Deborah Vollmer, a longtime resident of the Town of Chevy Chase, is a retired lawyer and community activist.
My mother used to take me to the Farm Women’s Market as a child to shop for ingredients for her home-cooked meals. It was a different time. Skylines were low, and you could see the stars at night. Wisconsin Avenue had not yet sprouted high-rise buildings.
Development can be like the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. Too much of it, and the community dies. Roads become congested, schools become crowded and infrastructure collapses. Sometimes, historic landmarks are lost, and a community may lose its sense of identity.
This is happening in downtown Bethesda.
Bernstein Management Corp., along with Foulger-Pratt and EYA, have plans to purchase and “redevelop” the Farm Women’s Market, in an already congested part of Bethesda, and erect a high-rise next door to the market and another across Wisconsin Avenue from the market, where a popular Starbucks, located in what some would regard as a historic building, now sits. If the plans are implemented, the result will be a canyon effect, with the historic Farm Women’s Market cast in shadow.
The plans also call for high-rises to be built on a parking lot behind the Farm Women’s Market and townhouses on the lot next to that parking lot. These projects would involve construction of projects for the private gain of the developers on what is now public land.
While surface-level parking lots are not green space, they are open space; and the lots themselves serve a public purpose by providing parking. Public spaces should not be converted to private use. It would be one thing to convert portions of the parking lots into parks; that would be a public use. But the plan being considered would benefit only the developers.
The plans are nothing less than appalling. The Farm Women’s Market has been selling produce since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Depression. It is housed in a historic building dating back to that time. The vendors’ cooperative that owns the land where the market is situated includes descendants of the original vendors who formed the cooperative. The current vendors are pawns in a cruel scheme by developers to take advantage of current economic conditions to force the vendors to sell to the developers.
Vendors for years have been paying exorbitant real estate taxes — about $60,000 a year, I’ve been told — on the tiny plot of land in Bethesda. But the vendors have been performing a public service by keeping the Farm Women’s Market going, maintaining the historic building that houses the market and maintaining the open space around the market in a part of Bethesda that is too congested and too overdeveloped.
Some vendors wish to retire, but not all. For some vendors, it is their livelihood, and they want to continue. But real estate taxes and other economic factors present these vendors with financial hardship. Some vendors believe that, though it may not be what they want, selling the market to the developers is their only real alternative.
Community residents would like to work with the vendors to come up with creative solutions: tax relief for the vendors, a public-relations campaign to bring more business to the market, an expansion of the vendors’ cooperative to include new vendors to replace those vendors who want to retire and adding community members to the cooperative. There is precedent for giving the vendors tax relief. The owners of a working farm in downtown Silver Spring, the Koiner Farm, were given real estate tax relief after they went to the County Council with their request and claimed that without tax relief they would have no alternative but to sell the farm.
But such an approach would run contrary to what the developers want, which is to take advantage of the vendors’ economic vulnerability and purchase and cannibalize the Farm Women’s Market. These developers have no concern for what might be best for the community as a whole.
The planning process is underway, with hearings before the Planning Board tentatively set for February. We need to keep this historic market functioning as a working farmers market.
The Farm Women’s Market, with its vendors selling farm produce, creates an important link to our past and is integral to the character of this neighborhood.