After months of slogging through density and height recommendations for hundreds of downtown Bethesda properties, the county Planning Board last month decided to go in an entirely different direction it thinks will help achieve two of its biggest goals for Bethesda: More funding for downtown park space and more affordable housing.
The formal term for the concept is the Bethesda Overlay Zone or BOZ, as county planning staff is calling it. All properties within the area of the Bethesda Downtown Plan—the master plan that will guide development in the area for the next 25 to 30 years—would be capped at current densities.
Those developers who want additional density above the maximum provided by current zoning would have to get it either from buying density from other property owners or through the BOZ Pool.
With an additional 27.8 million square feet of development permitted already in downtown Bethesda and the proposed Bethesda Downtown Plan maximum capped at 32.4 million square feet, that pool would consist of 4.6 million square feet for property owners who want density above and beyond what they are currently allowed.
The extra density would be available on a first-come, first-serve basis and those who apply would be required to pay a park impact payment to help fund new parks in downtown Bethesda, designate 15 percent of proposed residential units as income-restricted affordable housing instead of the county minimum of 12.5 percent, and receive approval from a design review panel to ensure the building’s design is attractive and meets other standards.
The Planning Board is expected to decide on specifics—including park impact payments and the design review rules—at its work session Thursday morning with the hope of having a final vote on the downtown plan in July. It would then go to the County Council, which will begin its own review process before voting on the plan’s final approval.
“The main idea here is to make development capacity available when it’s needed where it’s needed, without trying to prejudge exactly the order or location where the development could land,” board Chairman Casey Anderson told Bethesda Beat last week.
It’s a simpler solution than the board’s property-by-property straw votes that over the past five months had increased the amount of additional allowable density to far above what planners proposed last year in their staff draft of the plan.
Those discussions also often set off residents of surrounding neighborhoods concerned with the appearance that property owners and their land use attorneys were being allowed to negotiate with board members for higher heights and densities.
Eventually, Anderson allowed those residents to speak as well, leading to hours-long work sessions that would get bogged down in a discussion of just a single property—such as the Bethesda Fire Station #6 or Jaffe property.
The building heights agreed on during those work sessions will likely remain the same, something that is still generating plenty of opposition in correspondence to the board, especially from residents in the East Bethesda neighborhood.
But Anderson said that by not prescribing additional density to properties, developers and property owners will have to pay more attention to design standards that could call for setbacks to buildings facing single-family home neighborhoods, more open public space and other features he thinks will make for more compatible buildings.
“If you’re talking about a 200- or 250-foot-tall building, we need some limits on the ability to fill up that box,” Anderson said. “So you can’t have a 200-foot wall that covers the entire frontage of your lot. This whole thing is implicitly an argument that focusing on [density] is not really the right question. The design guidelines are more important because those become one of the two limitations on whether the project can be approved. You will still have the height limitation.”
Thursday’s Bethesda Downtown Plan work session will officially be the 14th held by the board, though some of those were split into multiple days.
Anderson said he anticipates board Commissioner Amy Presley, whose term officially ends June 14, will be permitted to stay on to see through the Bethesda plan and take part in a final vote on it. The board has five commissioners and the County Council interviewed five finalists to take over for Presley on May 23.