A $28 million office building design featuring a sweeping, four-story glass-enclosed atrium with cinema, shops and restaurants was approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board last week, clearing the way for construction of the new Bethesda Metro Center's "glamorous and showy" centerpiece.

The 298,700-square-foot Lorenz Building, the fourth and final project to win approval for construction at the Bethesda subway stop, will occupy the entire block on the northeast corner of Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane.

The building, according to county planners, will present "a striking, four-story glass atrium wall" along Montgomery Avenue through which passersby will see a "Winter Garden" of tropical plants, including 20-foot palm trees. The multi-level concourse inside will be open to the public during all Metro operating hours.

About 230,000 square feet of office space will rise above the atrium in a nine-story tower sheathed in space-age reflective glass, and a 4,000-square-foot public plaza will overlook the Bethesda Center's courtyard and ice rink, according to planners.

"It's probably going to be the most significant architectural design in Bethesda. It's happening at the right place at the right time," said John L. Westbrook, chief of urban design for Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

"It will be the No. 1 building in all of Bethesda, by far," added E. Kendall Lorenz, 52, a certified public accountant who owns the property and is developing the $28 million project.

The Montgomery County Planning Board granted final site plan approval for the building last Thursday, clearing the way for construction, which should take up to 24 months to complete, according to Lorenz.

The board's action also signaled an end to the final phase of development surrounding the Bethesda Metro station, which opened to commuters in August.

Over the past two years, two other office buildings and a hotel that, with the Lorenz Building, will make up the core of the Metro center complex, have been approved by the board.

The just-completed Clark Building, developed by Clark Enterprises, contains 284,000 square feet of office space and 40,000 square feet of retail space.

An office and hotel complex now under construction by developers Rozansky and Kay will include 342,000 square feet of office space, 58,000 square feet of retail space and 402 rooms, according to planners.

In addition, the board has approved nine other buildings and a hotel in close proximity to the Bethesda station, all of which are being developed under a pioneering zoning process that allows developers to increase the density of their projects in exchange for providing public amenities.

In all, 35 buildings in Silver Spring, Bethesda and Friendship Heights have been developed under the process, known formally as the Optional Method of Development, according to Westbrook.

"The developer wins by getting more density, and the community wins by getting the amenities. It also gives the project a better chance to be successful financially," the urban designer said.

The Lorenz Building, also developed under the optional method, was conceived to be the focal point of the Metro Center site and eventually all of Bethesda, said Montgomery Planning Board Chairman Norman Christeller.

Conceptually, planners say the building was patterned after such well-known developments as Rockefeller Center and the Trump Tower in New York City and the renovated Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the District.

"What we wanted was an anchor, a real destination that was more than a place outdoors," said Westbrook. "I find the comparison to those three places very apropos."

From the outside, the Lorenz Building's reflective glass and decorative moldings will create a prism effect. Inside, a large sunburst marquee over the cinema entrance will be the focus of the first atrium level.

Five large potted palm trees followed by low steps will lead up to the theater level and an array of shops and restaurants. Tables will "spill out" on to the colorful, stone-paved floor, according to planners.

A double set of wide stairs and a pair of escalators will lead from the theater level to a mezzanine, featuring a piano bar and retail shops. From there, a "grand stair" and another set of escalators will rise to the plaza level, which overlooks the other levels.

The plaza level will contain up to eight "high quality" food vending booths plus tables and chairs. A "water wall" under a curved skylight will provide the level's visual focus, according to planners.

"It the atrium will heighten the whole process of arriving," said Westbrook. "We have found that animation has been the single most important element when you're dealing with people space and activity. That building provides that exceptionally well." CAPTION: Picture, Model of $28 million Lorenz office building, which will have four-story glass-enclosed atrium, cinema, shops and restaurant. The project is to occupy entire block at corner of Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane in Bethesda. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post