A high-powered group of residents, business owners and real estate professionals thinks Bethesda has enough pocket parks buried behind buildings and art hidden behind lobby doors.
The Board of Directors of the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, a division of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, is pushing for the chance to sell its vision for public art projects required with private development in downtown Bethesda.
As the Montgomery County Planning Department gathers community input on its new master plan for the area, the Arts & Entertainment Board sees a golden opportunity.
“The task that we’ve undertaken really is going to help develop the value of Bethesda, the character of Bethesda and the community. It gives it a sense of place, a sense of purpose in some respects,” said Debra Moser, a member of the Board and co-founder of Bethesda’s Central Farm Market. “Our purpose at looking at this is really to bring this community together and have people understand the context of the community they live in.”
What the Board wants, in a nutshell, is money from the private developers of downtown Bethesda to help finance projects like a semi-permanent sculpture garden along Norfolk Avenue, a community black box theater or a civic green space that’s accessible and visible.
Montgomery County now provides a public amenity option to developers that want increased density, a common occurrence in downtown Bethesda. In an attempt to create a more vibrant urban place, developers can provide open spaces and public art.
But in Bethesda and elsewhere, those amenities are usually restricted to the developer’s property.
Jane Fairweather, Bethesda realtor and a member of the Board, said the building she lives in has an open space that’s closed off to visitors. There are also examples of public amenities inside of building lobbies or on private rooftops, which doesn’t benefit the general public.
“Just because it says public amenity, doesn’t mean it really is a public amenity,” Fairweather said. “What we’re saying to developers is, ‘Look at this as a complement to your building. The more lively the art and entertainment district is, the more economic benefit you get from it.’ We don’t want some Miami architect who builds your building to decide what the community public art should be without at least a conversation.”
Based on the last Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan, adopted in 1994, many developers have built open spaces off of main streets. The result has been spaces such as the virtually unused green space near the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
It has left many clamoring for more focus on civic space in the master plan rewrite.
“We think we’re more than just restaurants,” said Fairweather, when discussing how more civic space and public art could improve Bethesda’s image.
The Planning Department does have an Art Review Panel that reviews and provides feedback on public amenity art proposed by developers. Bethesda architect and artist Mark Kramer is a member of both the Art Review Panel and the Arts & Entertainment Board.
The Art Review Panel is more geared toward looking at how functional particular art pieces are, and only in the context of individual projects.
The big sell Fairweather, Moser and Board President Jerry Morenoff must make is to convince private developers to agree to amenity projects that wouldn’t necessarily be built on their properties.
The group has a wish list of projects and will provide recommendations to county planners putting together the master plan rewrite. Fairweather said the amenities could be built close to the developer’s property, or perhaps include their name.
“We’re putting ourselves into it whole-heartedly,” Morenoff said. “My personal feeling is, once I start something, I make sure it gets done.”