Bethesda Zoning Dispute Is Case Of Goliath vs., Well, Goliath

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A developer wants to build a 200-foot-tall office tower. Neighbors try to derail the project, saying it will cut down their open space and light. Both sides scour ancient land records to try to make their case. They seek letters of support from neighbors and activists and question each other's motives and methods.

Such disputes, seen in many Washington area neighborhoods, often have a David-and-Goliath feel, with developers and their high-priced lawyers facing off against underfinanced neighborhood activists.

But a fight that has been raging for months over a proposed office tower atop the Bethesda Metro station has a twist. It is a struggle among real estate titans -- developers, builders and bankers -- that has pitted big money against big money, with lots of legal talent on all sides. Many believe the battle, which is under review by Montgomery County's planning agency, ultimately will land in court and could take years to resolve.

The angry neighbors are large corporations: Clark Enterprises, Chevy Chase Bank and Chevy Chase Land Co. , all major players in the real estate market. Uncharacteristically, they are trying to block a development, one proposed by Meridian Group. They say that the longstanding county plans for the area did not envision any more buildings on the site. Adding one now, they say, would crowd the area, ruin the way it looks and cast long shadows all day.

The building would be right in their front yard, a central plaza in Bethesda ringed by office towers occupied by top executives of Clark and of Chevy Chase Land Co. -- and those of their nemesis, Meridian. Chevy Chase Bank's headquarters across Wisconsin Avenue is a few steps away and looks out on the plaza. A new building could get in the way of vistas from the higher stories that on clear days can stretch to Northern Virginia.

"Usually, it's members of the general public who are upset. This time, it's land-use lawyer against land-use lawyer," said Rose Krasnow, who heads the planning agency division that is reviewing the case. Already, the dispute has filled more than two feet of file space with hundreds of pages of documents and maps, copies of 200-year-old land records and angry e-mail exchanges alleging secret meetings and improper deals.

The proposal is pretty straightforward. Meridian wants to add another office building to downtown Bethesda, just above the Metro and near the Hyatt Regency hotel. The 16-story office tower's prime tenant would be American Capital Strategies, an asset management company that wants to consolidate its Bethesda offices. The tower would be one of the tallest in downtown Bethesda, and also one of the few that has embraced "smart growth" by both locating next to Metro and not building a parking garage for the building's occupants.

Meridian has offered to enhance the public plaza where the building would stand by adding artwork, small fountains and, during the warm months, outdoor evening movies. The company also plans to spend $2 million to fix up the bus bay and Metro entrance below, an uninviting concrete concourse that has been described as a "cold handshake" to anyone coming to Bethesda by public transportation.

"We are in an urban area, trying to achieve smart growth and transit-oriented development," said Robert Harris, attorney for Meridian. Harris's own office at Holland & Knight overlooks the plaza, which he says is mostly dead.

Inward-facing retail there failed long ago, he said, because it couldn't be seen from the street. Adding more office workers in a new building, making improvements to the plaza and fixing up the Metro entrance underneath might bring new life to the plaza, Harris said. It would be "about as efficient a use of the Metro system as you can get," he said.

Meridian's plans have won the backing of the Sierra Club, two "smart growth" groups and bicycling advocates.

But opponents say Meridian has no legal right to build a tall building on the site, where a shuttered food court and offices occupy a low-rise building that Meridian wants to tear down and replace with the 246,000-square-foot tower. Longstanding county plans for the area don't allow new construction at the plaza, the opponents say; they insist the project would necessitate a lengthy public process to revise those plans.

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