More than a year after public hearings and after 16 work sessions that included a grueling property-by-property review of potential zoning, the Montgomery County Planning Board is likely to approve the Bethesda Downtown Plan on Thursday.
The plan includes significant changes from the “public hearing draft” that came out May 15, 2015, and will likely lead to the creation of an entirely new zone for all of downtown Bethesda: The Bethesda Overlay Zone (BOZ).
Here are five important things to know about the plan as proposed for approval by the board during its afternoon meeting:
Planners hope the BOZ leads to increased funding for parks and more affordable housing
After months of slogging through density and height recommendations for hundreds of individual downtown Bethesda properties, the board in May decided to go in an entirely different direction it thinks will help achieve two of its biggest goals: More funding for downtown parks and open space and more affordable housing.
It works like this: With an additional 28 million square feet of development permitted already in downtown Bethesda and the plan’s maximum capped at an additional 32.4 million square feet, there would be a pool of about four million square feet available on a first-come-first-serve basis to property owners who want density beyond what they are currently allowed.
To be awarded that bonus density, the property owner or developer could buy density from another downtown property owner in a process that already exists, called a density transfer. Planners have also designated some historic and affordable housing as “priority sending sites” to encourage developers to buy density from those property owners in order to preserve those properties.
Or, a developer could get the bonus density if it provides a Park Impact Payment (PIP) to pay for downtown Bethesda open space, designates 15 percent of its housing units as income-restricted affordable instead of the countywide standard of 12.5 percent and takes part in a Design Review Advisory Panel that will do an extensive review of the proposed development’s look and feel.
At a meeting of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board on Monday, planners Robert Kronenberg and Leslye Howerton said the Planning Department will have to create the BOZ through an amendment to the county’s zoning code.
Property owners think the Park Impact Payment (PIP) is too expensive
The amount of the PIP required by developers who want to dive into the bonus density pool won’t be in the plan that heads to the County Council. Rather, it will be detailed in the zoning amendment that creates the BOZ.
Still, property owners have weighed in over the past few weeks about planners’ suggestion the PIP should be set at $25.81 per square foot per project, claiming the amount is too expensive and puts too much of the burden for paying for new parks on new development despite the likelihood the parks will be used by residents of already existing buildings and visitors from outside of downtown.
“Placing an undue cost burden on development serves to narrow the margin and reduce the likelihood of projects coming to the market,” wrote Vincent Burke IV, vice president of Bethesda-based developer B.F. Saul in a July 12 letter to board Chairman Casey Anderson. “The benefit of new and improved parks will be shared among all of Bethesda’s existing and new residents, workers, and visitors alike and the expense should be shared accordingly, by all in the [county’s] general fund.”
Board Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss, one of five members on the board, has made his opposition to the PIP concept clear in previous work sessions.
Before the board moves on its final approval Thursday, it will discuss a series of potential ways to decrease the burden of developers required to make the PIP, including reducing the existing requirements for public use space on a developer’s own property.
Where will these new parks go?
Planners have divided potential parks into categories including active recreation destinations that could include playing courts and playgrounds and civic greens that would mostly be built around a central lawn area in close proximity to the Metro, the light-rail Purple Line or retail.
In some cases, planners lay out exactly where the new parks and open spaces should go. In other cases, the plan prescribes approximate locations that will be depend on future redevelopment of the sites by private property owners.
Map of proposed and existing parks in downtown Bethesda, via Planning Department
When it comes to specifics, the plan recommends three civic greens: A half-acre Veteran’s Park Civic Green on Norfolk Avenue across the street from the existing Veteran’s Park in Woodmont Triangle; a 0.6-acre green around the historic Bethesda Farm Women’s Market on Wisconsin Avenue; and a half-acre Capital Crescent Civic Green near the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues.
It also calls for greenways in buffer areas between Wisconsin Avenue and the single-family home neighborhoods of East Bethesda and the Town of Chevy Chase, as well as the possibility of making the 0.85-acre empty space next to Bethesda Fire Station 6 an “Urban Buffer Park” with a trail connection to the existing Norwood Local Park.
So how much more development will this plan allow?
It’s highly unlikely full build-out of what’s allowed under the Bethesda Downtown Plan will happen in the next 20 to 30 years, considered the lifespan of the plan.
If full build-out were to happen, the plan would allow for up to an additional 8,456 rental units on top of the existing 4,669 rental units in downtown Bethesda. It’s possible some of the existing rental units would be torn down to make way for new rental units, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many units are coming.
Planners say 7,187 of the 8,456 new rental units would be “market-rate rental affordable” while the amount of new income-restricted affordable rental units could increase by 826 to 1,269 units, depending on which developers choose to supply 15 percent affordable housing in their projects.
Full build-out of the plan would also allow for a projected 51,900 new jobs in downtown, and, importantly to planners, an additional 13 parks for a total of 19 parks in the area.
What happens next?
The council is likely to hold its public hearings on the Bethesda Downtown Plan in October before starting its own work sessions and approving the plan, a process that could last into 2017.