High-rises in Bethesda? 20-year plan gets mixed reactions

WASHINGTON — Montgomery County could be home to the tallest building in Maryland outside Baltimore, according to a plan Montgomery County Council is developing for downtown Bethesda’s future.

Montgomery County Council is continuing to shape plans for redeveloping downtown Bethesda, and the 20-year plan calls for the reconstruction of its modest-size Apex building on Wisconsin Avenue, which houses Regan Cinemas.

Marriott will be locating its international headquarters in downtown Bethesda, and the plans to construct the Purple Line light rail station in Bethesda has produced an arrangement to replace the Apex building with a cluster of three high-rises, each potentially 29 stories tall.

The buildings would be far taller than anything in neighboring D.C., alarming some nearby residents.

“If the District of Columbia can do quite well with [smaller] heights of that kind, why is it that suddenly Montgomery County has to have these soaring skyscrapers,” asks Scott Fosler, mayor of Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Fosler charges that the development plans will turn once-quaint Bethesda into the new Tysons Corner.

“It’s not going to be Tysons, Tysons is road dependent. Tysons is a very different kind of place,” counters Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Floreen who chairs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, which must approve all development plans.

Some nearby residents criticize the development plans as too dense.

“Where will all the additional traffic go? Have you driven in Bethesda at rush hour? And, by the way, rush hour begins at 2 p.m. because of Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center],” said Alison MacFarlane, who lives with her family in a neighborhood near to downtown Bethesda.

County officials repeatedly cite Bethesda as Montgomery County’s economic engine. Floreen rejects criticism over building heights, saying the key to redevelopment is welcoming building design.

“I would say that, generically speaking, height is kind of relative,” Floreen said.

MacFarlane said she doesn’t see it the same way.

“I don’t think Nancy Floreen would appreciate a 290-foot building next to her house in Garrett Park,” MacFarlane said.

Floreen says the challenge for the county council next year and in the years ahead is to maintain the economic vibrancy of downtown Bethesda while protecting nearby neighborhoods.

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