The Montgomery County Planning Board this week heard pleas from developers who lost out in a competition to build multimillion-dollar projects in the blocks surrounding downtown Bethesda's Metro subway station.
County planners announced their rankings of the proposed office and hotel complexes earlier this month -- the crucial point in the controversial competitive design approval process -- and builders whose projects fell in the bottom ranks are scrambling to get the County Council to restore funding for a road project that could give them a reprieve.
Planning board members, who have the final say, agreed Wednesday to withhold their final decision on which projects they will allow until after the County Council, in an emergency session set for July 5, considers restoring $100,000 to begin a $9 million extension of Woodmont Avenue that county planners say would allow some rejected projects to be reconsidered. Money to design and plan that road was cut suddenly in May.
If the council restores the funds, possibly eight of the nine development proposals that were competing for a limited supply of additional building density could be allowed, according to John A. Carter, a principle planner for the county's Urban Design department.
"From the beginning, we could approve everything down to No. 8" and still be within traffic capacity projections, Carter said. Three projects -- the Community Motors Center on Elm Street, the Franklin C. Salisbury Building on Hampden Lane, and Woodmont Air Rights, all depended on Woodmont Avenue for amenities or access to their projects. Carter said that when the start-up money for Woodmont's extension fell through, the planning staff decided not to recommend the three.
Planners selected only six projects for approval in the controversial comparison of development proposals, which are normally considered separately on a first-come, first-served basis.
Even if Woodmont Avenue's extension is revived, though, planners say the bottom-ranked Woodmont Air Rights Building -- at nearly 600,000 square feet, the largest project considered -- would still be out of the running. That building would generate nearly a third of the additional traffic that officials figure the roads around Bethesda can stand. To get approved under the current ranking competition, the project would need to rise from ninth place to fourth or fifth place, and would have to displace three or four other developments planners rated as more desirable.
And raising Woodmong Air Rights' place in the rankings would put William Chen, an attorney for the project, in the position of canceling out two other, higher-ranked projects in which his client, Elsinger-Kilbane and Associates, is also involved.
Chen argued at Wednesday's hearing that the whole evaluation was questionable.
He said the evaluations listed numerical ratings, yet the staff report didn't explain how planners arrived at particular, numbered values. He said that left him with no specific points to argue to the planning board why his project should be ranked higher than another.
Chen also noted that the cancellation of Woodmont Avenue's extension came after he made his presentation to the planning staff in May, and that he had no opportunity to argue in favor of it under the changed circumstances.
"I'm not saying these are nasty people, don't get me wrong," he said later. "But, come on. This is a competition. . . . You can't say this event [the cancellation of the Woodmont extension money] may be visited upon me and not [upon] the rest."
He said that since traffic capacity is the limiting factor that put all the projects into competition, it was unfair for the planning staff to automatically rule out the projects whose designs figured on Woodmont's extension.
Chen and Sheldon Schumann, an attorney for the Salisbury Building, toild the board they would urge the county council to fund Woodmont's extension.
Kalli DeWesse, of the Wilson Lane Civic Association, asked the Planning Board to consider the traffic she said would be brought on Wilson Lane, a major lateral artery to downtown that winds through Bethesda's residential area.
After the $160 million redevelopment was approved for Rozansky & Kay to build the Bethesda Metro Center office, hotel and shopping complex now under construction at Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, county officials decided to freeze intense development until they determined how much more traffic Bethesda can handle.
After studies showed that fewer than 1,700 rush-hour "trips" would remain, planners came up with a process to make builders who wanted to get more density compete with designs.
That competitive process, which came to be known as Bethesda's "beauty pageant" of building proposals, produced architectural designs of palatial office and hotel towers adorned with artworks, and outdoor sculpture, a skating rink, a stage, waterfalls and ponds, as urban planners worked with developeers to hone the "public amenities" that the county asks in trade for more intensive development.
Making the projects compete for that higher density allowance was the scheme developed by John Westbrook, a former Rouse Co. official and chief of the county's urban design staff. Last fall, the county council approved the competitive method believed the only one of its kind in the country. The process forced developers to submit the kind of detailed plans not usually required until advanced stages, after a project already has been granted approval. Some developers complained during the competition that the process by its nature made them spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare proposals that had no guarantee of approval.
Westbrook said his method was the best way to create compatible results rich in public amenities.