Montgomery County has dropped plans to spur redevelopment of the Apex Building to make way for a more spacious Purple Line station in downtown Bethesda, County Executive Isiah Leggett said Thursday.

County officials had hoped to strike a deal with the building owners, the American Society of Health System Pharmacists, to sell to a developer who would raze the building. That would have allowed for a roomier light-rail station to be built at the western terminus of the planned 16-mile line between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

The Bethesda Purple Line station would be inside a tunnel beneath the building. The tunnel is now used by runners and cyclists traveling beneath Wisconsin Avenue on an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

As an enticement to sell, the County Council voted in February to change the zoning of the land so that the next owner could nearly double the current height of the five-story structure at 7272 Wisconsin Ave. The building houses the Regal Bethesda 10 movie theater, the Food Wine & Co. restaurant and the For Eyes optical store.

But Leggett (D) said in an interview that the soft market for new office space has made the project unattractive to developers, who would have to wait up to five years to build while the station was completed. The other option — for the county to step in and make a deal palatable to a developer — would cost an estimated $70 million.

“It’s too much money,” Leggett said. “We would be paying for a hole in the ground for five years.”

The County Council did not comment after meeting in closed session Tuesday to discuss Leggett’s recommendation that it drop the plan. Leggett said it was his understanding that they concurred. The decision was first reported by the Seventh State blog.

Maryland transit officials have said the Apex Building’s design and the tight tunnel beneath it pose significant engineering challenges. The building is underpinned by a dozen large support columns that would jut into the station’s platform, taking up space and hindering passenger flow.

The lobby of a redeveloped building could have incorporated the elevators between the street-level Purple Line and the underground station for Metrorail’s Red Line. Instead, plans call for the elevators to be on the sidewalk along Elm Street.

It also would have allowed the station’s ventilation system to be integrated into a new building rather than inside a 90-foot tower that would be built near the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.

And it would have allowed for a separate tunnel so joggers and cyclists on the Capital Crescent Trail could cross beneath busy Wisconsin Avenue. If the building is not redeveloped, trail users would have to cross Wisconsin at a light or walk through the station using a 5- to 7-foot-wide walkway and crossing the platform.

Maryland transit planners said they are satisfied with a station that could be built without redeveloping the Apex building, noting that they reconsidered the potential design only at the county’s request.

“Could it be a little better if the building were redesigned?” said Michael Madden, head of Purple Line planning for the Maryland Transit Administration. “Yes. But the station we have meets all of our design criteria.”

The building’s support columns that would jut into the station platform “aren’t ideal,” Madden said, but they would be wrapped with some kind of architectural design to blend into the station.

“The station will be fine and perfectly safe,” Madden said. “It will be designed attractively.”

The building’s support columns that would jut into the station platform “aren’t ideal,” Madden said, but they would be wrapped with some kind of architectural design to blend into the station.

“The station will be fine and perfectly safe,” Madden said. “It will be designed attractively.”

The Bethesda station is expected to be one of the two busiest, along with Silver Spring, of the proposed Purple Line’s 21 stations. Pending federal funding, construction of the Purple Line could begin in 2015, with the line opening in 2020, officials said.

katherine.shaver@washpost.com