Real estate analysts are offering mixed projections on how the towering commercial and residential building projects recently approved for downtown Bethesda will fare in the Washington area office-leasing market.
Noting the glut of vacant office buildings in areas of downtown Washington and the number under construction in Montgomery County, some consultants are skeptical whether Bethesda, even with its subway station scheduled to open next year, can draw enough customers to fill the 3 million square feet of high-density residential, office and retail space approved for its prime commercial zone.
Others see Bethesda as a promised land, the largest settlement along the trail of subway station developments on Metro's Red Line, where businesses can locate in an environment that is part of Washington, but at the same time away from Washington.
"The economy is getting stronger, and now people are beginning to search for space," said Patricia A. Terry, vice president of Julian J. Studley Inc.'s leasing office for Prince George's and Montgomery counties and one of those predicting a bright future for the Bethesda site. "And right now, you can't find any in lower Montgomery County. You have to go to Rockville and beyond."
Bethesda's newly constructed offices "can be absorbed within five years" after the buildings are finished about 1985--and 80 percent can be absorbed in the first 1 1/2 years--she predicted.
About 2.2 million square feet of new office space was available this year in Montgomery County, and 1.2 million of that remains unleased, Terry said. But 999,000 square feet of the unleased office space lies along I-270 between Democracy Boulevard and Germantown.
International Business Machines Corp. recently leased 100,000 square feet at the Twinbrook Metro site, and other Red Line developments will be offering new offices, Terry said, "but if you want that downtown feeling of Bethesda, you'll immediately eliminate those other areas."
Another optimist is Stephen Goldstein, Studley's corporate vice president for the Washington region. "Nobody major is going to be leaving the District of Columbia to come to Bethesda, but Bethesda is a real hub of business activity, and it's growing," Goldstein said. "And now that it's going to have first-class office space, you'll find a lot of people--not the giants--will like to move out there."
Suburban locations are drawing local accounting firms, particularly, and smaller national associations "who are having real hard times in Washington," Goldstein said. But he warned that space rates in Bethesda near the Metro station are likely to be as high as those in some locations on the east side of downtown Washington, many of which are apt to lower prices in the flood of vacancies.
Leasing deals are steady at the last three office, hotel and retail proj/ects that were approved before a 1980 freeze on high-density development in Bethesda.
But Justin Hinders, a long-time Washington area commercial real estate consultant, said the controversial design competition that Montgomery County officials used to promote better public amenities "triggered an artificial rush on development in an effort to obtain the planning, land-use and traffic controls, which could be contrary to the reality of the market, and which in this case, in my judgment, are contrary to the market.
"If all of these projects are built, it will put out too much of these products--retail, office, hotel, apartments . . . ."
The Metro Center complexes under construction will produce 889,000 square feet of office space, 105,000 square feet of retail space, and 400 hotel rooms, according to county records. These projects would precede another 1.3 million square feet of office and retail space and 280 hotel rooms that the eight projects most recently approved are scheduled to bring onto the market. Construction on them must begin within 2 1/2 years, officials said.
How many of Bethesda's approved building sites make the next critical development stage deadlines--a year from August for site plans, a year and a half later for building--interests no one more than the developers of the would-be Woodmont Air Rights Building, described during hearings by its lawyer as the "ugly duckling" in the controversial "beauty contest" of building designs.
That special application process, conceived by John L. Westbrook, chief of the Urban Design Department of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, was Montgomery County's way of making builders compete for coveted high-density development in Bethesda. The process brought out proposals with extensive public amenities, including sculptures, murals, plazas, waterfalls, skating rinks and community theater, as well as elaborate ties to walkways, streets and Metro.
The county ranked the architectural designs, and on July 7 granted development approval down the ranks until projected traffic capacity ran out, leaving bottom-ranked Woodmont Air Rights--at 600,000 square feet, the largest building competing--out of the running.
But attorney William Chen argued mightily, and the county Planning Board agreed to let Woodmont stand in line, its approval depending on enough of the approved projects failing to make room for the traffic the building is expected to generate. Westbrook said it would take four projects to fall through during the next 2 1/2 years for Woodmont Air Rights to go ahead.
Woodmont still must be "substantially redesigned" and meet numerous conditions, Westbrook said.
Although Bethesda is open for new development applications now that the competition is over, so long as Woodmont Air Rights stands waiting, no new project can step in to take the place of smaller projects that may fail, he said. .
Other approved projects also have to meet extensive conditions, and Chen said he expects that developers of those projects may ask the county to lift some requirements. "We're going to be very sensitive to that," Chen said.
Westbrook--a former Rouse Co. official and Baltimore's first head of Urbac Design at the time Harborplace came about--offered the longest range predictions. He said that he hopes Bethesda can be a landmark in a major urban renaissance.
He said he is counting on a revolution, a conceptual shift throughout the population that will place a new value on urban environments and transportation systems such as Metro, and transcend immediate constraints of the real estate market.
"Bethesda really is quite unique," Westbrook said. "You might be able to attract an international client who wants a quiet place [in Washington] and a signature building. . . . Wisconsin Avenue--many people are considering that comparable to Rodeo Drive. Bethesda will become the center of that business corridor. The image of it as a place is going to improve dramatically."