The Montgomery County Planning Board this week approved eight commercial and residential complexes that will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of elaborate development to the blocks surrounding Bethesda's Metro station in the coming few years.
Lifting an embargo on high-density development imposed in 1980, the board gave all but one of the competing proposals the right to build in Bethesda's prime commercial zone. The ninth and largest project, the Woodmont Air Rights building, which was ranked last when county planners compared the buildings' designs, won a maybe.
Woodmont's fate now depends on whether enough of the other office and hotel projects drop out to make room for the traffic Woodmont is expected to generate. Under the county's current traffic projections for downtown Bethesda, the 600,000-square-foot Woodmont Air Rights project would create one-third of the additional traffic Bethesda can handle, meaning that several smaller projects would have to be eliminated for it to go ahead.
Its developers still face the same deadline for final design and construction as the approved complexes: Site plans must be presented within a year, and construction must be started within a year and a half later, said T. Jacob Pearce, principal urban designer. William Chen, an attorney for the project, argued strenuously at Wednesday's planning board hearing, challenging the county's traffic study and urging the board to give Woodmont full approval.
The developers' ability to attract tenants ultimately will determine which of the gleaming towers will form the face of Bethesda's choicest business district. Some projects are "purely speculative," said a source familiar with the projects, and only two -- Chevy Chase Garden Plaza and the Artery Organization Building -- currently have major corporate clients.
Norman L. Christeller, planning board chairman said after the vote that he believes the county's process will bring the best out of high-rise development.
"We are trying to make Bethesda what K Street should have been," he said. "We are creating a major employment center with high-quality office buildings. We are trying to make this an attractive place" for the public.
The board's vote ended what was believed to be the first competitive process of its kind in the nation, one devised by John Westbrook, chief of the county's urban design department and a former Rouse Co. official. Westbrook toured the nation studying planning practices and the urban developments they produced, and came up with a method he said was designed to bring about a new type of urban environment around Bethesda's Metrorail station.
The competition he set up prodded applicants for coverted high-density zoning to out-design one another with architectural proposals featuring public skating rinks, waterfalls, murals, sculpture and a theater in a competition that came to be known as Bethesda's "beauty contest."
All the designs were judged at once, rather than the first-come first-served method by which the county usually approves building projects requesting high-density development. In a radically different procedure, county planners ranked the designs after working with developers to produce projects unusually rich in public amenities. This week, the planning board accepted the rankings and the companion traffic study that allowed the top eight projects in under a lid of 1,675 vehicle "trips" home from work in the downtown.
* The approved projects, in order of the county's ranking, were:
* Chevy Chase Garden Plaza, a 200,000-square-foot office and residential complex with retail shops on the triangular block bounded by Moorland Lane and Arlington and Old Georgetown roads.
* The Artery Organization Building, at 14 stories and 400,000 square feet, the largest project approved, its X-shaped office tower is planned for the northwest corner of Wisconsin and Bethesda avenues.
* A 14-story, 150,000-square-foot building called 7475 Wisconsin Avenue, with an escalator to the subway station that is scheduled to open next year.
* The Gateway Building, a six-story office building with existing Lowen's Toy Store planned for the northeast corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Willow Lane.
* A 12-story, 150,000-square-foot office building with art gallery, known as 4600 East-West Highway.
* Community Motors Center, a 150,000-square-foot office, retail and apartment complex planned for the northeast corner of Elm Street and a future extention of Woodmont Avenue.
* The 14-story Franklin C. Salisbury Building, a 152,000-square-foot office and retail structure to be built northeast of Hamden Lane and Woodmont Avenue extended.
* The Air Rights Hotel, a 14-story structure planned for the southeast corner of Wisconsin and Montgomery avenues.
Planning board member Betty Ann Krahnke, the single voter against conditional approval for ninth-ranked Woodmont Air Rights, said she considered it unfair to give approval to a design she said was unacceptable, and that that would prevent new applicants from submitting more acceptable plans.