Montgomery County planning officials released a report this week defending their judging and selection of multi-million-dollar commercial and residential complexes that had to compete for the chance to build in downtown Bethesda.
Asserting that their ranking of nine office, retail and residential complexes was arrived at methodically, urban planners said the competitive process "is a coherent and logical approach."
The report was prompted by complaints last month from William Chen, an attorney representing the bottom-ranked Woodmont Air Rights building, the only project planners did not recommend for development.
"It is true that this method does not directly compare Woodmont Air Rights to all other eight projects," the report said. " But it directly compares Woodmont to only the immediately higher project in each" criterion.
Planners had assigned numerical values to each project for such categories as how well it tied to the subway station, what pedestrian features were offered, and what kind of public amenities were available.
After explaining their ranking system, officials said the burden of proof should "now remain on the Woodmont Air Rights application. . . . "
At 600,000 square feet, Woodmont Air Rights was the largest of the nine projects competing for high-density development. It would generate nearly one-third of the traffic that planners believe the area can handle.
Chen argued at the county Planning Board's June 22 review of the evaluations that planners listed numerical values for each project, yet did not explain how they arrived at particular, numbered values. Chen said the judgments were subjective, and that planners had not disclosed their rating system in their summary judgment of the proposed buildings.
That left him with no specific points to argue to the planning board--which has the final say on which projects may go forward--why the Woodmont Air Rights design should be ranked higher than another.
But the planning staff disagreed, saying that "all the applicants in this optional method process have had the opportunity to become fully aware of the details of every other project" because officials made records open to competing developers.
The assertive response from the county's urban staff comes after criticism that the process overburdened developers by requiring them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal and architectural work in earlier stages than is normally required.
The competitive design process, which has come to be known as Bethesda's "beauty contest" of building designs, is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. It made developers with sites in Bethesda's choicest commercial blocks compete for high-density allowances, and produced designs with skating rinks, water falls, plazas, theaters and even an art gallery.
John L. Westbrook, chief of the county's urban design department and a former Rouse Co. official, traveled from Pioneer Square in Seattle to Rockefeller Center in New York, studying different urban plans.
With a cap on density because of traffic restrictions in Bethesda, Westbrook came up with the one-shot group applications--a radical departure from the first-come, first-served standard procedure--as a means of deciding which projects would get approved for intense development.
The county Planning Board is expected to give its final approval next week to the decision over which projects will be granted the chance to be built.