Last night, I testified before the Montgomery County Planning Board regarding the Bethesda Minor Master Plan Amendment that would permit redevelopment of the Apex Building at Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street.
Translation: the Apex Building would be demolished, the Purple Line station and Capital Crescent Trail tunnel(s) would be built, and then a new air-rights building would be constructed atop the site once again.
I am personally uncomfortable with the utilization of "minor master plan amendments," as they do not offer the level of public involvement a master plan does (theoretically, regarding the latter). Minor amendments are also ripe for unethical abuse (as opposed to ethical abuse?).
So, to be clear, I am not happy with the process being utilized here. But it's going forward anyway, so I'm engaging in said process.
I like the Apex Building, and would prefer it not be torn down. It has above-average architecture, and a well-designed plaza at street level. There's something hoggish and #firstworldproblems-esque about tearing down essentially new buildings, such as White Flint Mall and the Capital Centre.
Having said all that, I do see justification for redevelopment of the site (I'll explain that below). But there are several issues that must be addressed, if this were to be accomplished successfully.
First, the state and county have put themselves - but, more accurately, the taxpayers - in a terrible bargaining position. Ostensibly, "we" have to persuade the Apex owners to redevelop the site. That vaguely involves unspecified incentives, and possibly taxpayer expenses (in fact, some funds have already been expended in this process). But, the state has said, we need to do this by mid-December, or we're doomed.
That is the weakest and worst position you can negotiate from in a real estate deal. We're now over a barrel, and the Apex owners hold more cards than we do. Will the county and state drive a tough bargain? Or will taxpayers end up paying more for primarily a private profit enterprise?
I believe that the possibility of eminent domain needs to be employed as a result of this reckless scenario government has created. I'm no fan of eminent domain. With all due respect to the U.S. Supreme Court, I believe there are only 3 justified uses of eminent domain: for transportation facilities (highways, rail lines, etc.), public safety (fire stations) and public hospital construction if necessary. The Apex issue does involve transportation facilities: the Purple Line light rail station, and the Capital Crescent Trail.
I include the trail as a transportation facility, because in encouraging greater use of bicycling, it is a major bike conmuter route. Having a through tunnel for the trail will make it a more attractive commuting option than one on the surface with stops and starts.
Eminent domain should not be our first option, but should be used as leverage in the negotiations. And the Apex Building owners should not be punished in this process; their building fully complied with the rail system planned at the time it was built. The Purple Line has become far larger in scale than imagined at that time.
There is also another issue: will the new building have public space at street level like the Apex? Where will the garage entrances be?
Then there's the issue of density. Theoretically, atop two rail stations, the new building should be the tallest in Bethesda. Transit doesn't get any more convenient than that. What the actual height should be will have to be determined by the Planning Board, the developer, and nearby residents (at least you'd hope all stakeholders would get a say).
But, finally, here's the biggest problem of all, and the issue that this whole plan needs to hinge on: the Regal Cinemas.
The report cited by the planning department made a laughable claim that the loss of Regal would have a negligible economic impact on downtown Bethesda. Unfortunately, that blatantly false statement damaged the credibility of the entire report.
If an astronomer making a presentation begins by saying the moon is made of green cheese, sensible listeners would question the credibility of the rest of his scientific arguments to follow.
The reality is that Bethesda restaurants make a tremendous percentage of sales on "dinner and a movie" business. Landmark Bethesda Row is a fantastic theater, but it doesn't show the blockbusters the broader consumer audience goes to see.
Demolition without replacement of a multiscreen theater would be an economic disaster for Bethesda businesses. Several restaurants even have movie ticket offers, and they are virtually always for Regal.
Can you imagine being one of the few towns of Bethesda's size in America, and the only urban area in Montgomery County, without a cineplex? It's outrageous that this is even considered an option. This is my hometown, and I'm not going to let it take a backseat to Silver Spring and Rockville.
And it's total hypocrisy to talk ad nauseum about the "nighttime economy," and "walkable communities," and then suggest a major town not have a mainstream multiplex. Do county leaders want money to be spent in DC? Are they trying to fill empty seats in the restaurants and theaters coming to White Flint, where there will be more such seats than residents who can afford to fill them on a daily basis? What is going on here?
The bottom line: a development that does not contain a replacement cineplex will absolutely put more cars on the road, and send money to DC coffers, in search of movies.
Perhaps county leaders who just voted themselves a $30,000 raise at your expense have an understandable inability to relate to the common citizens, who rely on movies as a somewhat-affordable weekend entertainment option. And who have dropped tax after fee after tax on Bethesda restaurants, and just don't seem to care about the loss of income for restaurant owners and workers.
They say we need more nightlife options for young people - and they're going to take away one of the big ones we have now?
With reservations, I would support redevelopment of the Apex Building.
But under no circumstances will I support a redevelopment that does not require an equivalent multiscreen cineplex to be included in the new building.
They can't be allowed to get away with handing Bethesda residents, businesses and taxpayers a raw deal.