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The changes that have been sweeping through neighborhoods throughout the District for the past two decades are also affecting life in the suburbs surrounding the city. Montgomery County is in the midst of updating its plan for Bethesda’s central business district, a pocket of Maryland that’s evolved into a dense, urban center. Kojo and architect and urban planner Roger Lewis chat with Gwen Wright, the county’s planning director, about the effort to re-imagine Bethesda – and her vision for the rest of the county.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
- Gwen Wright Planning Director, Montgomery County (Md.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuring the past 20 years, few places in America changed as much or as fast as the Washington, D.C. region. But for many of the suburbs surrounding the district including Bethesda, Md. growing up may mean growing young. Montgomery County, Md. is in the midst of updating its plan for Bethesda's downtown business district, a process that could result in Bethesda becoming less of a suburb and more of an urban destination. And a big piece of that puzzle may be the county's ability to attract younger residents to live, work and spent money there, reversing a trend in recent decades that saw many younger people flocking away from Montgomery County to the district and to northern Virginia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what's at stake in the county's effort to reimagine Bethesda and how it relates to the rest of the D.C. region is Gwen Wright. She is the director of the Planning Department in Montgomery County, Md. Gwen Wright, thank you for joining us.
MS. GWEN WRIGHTNice to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Roger Lewis is back. He's an architect and urban planner. He writes the Shaping the City column for the Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. How are you doing, Roger?
MR. ROGER LEWISGreat. Always a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIGood to see you. You too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. What in your view do you think Montgomery County can do to make downtown Bethesda a more attractive place, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow. Gwen Wright, the last time the plan for the Bethesda center of business district was updated, one William Donald Schaefer was the governor of Maryland.
NNAMDIThe TV show Friends was just getting started and the district was far from the booming magnet for business and new residence that it is now. Clearly a lot has changed. How would you say the environment for rethinking downtown Bethesda is different this time around, and why do you feel this exercise is necessary?
WRIGHTWell, Bethesda's changed a lot over the last 20 years. And I would actually argue that it's not a suburb but it is an urban community today. The population is over 10,000. This is just for the downtown area, which is a 25 percent increase since the year 2000. And it is a lively successful place where people live, work, go for entertainment, go to have fun.
WRIGHTSo we're seeing this plan update as really a 20-year checkup. Bethesda is a success. It's a great urban community. And we want to make sure that it stays great, that it continues to be a place where people want to come and live, work, play. And that we need to make sure it stays on the cutting edge ahead of the curve in terms of any changes that are happening in the region.
WRIGHTThere's going to be a lot of competition of places, you know, outside the county like Tysons and places inside the county like White Flint. And Bethesda has been a really important center and we want it to stay that way.
NNAMDIThe district has evolved. Pockets of Arlington County like Clarendon have attracted hordes of younger residents who -- they're renting homes, they're spending money on nightlife. To what degree do you feel that Montgomery County in general but Bethesda in particular needs to focus on attracting younger people?
WRIGHTWell, I think it's very important. Right now the county as a whole has about -- it's population which is over a million, we have only about 19 percent of that population that you would classify as millennials. That's the lowest percentage of any of the nearby jurisdictions. It's fewer than the district Arlington but it's fewer than Prince George's County. And millennials are important and we want to attract them.
WRIGHTSo we've actually, in the Bethesda plan, done a lot of specialized outreach. We've really changed how we do outreach. We've evolved on that. It's included a lot of electronic media but it also has included ways to get millennials out to events. We've had a series of happy hours that have actually been sponsored by other organizations where we've come as guests and talked about the future of Bethesda.
WRIGHTThe last one we had that was sponsored by Streetsense and a firm JBG had over 500 people. And they were all young. They were all millennials. And they wanted to talk about Bethesda and they wanted to talk about, you know, how we could make Bethesda a place that they would enjoy living, working and playing.
