Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Maybe the architects are finally listening.

A recession-related construction pause, and a recent flurry of bland new condo projects, have now been interrupted by a relatively bold project proposed by development firm JBG.

7900 Wisconsin Avenue has been a topic of discussion among county officials and downtown Bethesda residents since JBG first outlined the project at two December meetings.

What we knew at that point was that 7900 would be a 17-story, luxury apartment building with 475 units, ground floor retail, underground parking, rooftop pool, and a bikeshare station.

Now fast forward to February 14, 2013, when Montgomery County Planning Board staff will recommend approval of this project.

Having reviewed the latest renderings for the project, so will I.

7900 Wisconsin Avenue isn't quite the Bitexco Tower, or even the equivalent of JBG's other intriguing project, the "Ziggurat" planned for the White Flint area.

But it is a potentially iconic building for downtown Bethesda, and we haven't been able to say that since the construction of the Capital One building, the Newlands building, and Bethesda Row.  Sure, you could go higher than 17 stories there, and it could have been more tower-like. At the same time, it is within the zone where walking to Metro is for many people a choice more than the no-brainer it is if you're across the street from the Metro Center. And there is also an existing condo building, the Nathan Landow resort-style Fairmont Plaza.  As it is, permanent vacationers on the Fairmont's north side are going to have a rude awakening with construction noise, dust, and the eventual loss of balcony views.

Under the circumstances, the design is probably as tall and as radical as could be expected.

The most interesting feature is the north side of the proposed building. There, a horizontal building section appears to be suspended from the main structure. Below is a village green of sorts, that would provide a public-use space for all nearby Woodmont Triangle residents and workers.  The most intriguing element is the reflective underside of the suspended section, which serves as an entrance to the village green from Wisconsin Avenue. Pedestrians will be able to look upward and see themselves as they pass underneath.  The village green area will also serve as a welcoming passageway between Wisconsin and Woodmont, as well as activate a lonely stretch of Woodmont Avenue.

Another nice design touch is the way the building presents a dynamic front facade on three sides, and a more subdued side to the Fairmont Plaza. This allows the structure to engage people and motorists from many angles, while keeping a residential aesthetic for Fairmont Plaza residents. That's not to say all issues have been magically resolved for Fairmont residents. If you are one, please feel free to comment below so I and readers can get your side of the story, and put 7900 Wisconsin into the context of those concerns. This is not a "done deal" yet, so I encourage anyone with concerns to testify before the Planning Board on February 14.

But from a design standpoint, I have to applaud JBG for taking a few risks here, and presenting a building that will help define Bethesda. As opposed to the Town Center USA motif most projects underway now radiate.  The curved facade that "holds" the suspended section reminds me of several buildings, most recently the impressive Bloomberg Children's Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

JBG says demolition and construction activity would begin in 2014, and the building would open in 2016.

Here for your review and comment are the JBG renderings of 7900 Wisconsin Avenue from all angles:


Anonymous said...

Refreshing, modern design for Bethesda. Finally, a building to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

With all of the 17 story buildings currently under construction and those being planned, it's going to create a lot more shade. It might not be a desirable side affect.

Robert Dyer said...

Yes, it is definitely a concern. If this building didn't have such a unique design and public space - i. e. just another one of those other, bland 17-floor buildings you're referring to - I would probably oppose it. From my experience as a pedestrian in other cities, you often encounter streets that are dark even in daylight. As a result, they are less safe than sunlit areas. They've really made a mess of planning in MoCo. Better to have a smaller number of skyscrapers adjacent to Metro, than a lot of 14-17 story mini-hulks looming over single family homes and existing condo buildings. My hunch is that the current strategy allows maximum development, while keeping rents and prices artificially high, because shorter buildings mean less units flooding the market. Which, of course, would benefit existing condo owners despite the loss of sunlight, I guess!