County and state transportation planners want a downtown Bethesda office building torn down so they can build a better Purple Line station below it.
Problem is, they can’t get the owner of the building on the phone.
The Maryland Transit Administration plans to build the westernmost station of its 16-mile Purple Line light rail under the three-story Apex Building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.) in the existing Capital Crescent Trail tunnel that today provides easy crossing for cyclists and pedestrians under Wisconsin Avenue.
The Planning Department is hoping for a last-minute solution that would allow the MTA to include both a large section of Trail and the station in the tunnel. Without the demolition of the building above, planners say it will be too costly and risky to build both.
The station itself would have building columns blocking riders. A curved platform area, instead of a straight design planners say would be optimal, could mean gaps between the boarding area and the light rail cars.
But it’s unclear if the owner of the building is willing to demolish the building in exchange for tax incentives or upzoning. The property is managed by Potomac-based Vanguard Realty Group, for owners who apparently have it as part of a retirement package.
During a Thursday discussion of the property at the Planning Board, Purple Line project manager Michael Madden explained how those owners might be more reluctant to tear down their building than a traditional developer, even in exchange for incentives from the county that might pay off big in the long term.
“It’s not like there’s opposition to development. They use this as kind of a retirement fund. They have no incentive to do it,” Madden said. “They’re fine with what they are doing and they’re making money. That doesn’t mean that somebody couldn’t come in and make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
Planners are hoping a study might get all parties talking, which could lead to a sale or a change of heart from the owner. But the idea of a Minor Master Plan Amendment for the area, which the County Council amended the Planning Department’s budget to allow, seems implausible by the end of the year.
“I have worked very hard with no luck,” said Acting Planning Director Rose Krasnow on attempts to reach the property owner. “Two weeks ago I got a call stating basically, they’re away until at least the end of June.”
Complicating the matter is the MTA’s tight timeline. Madden said the state needs something in writing about the future of the site by December, as the MTA prepares to make a final push for federal funding of the estimated $2.15 billion light rail system.
The building is home to the Regal Bethesda 10 movie theater, headquarters of the American Society of Health System Pharmacists, the Food Wine & Co. restaurant and others.
Planners said leases could be another issue. Movie theaters typically have long-term leases at cheap rates.
But the Planning Department does not want to give up on the idea of demolishing the building, Krasnow said, because allowing MTA to build a station without having to worry about disturbing a building above it would provide a much better alternative.
If the Trail can’t be built alongside the light rail in the tunnel, bikers and runners would have to cross Wisconsin Avenue at street level on Bethesda Avenue. MTA officials said it will be cheaper to build the station and the county-funded entrance to the Bethesda Metro station if the building is demolished before construction.
Council staff member Glenn Orlin told a Council Committee that razing the building would allow for $5 or $6 million in savings at the county’s estimated $80 million Bethesda Metro South Entrance project, according to a conservative estimate from the state.
Planners would also be able to incorporate a required 92-foot tall ventilation tower into the new property. That tower is now planned for the small public plaza at the entrance to the tunnel, what some have already worried will be an eyesore in one of Bethesda’s busiest areas.
“I wouldn’t be pushing this schedule if it wasn’t for the really large benefits of this,” Madden said. “We will build it the way it’s designed, which is the station on a curve with the columns in the way and the Trail not going through, and it’s OK, but it’s not great.”
Krasnow proposed the special study as something that could be rolled into the coming rewrite of the Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan, set to start this summer and last 18-24 months. Planners hope that study would pave the way for upzoning that could lead a buyer to swoop in and take over the building.
“There’s still a very optimistic part of me that thinks if we at least get people talking to each other, we could get something out of it,” Krasnow said.
But Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier had doubts about the legality of the special study process. A Minor Master Plan Amendment, which faced some friction of its own on the Council, would formalize any incentives or zoning changes with a public hearing at the Board and the County Council.
The Planning Board is set to examine the legal issues of a special study in a closed session this week.