Tuesday, November 05, 2013


Miss the Downtown Bethesda Plan Kick-off Meeting last night at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Services Center? You had two additional hours in your life that those of us who attended lost.

I can't speak for anyone but myself. Perhaps everyone else there felt it was productive. But I found it to be mostly a waste of my time.

Clearly, the Montgomery County Planning Department underestimated the level of community involvement by residents of downtown Bethesda and surrounding neighborhoods. Both rooms were standing-room-only. With all of this interest and engagement, and with a sense of respect for people's valuable time, so too did the format seem to undershoot a highly educated audience.

Large easels were set up with childlike questions: What do you like about Bethesda? What don't you like about Bethesda? What places in downtown Bethesda are important to you?

That's fine to start with, I suppose. But that ended up being it. We learned shocking insights, such as that people like restaurants and art in Bethesda. And that people don't like traffic congestion and parking.

Who knew?

When I left the meeting, my issues had never even gotten a hearing. I did not have a chance to speak. My comments on a Post-It note were stuck on to the easel. But when the group's Post-Its and verbal comments were later summarized aloud to the entire room - and recorded onto video for the planning website - none of my issues were mentioned.

And of other attendees' issues that were acknowledged, the discussion was never advanced as to how these issues will be addressed in the plan.

For example, when someone says they are displeased about traffic, that's not enough information. And we don't know how that's being interpreted by the planners through the biases they have, just as each of us have different opinions and theories about transportation. What if we get a plan that addresses traffic with a transit-only solution, for example? We know that doesn't fully address the fact that cars remain the primary mode of transportation. But we didn't have that discussion.

We like art. We want affordable housing. Great. But how do we want to achieve that? If the solution part is entirely up to the planners, that's not an inclusive process.

The county takes a carrot approach to developers, but takes the stick to citizens. For example, when the County Council wants developers to build more affordable units, it doesn't exercise its power to set a higher percentage. It offers incentives and buyouts, etc.

But when the county wants you to stop using plastic bags or speeding, does it offer you a treat? No. It uses the stick of charging you money. Why the discrepancy in approach?

So will goals people had last night be reached by developer funds or taxpayer wallets? We don't know, because we never had the discussion.

Is a draft plan of some kind going to be generated from this very shallow level of discussion? And we will get that plan without further discussion?

In my experience, events like this get held, and basic ideas are recorded. But rather than shape the plan in a forward direction, planners already have a plan in mind, and will attempt to tie those master plan changes to the citizen comments from the initial meeting. I hope that will not be the case here.

Perhaps my Post-It notes will be recorded. I think some of the issues I mentioned on there were fundamentally important in drafting a master plan - such as providing adequate gas stations for a population that is only going to increase in the future. We were entirely sold out of gas in downtown Bethesda during two weather incidents that weren't even that catastrophic. This presents a major public safety and infrastructure issue going forward. But it got no consideration last night.

And what about perhaps the most fundamental issue that must be addressed: density and building heights? It's not about buildings being "too tall," or "too short," but where they are located in the downtown. For example, we have a tiny bank building being proposed for a site surrounded by high-rises at the Metro station. That makes no sense if we are claiming to support higher density at the Metro station.

Likewise, Upstairs at Bethesda Row was reduced in height despite being a full block from a residential neighborhood. Fair enough. But why, then, is The Darcy allowed to be 10 stories directly over homes in the Sacks neighborhood. This type of inconsistent zoning, and consideration of nearby properties in zoning, need to be addressed in the master plan revision.

There also were no handouts at the meeting. It's good to hear from the specific people who are working on the plan. But we need to hear a lot more from the public before a specific draft proposal can be drawn up.

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