NNAMDIRoger, when the county updated its plan in 1994, so much of the focus was about building a center of energy around the metro stop in downtown Bethesda where there's a hotel, dining options. And the year that followed, something happened down the street that you consider to be one of the most successful development projects in the history of the area, Bethesda Row, a walkable street with retail, housing, streetlights. Why, in your view, was this such a success?
LEWISWell, let me first of all say that I think there should be at least one more, if not two more metro stops serving downtown Bethesda. And we could do another show about the metro stop deficiency. And I think Gwen has put it very clearly that the place has grown. It's intensified.
LEWISI mean, I think that the reason for the success, as always, is that the menu of uses and the intensity of that use, the deployment of those uses in the region of Bethesda Row, the building of the Elm Street garage and the midblock garage, which by the way, if you don't think it's -- it's not suburban. It's an urban condition. Just drive into that garage and try and park on the weekends.
NNAMDII spend a lot of time in that garage.
LEWISYeah well, so do I. And, you know, I think that -- Gwen and I were talking before the show -- I mean, what -- when you look at Bethesda, when you zoom in and see what's in downtown Bethesda, not just Bethesda Row. It's everything you'd ever want to have in a cityscape. And you can walk to all of it. I mean, it's walkable. Which of course is one of the things that I think has made Bethesda Row a success is it's walkability. I mean, it is a place where there's great precocity at the sidewalk level. You can see into the storefronts.
LEWISWe often, in urban design, talk about counting the doors. If you have enough doors you know you're doing the right thing because doors, transparency and veracity are what activate the street. That's what's made Bethesda Row successful, along with the tenants. I mean, all of the -- and by the way, key to it is always eateries, food. Restaurants are indispensible.
NNAMDIWhere do you see room for replicating that success of Bethesda Row elsewhere in that immediate area? It's already bursting at the seams in some ways. Anyone who's ever tried to park in Bethesda on a Saturday afternoon can tell you, it's not easy.
LEWISWell, of course Gwen already mentioned the plan for the area, well, along the pike.
LEWISWhite Flint. I was having a senior moment there. I mean, I think that the -- in a way, while Bethesda -- downtown Bethesda is a work in progress and there's more to be done, it's pretty far along. I mean, I think it's already a place, in my opinion, where millennials will want to live. And not just millennials, also empty nesters. I was telling Gwen earlier, my doctor whose office is downtown lives in one of the condos in downtown Bethesda. And he bikes to his office and walks and doesn't have to use a car very often.
LEWISI think the -- there are a number of places in the county, and Gwen might want to chime in on this, where the county's policy is to effectively urbanize, intensify the density, the mixing of uses, making walkable areas that are alternatives to Bethesda or Silver Spring.
WRIGHTYeah, I would just add two things. One, you know, on the sort of small scale within Bethesda itself, what we realized is there's not one center but there are multiple centers within Bethesda. There's the area right at the metro. There's the area at Bethesda Row. There's Woodmont Triangle. And we see the potential for new centers within Bethesda, sub centers you might want to call them, in the area to the east along Pearl Street, the area that is down by where Strosniders is, sort of Arlington South.
WRIGHTWe see that there is room for additional infill and growth in Bethesda's downtown. But just as Roger mentioned, we're trying to also look at how to make use of our infrastructure. We have a great collection of metro stops and we're going to be having the Purple Line...
NNAMDII was about to say...
WRIGHT...coming through. Yes.
NNAMDIIn a way you're shooting at a moving target because it will soon or one day be affected by the Purple Line. And that's a transit that's going to provide an eastern gateway into Silver Spring and Prince George's County.
WRIGHTWell, yes. And, you know, it makes total sense. Anyone who's seen the Red Line, which is a big horseshoe, has probably always wondered, why isn't that horseshoe connected at the top? And that's what the Purple Line's going to do. So there will be another transit stop in Bethesda for the Purple Line. And it will stop at a variety of spots all the way over to College Park.
WRIGHTAnd I think it will be a really transformative kind of piece of infrastructure because it will allow some smaller communities to really grow and prosper in a way that they haven't been able to.
NNAMDIWell, what are the people saying? It's my understanding that the county conducted an online survey this year to get a sense from residents about what downtown Bethesda should look like. What did you learn from that?
