I write a lot about businesses, but this column is about my neighborhood. Its evolution has been a lesson in development for the 18 years I have lived there.
The millennials in the District may be gliding around on their energy-saving bikes, smartly saving money by using Zipcars instead of buying cars, and remaking neighborhoods with their walk-to-everywhere ethic, but I’ve lived that scene since I moved to Chevy Chase in 1996.
I have been walking the 14 or so minutes from my house to downtown Bethesda (but who is counting?) in search of food and exercise. I have walked and biked, backpack and all, to the Bethesda Metro station, where I nabbed a precious bike locker long before they were gold.
I even run along the Capital Crescent Trail while the “Aspenization” of south Bethesda — which the path intersects — blooms.
By Aspenization, I am talking about Bethesda Row and its dozens of tenants: Barnes & Noble, Equinox, Georgetown Cupcake, Sweetgreen, Landmark Theatre, an Apple store, the North Face, Aveda, Mon Ami Gabi, Lebanese Taverna, Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande, Lululemon Athletica, Calypso St. Barth. The list goes on. There’s Bethesda Lane, the cobbled street called Estrogen Alley by some because it is dominated by businesses generally catering to women: Ginger, Lucy, Blue Mercury, Courage.b.
Bethesda Row, like it or not (and I don’t like the annoying amplifiers that the street musicians employ), might be one of the most upscale suburban downtowns in the United States.
Its 533,000 square feet of retail and office space, developed by Federal Realty Investment Trust, sits in a sweet spot. According to Federal Realty’s Web site, about 139,954 people live within a 3-mile radius, with a not-so-shabby average household income of $172,118.
It wasn’t like that when I moved there. Back then, the town was notable for its sleepy neighborhood housing, undistinguished offices, vacant lots, a funky used-poster shop and ugly strip center (now a “sprawling giant”).
Not everything has been Aspenized — there’s still a crab shack at one end of Bethesda Avenue and a century-old farmer’s market at the other. Bethesda Bagels has remained a mainstay. And Ourisman Honda anchors the middle, next to the Capital Crescent.
“The challenge this neighborhood faces in general is we can’t become too precious,” said Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, the low-calorie beverage company that he still runs from the company’s headquarters above Bethesda Avenue, even after selling a big chunk to Coca-Cola. Goldman has been biking and walking the area since 1995, when he bought a home a few blocks away. “You can’t become too ‘boutiquey.’ People live and work here. We can’t have our people feel they have to bust their checkbook or change their vocabulary just to get lunch.”
Now comes The Darcy and The Flats, a high-rise with multimillion-dollar condominiums, apartments and trendy restaurants like Passion Fish. Its upscale bakery called “Paul” has been strategically placed to attract bikers and joggers on the Capital Crescent, just feet away. A new concept from Silver Diner and the Chop’t salad factory are moving in, as well as a 3,000-square-foot Pottery Barn.
The project replaces two parking lots across the street from each other. The parking has gone underground in the form of a 1,250-space garage that descends four levels.
The new project is known as Lot 31 by its developers, StonebridgeCarras and PN Hoffman. The $200 million complex, which has been underway for nearly two years and employed hundreds of laborers to the tune of 700,000 man-hours, is set to open next year. The garage part, which includes 950 spaces for public use, will open Jan. 1. The rest opens in May.
“When I moved to Bethesda in 1988, Maloney’s Concrete was still in operation,” said Douglas M. Firstenberg, founding principal of Stonebridge. “The hot spot was Woodmont Triangle [a few blocks to the north, on the other side of Old Georgetown Road]. Then Bethesda really moved south with all of the things that [Federal Realty] did.
“When the opportunity came up in 2004-2005 to develop Main and Main, we thought it was an opportunity to ‘finish off’ Bethesda Row. What was missing was upscale living. So we’ve brought in top-of-the-market condos at the Darcy and top-of-the-market apartments at The Flats. And we have complementary retail for the whole thing.”
I have passed by Lot 31 for the past two years, peering over a fence surrounding at the gigantic, 3-acre hole in the ground. I marveled at the gigantic cranes soaring 150 feet in the sky as I headed toward the Metro and work or at Equinox in the morning. I sniffed unhappily at the closure of some streets (they reopen in a month), and bemoaned the removal of the trees. (I have been assured replacements are on the way).
PN Hoffman principal Paul Nassetta, who oversees the project for his company, escorted me on an interesting, 3-hour tour of Lot 31 last week, showing me every concrete corner, apartment mock-up, air shaft and stairwell of the development. Nassetta is from a prominent local-real estate family.
Nassetta said the development partners have already sold half the condominiums. Some buyers have bought a couple of $1 million-plus condos and combined them.
PN Hoffman and StonebridgeCarras have teamed up with Montgomery County for a partnership in Lot 31. That explains the 900 or so parking spaces set aside for use by the public.
Nassetta said the complexity of the project was daunting, but it was too inviting to resist.
“We thought right in the heart of Bethesda, what is not to like about that,” he said.
The first year alone was spent digging a huge hole, with 35,000 truckloads of dirt being excavated, including blasting out the last 15-to-20 feet of solid rock. Neighbors weren’t crazy about that. Huge braces had to be planted to prop up an apartment building to the east.
Bringing 5,000 truckloads of concrete down through the congested Montgomery County highways from Rockville was not easy. Once the concrete was on site, it was laced with nearly 9 million pounds of reinforced steel. They even had to redirect the Pepco power routes following the 2012 derecho.
I like the new Bethesda, and most of the mixed growth that has occurred there. Selfishly, it has probably increased the value of my town of Chevy Chase home. And I will take it over the congested, Metro-less Georgetown any day. But Aspen?
“You have an amazing neighborhood with incredibly expensive real estate,” said Goldman. “At the same time, what is appealing about Aspen [and Bethesda Row] is that you’ve got a very enlightened, highly educated population, great physical geography, a bike path, and the ability to be within reach of nature literally a bike ride away. As long as we keep our crab shack and women’s cooperate market on the ends and our bagel store in the middle, we should be able to keep our distinctive vibe.”
To his list, I might add a longtime restaurant fave, Pines of Rome.