occupant cars.

But the full council scrapped this two-step process. Instead, members opted to set goals for Bethesda commuting patterns, require transportation officials to come up with a strategy for achieving them and institute progress checks.

“There’s a difference between a red light and a flashing yellow. This is a flashing yellow,” council President Roger Berliner said.

Under the revised plan’s goals, at least 55 percent of Bethesda commuters would be traveling by bicycle, Metro or some other form of shared transportation by the time development hits the 30.4 million-square-foot benchmark. If this target isn’t achieved, council members would have the option to halt growth without reconsidering the entire Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan, Berliner said. However, the development freeze wouldn’t happen automatically.

Council members supported this version of the sector plan, a two-decade growth vision, by a straw vote of 8-1, with only council member Marc Elrich in opposition. Elrich said he couldn’t back a proposal that lacked staging. The council likely will vote on a final plan in coming weeks.

The Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents and other community groups have also favored phasing development to prevent growth from overwhelming infrastructure, such as schools and roads.

But county planners have argued the sector plan is so modest in scale that including stages could trigger a development freeze without any significant headway on transportation goals. The proposed Marriott headquarters project alone will consume an estimated 400,000 square feet of the additional 4.2 million square feet allowed by the plan, according to county staff reports.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council made a number of other plan changes, such as:

  • reducing the height cap for Chevy Chase Acura dealership site (7725 Wisconsin Ave.) from 200 to 145 feet;
  • lowering the height cap for the Saul property (8001 Wisconsin Ave.) from 120 to 90 feet;
  • limiting to 90 feet heights for a row of properties east of Wisconsin Avenue and north of Cheltenham Drive; and
  • limiting to 70 feet heights for 4715 Chestnut Street, 4719 Chestnut Street and 8321 Wisconsin Ave.

Berliner said he’s pleased with the balance that council members have achieved between stimulating growth that will create parks and affordable housing and respecting the community’s wishes to focus high-rise projects away from neighborhoods.

“I feel like the people that live there today are getting public amenities that they desire, and I think we’re creating a more vibrant Bethesda that is really going to be a great boon for our county and our residents,” he said.

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