WRIGHTWe actually -- yes, that's another thing that we did as part of our sort of efforts at outreach. We did an online visual preference survey. And what we heard from folks is sort of that they do see different centers in Bethesda. They don't see the downtown as one monolithic place and that they do believe that they want to retain the walkability. They want more open spaces, places that can be those sort of third places where people, when they aren't at work or aren't in their house, can come out and meet with their neighbors and socialize and just see other people.
WRIGHTWalkability is great in Bethesda now. We, in fact, walk score which you may have heard of, rates Bethesda as a walker's paradise. It got 95 out of 100. But we think we can continue to make it better. We're looking at how to make the streets -- the complete streets, which is sort of a little trend that's going on, of trying to allow not only cars to move but also really allowing bicycles and pedestrians to feel comfortable and to move easily on the streets.
WRIGHTWe're also looking at -- in Bethesda at a lot of sort of new cutting edge ideas on environmental sustainability. We're looking at the eco district concept and ways that we can make our streets greener and our public spaces greener in Bethesda.
NNAMDIA lot of callers want to weigh in on this. I'll start with John, in Chevy Chase, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNWell, I've lived in this area for 46 years. My feeling right now is that they're force-feeding the golden goose. Now, whether they get pate de foie gras or whether they kill the golden goose is really the question. I think it's much -- they're proceeding with the development much too rapidly. They should stage it in and let the thing evolve more gradually. Thank you.
NNAMDITo which you say, Gwen?
WRIGHTI am all for pate de foie gras. And I think that we are working towards that. We are very cognizant of the fact that Bethesda is surrounded by stable, single-family neighborhoods. We want to make sure those neighborhoods get the best of both worlds. Protection from some of the development impacts, but also access to the wonderful resources that can exist and do exist in downtown Bethesda.
NNAMDIDo you think you're moving too rapidly, as John seems to feel?
WRIGHTYou know, I think that we are working hard to make sure that we look at making sure that there's enough infrastructure to support development that's going on. Montgomery County's been at the forefront. We have an adequate public facilities ordinance that many other jurisdictions do not have. We hold to that. It's the bible of Montgomery County. So I think that we're proceeding in a very measured way. We understand, you know, change is inevitable in a community. And our job is to manage that change, not to stop it, not to force it forward, but really to manage it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet, @kojoshow. We're discussing downtown Bethesda with Gwen Wright, director of planning -- of the Planning Department in Montgomery County and architect Roger Lewis. 800-433-8850 is the number. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're shaping the city with Roger Lewis. This time we're shaping downtown Bethesda. Roger's an architect and urban planner, who writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Joining Roger in studio is Gwen Wright, director of the Planning Department in Montgomery County, Md.
NNAMDIYou can send us emails with your questions or comments to email@example.com. Are you a young person who lives in Bethesda or who has considered living there? Why did you decide to move or to not move to Montgomery County? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Roger, a few weeks ago Ben Ross wrote for the website, Greater Great Washington, that the options presented to people in the survey that we mentioned earlier, "Loaded the dice against urbanism." What would you say to that?
LEWISWell, unfortunately I'm not familiar with that, but I -- with the piece that you're referring to or the study. So I have to confess that. I think loading the dice against urbanism is usually motivated by either resistance to change, as we talk about all the time, or concern that I'm not going to find a parking space and I'm going to sit through four cycles of this signal at this intersection.
LEWISI mean, I think traffic congestion -- I think a lot of what we hear are essentially code words, if you will, for what people directly experience and perceive and worry about urbanism, which is both -- well, it's traffic congestion. It's also the arrival of people who maybe are different. I mean there's a sociological dimension to this. I mean, that's my interpretation. Whenever I hear, if you will, the nimbi argument, it's almost always based on that.
NNAMDIBut here's one of the things he's complaining about. Let me quote from the piece in Greater Greater Washington. "Montgomery County zoning requires empty land known by the Orwellian name of public use space -- although productive use of the space is banned -- next to all mixed-use buildings. This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups, protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas, which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle."
