Montgomery Planning Board Recommends State Adopt Bethesda Plan

As featured on Urban Turf

Last week, the Montgomery County Council approved the Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan, which will determine how Bethesda is developed over the next 20 years. This morning, the county’s planning board unanimously voted to recommend that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission approve the plan. The board also engaged in preliminary discussions about design guidelines.

As the development potential of downtown Bethesda has expanded greatly with the new sector plan, the board recognizes how crucial it is to ensure future development be carried out responsibly and with consideration given to existing challenges and needs of the community. The future design guidelines are meant to ensure that new buildings are compatible with the surroundings, have a good relationship to the streetscape and are conducive to a walkable environment.

Draft building guideline recommendations

Building design guidelines thus far are delineated by the concept of a base, tower, and top. All buildings will have base standards depending on the classification of the fronting street; the guidelines recommend a continuing street wall at the base to make the scale pedestrian-friendly.

The tower is any section of floors above the base; the guidelines recommend separation between adjacent towers to allow light and air, setbacks based on street type, and a “menu” of methods to limit the appearance of bulk. The top section applies to signature tall buildings and the guidelines recommend that these add visual interest to the skyline.

As guidelines are considered, many raised the question of how specific these guidelines should be, whether focused more on intent and overall objectives rather than particular design mandates.

Additionally, the ability to implement priorities based on the design approval process could also be an issue, especially when addressing issues like stormwater management. When commissioners pointed out that some developers approach stormwater provisions in a manner that undermines public space or amenity needs, board staff pointed out that the Department of Permitting Services reviews stormwater management specifically and without consideration of unintended design conflicts.

Public comments on the draft guidelines included:

  • the idea that small patches of open space and parklets have been unsuccessful as usable public space thus far and that it may be preferable to encourage developers to combine their efforts to create one larger and more welcoming park instead.
  • that the language of the guidelines makes it difficult to waive requirements.
  • that more consideration should be added for the specific size and limitations of each site on a case-by-case basis rather than blanket design principles.
  • agreement that guidelines should be more general and goal-oriented — “words, good; numbers, bad”.

The working draft of the guidelines will be released next month. There will also be a series of stakeholder meetings throughout the summer as the board staff continues to refine the design guidelines.

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