The Montgomery County Planning Board’s September 14, 2023 approval of a Site Plan for 7126 Wisconsin Avenue marked a significant milestone in the build-out of the 2017 Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan (the “Sector Plan”). This Site Plan is for a mixed-use project for up to 330 multi-family dwelling units and ground-floor retail at the southwest corner of the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Bethesda Avenue. More specifically, the Sector Plan provides that once a total of 30.4 million square feet of development has been constructed or the corresponding site plan approved (the “Soft Development Cap”), the Planning Staff and Planning Board must review and brief the County Council on the status of the overall implementation of Sector Plan recommendations and requirements, especially as to public infrastructure, green and open space, and public amenities tied to the build-out of the approved density for Downtown Bethesda. Upon being briefed and considering Planning Staff and Board recommendations relative to the continuing build-out, the County Council may require certain actions that help guide the future delivery of Sector Plan recommended public infrastructure and amenities (including recommended new urban parks) and/or achieving certain non-auto driver mode share (NADMS) goals. Now that the Soft Development Cap has been reached with the Planning Board’s approval of the above-mentioned Site Plan, the analysis by the Planning Staff, Board, and County Council regarding the progress made toward accomplishing several key Sector Plan goals has been set in motion. The Planning Board is scheduled to review Staff analysis and recommendations and take public comments during its October 12th meeting so that it can issue recommendations on November 2nd or 9th, with the Council briefing later this year.
By way of background, the County Council established both the Soft Development Cap and a hard cap of 32.4 million square of total development (the “Hard Development Cap”) allowable for Downtown Bethesda when the Sector Plan and accompanying Bethesda Overlay Zone (BOZ) were adopted in 2017. The allocation (at the time of site plan approval) of the 6.4 million square feet of new development density recommended in the Sector Plan, known as “BOZ density,” along with existing and other approved but unbuilt development, has been continuously tracked by Planning Staff and the status can be reviewed at the Sector Plan Monitoring and Tracking Program website (Bethesda Downtown Plan Monitoring and Tracking Program – Montgomery Planning). The Sector Plan and BOZ also established a Park Impact Payment (PIP) to fund acquisition and development of recommended new urban parks in Downtown Bethesda. The PIP allows for development projects to obtain BOZ Density, i.e., additional density above a respective property’s mapped density, through payment of the PIP. The PIP rate was originally established at $10 per square foot, but it is adjusted bi-annually based upon a local construction cost index and is currently established at $12.49 per square foot. As referenced in The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s (M-NCPPC) most recent annual monitoring report from July of 2023 (Bethesda Downtown Plan Annual Monitoring Report – the “Annual Monitoring Report” (montgomeryplanningboard.org), a total of 40 development projects have been filed for Planning Board review since adoption of the Sector Plan 6 years ago, and M-NCPPC has collected over $14.4 million in PIP funds from 10 projects that have been approved and are moving forward (with additional PIP funds anticipated in the next few years as more projects receive site plan approval).
It is expected that the County Council will start discussions regarding what happens when the Hard Development Cap is reached. As it stands now, the Planning Board cannot approve further site plans upon the Hard Development Cap being reached.
With the Soft Development Cap having been reached, the County Council’s Planning, Housing and Parks (PHP) Committee was briefed by Planning Staff on September 19th. This briefing included presentation of the Annual Monitoring Report, and next, on October 12th, the Planning Board (guided by Staff recommendations) is expected to discuss what, if any, recommendations it will transmit to the County Council relating to further implementation of the Sector Plan between the Soft Development Cap and the Hard Development Cap. In addition to the County Council possibly providing the Planning Board with further actions or parameters for the Planning Staff and Planning Board to factor in the processing of site plan applications for development at levels between the Soft Development Cap and the Hard Development Cap, it is expected that the County Council will start discussions regarding what happens when the Hard Development Cap is reached over the next several years (as it stands now, the Planning Board cannot approve further site plans upon the Hard Development Cap being reached).
In terms of the metrics that will be evaluated by the Planning Board and County Council (and that will be discussed on October 12th), M-NCPPC has successfully acquired several key properties recommended in the Sector Plan as urban parks, including the Capital Crescent Civic Green. It has also coordinated with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) and private developers to allow for the future development of the Farm Women’s Market Civic Green and several urban parks on County Parking Lots 25 and 44 that will be integrated into the Eastern Greenway. While significant progress has been made to lay the foundation for delivery of these urban parks, no new urban parks recommended by the Sector Plan have been constructed to date. In addition to having made progress toward achieving the Sector Plan goal of delivery of urban parks, significant pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure has been constructed or is in the process of being constructed in Downtown Bethesda. MCDOT’s and M-NCPPC’s emphasis on reduced parking and implementation of pedestrian and bicycle facilities is intended to further the Sector Plan’s goal to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. MCDOT recently released the 2023 NADMS survey results, which demonstrates that Downtown Bethesda is very close to achieving the 55% NADMS blended goal for residents and employees, as established by the Sector Plan.
While progress has been made toward the Sector Plan goals, and the reaching of the Soft and Hard Development Caps are healthy signs that the Sector Plan’s recommended growth is being achieved, it is critical that the urban parks recommended in the Sector Plan also be constructed in the next several years as we approach the Hard Development Cap. We will be active in this upcoming review by the Planning Staff, Planning Board and County Council, in seeking confirmation that the Sector Plan’s continuing prioritization of pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure and application of the PIP to fund urban parkland will remain as successful policies that will provide a strong basis for all stakeholders to support re-opening the BOZ to provide additional development density beyond the Hard Development Cap of 32.4 million square feet, thereby allowing for Downtown Bethesda to continue as a vibrant community where people live, work and play.
If you have concerns or questions relating to the application or impacts of the BOZ and associated development caps to your development project, please contact Bob Dalrymple or Matt Gordon.