Facing an end-of-the-year deadline, it looks like Montgomery County planners will get to develop an all-encompassing underground Capital Crescent Trail and Purple Line station proposal for downtown Bethesda.
The County Council’s Planning Committee recommended the Apex Building Minor Master Plan Amendment be moved up in the Planning Department’s work plan as part of its discussion of the Department’s FY14 budget.
County Planners argued moving the proposal up would provide enormous public benefit – an at least 12-foot-wide underground crossing for the Capital Crescent Trail that to this point was thought to be too costly and a cheaper Bethesda Metro South Station Entrance project.
The Plan would require the owners of the Apex Building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.) which currently houses the Regal Cinemas, offices and a restaurant, to raze their property and allow the county and Maryland Transit Administration officials to begin construction by as early as January 2017.
The MTA must have the entire Purple Line plan ready to present to the Federal Transit Administration by late winter or early spring of 2014 in order to get the federal funding it seeks for the $2.15 billion light rail. The final Apex Building Plan would need to come back to the full County Council for final approval in December.
Some issues remain for planning staff, not the least of which is the shortest timeframe ever for a Master Plan of this consequence, interim Planning Department Director Rose Krasnow said.
Also pressing is the intention of the actual owner of the Apex Building, which state property records list as Potomac-based Vanguard Realty Group. It is unknown whether the owner is willing to raze the building. In exchange for razing the building and allowing MTA to build a more comprehensive Purple Line Station, the county will likely upzone the property to allow for more development.
Also at issue is which properties should be allowed more density in the Apex Building Plan. The original proposal came from Meadow Lo, a company that owns buildings east of Wisconsin Avenue. That proposal included many buildings far east of Wisconsin Avenue, including the Washington Sport and Health Club facility, as candidates for more density because they would be affected by aspects of the Purple Line.
In the Planning Committee meeting on Monday, Councilmembers, Council staff, the Planning Board chair and the Planning Department director agreed to keep those properties out of the Minor Master Plan. That means the entity that brought the proposal forward will be left out until planners tackle the larger Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan, expected to start this summer.
Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) asked that the county find a way to make the increased density dependent on razing the building and allowing for Purple Line Station construction. The group agreed to include the JBG Cos. and Federal Realty properties just to the west of the Apex Building, as Minor Master Plans can’t be seen to be targeting one specific property.
Council staff said razing the Apex Building could also mean avoiding the large ventilation towers some feared for the public plaza near the Bethesda Row Cinema. County staff member Glenn Orlin said razing the building would allow for $5 or $6 million in savings at the Bethesda Metro South Entrance, according to a conservative estimate from the state.
Councilmembers George Leventhal and Marc Elrich both questioned why the Apex Building proposal couldn’t be part of an expedited Bethesda CBD Master Plan process. Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier said it would be impossible to hold the necessary public meetings for the Apex proposal and wider changes in the CBD by the end of the year.
The full County Council will likely approve of the recommendation and Krasnow predicted a public meeting on the proposal would come in August.