ROCKVILLE – Last week, local residents criticized the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan while developers praised it.
The County Council listened as about 100 people testified at three separate two-hour evening hearings, as they gave their thoughts on the newly proposed plan to allow for more development and growth in downtown Bethesda, expanding its economic activity, affordable housing and density.
Some residents critical of the proposed plan said allowing Bethesda to expand will put further strain on schools and roads that can barely fit to accommodate heavy traffic and building heights that would transform parts of Bethesda from suburban to urban.
“We want to have a livable community where you can take your kid to soccer practice without being stuck in gridlock traffic, where it’s safe to walk to school, where there are green spaces enjoy, where towering buildings aren’t casting long shadows on neighboring residents,” said Alison MacFarlane, who asked the council to reject the plan.
Bethesda resident Amanda Farber said the majority of the residents in the neighborhood reject the proposed sector plan.
“Residents in East Bethesda documented serious problems with proposed heights, the border of the sector plan, mis-classification of neighborhood roads, recent site plans, as well as flawed school and traffic data used for the basis of the plan,” Farber said.
Approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in July, the proposed update to the Bethesda Downtown sector plan is an update to the last revision of the plan in 1994.
The new sector plan would update allow for more green spaces and parks, allow for greater development and economic activity and affordable housing.
“The previous generation of planner and the previous generations of elected officials, who in 1994 voted to take step forward in the face in very similar objections about traffic, development, growing, school capacity. They were vindicated,” said Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board when he briefed the Council on the plan on Oct. 18.
The three days of public hearing came after the announcement that Marriott International will move its corporate headquarters, currently located on Fernwood Road in Bethesda, to a proposed $600 million site to be located in downtown Bethesda.
The Marriott proposal comes along with a new economic vision for Bethesda set forth by the planning board, that could allow for high rises building as tall as 290 feet along Wisconsin Avenue, and buildings as high as 70 feet along the edges of downtown to create a transitional feel from suburban to urban neighborhoods.
“Bethesda is a nice town but not yet a great city and only through new redevelopment of dozens older properties can Bethesda evolve in a world-class city that be competitive,” said Timothy Eden of Starr Capital, LLC.
Some of the proposed development would center on Bethesda’s Red Line Metro stop, which will also connect to the recently approved Purple Line, hoping to encourage more to take public transit to quell concerns over increased traffic.
Additionally the plan calls for increased pedestrian walking paths, bike lanes and two-way streets.
“As Montgomery County’s economic engine and its most competitive location, Bethesda is an appropriate place to plan for growth,” said Vince Burke of BF Saul Company, which owns real estate in Bethesda.
The plan would be an increase in affordable housing in one of the most expensive parts of the County. The sector plan proposes a 15 percent increase in moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) to increase affordable housing options to potential residents.
The Council has not set a date to vote on whether to approve the plan.