Greater Greater Washington

It's not Wheaton vs. Bethesda, but smart growth vs. bad

Montgomery officials say there isn't enough money in the capital budget to pay for both a new Bethesda Metro entrance and redeveloping Wheaton. But there is plenty of money, if only the county deferred some of the new and wasteful highways that will only worsen sprawl and shift the county's growth away from the places that can best accommodate it.


Downtown Wheaton. Image from Montgomery Planning.

Wheaton residents are eager for a redevelopment project which will bring new offices, residences, a hotel and a town square to the area around the Metro station. Meanwhile, to prepare for the Purple Line (and ease crowding today), the county needs to add a second entrance to the Bethesda Metro.

County Executive Ike Leggett's budget eliminated funding for the Bethesda entrance, and general services director David Dise told the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee that the county could probably not fund both the $40 million Wheaton plan and the $80 million Bethesda Metro south entrance.

Actually, it can, easily. And it can afford $12 million for the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which Leggett also cut from the current capital budget. All the county has to do is defer some of the $359 million in new highways in the 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP). That $359 million is all for new capacity, over and above the necessary cost of maintaining the county's existing roads and bridges.

The projects include widening Goshen Road, which costs $129 million, but the justification in the CIP suggests it's not needed until 2025. Building Montrose Parkway East, for $56 million, will further despoil Rock Creek Park, while the completed western portion has already created a "Berlin Wall" that will hamper a future walkable, mixed-use neighborhood growing north of White Flint.

Widening Snouffer School Road and Snouffer School Road North, 2 projects costing $45 million, would meet "demands of existing and future land uses" in an area which "is experiencing growth with plans for future residential and commercial development."

Why does the County Executive claim that it doesn't have enough money for the Bethesda Metro, a necessary step for the Purple Line in the part of the county that generates the most tax revenue, and Wheaton, a prime spot for new mixed-use growth and an already-thriving community right on top of another Metro station, but can spend money on new roads in car-dependent areas which may grow in the future?

These new road projects would increase traffic congestion through induced demand, offer no economic development, and destroy irreplaceable Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Montgomery County has already agreed, through long public debates, to make the Purple Line, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and growth in Wheaton top priorities. But Leggett's budget does not reflect this.

This is an unfortunate pattern with this County Executive. The Leggett administration consistently cries poverty when it comes to smart growth-oriented projects like these, or making Rockville Pike a boulevard in White Flint. However, it seems that no sprawl-oriented road project is too expensive to fund.

Whether it's putting up roadblocks to BRT, pushing harmful skybridges and underpasses, or a bizarre focus on resurrecting bad "zombie road" proposals from the 1960s, the County Executive's decisions do not embody Montgomery County's and Maryland's stated smart growth policies.

Fortunately, it appears the County Council does not share the County Executive's misplaced priorities. A council committee has since voted to restore funding for the Bethesda Metro entrance, and the full council will consider it soon. The council should also restore funding for the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

Despite claims to the contrary, these worthy projects need not compete with each other. The council can simply choose the least valuable of the plan's many expensive road projects and use the money to ensure Wheaton, Metro riders at Bethesda, the future Purple Line, and a valuable bicycle connection from Silver Spring to DC get the attention they deserve. Our county, state and region cannot afford more delay.

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Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

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You would think that anyone who has had to walk up or down the Bethesda Metro escalator on one of the many days it wasn't working would appreciate the value of a second entrance to the Metro.

by Rezident on Feb 24, 2012 11:14 am • linkreport

Being that I live in the Snouffer School Road and Goshen Road areas and I use both roads regulary I am going to have to disagree with you. Goshen road in particular is quite bad and very unsafe in its current configuraion. Snouffer School is somewhat better and could possably be delayed.

The idea I am attempting to get accross is what projects are important can be largly based on your point of view and where you live. Personaly I would chose the Goshen road project over the Bethesda Metro entrance any day.

Also do not forget both of these road porjects would recive bike lanes and side walks when completed which personal this would make biking to work a real possability for myself.

by Matt R on Feb 24, 2012 11:18 am • linkreport

The second metro entrance for Bethesda is a SAFETY issue. We have a station identical to Cleveland Park, only it is much deeper [2nd longest escalators in Metro] and carries three times the passengers.

Maryland admitted it built the station on the cheap when it designed it for the second entrance, but did not build it.

