After months of meticulously combing through each block of the County’s economic hub, the Montgomery County Council passed the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan May 25 to allow for more growth in Bethesda.
The new plan, which is meant to serve as a blueprint for development in Downtown Bethesda for the next few decades, will allow for more density and taller buildings. The Council voted 8-1 to pass the sector plan, with Council member Marc Elrich (D-at large) as the lone vote against it.
“I would say this is one of our more ambitious plans in terms of its creative approach to community problem solving: lots of balancing going on and I think we reached a great resolution on this,” said Council member Nancy Floreen (D-at large).
The new approved plan caps development in Bethesda at 32.4 million square feet of gross floor area. Along with an increase in building heights, density in Downtown Bethesda is set to dramatically grow. Some buildings will have their allowable height increased to up to 300 feet. However, not all buildings will be able to build to their maximum height as the County could limit density and development in Downtown Bethesda.
Additionally the plan will require new developments to provide more affordable housing than they previously allowed, now requiring new residential properties to make 15 percent of their units into Moderately Priced Dwelling Units, with the County providing tax incentives to developers who make 25 percent of their units into MPDUs.
For months, the County Council weighed criticisms from Bethesda residents who believed County infrastructure could not support an increase in population over the next few decades. In response the Council proposed a “flashing yellow,” to monitor development and make sure Bethesda can handle increased density.
Some Bethesda residents said they did not want increased development and believed the County had no answer to increased traffic congestion and school overcrowding that come with a project increase in population. Other residents pushed the Council for more density and stricter regulations on affordable housing to give residents more options in the wealthy suburb.
Elrich, the only council member to vote against the plan, said the Council failed to tie increased density to increased spending and development on infrastructure.
“Separating decisions about infrastructure from decisions about handing out density I think are just bad policy,” Elrich said.
Hoping to increase development with making the County’s traffic congestion problem any worse, County planners tried to steer development around Metro stops in hopes people will opt to take the train rather than drive.
The plan will allow for up to 165 percent increase in multiunit rental units and a 142 percent increase in income-restricted housing in Downtown Bethesda.
Council member Roger Berliner (D-1), who represents Downtown Bethesda, said the Council struck the right balance between the desire of developers to build in Bethesda and residents’ caution on urbanizing the downtown area.
“No one gets everything they want in any plan. There are developers that who are disappointed. There are community members that are disappointed. That, in my world, often means we did strike the right balance,” Berliner said.