Developers of a proposed office and residential complex in Bethesda have asked the county to waive a requirement that a percentage of the development's apartments be set aside for moderate-income tenants, because they say they are offering the county numerous amenities -- including a million dollars' worth of art.
The request split the Montgomery County planning board down the middle last week, and after a heated debate, the board voted to wait until its fifth member returns from Europe later this month before deciding the issue.
Planners say the proposed Bethesda Place, at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, is a model development of the type the county has been seeking in Bethesda. It mixes residential apartments with offices and commercial stores, including a grocery store that staff members say is much needed in the area.
In addition, the developers of the $30 million project hired acclaimed artist Ned Smyth, who has designed a fantasy-like public garden on the site with colonnades, mosaic walks, decorative arches, pools, a water temple and prominent clock tower.
The county agreed several years ago, when the project was first proposed, to double the density allowed under the site's zoning to encourage the developers to include apartments in the development and to keep a grocery store already on the site, said John Westbrook, of the planning staff.
But a county law stipulates that 12 1/2 percent of residential units must be set aside for moderate-income tenants whenever density is increased, he said.
Jody S. Kline, attorney for the developers, said after the meeting that the developers were aware of the requirement through the planning stages of Bethesda Place. But now that they are attempting to get funding for the project, they are finding it a hindrance to attracting lenders, he said.
"It is true we are finding it the requirement a problem," said Glenn Forrest, principal developer of the project. "If it wasn't important, we wouldn't be asking."
Kline told the four board members present at the meeting that because the developers are making 30 percent of the project residential, they are not really realizing the full density they have been granted, since apartment units are less profitable than office space.
Even with the residential units, Kline argued, the total development has a density of 3.99 FAR, 0.01 less than what the board granted. FAR, or floor area ratio, is the ratio of the floor area of a building to the size of its site.
"The law says you shall have sufficient amenities to support an increased density and one of those has to be MPDUs moderate-priced dwelling units ," replied board Chairman Norman L. Christeller. "We don't have the authority to waiver."
But board member Betty Ann Krohnke said the importance of the project as a whole outweighs the county's need for moderate-priced housing in Bethesda.
Since the cost of moderate-priced housing is determined by the mean income of all residents in the affluent county, true low-income residents cannot afford it, she said, quoting current county figures that show 'MPDUs' must rent from $483 a month for an efficiency to $1,093 for a three-bedroom apartment.
"MPDUs are not affordable to the people we're concerned about anyway," she said.
Westbrook, the staff member who presented the project to the board, said that although the staff has recommended the requirement be waived, he thought the board might set a precedent by doing so.
"They've presented a concrete jungle and lushed it over with the nicest amenity package you have ever seen," he said, waving at example's of Smyth's exotic Art Deco-type murals tacked to the chamber walls. "But this project must not set a MPDU precedent in this zone ."
The matter was deferred after a 2-to-2 deadlock over whether the county has the authority to waive the requirement, or even wants to. It will be considered again after board member Judith B. Heimann returns from a European vacation next week and casts a deciding vote.