Monday, February 07, 2011

Bethesda's Smashing Summer

Lattes, IPads, Peg Perego strollers - downtown Bethesda on a wild night. But Bethesda's tranquil, manicured status is about to come to an end. By late summer, developers will take over the downtown, digging holes, tearing up streets, and reshaping the downtown streetscape now dominated by moms in heels. Relax, its only temporary. But by July, a pair of local developers say they plan to dig out the two metered parking lots in the center of Bethesda and close Woodmont Avenue for almost two years as they construct a giant underground parking garage, erect two new buildings that will extend Bethesda Row, and reconfigure the Woodmont Ave - Bethesda Ave intersection.

Stonebridge Associates and PN Hoffman, real estate developers selected by the county to joint-venture the project, have approved plans for an 88 unit condominium on the east side of Woodmont and a 170-unit residence (sale or rentals not determined) on the west side of the rebuilt street, a public-private underground parking garage 5 stories deep with 300 private spaces and 1100 public ones, and 40,000 s.f. of retail that will grace Bethesda and Woodmont Avenues, extending Bethesda Row south by a full block, built for small scale retailers. The buildings were designed by Bethesda's SK&I Architectural Design Group,

But all that infrastructure can only come with construction, and lots of it. And while developers are breaking eggs for the $150m development, they will also take the opportunity to remedy the distorted "X" of the intersection, shortening crosswalks and drawing together corners, giving Woodmont a more graceful, traffic-calming arch. Developers intend to close Woodmont south of Bethesda Avenue for up to 20 months, build the garage underneath, then deed the street back to the city.

The first building will be the Darcy, an 88-unit condominium (pictured, top), with 60 market rate condos and 28 home buyers getting subsidized views overlooking Bethesda Row; marketing and sales by PN Hoffman is expected to start "very shortly" says Stonebridge founding principal Doug Firstenberg. Retail will wrap around the building's first floor.

Next at bat is the more complicated west side of Woodmont, with 170 or so units still in the design phase and carrying the brunt of street-grade storefronts. Retail will be mostly parceled into smallish shops that roughly match Bethesda's current shopping district, with an anchor tenant as large as 9,000 s.f., large but significantly smaller than the Barnes & Noble across the street.

Stonebridge-Hoffman also has an agreement with the county to rebuild the adjacent section of the Capital Crescent bike trail, better integrating the path into downtown and fixing its dead end into Bethesda Avenue, where developers will widen and landscape the path with pavers. "Now there will be a place to stop" says Stonebridge's Firstenberg. "You will have a beautiful hardscape telling you you're in the middle of this urban area." Firstenberg also has plans for a bike drop-off on Woodmont once the residences are complete, now that bikers are loosing their unloading point, with a connection behind the building to the trail.

But developers will bury the most controversial portion, the project's 1400-space garage, for which the county approved $89m in 2008, a decision many saw as unwise, unnecessary, and wasteful. The complex land agreement with the county, which owns the land, requires developers to pay the county in a plan Firstenberg calls "tantamount to an air rights deal." The county will pay the Stonebridge team for its costs to build the public parking, up to $89m. "We're certainly hoping to spend less" says Firstenberg, who notes falling construction costs. "The construction world has changed." Project architect Federico Olivera Sala of SK&I notes that the team is "trying to reduce" the overall number of parking spaces.

But transit and smart growth organizations, while applauding the overall development as urban in-fill and transit-oriented, have called parking a boondoggle that puts cars before public transit, with a Metro stop two blocks away and the Purple Line coming soon across the street. "Montgomery County could lease parking from nearby office spaces. We need more flexible strategies...I think looking at pricing is the only way to effectively manage parking, there's plenty of parking within a couple of blocks. Given everyone's budget crisis, spending $80,000 per space hardly seems like a strategic investment," says Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which opposed the spending. Firstenberg disagrees. "There is clearly a parking shortage in Bethesda... Bethesda is one of the county's prime economic engines. Other developers have large projects coming up in the area, those are all major plans. There's a parking shortage today, much less when all the development takes place."

Parking shortage or not, in 3 years Bethesdans will have another garage, an extended Bethesda Row, and calm, freshly paved streets for quiet meandering. Which should be just about the time that JBG digs up the opposite intersection to build a 200,000 s.f. office tower and 250-unit residential tower, and most likely the start of construction for Bethesda's Purple Line station in 2014 right next door. Looks like Bethesda is about to get busy.

Bethesda, Maryland Real Estate Development News


Anonymous said...

Man oh man do I hope I can afford them. Not holding my breath on that though....

Anonymous said...

starting price for units $700,000 - 1.5 million

MattF said...

As I recall, the whole process of figuring out what to do with lot 31 began in the summer of 1998... So, supposing that this project takes 2 to 3 years to construct and build out, it'll be about 15 years from start to finish.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that parking in Bethesda over the next two years ain't going to be easy! (not that it ever was)

Anonymous said...

Big money always wins ... do present residents along Bethesda Row want this peace-breaking nightmare of construction to be done? I'm sure they don't. Is it going to take 2 yrs? No, it never does.

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