A solution to the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel problem once considered unthinkable is back on the table again. And it could leave downtown Bethesda residents without a mainstream movie theater.
The owners of the Apex Building, home of Regal Bethesda 10 theaters, are offering to demolish the building in exchange for a high-density development opportunity on the same site. This would require a Master Plan Amendment that would leapfrog over the much-delayed Bethesda sector plan revision. Obviously, that is a separate controversy in itself.
But what many may not realize - with "Apex Building" not exactly a household name - is that the wrecking ball would also demolish Regal Bethesda 10 in the process.
It's hard to believe, but Bethesda residents once had to travel far (Congressional Plaza, MacArthur Boulevard, Jenifer 1 & 2, Georgetown Square, etc.) to see a first-run movie at a theater. By the 1980s, only the Baronet 2 (in the now-demolished Bethesda Square shopping center with Swensen's Ice Cream) and Bethesda Cinema and Drafthouse were still operating downtown.
United Artists Bethesda opened nearly 25 years ago in the brand-new Apex Building. The Apex is an "air-rights" building constructed over the former CSX railroad right-of-way. Where the Apex stands today was once a sheer drop-off from a bridge that carried Wisconsin Avenue over the tracks. I can remember looking over the railing of this bridge in the 1980s, hoping a train would emerge. More often, a homeless man would emerge instead. The Chessie System train usually made one round trip per day at that time, so there was very little rail traffic.
Anyway, "UA" was a big deal at the time here. And for many years, it was well-managed by the formally-dressed manager who was a nightly presence in the lobby. He ran a tight ship, and they actually had something called, "ushers."
Eventually, the AC unit became unreliable in Auditorium 10, stadium seating was added, and the efficient manager disappeared.
It went downhill after that.
Now operated by Regal, the multiplex is past its prime. But as far as a multiscreen theater, it remains the only game in town.
Should the Apex Building be torn down, Bethesda would have no mainstream theater. Contrary to the stated goal of reducing automobile trips, this would actually require more driving.
I'm not prepared to take a position yet on the Apex proposal, because it is very complicated, and I want to examine all the details first.
The general idea is to provide the tunnel space to allow both the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail to run parallel beneath Wisconsin Avenue. Originally, the Purple Line was a single-track commuter rail concept. The Apex building was built to accomodate that. But planners have expanded the line to 2 tracks, leaving no room for the CCT despite politicians' promises to do so.
There are a number of pros and cons to weigh in this deal. And there is also the question of the special amendment, which could become a precedent for hundreds of future development projects.
But on the point of the movie theater, should the demolition go forward, the developer should be required to include a multiplex theater in the new project. Losing the existing Regal 10 - and not building a replacement - would be a major step backward for a "walkable" community.