In Bethesda, Putting a Price on a Neighborhood

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Homeowners in a neighborhood steps from downtown Bethesda face a tantalizing possibility: A developer wants to buy all 60 houses in their community, potentially turning many residents into millionaires.

The rectangular, tree-lined neighborhood west of Wisconsin Avenue, known as Sacks, is within walking distance of a bustling downtown that is slated for more high-rises, retail businesses and a hotel, and developer Jeffrey Neal says adding Sacks to that mix is a logical next step.

The possible sale could be more lucrative than what the residents, some of them elderly and thinking about selling anyway, could get on their own. Many were excited by an offer of more than $3 million a home. That was taken off the table and replaced by lower offers, but they're still higher than what many homes would bring on the open market.

But the sale also poses a dilemma: How do you assess the value of a rare cluster of single-family houses so close to high-quality shops, restaurants and condominiums? How best to calculate the less tangible sense of a community that could be flattened in days by a bulldozer?

Although Neal does not have a firm proposal, he has been contemplating a development that could include a high-rise, stores and restaurants. It could make the neighborhood look more like Rosslyn or Friendship Heights, where similar battles took place when high-rises replaced small-scale neighborhoods.

So far, Montgomery County officials don't agree with Neal, saying his plans run counter to a long-standing policy that calls for leaving the Sacks neighborhood as is, with single-family residences.

That would be fine with Karen Diamond, who said she had moved to the neighborhood several years ago, hoping "to die here."

"This is my last house," said the energetic 68-year-old, who revels in her flower garden and the easy walk downtown. She is leaning against a sale.

Bob Smythe, a resident for 30 years and head of the local neighborhood association, said he has remained neutral in the four-year-old debate. He said he understands exactly why the neighborhood is in play: "It is the most convenient place in Bethesda and perhaps all of Montgomery County. It is a thriving business area now, and we are in good part the beneficiaries of that."

For Neal of Monument Realty, a major player in the Washington area real estate market, the neighborhood is an obvious spot for more "smart growth," near the Bethesda Metro and the Capital Crescent Trail.

"We told county officials there is probably not another chance that a substantial majority of 60 homeowners will be coming to you with a request for rezoning. That 12 acres won't be available for you to replan for another 50 years," he said.

Neal said he hopes to get a substantial number of the lots but could be deterred if they aren't contiguous. "I can't go to a high-rise with every other lot," he said.

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