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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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Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan

The County Council recently approved a dynamic new master plan for the Bethesda Downtown – one that clearly defines goals for the future and seeks to create options for accomplishing those goals. This vision for the future was the result of a two year planning process, including a major community outreach effort led by the Planning Department at MNCPPC, then continued through the Council public hearings, bus and walking tours, meetings with property owners, residents and advocacy groups, lengthy PHED Committee worksessions, Council deliberations and, finally, County Council approval.

This was no simple debate about building heights and architectural styles, as some news accounts may have implied. The complexities of planning for a future one cannot accurately predict but hopes to influence anyway are enormous. Our work is not yet done. The plan relies on the completion and approval of other fairly sophisticated legislative and policy elements such as:

  • The Bethesda Overlay Zone which will, among other things, define the point system available to developers who must earn their way to the maximum zoning height by providing priority elements such as affordable housing, dedicated parkland or monetary contributions for public benefits;
  • Development of a Unified Transportation Mobility Plan for Downtown Bethesda (to replace the Local Area Traffic Review) which identifies all costs associated with transportation facilities (including roads, sidewalks, bikeways, transit) needed to support the development potential prescribed in the master plan; and, to formulate a pro rata share to be charged each developer at time of development; and,
  • Development and adoption of a Countywide Transportation Demand Management Ordinance to replace the individual Transportation Management Agreements DOT currently negotiates for any development plan that cannot meet APFO standards without using measures to reduce traffic generated by their use.

These supportive components are being developed by DOT and County Council staff and will be brought to the County Council within the year. They are the linchpins on which the Downtown Plan hinges; and, these will be in place by the time any new development plans based on the new Downtown Master Plan are reviewed and approved.

I am proud to have worked diligently with the community, the planners and all others involved in this effort to find and fix potential challenges to implementing the Plan; and, I have great confidence that the ambitious goals defined in the Bethesda Downtown Master Plan will be completely achievable.

Here are the goals:

  • Preserve, create and expand housing opportunities to meet a growing population of diverse ages, household size, income level, and unit types;
  • Transform the urban district to provide safe bike routes and a better pedestrian environment
  • Change the transportation policy focus to include all modes, like walking, biking, and public transportation, that reflect the healthier, smarter, more environmentally sensitive preferences of our community; over time this will be our best approach to reducing the growth of traffic
  • Transform county-owned surface parking lots into urban parks and recreation spaces. Exchange concrete for plants and fresh air by converting surface parking lots into parks and concentrating parking under and in buildings in appropriate locations to meet the essential needs of both residents and businesses.
  • Improve collaboration and cooperation between MCPS and the County agencies involved in planning and development to ensure schools that are adequate and efficient and meet our standards of excellence in education for ALL students.
  • Identify, create or generate new ways to finance those elements of the master plan without dedicated sources of funding to ensure implementation of the priority goals defined in the plan. This point is particularly important for our plan to turn parking lots into parks; without a new source of funding, existing county budgets can provide only a small fraction of the money that is needed to bring the ambitious and transformative vision to reality.

Thank you for participating in this process. I am pleased that we got a much better Bethesda Downtown Plan as a result of the community’s effective engagement.

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Development mitigation — schools and transportation

I would not be surprised if you missed news reports about the County Council’s rewrite of our development mitigation policy, called the Subdivision Staging Policy, or SSP.

We have spent several months working on the policy. Because I serve on both committees that deal with the SSP, I have worked particularly hard on it and I am happy that it reflects three key priorities that guided my decisions:

  1. simplicity and transparency
  2. a stricter policy to address school overcrowding, and
  3. ensuring new development invests in public transportation, walking, and biking in order to reduce the number of new cars on the road.

The Washington Post Editorial Board praised our new “smart growth” plan as a “thoughtful framework.” Following are some of the highlights that may be of greatest interest to you.

A transparent policy that people can understand: Perhaps the worst aspect of our existing policy was that very few people could understand it. A needlessly complex policy erodes accountability and discourages public participation. The new policy is much simpler and should be easier for residents and business interests to evaluate. In the future it will be much clearer – for developers, community members, and us managing the County’s budget – how much new development will be required to contribute for new infrastructure.

School-capacity development moratorium: The County Council significantly strengthened the moratorium policy to pause development where schools are overcrowded. The new policy will not allow residential development to move forward if any of the individual schools that serve that area are more than 20% over capacity, unless there is a funded project that will add sufficient capacity. Previously, we used a test that averaged all of the schools in a given high school cluster, so that, for example, if one elementary school was severely over capacity but other schools in the cluster were not, the moratorium would not be in effect.

School impact taxes: As a general rule, we charge an impact tax on new development that ensures that developers cannot free-ride on previous county investments in schools and transportation. I supported significantly raising the school impact tax rate to fully reflect MCPS’s one-time expenses for new students. This position was strongly supported by the Montgomery County PTA, and it was one of my top priorities.

Transportation impact taxes: Transportation impact taxes will now be set according to a geographical sliding scale, with higher rates for development that will generate more automobile traffic. New development that is farther from Metro requires more new infrastructure and will be charged more than new development near Metro, which is consistent with the smart growth principles that I support.

Multi-modal development mitigation: Our localized review process will now measure and require improvements for biking, transit and walking infrastructure — not just driving. In the past, development projects were only required to mitigate their impacts on automobile traffic. This policy was one of many in the county that create an unfortunate loop where people do not take advantage of other transportation options because we do not invest in other options. We need to break that cycle, and requiring new development to improve surrounding transportation infrastructure for all modes or options will help.

