Once a Suburban Town of D.C., Bethesda Comes into Its Own as a Metropolis

Bethesda used to be a sleepy little town with antique shops, a surplus store, dentist offices, and a diner.

Now, residents in the Chevy Chase neighborhood across Wisconsin Avenue from the rapidly growing city are worried that more development will lead to traffic jams, increased taxation and other problems.

One of the many construction Cranes seen throughout downtown Bethesda (Photo by Howard R. Fletcher)

“The pace and scale of the development has gotten to the point that I feel the county is unable to keep up with it,” said Michelle Davis, a 35-year Bethesda resident who also owns a mortgage business there.  “The growth is good for my business.  So, I guess I shouldn’t complain. But, it is a bit disconcerting to those of us who have lived here for decades.” 

Many residents who live in proximity of downtown are feeling uneasy even though county planners have placed a cap on density that would allow no more than 4.2 million square feet in new construction, said Davis, who was very active in the most recent planning process.

The newest Bethesda Downtown Plan was prepared by the county’s Planning Department and Planning Board, and approved by the Montgomery County Council, in May of this year.

“Affordable housing is one of three main goals of the plan,” said Leslye Howerton, Lead Planner for the Bethesda downtown sector plan and Planning Coordinator with the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The plan also sets out to be an example of innovation in sustainability with environmentally friendly buildings, pedestrian walkways, and open green space, said Howerton.

The Planning Department, aware of the economic competitiveness of the business districts in the Washington metropolitan area, also had to make Bethesda feasible and attractive to commercial concerns, according to Howerton.

“The process of updating the 1994 Bethesda sector plan started in January 2014.  During the first year and a half we worked with residents and the business community in over 100 public meetings at workshops or charrettes to talk about their vision for the plan,” said Howerton. “So, those goals of affordable housing, sustainability, and competitiveness came straight from the community.”

The Tastee Diner, which has served the Bethesda community for 82 years, is near the site where Marriott plans to open a hotel with at least 230 rooms and meeting spaces for conferences

The Town of Chevy Chase has a council meeting at least once every month, but development concerns have spurred an increase in frequency of those meetings, said Mary Flynn, the Mayor of the town.

“Several of our town’s residents are worried that the development of Bethesda, because of its proximity to us, will adversely effect the quality of life here,” said Flynn.  “We are working with the county and the contractors of the Purple Line to do our best to mitigate the development as much as possible.”

Many nearby public schools are already overcrowded, according to the Montgomery County Board of Education records. The county’s public school system could opt to reopen some closed schools for younger students and might need to determine whether the new plan brings new students, said Gwen Wright, Montgomery County’s planning director.

“Eventually, the community will have to come to grips with the need for a new high school in the Bethesda area,” said Wright.

Popular businesses like Georgetown Cupcake have opened locations in Bethesda

There are several residents who are excited about the changes in Bethesda and welcome the additional resources, businesses, and services.

“I am actually a big proponent of the development, said Janet Storella, who moved to Bethesda 24 years ago with her husband and raised two children there. “I like that its giving us lots of options for entertainment, dining, and shopping.

“It does come with a cost of congestion, traffic and the like.  So, I like the development.  I just wish the planning process was more organized to make sure there’s adequate parking and that traffic doesn’t become a nightmare.”

Metro’s Purple Line is a 16-mile light rail line that will extend from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, according to Maryland Transit Authority’s website.  It will provide a direct connection to the Metrorail Red, Green and Orange Lines; at Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton.  It is intended to relieve some of the increased commuter traffic burden that will result from the commercial and residential growth, said Wright.

Some community groups have been opposed to these proposed infrastructure changes from the start.  Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail (FCCT) have taken the county and Purple Line contractors to court several times since 2014, attempting to stop the transit line from being built.  Their Chevy Chase based non-profit’s primary concerns were environmental.

FCCT filed another suit in September that raises new issues, including specific concerns about construction along the Georgetown Branch Trail and Metro’s financial situation, said Jim Roy, Vice President of FCCT.

“The whole point of our lawsuit is that the steps were not taken properly, the money is not there – as far as existing infrastructure,” said Roy.  “There is a statute that requires Metro to have funding for existing infrastructure before starting work on something new.”

Metro cannot successfully or accurately present financial numbers to support enlarging the system, said Roy.

“With little affordable housing in Bethesda, it is doubtful that the commuter traffic that would take public transportation, the Purple Line, would be able to fund the day-to-day maintenance costs of the extension,” added Roy.

Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Floreen introduced a bill at the end of October to require developers of fewer than 20 homes to contribute to the county’s Housing Initiative Fund, according to reporting in Bethesda Magazine. The fund provides money for affordable housing projects in the county.

Contributions might be based on the value of the homes built in the development, but the council will work through those details as it takes up the legislation in committee sessions, said Floreen.

The councilmember introduced the bill to make sure developers of smaller projects are paying their fair share for affordable housing.

“There’s a tremendous need and most of the new homes being constructed are not inexpensive,” said Floreen.

Howard Fletcher is a journalist and podcaster who lives in Silver Spring, MD.  

The Number One 2 Podcast is available on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Buzzsprout.

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