Wednesday, April 03, 2013


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.


Robert Dyer said...

By the way, I know Landmark Bethesda Row has more than 1 screen, but I'm referring to "mainstream" theaters by the term "multiplex." You won't find a superhero movie playing at Bethesda Row. They have independent, arthouse and foreign films with few exceptions.

Anonymous said...

1. The application is not from the actual owners of the Apex Building:

2. Pretty sure the County can't require a property owner to include a specific type of business, Democracy and stuff...

Robert Dyer said...

No, they can't require it. But they are not required to approve the special requests of the developer, either. "Democracy and stuff..." It would be smart to include a theater in the proposal to win approval. The owners have to be involved in this decision; it's their property. I can't file an amendment on property I don't own, without permission from the property owner.

Anonymous said...

1. If the county council is there just to rubber stamp proposals like this, then what's the purpose of electing them?

Pretty sure they're supposed to represent the citizen's interests as well.
Democracy and stuff...

2. I'd be nervous supporting anything (minor master plan amendment) that Rollin Stanley "championed".

Anonymous said...

2. You'd probably be nervous of any change to the area ever. Luckily for you anti-change people are the loudest voices in this county. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Montgomery has fallen behind because of it.

Robert Dyer said...

Montgomery County has fallen behind because it has failed to attract the jobs and large employers Fairfax and Loudoun Counties have. We won't catch up to them until we "change" our anti-business tax and regulation scheme, and finish our incomplete highway system. Giving away the store to developers has been an economic failure for the last 11 years, and that won't change. If we were really trying to create jobs, politicians would put their radical anti-car ideology aside for the good of the citizens. Until prospective corporations have Dulles Airport access, less traffic gridlock, and business-friendly policies, they are not going to locate here.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that would upset me about losing the Bethesda theater is if all those teens head over to where I watch movies at Mazza


Anonymous said...

I agree a major movie theater in downtown Bethesda makes sense. As you note, the current one is not exactly first rate anymore and has a hard time competing with other theaters that have stadium seating. I know I drive further away already for stadium seating and avoid this theater. Due to structural limitations, this one can't create stadium seating. While the county can't make a developer build a specific retail use into a project, if the market was there for a theater it would only make sense to replace it. If the market is not there, then you wouldn't want to force it since empty or struggling retail space hurts the public and private sector.
Also, I do think that you may be mistaken on the Apex owners being the ones who proposed this concept in case you want to revise your article.
Supposedly this would save the county tens of millions of dollars, they would get a more perfect station and trail (instead of a compromised one) and they could end up with a top notch development on what would become the new core of Bethesda with two intersecting rail lines below. Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Robert Dyer said...

For the potential benefits you mentioned, I am waiting to examine all of the proposal and documentation before taking a position on the amendment. I'm concerned about the precedent of this action, but the Purple Line/trail in Bethesda and Aspen Hill Walmart issues are 2 matters where there is a compelling argument for public benefit.

While I understand the Apex owners may not be the primary actors, this action cannot be taken without their consent. And they will benefit financially, even as a non-profit. Until someone can explain the absurd idea that a third party is going to knock down their building without their consent, the owners must necessarily be considered actors in this proposal. I can't request to redevelop the Apex property, for example. I don't own it, and have no authority.

Ultimately, it is a private venture, but there is definitely demand for a mainstream multiplex here. If planners accept the plan without a replacement theater tenant, that's fine. But they should stop claiming they support "walkable communities," where we will "live, work and play." I just think including a theater - even with better but fewer theaters - would help this proposal win community support. Thanks for your input to the conversation on this, by the way.