NNAMDIGwen, talk a little bit about the requirements of the country for empty land that must be used for public use space.
WRIGHTYou know the county had a central business district zoning that did require a certain amount of each site to be dedicated for public open space, public use space. And so we did end up with small plazas associated with each development, rather than one large public space. In the Bethesda plan that we're doing, we are actually looking at rectifying that situation, looking at ways that folks redevelop property.
WRIGHTInstead of putting just a little postage stamp public space on their land, might pay into a public amenity fund that would allow for the acquisition and development of larger pieces of public open space that may be more usable. But I would say -- and this is a different tangent, that bigger isn't always better in terms of public open space. And you can have an acre size park which is not active, which is not utilized.
WRIGHTAnd you can have very, very small pieces of open space -- like the little triangle in front of the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda -- that are very popular and very active. So creating great urban open spaces is an art, not a science. And we are looking at all ways that we can within Bethesda to create those kinds of spaces.
NNAMDIOn to Michael, in Washington, D.C. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELHello, Kojo. Great show as always. Hello, Mr. Lewis. And I just wanted to mention that -- you talked about the Purple Line and that's all very well. But it seems that there's quite a bit of space between Friendship Heights and Bethesda on the Red Line. And then between Bethesda and Medical Center. Has any thought been given to wedging in a station just as New York Avenue was wedged in between…
NNAMDIAt the very beginning of the broadcast Roger said that Bethesda needs to have…
NNAMDI…a lot more Metro stops. Roger?
LEWISWell, I, you know, the model that's easily pointed to is, of course, Arlington County and the Orange Line. The stops that have been so, so catalytic for the development of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor where the stops are -- and you see this also in other cities where the -- when you get into the urban areas, the frequency of stops has been very, very important in encouraging development and allowing people to move more easily.
LEWISI mean, I -- my -- I'm just -- I've always felt that there was -- for the entire Bethesda area there's one stop for downtown Bethesda. And so I'm not sure where another -- Gwen probably should address this. She's thought about it lot more than I have.
NNAMDIIn addition to which Gwen used to work in Alexandria. So she's intimately familiar with northern Virginia.
WRIGHTAnd building in-fill Metro stops because we in Alexandria were working hard to create a Potomac Yard Metro stop that would have been -- that will be between National Airport and Braddock. We haven't talked about having an additional Metro stop in Bethesda. We have talked about trying to link the new Purple Line stop with the Red Line. And that will be a few blocks south of the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue.
WRIGHTWe also have talked about -- as you've probably heard -- having a bus rapid transit in Montgomery County, which would be along a number of different corridors. And the top two corridors we're beginning to study are 355, also known as Wisconsin Avenue and Route 29. And I think that BRT may end up adding to a collection of different transit options that will link together.
NNAMDIOn now to Steve, also in Bethesda, Md. Steve, your turn.
STEVEHi. Two quick questions. One, I read that the Fidelity, you know, the Federal Realty is wanting to drop restaurants in Bethesda Row and replace them to clothing shops. I go to Bethesda Row for restaurants, not to look at clothing at 8:00 o'clock at night. Second question, what about the Apex Building and the Capital Crescent Trail and having it go, you know, under Wisconsin Avenue? Have they got enough money to buy the Apex Building? If they don't, it's going to be a disaster having the trail going over Wisconsin Avenue.
WRIGHTFor the second topic, we did a specific master plan amendment to take a look at the Apex Building site, which is going to be where the Bethesda Purple Line Station will be located. And we did everything we could to incentivize the idea of actually removing the existing building and creating a better Purple Line Station and a better trail. But it is a privately-owned building.
WRIGHTWe've added a lot of incentive and the county is working with the owner to see if it's going to be possible to come up with a scheme that would allow for demolition of the building and creating a better Purple Line Station and a better trail. But I don't have a conclusion on that discussion at this point. We have been working hard on that matter, though.