Comprehensive mobility plans for urban districts: Previously, new developments in our urban districts were required to research their auto traffic impacts and identify possible solutions. This approach often let developers off the hook or favored solutions that were easy rather than the solutions that were most desired by the community. Under the new policy, the county will take charge of modeling traffic impacts and devising a comprehensive plan for the Metro station districts, then charge each developer proportionately for their contribution to additional use of the networks. The plans will also address and require mitigation for all modes of transportation (public transportation, walking and biking), not just driving.

A final but crucial piece of policymaking in this area will be a new Transportation Demand Management Ordinance. I advocated that the County adopt such a policy and as a result a DOT work group is in the final stages of formulating a proposal for council consideration. A TDM Ordinance will require new development to reduce the number of drivers on the road by investing in and managing other transportation options. For example, building owners will work with their tenants’ employees or residents to increase use of public transportation, biking, or carpooling. The County Council will take up this plan in 2017 and I think it will become a crucial component of our transportation strategy.

The Subdivision Staging Policy, which might be better called the Development Mitigation Policy, is intended to be reviewed and updated every four years, although it can be amended at any time.

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Thoughts on the Westbard Sector Plan

Following are my prepared remarks on the Westbard Sector Plan. You may also watch a video of my remarks as delivered.


I want to start by thanking all the people who put a great deal of time into formulating this plan. Hundreds of Westbard residents – and residents across Montgomery County – who wrote, called, and came to testify to the Planning Board and the Council throughout this process, and while no one person is getting exactly the outcome they might want, I truly believe that the plan before us today is much better because of the extensive public input we’ve received – and the many changes we have made in response. Ultimately, I believe that this plan strikes the right balance between respecting the legitimate expectations of the existing community and providing a sustainable path for future growth.

I think some context might be helpful for anyone who cares to understand my vote today, so I hope my colleagues will excuse me if this is a little long:

I ran for Montgomery County Council as a progressive Democrat because I am deeply committed to the progressive values of social justice, equal opportunity, and shared responsibility. Here at the local level, these values play out very differently than they do on cable news – the county council doesn’t get much say over immigration, or gun control, or foreign policy.

Instead, we reflect our progressive values through our budget – where we ensure a robust safety net, universal health coverage, a strong education for all students. We try to build an economy that works for everyone by combining relentless economic and workforce development with efforts to level the playing field with a reasonable minimum wage, paid sick leave, hopefully one day paid family and parental leave. We do our part in the fight against discrimination and for equal rights.

But for me, the key to our community’s success is that we are welcoming and open. The message I want Montgomery County to send to the rest of the world is: Whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever your economic status, if you are willing to work hard and be good to your neighbors, come to Montgomery County and share in the good life. You’ll have access to basic services, to training and education and jobs, your kids can go to a good school and play at great parks, and you will be safe. If you want to start a company you can find investors and a world class network of incubators, if you need employees we have the best educated workforce in the world.

I know that sounds grandiose, but at its core, the progressive values that drive the Democratic positions on economic issues, on social issues, are really about inclusion – about realizing a vision of shared prosperity – that’s it’s not enough for just the elite to prosper. And nothing is more fundamental to this vision than housing. Where you live determines the quality of your schools, what jobs you have access to, and so many other things. So I really believe that the community planning process we are engaged in today is really where the rubber meets the road for putting progressive values into action. That means providing income-restricted housing in every neighborhood to ensure that the very poorest and most vulnerable in our community have a place to live and aren’t clustered in high crime areas with little opportunity. We are breaking new ground by requiring at least 15% of new units to be affordable to low-income families. But it also means building enough housing to ensure that people of all income levels have a place here. If we don’t build enough housing to meet demand, prices rise and working class people are priced out.

And we have a moral imperative to plan this housing in an environmentally sustainable way. We know with scientific certainty what the combustion engine is doing to our planet. This means clustering new housing in existing communities rather than allowing green space to be developed and providing ways for people to get around on foot, by bike, and by public transit. While this plan is not on a metro station, and some of these new residents will certainly drive, the plan does make great strides in improving the walkability of the area and I am hopeful that expanded demand will allow us to improve bus service even further. But there can be no doubt that building townhouses on what is already a giant parking lot, just a mile from two metros, right across from the DC line, is far better for the environment than developing a farm or bulldozing a forest an hour north on 270.

Of course, our first principle must be do no harm. I don’t want to change any of the things that make Westbard wonderful. First, not a single existing home is being touched. We reduced the allowed development proposed by the Planning Board by half because we were convinced that it would have been too much, too fast for the roads, schools, and neighborhoods to handle. The plan before us today will only improve life for everyone in the Westbard sector. Traffic will be still be bad, but not noticeably worse. There will be new shopping and dining options and a great new park. The schools will still be great and Kenwood’s cherry blossoms will still bloom.

This also means making sure that the developers, who there is no doubt will make a profit from this project, pay their fair share to ensure there is adequate school and transportation capacity for all residents. This year we will be revising the Subdivision Staging Policy, which governs what developers must do and what they must pay to build in Montgomery County, and I know all my colleagues will be working to make sure that the rules line up with reality and we have the resources we need.

All in all, I truly believe this plan strikes the right balance between protecting and enhancing the things that make Westbard, and Montgomery County, such a wonderful place to live, while creating new opportunities for families from all socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy our community’s marvelous resources.