First PHED Committee – Cautious Optimism

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On Monday, January 23, twenty five CBAR supporters attended the first discussion of the Bethesda Downtown Plan by the Montgomery County Council Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee. Chaired by Councilmember Nancy Floreen, PHED committee members George Leventhal and Hans Riemer were joined by District 1 representative (and Council president) Roger Berliner and at-large Councilmember Marc Elrich.

I live-tweeted the meeting, which you can scan through (it’s in reverse-chronological order). You can also watch the video on the Montgomery County Council web site. (Note that discussion of the Bethesda Downtown Plan begins at 00:05:10.)

So what of it?

Bethesda’s Max is Near

Council analyst Marlene Michaelson reported:

…both Planning (Department) staff and (Council administrator) Glenn Orlin believe based on transportation analysis that this is not an interim cap that you can then go back and raise again once this is built out. This is likely the total amount of development that can be sustained in Bethesda until there is some incredible change in technology that we don’t know about today (video 1:49:00).

Councilmember Floreen challenged Ms. Michaelson, who stood her ground. Our roads — and our new transit systems — will not support density beyond what is proposed in the Plan. Density is therefore a precious commodity that should be allocated purposefully.

Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson responded by saying that he looks at it the other way around. He would like everyone to stop thinking about master plans within the context of school or traffic or water or sewer capacity, but to envision what is necessary in the next 20 years of development cycles “to achieve the County’s goals for economic development, quality of life, and other bigger picture objectives.”

OK. This is where Chairman Anderson and so many of us can respectfully agree to disagree. But we can’t let him win this argument.

If you have kids in public school, overcrowded schools detract from your quality of life. Safe, well-designed parks add to your quality of life. Traffic gridlock and jamming onto a Metro car detract. Trusting your government adds to quality of life! Watching your neighborhood street transform into a service road for the new development across the street — big minus. So where is this “quality of life” coming from?

But I must dwell a moment on my favorite stop-phrase: “the County’s goals for economic development.” Oh, how many times have we heard that Bethesda is the County’s economic engine? We are people — voters even — not cogs in the $5.3 billion MoCo machine. So what exactly does the County want to extract out of Bethesda? While it’s wonderful that the Plan’s stated objectives are Community Identity, Equity, Habitat & Health, Access & Mobility, Water, and Energy, it’s time to get real and lay bare the economic goals that are really driving the massive amount of development proposed in this Plan.

Community Funded Research Gets Some Respect

Councilmember Hans Riemer questioned the basis for the traffic studies that legitimize the Plan (video 2:00:05). County administrator Glenn Orlin said that he would be presenting to the Council in a few weeks, and added that he’s expecting the results from the University of Maryland work that’s been contracted by the Town of Chevy Chase. Contradicting Chairman Anderson’s earlier assertion that Dr. Orlin’s traffic studies show that everything is A-OK, Dr. Orlin said he is reserving judgement until he can work with both studies.

(Note: Dr. Orlin incorrectly credited CBAR as a party to the UMD traffic study. CBAR published a white paper that exposed the Planning Board’s opportunistic use of data and conflicting outcomes. County studies show the intersections that fail traffic studies in order to justify the need for the Purple Line later pass traffic studies in order to justify density numbers in the Bethesda Downtown Plan.)

That Little Open Space

Council President Berliner commented on open space, saying that he’s been working for almost ten years for “that little open space in front of Mon Ami Gabi” (video 1:42:45). That little open space measures .5 acres and is owned by JBG Realty. Berliner continued to say, “That to me is our public commons. It’s one of the most important spaces that we can possibly get.” It is absolutely true that this is the most important space that the County can possibly get. It’s where the Purple Line terminates and people access the Capital Crescent Trail. It is a hugely important gateway. But the needs it fulfills are limited.

For CBAR’s first public attempt at articulating a real vision for a Bethesda Common, please check out my comment on the Bethesda Beat article, Union Hardware Owner Sees Big Redevelopment Potential for Block Next to Marriott Site.

Bethesda is Not Nancy’s Favorite Child

We will try to get her to love us anyway. In raising concerns about the cost of adding parks to Bethesda, she said that “if there ever were a place that needed urban parkland, it is downtown Silver Spring” (video 2:31:32). She followed up by saying that “we need to be careful about picking our favorite child.”

Suppressing negative emotional responses for a moment, she is right that Silver Spring doesn’t have good urban park space. That’s why it was selected as a pilot area for the new Energized Public Spaces Functional Master Plan. One of the reasons it was selected for this special pilot is because there is no master plan pending for Silver Spring in the near future.

That doesn’t make it OK to do a sub-standard job on the Bethesda Downtown Plan that they are working on right now. At the risk of repeating myself, CBAR’s first attempt at providing a vision for meaningful park space is in a comment on a Bethesda Beat article. The vision is not fleshed out, but it will be. We don’t know yet how we’re going to fund these parks, but we are talking to the right people and we’ll figure it out. Through respectful conversations across the public-private continuum, we will come up with a proposal. And I think that’s something even Councilmember Floreen can learn to love.

The Bethesda Master Plan is what’s before the Council now. Let’s get it right, shall we?

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Mary Flynn is a resident of the Town of Chevy Chase and the founder of CBAR.