Developers often are accused of being harbingers of pollution, traffic congestion and altered life styles. But they also are bringing a wide collection of public art to Bethesda's fast-changing downtown.

About 40 commissioned works from nationally acclaimed artists will be displayed as part of an optional-development package allowing 10 major developers to double the densities of their high-rise projects along Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road near Bethesda's Metro subway station. In exchange, the developers agreed to provide open space, public parks and a unified streetscape.

Bethesda is already vastly different from the sleepy pre-World War II village that its eldest residents still remember as barely straddling the crossroads at East-West Highway.

But John L. Westbrook, the former chief of urban design for Montgomery County's planning board, is convinced that the artworks and public amenities the county is getting in return for allowing the intensified development will keep Bethesda vibrant and alive long after the commuters have gone home.

Planners say they believe Bethesda will not be a sterile canyon of skyscrapers that closes down at night. The futuristic high-rise designs for hotel, retail, residential and office space will be accented with art in public walkways and parks, terraced plazas and cafes, cascading fountains and even a neon-tube sculpture atop an office complex at the northern entrance to downtown Bethesda.

"The plan will give Bethesda a heart as well as a soul," Westbrook said. "Right now, the city has no emotional side, no sense of place. It's a place for cars and commuters, and that's about all. . . . We've set up the very center of the business core so it will have zero density: It will be a place for people to congregate and come back to."

Westbrook, who is now in business for himself, oversaw the controversial 1983 selection process -- often referred to as "the beauty contest" -- in which county urban planners ranked developers applying under the optional-development program.

The developer contestants were judged on the housing options offered, the suitability of their designs to adjacent residential sections, and by individual plans to enhance the pedestrian environment in a "visually and functionally effective project," Westbrook said.

What developers were willing to give back to the community became a major factor because planners saw a unique chance to demand not only general public amenities such as parks and picnic spots, but also a coordinated effort at public art acquisition, said Cindy Kelly of the Maryland Arts Council.

Some critics think Westbrook and his colleagues at the planning board went too far in trying to dictate aesthetics in artwork and building design.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the urban designers at park and planning exerted far too much pressure for a democratic setting on these developers," said Jim P. Goeden, a lobbyist for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

Goeden said many design features are subjective and should not be scrutinized prior to approval by county planners. He added that he would "withhold judgment" on the planned public art until more of it is in place.

"It's difficult to say yet what the public has to gain," he commented. "All I've seen are some ugly-looking lions at the Bethesda Center and some pipe-like things hanging near the Metro station."

Westbrook said county planners were "in search of excellence, not taste. . . . We were not trying to dictate what constitutes art or aesthetics." Westbrook admitted he had personal reservations about the variety and color of building materials some developers proposed to use, but said the planning board did not disapprove any projects or artwork on aesthetic grounds.

Kelly said officials realized "that development was coming. They couldn't hold it any more, so they tried to get developers to give as good as they got." The attempt to coordinate art and street ambiance on this large a scale is unique to Bethesda and is the first project of its kind nationally, Kelly said, adding, "It's been tried in Baltimore and New York, but never with 10 developers at once."

Alan Kay of Rozansky & Kay Construction Co. said that "builders in general don't like being dictated to about anything. But this is a new concept to get bonuses for the community. Once it sinks in, no quality builder would endorse a project without such amenities, because they're good for the long-term relationship with the community."

Kay said New York has had an incentive program for years, "but there wasn't a lot of intensive development coming in at once."

The Rozansky & Kay complex above the Bethesda Metro station includes a 17-story office building; a 12-story Hyatt Regency, which opened yesterday, and a market similar to Faneuil Hall in Boston. "Personally, I am really excited about the art that is going in there now," Kay said.

Bill Wainwright's 60-by-40-foot metal sculpture titled "Rainbow Forest," which is designed to shimmer in the wind, greets visitors to the plaza as they emerge from Metro. A sunken ice-skating rink that will convert into a terraced garden in summer is also part of the hotel and Metro plaza.

Kelly said her job was to get the different art consultants hired by the various developers together, sharing ideas and "making sure that everyone wouldn't commission a neon sculpture, or a sculpture over a fountain." At one early point, nearly every developer proposed some version of a clock tower, Westbrook said, but now there is no substantive duplication.

At JBG Associates' 142,000-square-foot office building at 4600 East-West Highway, artist Patsy Norvell worked with architects to create a 2,000-square-foot public art gallery that will be operated for the first three years with a $75,000 grant from JBG.

"It's been a long process for all the developers, but the county's heart was in the right place," said JBG Associates' Beth Michelson. "When the building and gallery are finished, I think everyone will see it's quite a special place for the community at large."

Warren Eisinger, a general partner of Kilbane-Eisinger & Associates, the firm developing two of the 10 Bethesda projects, agreed. "When all the developers were getting ready for the beauty contest, they felt pretty much put upon by the planning board," Eisinger said. "They had to come up with these amazing amenities just to get their development rights."

At Kilbane-Eisinger's Guest Quarters Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda artist Jane Larson will create a 25-foot ceramic mural by pressing flowers into wet clay and then glazing the fossil imprints. "Water will be coming out of the mural at various places, so it really will be very exciting," Eisinger said.

At the Salisbury Building, a park will feature a 10-foot wet ceramic wave at one end and Poseidon emerging from a shell at the other.

Francoise Yohalem, the art consultant for Eisinger-Kilbane's two projects, as well as for the Artery Organization's headquarters and a 12-story office building known as One Bethesda Center, said that, "At first, corporations were very nervous about the concept of an integrated approach to art . . . but I've seen a wonderful change of spirit."

Urban designer Karen Kumm said that "the major public benefit of the Bethesda project is the streetscape that came with it." Under this plan, the county is committed to use general revenues to brick in sidewalks and put all utilities underground, using the same quality of materials and workmanship that the developers do, Westbrook said.

The sidewalks, benches, trees, curbs and gutters that do not fall within the off-site-amenities package provided by each developer are to be completed by the county program. Developers agreed to do about 75 percent of the work; the county will do the remainder, Westbrook said. Specially designed street lamps, brick paving, benches and large trees every 35 feet will mark the entrance to Bethesda's central business district.

The Gateway Building, with Rockne Krebs' crystal willow sculpture and its prism-refracting leaves, will mark the southern entrance to the business district.

Across the street at Artery Plaza, Howard Ben Tre will build a three-column glass and copper sculpture as a focal point of that intersection, while Washington artist Jim Sanborn will construct a 23-foot-high triangular gray and red sandstone tower designed to visually draw the visitor into the building's mezzanine area.

"Let's hope the public of Bethesda is happy. I know I am very excited," Yohalem said. "What we have tried here is a completely integrated approach to art in public places. We want to draw people into the urban heart of Bethesda."