Apex Building Offers Purple Line Solution, But Some Question Process

The proposed buildings that would be involved in an Apex Building Minor Master Plan, with the Apex Building in red, via County Planning department

Owners of the Apex Building in downtown Bethesda are offering a way to accomodate a Purple Line Station that connects with the Metro’s Red Line and keeps the Capital Crescent Trail path underground, but two County Councilmembers are questioning the process.

On Friday, owners of the four-story building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.), which houses the Regal Bethesda movie theater, restaurants and offices, submitted a Minor Master Plan Amendment that suggests it could raze the building and allow the county and Maryland Transportation Administration to build a comprehensive Purple Line station that would solve the CCT dilemma.

In return, the property owner would want its zoning revised so it could build a taller, more dense building similar to the Clark Construction Building at Bethesda’s Metro Center.

“First and most importantly, the absolute cost of construction of the Capital Crescent trail in conjunction with the Purple Line improvements will be reduced dramatically — in the order of $40 million dollars,” read the application from Potomac-based owner Vanguard Realty Group. “Zoning for the Apex Building property must be intense enough to incentivize the current owner, or its successor, to abandon the existing structure and allow its demolition in order that the optimum combination of METRO and companion public facilities can be constructed.”

Today, without a review of the Amendment by the Planning Board, interim Planning Department director Rose Krasnow recommended that the County Council move the project ahead of others in its work schedule because it will provide the most public good.

But two Councilmembers on the Council’s Planning Committee — Marc Elrich and George Leventhal — sounded off against the Minor Master Plan Amendment process in general, arguing it will allow individual property owners to bypass the typical Master Plan process and exert undue influence for new zoning on specific properties.

“I’m disturbed by this Minor Master Plan Amendment process as it has played out,” Leventhal said. “Instead of a process that has gone around the county and responded to broad policy suggestions, we’ve now opened ourselves up to the lobbying of specific landowners who want to be upzoned. …I think that will intensify.”

The Apex Building proposal would also include the existing 2nd District Police Station and extend as far east as the Sport & Health Club on Montgomery Avenue.

Krasnow suggested starting Planning Staff work on it as soon as possible to be ready for the Purple Line, which would knock other Minor Master Plan Amendments off the schedule.

The Pooks Hill Plan was included as one of three suggested Plans to start soon, a move Elrich questioned.

“Pooks Hill is another spot zoning,” Elrich said. “You put a fig leaf of transit-oriented redevelopment around the project that’s over half-a-mile from each Metro station. It’s not a transit-oriented development, but that’s all this is about is rezoning it for Marriott or the specific landowner. I’d like this process if it was done in the spirit of planning, not in the process of people coming in and saying I want spot zoning.”

The Planning Committee must review the new schedule before it is approved. But if it is, Krasnow said the Apex Building and Pooks Hill Plans would come to the County Council for final approval in 2015.

Image via Montgomery County Planning Department

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