The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved new zoning and a Capital Crescent Trail tunnel design for a preferred Bethesda Purple Line station.
Now, the onus is on the county and the owner of the Apex Building to negotiate a financial deal that would allow the state to build it.
“We’re trying to create a context where it’s more compelling for them to do something that they, on the natural, wouldn’t do,” said Councilmember Roger Berliner.
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) owns the building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., which includes the group’s offices, the Regal 10 Movie Theater and ground-floor retail and restaurants. The Bethesda Purple Line station is going below the building in the existing Capital Crescent Trail tunnel. The Maryland Transit Administration must have a cleared site to build the separate tunnel for cyclists and what it says is the optimal station design.
But the ASHP, a professional group that makes its headquarters in the building, has shown tepid interest in razing the building or selling it to a developer who would raze it.
The Minor Master Plan Amendment approved by the Council on Tuesday allows more density and height in a redeveloped Apex Building — an attempt to incentivize the ASHP to redevelop or sell.
A new Apex Building would be allowed to reach 250 feet, 50 feet taller than any building around the Bethesda Metro station just a few blocks north.
The ASHP says more density alone won’t be enough to offset the financial losses it could take by abandoning the profitable building for the length of time it takes to build the station.
An outside study commissioned by the Planning Department backed up that stance, saying it would likely take between $5 and $10 million of public money to bridge the ASHP’s financial gap.
“We may very well support county engagement, but this does not go to that in any way,” said Councilmember Nancy Floreen when introducing the zoning amendment to the Council. “So that’s a separate conversation happening in separate places with separate issues.”
The county, through its Department of Economic Development, is talking to ASHP about a potential deal. Complicating matters is the short timeline in which the decision must be made. The first inklings of an optimal design for the Bethesda Purple Line station came last May. The MTA, in the midst of securing federal funding for the 16-mile light rail project, says it needs to have an indication soon of which Bethesda Purple Line station to build.
The default station would be built around the Apex Building’s existing foundation, would not include significant space for an underground bicycle crossing of Wisconsin Avenue and could mean tail tracks that extend out into Woodmont Plaza. It would also likely include a required ventilation tower that planners and county officials worry would serve as an eyesore on Bethesda Row.
With all council members in agreement as to the benefits of the optimal station design, Councilmember Marc Elrich asked about taking the building by eminent domain.
Though the Planning Board briefly discussed it, it was not an option presented in the Minor Master Plan. Council staff said the process would likely take too long to fit the MTA’s timeline.
Also in the approved plan is new language concerning the fate of Woodmont Plaza, the small grassy area near the Capital Crescent Trail tunnel that serves as a de facto town square space for some in Bethesda Row.
A joint development project that would have brought a hotel to the space is off, according to county planners.
That left room in the Minor master plan for requirements that Woodmont Plaza be “the central open space for the area around the junction of Bethesda Avenue, Woodmont Avenue and the Capital Crescent Trail,” and that it “feature shaded lawn areas and a variety of seating options within the overall design.”