County Gears Up for Anticipated Spate of Construction Closures in Downtown Bethesda

In coming years, a trip down Wisconsin Avenue could double as a tour of Bethesda’s largest construction projects.

Work has begun on a trophy office tower and residential high-rise at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., the site of the Apex building. Several blocks away, near the intersection with Cheltenham Drive, developers are looking to break ground in 2018 on the Marriott International headquarters and flagship hotel. With those and other projects slated for the corridor, officials are pondering the best way of dealing with construction closures along one of the county’s busiest thoroughfares and elsewhere in the bustling downtown area.

County Council President Roger Berliner, whose district includes Bethesda, said he’s been checking to make sure county agencies are communicating with each other about the expected wave of development.

Residents in that area want to “make sure the county government is coordinating all these redevelopment projects and street closures and sidewalk closures so that it has the least destructive impact on our community,” he said Monday.

Over the past few weeks, representatives from county permitting, mapping and transportation departments and from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center have begun discussing a coordinated plan, said Diane Schwartz Jones, the permitting services director.

“We want to develop a transparent approach to construction activities in the area,” she said.

It’s too soon to get into specifics, but she said the group is talking about managing construction impacts and keeping the public in the loop during the process.

She said the county is also talking to the Maryland State Highway Administration, which handles lane and sidewalk closures on state roadways such as Wisconsin Avenue.

In addition to the Apex site project and work on the Marriott offices, there are redevelopment plans for the former Fitness First site at 7900 Wisconsin Ave. and the police station near the Montgomery Avenue intersection. Demolition at the station could begin in 2018, according to a project proposal.

Another company is gearing up to submit concept plans for a 500,000-square-foot residential or office building at the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza, which faces Wisconsin Avenue.

Already, some projects have led to sidewalk and lane closures along Wisconsin Avenue, a road with an average daily traffic volume of 39,000 cars near the D.C. line and 65,000 near the Beltway.

Downtown resident Richard Hoye said although the construction activity will cause temporary inconveniences for drivers, travelers should pay attention to the big picture.

“With the development projects, when they’re finished, we’re going to have a much more enlivened streetscape and destinations that are going to attract more pedestrians,” he said.

While the Montgomery County Planning Board is in charge of reviewing development proposals, Board Chair Casey Anderson said the project scheduling is largely outside of its purview. Some redevelopment efforts are delayed for years, while others fizzle out entirely, he said.

“We’re not in a position to be able to forecast with any precision what the timing of multiple projects will be,” he said.

County officials in charge of permitting construction are better suited to flag potential overlaps and difficulties, Anderson added.

Schwartz Jones said her office looks at traffic management plans for various projects, but doesn’t sign off on them. The Montgomery County Department of Transportation deals with sidewalk and lane closures on county roads, while SHA manages state highways.

An SHA spokesman said state permits typically allow construction during off-peak hours, or from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Maryland transportation officials consider requests for night and weekend construction closures on a case-by-case basis, spokesman Charlie Gischlar wrote in an email.

He added that crane operations require double lane closures, typically for a longer time period, so SHA allows this activity during weekends, when traffic is lighter. The state permits sidewalk closures for pedestrian safety near work sites, he added.

“Lengthy sidewalk closures will require a sidewalk detour to allow pedestrians to safely reach their destinations,” Gischlar wrote.

Staff writer Andrew Metcalf contributed to this report.


As featured in Bethesda Magazine