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A bold new vision for Bethesda

For decades, suburban communities like Montgomery County reaped the gains from choices made by executives to locate their companies outside of cities. But times have changed. Now, many entrepreneurs and workers want access to an urban lifestyle. Communities that cannot provide it are losing ground.

The good news: Montgomery County can compete in this new environment. Our beautiful neighborhoods and great schools and parks are still powerful assets. But we need to boost our urban areas for this new economy.

With this purpose in mind, I set to work on the Bethesda Downtown Plan, which we just completed. Here are some of the highlights:

New people, new life in Bethesda. The plan adds 4 million square feet of new development in the downtown area and raises heights for most buildings by 20%, reaching as high as 290 feet in certain locations. More people living in the downtown will mean better restaurants, retail and entertainment options for everyone — and the vibrancy that we enjoy will attract workers and companies to locate here.

A higher standard for affordable housing. Montgomery County continues to lead on affordable housing as the Bethesda Plan raises the requirement for new development to set aside 15% of all units for the county’s affordable housing program. Formerly the standard was 12.5% of units; I made the motion to raise that to 15% in Westbard and made sure it continued forward in Bethesda, another community that lacks affordable housing. With 4 million more square feet of development at a 15% MPDU mandate, the plan is aggressive on affordable housing.

Walkability and bikeability. New standards to promote walkability will mean more investment in safe crossings and bigger sidewalks. Continuing my efforts to champion bike lanes that are protected from traffic, the new Bethesda plan has a comprehensive new vision for biking. Thanks to a new development mitigation policy that requires developer payments for all modes of transportation including biking, we will have more resources to build this infrastructure.

Turning parking lots into parks. To be great, a downtown must have great parks and civic gathering spaces. Recognizing that Bethesda lacks them, I worked with the community and colleagues to champion a vision to turn existing surface parking lots into energetic urban parks. Where parking is still needed, we will have to put it underground. That’s expensive, but with a new park impact payment for new development, we also will have some of the resources needed to build them.

Transportation management. The Plan calls for aggressive use of another policy I have worked hard to advance: Transportation Demand Management. For a location like Bethesda, expanding auto capacity is not realistic or desirable, but growth in traffic can be reduced if we work aggressively with employers to promote public transportation, carpooling, walking and biking. The plan calls for the county to moving 50% of all trips to Bethesda to non-auto modes. We will soon get a concrete plan to achieve that.

Building community consensus. Thanks to careful attention to building heights and school capacity, the plan passed by the County Council had substantial community support while promoting strong policy goals. While surely not everyone is pleased, by working closely and inclusively with residents we achieved more than we could have otherwise.

Energy efficiency and great architecture. The new plan includes a groundbreaking requirement for energy efficiency in new buildings — one of the most important steps a local government can take to combat climate change. It also includes a new approach to sparking better architecture, something that has been lacking in the county generally.

I have no doubt that our progress on a new Bethesda is why Marriott’s leaders decided to move their company to one of Montgomery County’s urban centers, rather than DC or NoVA. And while there is good news to share, we have a lot of work ahead of us to build on our momentum.

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