A trip through downtown Bethesda’s core of one-way streets can throw drivers for a loop, especially if you miss your destination and have to go around again.
To a growing group of residents and business owners, the downtown’s system of one-way streets — which includes a rare couplet made up of eastbound-only Montgomery Avenue and westbound-only East-West Highway — is outdated and hurting the area’s retail scene.
With the rewrite of the area’s master plan ongoing, the local Citizens Advisory Board will likely send a letter to County Executive Isiah Leggett and the County Council asking that they study or consider the possibility of making those one-way streets go two-way.
The Board, organized by Montgomery County’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, is made up of residents and business representatives, many who have been active participants in the Bethesda Downtown Plan. They see the Plan, which must be approved by the Planning Board before it’s approved by the County Council, as an opportunity to take on the one-way street issue.
“It seems like we’re at an inflection point with Park and Planning looking at the future downtown Bethesda,” said Citizens Advisory Board Chair Jad Donohoe, who’s also a vice president at the Donohoe Development Company. “I thought it would be useful to get something in their hands that would speak to that one particular issue. They’d have backing from a community group.”
That community backing could come in handy in front of the County Council, but also in front of the State Highway Administration.
The state agency is in charge of some of the sections of one-way road identified in the letter, including Old Georgetown Road (from Commerce Lane to Woodmont Avenue). The SHA is known for its focus on moving cars, which means reluctance to change road patterns, road widths or add traffic signals if the moves risk slowing traffic down.
Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, told the Advisory Board the one-way street network might be one of the reasons why the Bethesda Metro Plaza space has been a failure.
The space, just above the Bethesda Metro station and next to the Hyatt hotel space, was envisioned as the town center of downtown Bethesda in the last county master plan (completed in 1994).
There was an ice skating rink that never gained traction. Attempts at retail space didn’t quite work and now the plaza along one-way Old Georgetown Road serves primarily as a pass-thru for Metro commuters.
Meanwhile, the busiest retail and restaurant sections of Bethesda are a few blocks to either side of the Metro station at Bethesda Row and in Woodmont Triangle.
Hartman also said he often gets complaints from people who say the one-way streets of Old Georgetown Road and Woodmont Avenue lead them to miss the county parking garage used for the Regional Services Center — the county government’s hub in downtown Bethesda.
“The one-way streets are a source of increased speed and confusion. Many people who try to reach this facility, if you miss the left turn into this garage you have to go all the way around again,” Hartman said. “For us, and we’re a government office, that’s a problem.”
The letter from the Advisory Board — which will likely be approved by a majority of the group and sent this summer — also asks for consideration of two-way streets along Woodmont Avenue (from Old Georgetown Road to Hampden Lane), Montgomery Lane (from Woodmont Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue), North Lane (from Woodmont Avenue to East Lane) and East Lane (from North Lane to Montgomery Lane).