Bethesda’s apartment market is booming, but Montgomery County planners are starting to consider whether that boom is upsetting the balance of development in the community.
Planning Department urban designer Margaret Rifkin told a meeting of the Woodmont Triangle Action Group today (Friday) that staff members are taking a hard look at how consistent proposed apartment developments in downtown areas are with the 1994 Bethesda Central Business District (CBD) master plan. That plan called for a concentration of office and commercial uses in the central part of Bethesda, near the Bethesda Metro station.
But with market for new office buildings struggling, developers want to build apartments in those spaces. Rifkin said Florida-based developer Bainbridge has informally spoken to Planning Department staff about a residential project at the former Exxon station at Wisconsin Avenue and Montgomery Lane, a prime location in the heart of Bethesda.
“The core of Bethesda in the sector plan is designed as an employment core and we’ve been increasingly getting proposals coming in for residential,” Rifkin said. “We’ve had several different developers come in who would like to do residential. We all love residential, but we also have to honor our sector plan. So we are going to be very careful about how we frame that issue of consistency with the sector plan.”
In October, McClean, Va.-based developer Kettler presented details on a 120-unit apartment building at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Commerce Lane, where a bank building now stands.
Jad Donohoe, with the Donohoe Development Co., said developers are pursuing residential projects more often because it’s the better economic bet. Offices are difficult to fill.
“It’s the complete opposite of what Bethesda was going through 15 years ago, in terms of office,” Donohoe told the group, made up of business representatives, residents and others who make recommendations to county government on Woodmont Triangle development. “Part of it is Montgomery County is kind of getting our clocks cleaned in terms of Fairfax and Arlington attracting those new businesses.”
Intelsat, a leading broadcast satellite company that was looking to move from its D.C. headquarters, recently chose Tysons Corner in Fairfax County over Bethesda and other options. The Washington Business Journal reported both Maryland and Virginia offered significant incentive packages, but Tysons won out because the company thought it offered more amenities and easier parking access.
Some residents of the CBD have different concerns, mainly how an aging master plan can ensure the right balance of residents, schools, roads, parks and civic space as more and more housing units are built.
The Woodmont Triangle Acting Group is working on a letter to County Council President Nancy Navarro (D- East County, Mid-County) that would encourage the county to prioritize the CBD master plan update for those reasons.