Some downtown Bethesda business owners who have long benefited from the proximity of a public parking garage at 7730 Woodmont Ave. say their businesses have taken a hit since an agreement between Montgomery County and Marriott International took effect in August.
Marriott’s long-awaited new 785,000-square-foot headquarters opened this summer directly across the street from the garage and was officially dedicated Monday. The headquarters opening followed the opening of the adjacent Marriott Bethesda Downtown hotel in March.
The agreement between the county and the company, which took effect Aug. 1, restricts parking in the county-run Woodmont Corner Garage to Marriott employees from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The garage is open to the public after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.
During the hours that the garage is closed to the public, there are gates that remain down at the entrances. The gates are lifted during the hours it is open to the public and drivers pay at a kiosk using their license plate number.
Area restaurateur Jeff Black, whose restaurant Black’s Bar and Kitchen abuts the Woodmont garage, said the arrangement with Marriott makes no sense.
“This is a public parking garage. It’s being used for private interest. And yes, it’s impacting my business. It’s destroying my happy hour, which is one of the things that’s been carrying me through the pandemic,” he told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday.
Marriott’s former longtime headquarters was on Fernwood Road, but with the lease expiring this year the company decided several years ago to relocate. County officials urged the hotel giant to remain in the county, and in October 2016 Marriott announced it would build a new headquarters in downtown Bethesda.
As part of an incentives package, the county promised Marriott it would supply 1,200 parking spaces downtown. Additionally, the state and county each agreed to provide Marriott with $22 million in economic development funds, Bethesda Beat reported at the time.
In April 2017, the county reached an agreement with Marriott that allowed the company to use the Woodmont Avenue garage on weekdays, according to Montgomery County Department of Transportation spokeswoman Emily DeTitta. The effort was led by then-County Executive Ike Leggett, but ultimately approved by the County Council, she wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat this week.
In December 2017, the county’s planning board approved the Marriott project.
Marriott is paying the county about $2 million per year, considered fair market value, for use of the garage, according to DeTitta.
Black said he has had to deal with multiple hardships at his Bethesda restaurant since construction on the new headquarters started four years ago.
“We’ve endured the noise, the grinding, the dynamite, the [dump] trucks … . It’s been like we’re at war. And we’ve tolerated it because we all want Marriott to come in,” he said.
Black called the agreement with Marriott “corporate welfare on steroids,” and said it’s particularly unfair because no alternative option for parking was made available.
“I’ve been here for 23 years. I’ve been paying taxes, employing people, buying alcohol from the county, doing all the right things. The reason people are being so [giving] to Marriott is because it’s gonna bring jobs. Well, I’ve always brought jobs. Where’s my consideration?” he said.
In a statement to Bethesda Beat on Friday, Marriott wrote that it understands that the “community is adjusting to Marriott’s leasing of Garage 11.”
“We are committed to being good neighbors and will remain in regular contact with Montgomery County as we evaluate our associates’ use of the garage, both near and long term, and the needs of others in the community,” the company said.
DeTitta noted in her email that there are four other public parking garages within a couple blocks of the area where the Woodmont garage is.
“Over a period of years, Marriott estimates a reduced need for parking due to Bethesda having a strong transportation network. Each year, Marriott has the ability to give up some of its parking spaces and consequently reduce its payment,” she wrote.
Gene Wilkes, owner of the Tastee Diner across the street from the garage and next to the new headquarters, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that the Marriott agreement is yet another example of how the county has made it difficult for small businesses to survive.
“This is a garage that was constructed with tax dollars, that we all contributed our tax dollars to. And then they give it to a single user?” he said.
Wilkes said he remembers that county officials had discussions with small business owners in Bethesda at the time, but doesn’t think the dialogue was constructive.
“I went to several meetings that we [as business owners] initiated, and we got nowhere. We said, ‘Well for goodness sake, if you’re gonna provide a public garage, why don’t you give them the one over where Chevy Chase Cars is at, on the other side of Wisconsin Avenue?’ ” he said.
Wilkes said he remembers being told that Marriott didn’t want its employees crossing Wisconsin Avenue to get to work for safety reasons.
Ultimately, nothing positive came out of the deal for small business owners, Wilkes said. The diner, he said, is rebounding from its struggles during the pandemic, but that recovery is hampered by customers’ inability to find parking close by.
“[The county’s] catering to large business. We all got ripped off,” he said. “And parking is almost impossible now. Our weekends are coming back, but our weekdays are terrible. Because people will call and say, ‘Can I get an order to go? I’ve circled the block three times, I can’t get a parking spot.’ ”
Wilkes agreed with Black that the county needs to better serve its small businesses.
“If Marriott can get the whole garage, could Jeff Black get three or four [parking] meters in front of his restaurant? Could I get three or four meters in front of my restaurant for the exclusive use of the Tastee Diner? That’ll never happen, but I mean, that’s what we did for Marriott,” he said.
Beth Aberg, owner of Random Harvest Home Furnishings at 7766 Woodmont Ave. near the garage, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that working conditions have been “horrible” for the last couple of years due to the headquarters construction.
“It’s even worse now as they added the bike lane at Marriott’s insistence, took away the parking garage and left only five spaces on the street that are usually taken by their employees staying all day,” Aberg wrote.
“In addition there is no loading zone for businesses so our delivery trucks have nowhere to park to load and unload furniture. Because of this we will be giving up that location in the near future and I can tell you the landlord is having a difficult time finding a new tenant because of the parking situation.”
Mark Bucher, owner of the local Medium Rare steakhouse chain, which has a location near the Woodmont Avenue garage, said he doesn’t have a problem with Marriott’s use of the garage. But he is worried about parking overall because of the county’s continuation of the outdoor streeteries – streets that have been closed to traffic since the start of the pandemic in order to make room for outdoor seating. The closed streets include Norfolk Avenue, near Bucher’s restaurant.
“Marriott’s great. I’m thrilled that Marriott’s in Bethesda. Don’t get me wrong. They did the right thing by offering up the parking. I’m not upset with that as much as I’m upset with them renewing the streeteries,” he said.
The loss of parking caused by the streeteries combined with the lack of availability in the Woodmont garage could hurt some businesses, he said.
“I wish when they renewed the streeteries … they would have asked restaurateurs about it, and … they didn’t think about losing this entire parking garage. So I think it’s tough,” he said.
As to the Marriott agreement, DeTitta says county transportation officials discussed the arrangement with the Bethesda business community prior to its approval in 2017.
“As Marriott approached occupancy of their headquarters, MCDOT did let the community know of the change by posting notices and flyering vehicles,” she wrote. “We also partnered with the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP) and the [Bethesda-Chevy Chase] Regional Service Center before Marriott came in to boost awareness of the change, and promote alternative parking options, to local businesses and community members.”
Allie Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that businesses had been notified before the new agreement took effect. Additionally, the chamber has been talking about it since the spring, he said.
“People knew it was coming, and it was a phase-in as it was happening. So really, [there are] no frustrations that I’ve heard and nothing that caught anybody by surprise,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org