Monday, May 05, 2008

Will Montgomery County Put the Brakes on Bethesda's Parking Garage?

On Tuesday morning, the Montgomery County Council will vote on whether to move forward with a planned $89-million, 1,150-space parking garage in downtown Bethesda. If the vote passes, developers PN Hoffman and Stonebridge Associates would be able to proceed with their mixed-use project planned for the current Bethesda Lot 31, at the intersection of Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues (across from the Barnes and Noble). But the project has some concerned organizations urging the Council to apply the brakes and postpone the vote to allow time to consider alternatives to the garage.

In a press release put out today, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Montgomery County Sierra Club did the math: by their calculation, each individual parking space costs close to $80,000. “It’s cheaper to just pay people $45 to park [at a nearby lot] and walk five minutes,” says Cheryl Cort, Policy Director of the Coalition. While Cort praises the overall mixed-use project, she and her organization have concerns about the cost of the garage—and whether there’s really a lack of parking in Bethesda.
To prove her point, Cort went out on a Saturday night several weeks ago during prime dinner hour (between about 9 and 10 p.m.) to investigate Bethesda’s parking availability. According to Cort, while Lot 31 fills at peak hours, Bethesda has plenty of other public parking garages with whole floors of open parking within a five-minute walk of downtown Bethesda. It’s just a matter of people knowing where to look.

The proposed mixed-use project would take the place of the two lots now owned by the county, replacing surface parking with up to 250 residential units in LEED-certified buildings designed by SK&I. Stonebridge-Hoffman would realign the interchange of Bethesda and Woodmont, and add as much as 40,000 s.f. of ground floor retail, all of which is generally supported by smart growth advocates as being transit-oriented.

But rather than add such massive garage space, the Coalition for Smarter Growth recommends that Bethesda consider making use of a “smart parking” system, similar to those used in Rockville Town Center and at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport. A digital readout at the entrance to a garage or floor of parking displays the number of available parking spaces to approaching motorists, reducing the time, traffic, and frustration used in circling for spots. As Cort puts it, “Bethesda was just a suburban outpost 30 years ago…[Now] Bethesda has grown up…The question is, how do we treat automobiles in this context?”

David Hauck
, Chair of the Montgomery County Sierra Club, has a suggestion for how to assess this situation. “Step back, take a breath, and think about it,” he advises, “What will Bethesda look like five years from now?” If the pedestrian-, bike-, and Metro- supporting contingent has its way, says Hauck, the proposed parking garage will be a “white elephant.”

The County would fund the initial parking structure, which is designed as below-ground public parking, hence the high cost. The rub, in part, is the financing of the deal. The county would issue a bond to cover the construction costs, part of which would be repaid by the developers as part of the purchase of the land, but that still leaves public money going to support admittedly un-green vehicular traffic.

Hauck credits the county’s commitment to taking steps toward transit-oriented development and more walkable communities, noting that Bethesda could be and has been an ideal testing ground for these changes. He cites the promise of a new south entrance to the Bethesda Metro station and the proposed Purple Line. But when it comes to funding environmentally friendly measures, “Energy efficiency and global warming get crumbs off the table,” says Hauck, “and the parking garage gets the steak.”
Update, May 7: According to a representative from the Montgomery County Council, at its work session today, the full Council tentatively approved the parking garage planned for Bethesda's Lot 31. While a few council members did raise concerns about the project, no one introduced a motion to overturn or alter granting approval. On May 22, the project is expected to receive the final go-ahead when the Council officially votes on the county government's capital budget. Any changes to the plan between now and then are unlikely.


Anonymous said...

And... so,... wha' happened next???

Anonymous said...

I wish the Sierra Club etc. would get behind the expansion of the Ride-On bus system. I live a block away from a Ride-On stop, but the buses do not run on my part of the route (to downtown Bethesda) on weekends, inexplicably running only from Friendship Heights to Glen Echo. If the buses ran until later at night on weekends, I would definitely take them to downtown Bethesda. I've tried to bring this up with county officials and never got anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - Since you want more transit in Montgomery County, you should join us in the Action Committee for Transit. Check out our web site at

Unfortunately, with the current county budget problems, they are cutting Ride-On service, not adding it. Most of the proposed cuts were stopped by public pressure, but they did eliminate Saturday service on the #30 bus into downtown Bethesda from the Wyngate area.

In better years, we have had success in getting expanded service - the C8 bus from White Flint to College Park was our idea, for example.

Ben Ross
Action Committee for Transit

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