Friday, July 10, 2015
Planners to meet with property owners in Bethesda's Rock Spring area to discuss future
A "kick-off" meeting for the Rock Spring amendment process is tentatively scheduled for early September, and a scope-of-work briefing is expected in October.
Rock Spring is made up of mostly office parks, and the county's moribund economy has left it with a 19.3 vacancy rate - 10% of all vacant office space in the county. While common sense would suggest county leaders should begin to address the reasons why the large corporations who would lease space here are bypassing us for Tysons and Loudoun - our business-hostile environment, congested roads, high business costs, and lack of direct access to Dulles Airport - those economic development changes are, strangely, not being discussed.
On the table for this amendment, rather, the planning department says, are "a new street network, public use spaces and amenities, residential and non-residential uses, sustainable environmental measures, infrastructure needs for the area, and linkages to" the proposed North Bethesda Transitway.
The latter was once an ambitious plan to construct a monorail between Westfield Montgomery Mall and Grosvenor Metro station, in 1991. Passing through Rock Spring, the monorail was forecast by planners to attract 10,777-13,982 riders per day. With 7-minute headways, the monorail was budgeted at $64 million, with annual operating costs estimated at $1.7 million. It was claimed that the monorail would get 4,600 drivers out of their cars daily.
Of course, that was a more ambitious time in Montgomery County. Those who recall some of our current elected officials raging against Maryland's biggest backer of Bus Rapid Transit, Gov. Bob Ehrlich, and arguing that rail was far superior to BRT, are likely having a good chuckle hearing them now proclaim BRT as the future of transportation. Buses are what we've devolved to in terms of "forward-thinking" transit projects.
So the "North Bethesda Transitway" is now going to be a "rapid" bus route. And instead of a sleek monorail helping Bethesda residents "live where they work," the BRT will primarily be utilized to claim Rock Spring is "on rapid transit" to facilitate residential development.
Rock Spring does have good access to our existing interstates, and a revitalized Westfield Montgomery Mall nearby. That access brought interest from development firms like Peterson and DRI, who had proposed "Rock Spring Centre" there.
Just as you may note the "dumbing down" of transit ideas since 1991 in the county, consider how much better the Rock Spring Centre plan sounds than the rumors we're hearing now of acres of townhouses and apartments - and the cars they'll produce trying to get to jobs in DC and Northern Virginia every morning.
Rock Spring Centre was proposed to have 210,000 SF of retail and restaurants, 550,000 SF of class A office space, 90,000 square feet of entertainment uses including a Silverspot cineplex, a 200 room hotel, and - get this - only 161 residential units. While many residents had concerns about the project, it did sound more like the proverbial live-work-play development, minus the missing Metro station. RSC did get approval from the Planning Board in February 2011, and was to be delivered in 2014.
Alas, by the next year, Peterson had pulled out of the project. I was disappointed at the time, given how great their National Harbor project had turned out.
In order to be "smart growth," Rock Spring is going to need jobs and office space as a component of the project. That's going to require not just a planning effort, but coordination with a political effort at the county and state levels, as well.