Friday, May 26, 2017
Bethesda Downtown Plan is the worst of both worlds
Parks won't be of the size needed, and aren't guaranteed. Even the aspirational park sites were simply the low-hanging fruit, such as the parking lots at the edge of town. While that may or may not create a small buffer for the Town of Chevy Chase, those are poor locations for parks, which should be more centrally-located. Where is the green space with trees that can give a respite to pedestrians in the concrete jungle?
There is a slightly-greater commitment to affordable housing downtown, as there should be in an urban center near services and Metro. In contrast, the Westbard sector plan places a greater proportion of affordable units in that neighborhood, where there is little transit and no social services or County facilities. Ultimately, some of the growth that should have occurred downtown near Metro has been shifted to Westbard, a complete violation of smart growth principles.
Speaking of facilities, the Bethesda Downtown Plan is lacking in those, as well. At least a recreation center is under discussion. Westbard was completely shut out, despite having gone without a recreation center for decades.
On the flip side, the heights and density allowed in the core of the Central Business District near Metro are too low for the kind of major corporate tenants we need. One can argue that the question is moot, as the demand for office space in moribund Montgomery County is so weak, that no major corporate tenants will be interested anyway. But under this plan, downtown Bethesda will not be competitive with Tysons in ten or even twenty years. One of the main reasons is that most of what density is allocated will be eaten up by mediocre residential buildings, and Marriott, by the time the 2018 or 2022 County Councils can create a more business-friendly climate (assuming voters don't elect the "new" faces from the old cartel, who will be among the candidates on the ballot). How much will be left, for example, when Federal Realty potentially redevelops part of Bethesda Row, when Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema's lease runs out later in the next decade?
Unbelievably, the increased population downtown will be "accommodated" with lower speed limits and no additional highway capacity on Wisconsin Avenue. The major commuter route is already overloaded with interstate-level traffic, thanks to the cancellation of the Northwest Freeway.
In casting his dissenting vote, Councilmember Elrich noted that, "When you put it all together, the Bethesda plan has no transportation solution, no guaranteed amenities and no binding connection between increased density and the infrastructure necessary to support it.” His vote was an important one, regardless of the overwhelming support the plan had from his developer-beholden colleagues. It sends a clear message, and ensures that the dissenting views of actual residents have to be given at least a mention in media coverage.
In fact, given that the Bethesda Downtown Plan is better than the Westbard plan, I'm honestly puzzled as to why Elrich voted "no" on the former, and "yes" on the latter, instead of no on both.
Perhaps the only thing worse about the Downtown Plan than Westbard, is the uncertainty. Westbard-area residents know they were ripped off, will be getting no amenities at all, and a couple of postage-stamp-sized "parks." They know they're going to get 3000+ people and all their cars dropped into a block-and-a-half area, transformed into a concrete canyon of Soviet-style apartment blocs. And they know there are no plans for new schools, in a cluster where some kids are currently taking gym class in hallways.
In contrast, there's no clear vision at all as to what downtown Bethesda will look like in twenty years. After a promising start between the arrival of Metro and the late 1990s, the vision for downtown went off the rails after the turn of the century. The signature developments of that early period (Newlands Building, Chevy Chase Bank Building, Bethesda Lane, to name a few) have given way to a period where form lags far behind function.
Architectural and public art mediocrity and economic development malaise combine with a lack of real parks, public space and large-scale events (St. Patrick's Day parade? Halloween? Mardi Gras?) to weaken any sense of civic identity. We couldn't even pull off Strut Your Mutt this year. Downtown Bethesda deserves better, and was promised better, decades ago.