The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday unanimously approved a new master plan for downtown Bethesda, and voted to submit it to the County Council for a final review likely to begin with an October public hearing.
However, key mechanics of the Bethesda Downtown Plan still must be worked out. County planners began the process of updating the plan by holding community meetings beginning in November 2014 and sent a draft of the plan to the board more than a year ago.
Over the last few months, the board chose a unique approach by recommending the creation of a new zone called the Bethesda Overlay Zone (BOZ), that will require separate board approval. Planning staff said Thursday they expect to present the new zone to the board in September.
The BOZ would lay out how developers in downtown Bethesda could be awarded density above and beyond what they’re currently allowed.
With the approved plan, planners took the unusual step of leaving properties at their current densities and capping the maximum allowed additional density at 32.4 million square feet. Recent master plan revisions in the county have included specific increases in allowed density compared to previous zoning.
With about 28 million square feet of additional density already allowed by existing zoning, that leaves about four million square feet of “bonus density” that developers can apply for on a first-come-first-serve basis by paying into a fund to be used for creating downtown parks, providing more than the minimum rate of income-restricted affordable housing and going through an extensive design review process. Or alternately, developers can buy unused density from other downtown properties.
In the edge areas of downtown adjacent to single-family home neighborhoods, developers won’t be allowed to add bonus height or density to their projects for providing more than the required amount of income-restricted affordable housing.
The park payment, originally proposed at $25.81 per square foot per project, drew criticism from property owners and developers. Planners hope to use the funding to acquire land for up to 13 new parks, civic greens and other public spaces, citing the lack of such facilities as a chief community concern.
After approving the plan, board commissioners tentatively agreed to set the Park Impact Payment (PIP) at $10 per square foot per project. The final number will be approved as part of the BOZ.
The commissioners also agreed to three “offsets” for developers who pay into the park fund: They won’t be required to provide as much open space on their own properties; those who dedicate land to the Parks department will be exempt from the fee; and developers who pay into the fund will be given preference over other applicants in the Planning Department’s project review schedule.
Judging by correspondence sent to the board before Thursday’s approval, some residents in the single-family home neighborhoods of East Bethesda and the Town of Chevy Chase are still concerned about redevelopment of edge properties and the effectiveness of a proposed buffer zone of parks and open space between their communities and the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.
“Why should it be called the Planning Board? It should be called the Development Board,” wrote East Bethesda resident Amanda Maiorana-Farber. “There has not been any evidence of adequate planning of schools, parks, roads, or protection for single-family residential neighborhoods. We are in a mess with infrastructure that cannot meet the demands of the approved and proposed development. This is not the ‘price of progress’—this is the ‘price of poor planning.’”