When local developer Alan I. Kay first proposed building a hotel and office building atop the Bethesda Metrorail station in 1981, he included in the designs lavish hanging gardens that would cascade down the proposed terraced buildings.

The Montgomery County Planning Board was impressed, and under its "optional" method, awarded Kay increased building densities for the amenity package he had proposed, which included the hanging gardens.

Now Kay wants the planning board to release him from his promise to build the gardens, saying that they are too expensive, risky and nearly impossible to install, and that he has already provided enough amenities anyway.

The planning board's staff, however, has asked the board to find Kay in violation for not furnishing the planter boxes and hanging plants on the terraced Hyatt Regency Hotel and the R & K office building called for in the original site plans.

Planners in the county's urban design division insist that the absence of plants on the terraces makes the massive buildings incompatible with adjacent residential communities and violates the letter and spirit of the original site plans.

The hotel/office complex sits on top of the Bethesda Metro at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway, and was one of the first high-rise buildings to come into the area under the optional method.

Under such zoning, developers may double their building densities in return for public amenities like parks, open space, sculpture gardens, parking, street lighting and greenery.

Kay, however, said the hotel "doesn't want the plants, and the people we've leased office space {to} don't want them. They don't want the bugs and they don't want the maintenance people traipsing through to water them."

Kay said Hyatt management also is worried about drunken or rowdy guests picking up a planter and hurling it over an outside balcony. "There's a liability problem."

Jim Beard, general manager for the Bethesda Hyatt Regency since it opened in November 1985, said, "I would prefer the plants not be installed because maintaining them would be an operational nightmare." Beard said "cost was not a factor at all. We've put plants all over public areas here and in the hotel lobby... . They {the hanging gardens} are just dangerous. If they put trees up there, they could blow over in a storm or someone could pick up a pot and hurl it over."

But the plant containers envisioned by planning staff and personnel at Creative Plantings Inc. -- the firm that gave Hyatt management an estimate for supplying and maintaining the terraced gardens -- "would hardly be portable," said Montgomery urban designer Rob Bushnell.

Karen Kumm Morris, a county planner and urban designer for the Bethesda district, said successful outdoor planting programs have been carried out at the Marriott Headquarters Building, the Silver Spring Metro Center building and the Bethesda Center office building.

Bob Magnum of Creative Plantings said his company plants and maintains two rooftop gardens downtown at International Square and Metropolitan Square. "But these require no access through private areas," he said.

The other major problem with the Bethesda plans for plants is that despite the proposal for hanging gardens, the hotel was not built with any water sources on the balconies, Magnum said, although there are some on the office building's terraces.

The question no one seems able to answer is why these issues were not raised during the site approval phase back in 1981 and 1982.

"All the architectural drawings and site plans and models show the hanging gardens," said Bushnell, whose job within the urban design department includes seeing that developers follow through with promises made when their projects were approved. "We know it will be costly, but we feel it is one of the important conditions on which approval for this project was based," he said.

Neither Beard of the Hyatt nor Magnum of Creative Plantings would say how much the hanging gardens would cost.

"It is a compatibility issue," Kumm Morris said. "The hanging gardens are necessary to soften the effect of the building and make it more compatible with the adjacent residences."

Kay said he never "anticipated that there would be any opposition to the plants," but since Hyatt management will have to pay for their maintenance, "I feel compelled to listen to them." Kay said his company has done "many other things to create an esthetically pleasing plaza level which were not required. We think these should be sufficient."