Another Letter to the Montgomery County Council

A sequel to Resident’s Thoughts on Updates to the Bethesda Downtown Plan

To the Montgomery County Council:

I grew up in California, and I have since lived in Santa Fe, Chicago and NYC; all beautiful places, each in its own right. I moved from New York to Bethesda in 2005 so that my husband and I could live near his sons. They currently attend Westland and B-CC, and our daughter is at Bethesda Elementary. It was a hard move to make, from the city to the suburbs (which never held any appeal), but I’ve grown to love the area for its unique qualities — a close-knit community, good schools (to date anyway), legitimate cultural offerings, and opportunities for my daughter to pursue almost any interest that grabs her — in short, the unexpected intersection of urban and suburban lifestyle in Bethesda. I mention this not as a personal reflection, but because this deep affection for Bethesda is something I have in common with my neighbors. Bethesdans have an appetite for quasi-urban life, and we have an appetite for those offerings that more density might bring.

We do not object to ANY plan, we object to THIS plan. This Plan is egregiously bad. This Plan needs to be re-done, with vision and with citizen input.

Here is a list of the ten widely accepted tenets of smart growth, which this Plan purportedly follows. The Plan meets half these objectives, at best, but the Planning Staff and Planning Board have contented themselves with the low-hanging fruit. They’ve left you to tackle the hard parts. And tackle them we must, because this Plan is shockingly inadequate.

  1. Mix land uses — yes
  2. Take advantage of compact design — yes
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices — debatable (is a combination of MPDUs and luxury condos a “range”?)
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods — NO
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place — NO
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas — NO
  7. Direct development towards existing communities — definitely
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices — purportedly, but still not bikable
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective — for developers, yes, but residents will have to be on their toes
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions — NO!

At this point, nobody expects that you will approve the Plan as-is. The questions is, will you do what it takes to make this Plan truly visionary? Will you preserve the diversity and charm that make Bethesda great? Will my daughter be able to ride her bike downtown with her friends? Will you create vibrant, welcoming, safe streets and spaces? Or will you settle for aggressive development and the taxes it promises?

I have watched many a worksession and I know that the work you do is complicated and challenging. I also know that you are making questionable decisions. I beg you to consider the master plans, the taxes, the schools, and consider the outcry and appeals of your constituents. Are you are content to kick the proverbial can down the road, and make schools and green space and sustainability somebody else’s problem, a problem for residents and future legislators? Will you stake Bethesda’s future on a mediocre plan? Or will you step up today, now, and meet the challenge of creating a master plan that will put Bethesda and Montgomery County on the map as a forward-thinking example of 21st century planning to be admired and emulated.

What will your legacy be?

I list here some shortcomings that you have by now grown familiar with:

GREEN SPACE — Be more visionary with green space

The green space in this plan unambitious and, even worse, largely unattainable. This is widely known and acknowledged by residents AND county employees. Be bolder on this front.

Land is expensive but it will only be harder to secure in the future. Acquire land now. Prioritize it. Be more creative. Demand that developers be more creative. It will only get harder.

While we’re at it, Buy the Sidwell Friends property — for a school or a park, it doesn’t matter — just buy it. It’s an opportunity we literally cannot afford to pass up.

And don’t trade slivers of land for a 250’ buildings. Think harder. Be more aggressive. Be on the right side of history. 4.4% is laughable.

EDGES — Zone the greatest heights near the Metro and away from the edges. Limit heights on both sides of Wisconsin Avenue to 70’ with step-downs to 35’ on Tilbury Street. Limit heights in Woodmont Triangle to 90’.

Casey Anderson assures us that only a small number of tall buildings will be realized. Why leave that to chance? PLAN it. Zone the greatest heights near the Metro, where they are appropriate.

Putting density at the edges, and in particular Wisconsin Avenue, will strain Wisconsin Avenue (already failing) on one side and residential streets on the other. I refer you to Amanda Farber’s testimony which includes lengthy discussions of precisely this issue in the 1994 plan. Times change, certainly, but the threat to the character of our neighborhoods remain. In East Bethesda our streets are narrow, and many don’t even have sidewalks, and the noise and traffic that come with larger buildings will annihilate the quiet neighborhood feel we all bought into (many based on the assurances of the 1994 plan).

Heights are not only inconsistent with our edge communities, they are inconsistent with Wisconsin Avenue itself, even near other Metro stations.

Woodmont Triangle also has very narrow streets and short blocks, and can’t support even limited additional traffic. The area is an enclave now, and a place to escape the more developed parts of Bethesda. Consider of different parts of Bethesda, and the appeal they hold. Honor that. Concentrate heights near the Metro.

STAGING — Add staging to the plan that includes adequate school, transportation and green space IN PLACE, and not theoretical, before the next stage occurs.

The plans for green space and schools and roads are sorely lacking. Staging will alleviate concerns on all three fronts. IF there were adequate testing of roads, sidewalks and bicycle lanes, and IF there were decent forecasting of school enrollment, and IF development were staged such that those components of the plan actually kept pace with wand drove further development, we would again be having an entirely different conversation. In fact we have the opposite of staging, if there is such a thing. You — the Council and the Planning Board — aim to eliminate testing in the newly dubbed red zone for individual projects, and indicate that people will get to work on the yet to be built Purple Line and BRT, and walk and bike. This Plan allows construction to occur on the basis of these assumptions long before the reality of them is borne out. This is more risk than the Council should be willing to assume.

This recklessness is exacerbated by the proposed overlay zone, which threatens to accelerate development as property owners race to secure additional density.

SCHOOLS — Add a plan for more schools, any plan. And don’t build residential units until you have one.

This is obvious to everyone but the Planning Staff and Planning Board. We have had enough. Development is the part of the enrollment equation that you can control. And with impact taxes accounting for 12% of the CIP budget, it’s hard to make a case that you need to build in order to fix the schools.

Fix the schools. Then build.

Respectfully, Katya Marin

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