NNAMDIWhen it comes to open space in the generic, not the technical sense, Montgomery County is a big county. The areas up-county, closer to Frederick have a lot of open space that people care a great deal about. How, Roger, in your view, does facilitating more density in the more urban pockets of the county actually protect the open spaces elsewhere?
LEWISWell, it think the answer's implicit in the question. I mean, I think the whole notion of smart growth is about -- the underlying principle of smart growth is to concentrate growth and development in areas served by infrastructure, transit or in a development, in areas that -- where all of the conditions you would want for growth are met, allowing you, therefore, to preserve the more fragile landscapes, the more sensitive areas of our land -- of our jurisdiction, whatever the jurisdiction.
LEWISI mean, I think that really is one of the underlying principles of smart growth. And I think that we need to keep in mind that historically we didn't pursue that. I mean, I grew up in a state where any developer could go anywhere and create his or her own utility, municipal utility district. It could be 30 miles from anything else. And we're trying, you know, in a way we're -- we still have to deal with this issue of private property rights and why can't I develop -- why can't I put 300 houses out here? I own this land and it's been in my family for years.
LEWISWhat, you know, why not do that? And the answer is that it's a -- there is a cost to doing that, environmental cost, as well as financial cost, that I think we didn't appreciate until the last few decades. So that's what smart growth is about.
WRIGHTAnd in Montgomery County, I would just add that we were pioneers in the idea of preserving agriculture and open space. In 1980 we did our agricultural plan and created a transfer of development rights program so that over 90,000 acres of our county is preserved as rural agriculture and open space. And the development rights from that 90,000 acres can be transferred to places like Bethesda, where we want to use the infrastructure and the transit that exists to serve density.
NNAMDIOn to Hillary, in Rockville, Md. Hillary, your turn.
HILLARYHi. Thank you for taking my call. Well, I just wanted to say I'm a millennial. You know, I'm 22. And I would love to be able to live in Bethesda. I love that it's walkable. I love the Metro access. It's a great area, you know. There's a lot of places to eat, but it's so expensive. So, you know, you're talking about all these millennials being able to live there and how great of an area it is, but how can anybody, you know, my age afford it?
WRIGHTThat's a great point. And one of the things that, again, we're hoping to look at in the Bethesda plan is how to increase the supply of affordable housing. Not only by the county's existing MPDU, which is Moderately Priced Dwelling Units, not only through that program, which requires new developments to have about 12.5 percent of their units as moderately priced dwelling units, but also on how to preserve existing affordable units in Bethesda.
WRIGHTSo that it can be a community that is a mix of incomes, a mix of people and we want to create opportunities for millennials to live in Bethesda. So that's going to be a major thrust of the plan.
LEWISAnd it's probably worth noting, Kojo, this is a nationwide problem. Gwen has articulated something that is facing D.C., it's facing Arlington, it's facing, you know, the affordability issue, particularly as it affects millennials.
NNAMDIOn to Carol, in Bethesda, Md. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLI'm calling on behalf of senior citizens, such as myself, who are finding the traffic a very difficult issue to deal with in Bethesda. We are -- I have a physician to consult, love to go to a restaurant, but while you're urging younger folks to come in a be part of Bethesda, don't forget those of us who have to drive there and find a parking space for longer than two hours. We would love to spend more time in Bethesda, but conditions are not conducive to doing that.
NNAMDIWhat can you do to make sure that Carol and her contemporaries also enjoy living in a developing Bethesda?
WRIGHTWe've had a number of conversations with the Commission on Aging in Montgomery County about how to really make sure that the interests and needs of our senior population are taken into account. I think that parking is an important issue. The county is working on creating more parking spaces in Bethesda with a new garage that's being -- that's under construction right now that is…
NNAMDIThat will provide some 900 more spaces.
WRIGHTYes. It will be more than 900 public parking spaces there. And we're also looking at the accessibility of sidewalks.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Gwen Wright is the director of the Planning Department in Montgomery County, Md. I think good luck is appropriate. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis is an architect and urban planner. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, always a pleasure.
LEWISThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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