Late last week, tensions over the current political climate and anxieties over neighborhood development all came to a head during a meeting of the Montgomery County Planning Board (MCPB), where the conversation around the proposal for the Bethesda Metro Center evoked allusions to communism and democracy, as well as a debate about "doing the right thing" that prompted an unfortunate ICE metaphor.
Ultimately, the MCPB granted unanimous approval to a sketch plan from developer Brookfield Property Partners, which plans to construct a new 500,000 square-foot building at 4 Bethesda Metro Center, joining three others atop the ad hoc plaza where Old Georgetown Road and East West Highway converge onto Wisconsin Avenue (map). The roughly 290-foot building could either deliver offices or up to 600 apartments, with ground-floor retail lining the Promenade in either case; the plan also includes improvements to the bus bay garage beneath the plaza area.
Most people on either side of the debate agreed that the improvements to the bus bays were necessary and that something should be done with the underutilized plaza. However, many in opposition to the plan argued that the sketch plan lacked sufficient detail to merit a vote in favor, or that much of the new proposed open space would be "hidden" and have poor access to light based on the massing of the new building.
Citing that the Board has a responsibility to preserve open space in the neighborhood, some of the opponents implored Boardmembers to "do the right thing". Others cited their tenure in the area during their testimony and pointed out that, based on the findings of a study by Chris Leinberger of George Washington University, Bethesda lacks inviting open space worthy of its status and that the plan fails to meet that need.
"While doing some research, I discovered a list of the eight things you never knew about Bethesda, including that some see it as the second-snobbiest town in the US," said resident Linda Miller, one of several witnesses wearing a green shirt which read 'Hidden Space is Wasted Space'. "It was given this distinction due to the fact that residents have the third-highest income, and the sixth-highest median home price in the US. I see that as one of the many reasons to highlight Bethesda as an exceptional town that merits an exceptional design."
Other witnesses framed the debate in more meta terms. "Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to find open space, safe space, where they can talk, organize and share ideas," stated resident Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.
Planning Board staff countered that many of the proposals floated as alternatives run afoul of decisions already made regarding the plaza during the creation of the Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan, which was the result of extensive debate and exploration of various options. They also reinforced that the space was privately-owned and that the sketch plan met requirements and would be further refined in future approval stages.
Boardmember Natali Fani-Gonzalez, who cited her work as a community advocate, began her comments with a nerve-touching and woefully current metaphor by way of explaining her vote.
"I'm sorry for saying this, but I have to," she began. "You don't have to go to Russia or Venezuela to find human rights violations; all you need to do is see how this government, right now, is putting children in cages. But when I see and I talk to people from ICE and say, 'why are you doing this?', their answer is, 'well, that's doing the right thing'. That's their perspective. So everybody has their own perspective. So I'm going to do what 'doing the right thing' is from my perspective, which will be very different from yours. Just putting that out there."
Fani-Gonzalez continued by noting that the sketch plan complies with the mandates of the Sector Plan by creating the opportunity to increase Metro ridership and activating public space at the site rather than preserving unused space. "The right thing is making sure that we have spaces that are being used by people, for people," she explained. "That's the right thing to do, in my view, and that is what this proposal is doing."
All of the boardmembers, including Fani-Gonzalez, relayed criticisms of the plan to the applicant and noted desired areas of improvement going forward. Ultimately, they voted unanimously to support moving the sketch plan to the next phase, which will entail further work with staff, WMATA and Clark to refine the plans and proceed to the site plan phase.
In the meantime, Fani-Gonzalez's comment has reportedly garnered a lot of backlash from those who are opposed to the project and took her statement as a personal indictment.
This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/bethesda-metro-development-debate-evokes-democracy-communism/14248.
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