To hear Montgomery County planners tell it, nothing less than the future of downtown Bethesda is in the hands of a trade association for 40,000 pharmacists.
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) owns the four-story Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave., which sits atop the spot identified by the county as the optimum location for the Bethesda terminus of the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line. There it would link with Metro’s Red Line and accommodate the segment of the Capital Crescent Trail that passes through the area.
“The importance of this property cannot be overstated in influencing the future of Bethesda as an urban, transit-oriented community,” the Montgomery Planning Department wrote in March.
But shoehorning two train tracks, passenger platforms and a 12-foot-wide trail through existing easements and right of way under the Apex Building poses serious and expensive engineering problems, officials contend. They say the best solution would be to demolish the building, which houses the pharmacists group, the Regal Bethesda movie theaters and other businesses.
The only problem with this prescriptive was that while surrounding property owners were interested, the pharmacists weren’t. Acting planning director Rose Krasnow said in June that she had trouble even getting them on the phone. Taking the property by condemnation was the only other option.
But that may be changing. ASHP recently hired Holland & Knight attorney David Silver to handle talks with the county, which appear to be getting serious.
“We’re now having discussions on what would work for us,” Silver said. “We’re seriously considering it and they may be in a position to make it worth our while.”
That would mean tearing down Apex to give builders unfettered access to build the station and then granting the pharmacists’ group zoning to rebuild at a higher density. Or, the group could sell to a third-party developer.
Silver said ASHP’s attitude may have changed as it saw signs that the $2.2 billion light rail project connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton was moving closer to reality. On Aug. 5, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) used the Bethesda Metro station as a backdrop to announce a commitment of $400 million in state funding for the Purple Line, fueled by the General Assembly’s passage of the transportation bill that raises gasoline taxes.
“The fact is that we’re maybe more focused than we were before,” said Silver. “I think when the funding came in it made it look more viable and worth everyone’s attention.”
The clock is ticking, at least according to the Maryland Transit Administration, which wants to lock in a final design by the end of the year to secure matching federal funds and a private partner by early 2015.