In yesterday's Real Estate section, the value of the Rock Spring Centre development project was incorrectly stated. The correct figure is $530 million. (Published 7/19/87)

An ambitious proposal to build a massive mixed-use employment center in north Bethesda with office towers, a 500-room hotel and 800 apartments has some residents along Montgomery's Old Georgetown Road gearing up for a major fight over the future of their neighborhoods.

The $350 million, 2-million-square-foot project, called Rock Spring Centre, would be built on the 54 remaining acres of the old Davis farm, just west of Old Georgetown Road between the east and west spurs of I-270 and across Rock Spring Drive from Walter Johnson High School.

Another section of the same Davis tract is already home to about 10,000 employes of IBM, Martin-Marietta, Marriott and several other corporations. The proposed new project, a joint venture of the Charles E. Smith Cos. of McLean and the Artery Organization Inc., would generate about 8,600 jobs and be built over the next two decades, a project spokesman said.

But community activist George Paine said that locating something of that scale in north Bethesda is "like taking the Pentagon -- which comes in at 3.7 million square feet -- and plopping it down in the middle of a residential community that is at its traffic limit."

Paine -- who is vice president of the North Bethesda Congress, an umbrella group representing about 15,000 homeowners from an area bounded by the Capital Beltway, Montrose Road, Rock Creek Park and Seven Locks Road -- said the area is currently under a "building moratorium because of tranportation problems. There's enough development in the pipeline without this to turn our roads into Jell-o."

Traffic and its impact on the community will undoubtedly be an important factor in whether the project will be approved by county planners. Smith and Artery are acutely aware of these traffic concerns, a spokesmen for the development group said.

In their proposal, the group has pledged $10 million in cash and land to reconstruct the intersection of Old Georgetown Road and I-270. An estimated 50 percent of the rush-hour traffic there now is bound for Davis tract office buildings, said Robert B. Harris, an attorney for the developers.

Under the county's "adequate facilities" ordinance, projects cannot be approved in areas with existing roads unless the developer can reduce the impact of the traffic its project is expected to generate. According to county planners, Artery and Smith are proposing stiff parking fees at Rock Spring Centre and mass transit subsidies to lure drivers out of their cars and into a fleet of shuttle buses bound for one of three nearby Red Line stations on Rockville Pike.

"Artery is certainly on the right wavelength with its transportation management package," said Robert S. McGarry, head of the county's Department of Transportation. "But we are still a very long way from knowing whether we can support the level of development they want on that parcel."

McGarry said results of an extensive study to determine how much development north Bethesda can sustain will be known this fall. Leon Reed, a former president of the North Bethesda Congress, said Artery's proposal to add six or eight 18-story office buildings and 4,000 to 6,000 underground parking spaces to accommodate corporate employes and hotel guests has generated "intense interest among residents."

"Many remain highly skeptical about TMAs {transportation management areas} created to improve traffic so more building can then be approved," Reed said. "These measures help in the interim," he said, but he added that the developer's traffic projections seem largely based on the state's current widening of I-270 and plans to widen the east and west spurs of I-270 to bring traffic directly onto the site.

Even before traffic problems can be addressed, the developers of Rock Spring must win mixed-use zoning for the tract, which now is slated for high-rise residential under the county's master plan, said Artery's Harris.

"We might ask for a combination of the county's industrial and commercial park zones to achieve greater density and waive some of the setbacks required under the mixed-use zone," Harris said. "But nothing's been decided for certain."

Joe Davis, planning coordinator with the county's zoning review division, said that however developers handle it, the project raises "very big questions about basic land use policy ... . There are some people who feel the master plan should stand for something, and this area is zoned for high-rise residential."

The county council will have the final say on whether the master plan should be amended to allow the mixed-use zone, "but that decision could be two years away," he said.

For some residents, the prospect of remaining vigilant in the face of this new and massive project is exhausting and frustrating.

"We're just a simple citizens' organization," said George Berdes, a resident of Wildwood Manor, a neighborhood just east of the proposed development. "We're just overwhelmed by this kind of onslaught."

The entire Old Georgetown Road corridor north of the Beltway has seen intense development since the opening of the red line of the Metrorail system two years ago. According to county figures, there are now 1,700 single-family homes and luxury town houses under construction in the so-called "superblock" between Rockville Pike, Tuckerman Lane, Old Georgetown Road and Nicholson Lane, and another 350 apartments approved near the Grosvenor Metro station. Both areas are just north and east of the Rock Spring Centre parcel.

Doug Alexander, chief of the county's urban design division, said because of "its enormous scale, the Rock Spring project will carry the burden of solving some of the problems we've allowed to evolve at other employment centers" where buildings were approved one-by-one.

Generally, the county favors mixed-used developments, Alexander said. "But to the extent that these huge projects are really chunks of a city that have spun out and landed in our suburban communities, they have become enclaves unto themselves, massive in scale -- kind of like modern cathedrals we're all supposed to just accept, but which contribute little to the surrounding residential areas."

Alexander said that rather than create another isolated "employment ghetto," the community should only accept the density the developers want if they get a humanized minicity with a whole range of functional and cultural amenities. "And that is not likely with the planning tools we have now in the county," he said.

Artery spokesman Charles Maier said the completed project will pay for many of the services it needs by generating tax revenues of $6.6 million and $7 million to the county and state, respectively.

Maier also said Artery and Smith were leaving 30 percent of the 54-acre tract as public open space with walking trails and a European-style plaza, as well as planning 75,000 square feet of retail space. A day care center is also in the plan because "it's a really big issue with corporate neighbors already on the site," Maier said.

But Allen Bender, president of the countywide Allied Civic Federation, said, "This business about adding to the tax base and adding to state revenues is for the birds. It will generate more traffic, trash, overcrowded schools, and contribute to the current shortage of housing by adding to the glut of office space."