Development Pros Provide Insights on Future of Bethesda Office Park

County planners working on Rock Spring Sector Plan participate in two-day ‘Technical Assistance Panel’

The Rock Spring office park (right) and Westfield Montgomery mall (left)

The Rock Spring office park (right) and Westfield Montgomery mall (left)

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT

Nine area development professionals say the Rock Spring office park in Bethesda could use a “Village Center,” more housing and perhaps even a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 270 to provide a more direct link from the area to nearby Westfield Montgomery mall.

The “Technical Assistance Panel” from the Urban Land Institute and including officials from developers Clark Enterprises, Foulger-Pratt and Akridge came up with the recommendations after two days of discussions with county planners and site visits to the Rock Spring Office Park and the office buildings along Executive Boulevard near White Flint.

The Montgomery County Planning Department invited the group in as county planners work through master plans for both the Rock Spring and White Flint II sectors.

While the sector plans for each area will be separate processes, Rock Spring and Executive Boulevard share one important trait: They’re home to suburban-style corporate office parks that are struggling as tenants seek more transit-accessible office space.

The Rock Spring office park, home to the corporate headquarters of Marriott International and Lockheed Martin, has a vacancy rate of 21.2 percent. The office park on Executive Boulevard has a vacancy rate of 29.2 percent. Each office park contains three empty buildings and Marriott plans to move its 2,500 headquarters employees out of Rock Spring when its lease ends in 2022.

“Hope is not a strategy,” declared the panel’s final report on the same slide that pointed to eight corporate headquarters that have moved into Fairfax County office space in the past six years, while none have moved into Montgomery County.

To deal with the struggling office park, the panel suggested many of the ideas county planners have already been thinking about.

They include breaking up mega-blocks in the office park with mid-block crossings, providing more landscaping and improved streetscapes to improve the pedestrian experience and allowing zoning for mixed-use residential and retail projects.

The Rock Spring Sector Plan, which will set zoning and land-use goals for the next 20 to 30 years, will examine that recommendation. But the addition of housing to the office park has already begun, thanks to construction of a 168-town home project from developer EYA after it was granted a zoning exception to proceed.

The panel recommended creating a “Village Center” that would be centrally located and include civic institutions such as a county library, arts facilities and perhaps a new school site to address existing overcrowding problems in the area. The development professionals also pitched a direct shuttle to a nearby Metro station.

The panel also advised that the county should use Rock Spring Centre, the mixed-use residential and entertainment center long planned for the property across the street from Walter Johnson High School, to catalyze the transformation of the entire area.

In what was probably their most outside-the-box recommendation, the development professionals pitched a pedestrian bridge that could also function as a civic plaza over the I-270 spur. They pointed to the 11th Street Bridge Park planned in Washington, D.C. as an example of how the bridge could look.

The bridge would provide a better connection from Rock Spring to Westfield Montgomery mall, the facility that recently underwent a $90 million renovation and that’s on the opposite side of the I-270 Spur.

The development professionals said the current .75-mile trip from the Marriott Headquarters parking lot along Westlake Terrace to the mall can take a pedestrian up to 15 minutes. They suggested the bridge would provide for a .25-mile trip that would take five minutes.

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