The current station structure is not up to the needs of riders. Too many times, Bethesda passengers are still backed up on the platform while the next train comes in. UP escalators at all levels run too slowly to efficiently get people off the platform and out of the station promptly.

The County and state get better use per dollar to invest in both Bethesda and Wheaton rather than the sparser communities.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 24, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

Rezident, TWICE in the past month [that I've seen] the UP escalators at Metro were not working at 8am. I'm told the outages lasted for over an hour - during morning rush hour!

The down escalator wasn't working last week during the morning rush hour. To get onto the down escalator I had to walk through a shower of dripping water. Not good.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 24, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

Thank you Mr. Wilk for showing how easy it can be to do the right thing. Just two day's ago in the Washington Post they had this whole insert on Americas squandering one of the key components of economic development and competativeness, letting rail transit languish. As so many anti-purple line people never fail to say, it wouldn't take one car off the roads, to which I always say right! That's not the point, the point is to keep another 100,000 cars off the road which is what's going to happen if we don't plan for smart growth.

My guess is O'Malley will find the money for the purple line etc. becasue there's been a growning concensus that the 1,000,000 people of Montgomery County are the largest economic generator of the state, more so than Baltimore. If the county is to remain competative and thus keep delivering a lot of taxes to the rest of the state, it has to be cultivated to grow.

Getting MDOT to focus on the pedestrian after decades of catering to the suburban developers is going to take time, but the money argument is one that's very hard to refute, as long as our politicians have the guts to make it.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

It is incredible that in a CIP budget of $4.2B (yes, that is a 'B') , where every project competes against every other project, the Exec's office manages to single out the Wheaton redevelopment project as being the one in direct competition with the South Bethesda Station project. Is this is a cynical effort to create a Wheaton vs. Bethesda fight?

But it's not just about Bethesda. The station is needed to advance the Purple Line, and that benefits all of lower Montgomery County including Silver Spring and Takoma/Langley. We should not let these "divide and conquer" tactics work to stop the Purple Line.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Feb 24, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

@ Matt R.

When considering how many people will be served by the Wheaton, Bethesda, and Met Branch trail plans, the amount of money going to the Snouffer School and Goshen projects is absurd. The number of people that would benefit from the exurban highway sprucing does not compare with the number of people that would benefit from the transit improvements and redevelopment in denser Bethesda and Wheaton.

by Dave Murphy on Feb 24, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

On what is the $40m in Wheaton being spent? Why does Council appropriations effect the planned redevelopment project described in paragraph two?

by WRD on Feb 24, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

@Dave

I agree 100% with your argument, but if we used that for every project only those in Bethesda and other high density areas would be done. There would still have to be a fair distribution of projects. That could mean for every year the money is divided up equally or some years all the projects are upcounty, and other years they are down county.

by Matt R on Feb 24, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

The Purple Line will NOT ease traffic. It is a hidden fact that most of the projected ridership is already riding metro. Additionally, the PL would be a stand alone light rail system with its own maintenance, fare system, etc. as is not Metro. Fix the many troubles with the Metro we have. No gas tax to try to fund the proposed PL. I'm sure the rest of the state is not interested in helping to fund such a boondoggle.

by L Will on Feb 24, 2012 12:37 pm • linkreport

The cognitive dissonance between "smart planning" and the reality is quite stark. The model of modern top down urban planning is extremely wasteful and is a colossal cultural failure. No well recognized urban core was ever implemented in the way that modern development is carried out.

Two prime examples are Rockville Town Center and Santana Row in (San Jose, CA population ~1M). Both are the archetype of top down planning where a single developer gains land and works with a locally progressive administration to design a profitable mixed use development to reinvigorate the core of an otherwise suburban-ish region. They lack character, appeal only to high income individuals, require enormous amounts of city resources (who's opportunity cost is much higher) and only benefit a single or small cadre of developers. A walk through either provides a disneyland type experience in, typically, an otherwise drab and run down commercial area. It's inorganic and inconducive to shared wealth accumulation --which is in essence the function of any urban environment.

by ahk on Feb 24, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

L. Will, please, the Purple Line will get people from Silver Spring to Bethesda in 8.5 minutes! If you want to ride Metro from Silver Spring to Bethesda via downtown, you will still be free to do so.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 24, 2012 12:43 pm • linkreport

Let's see...$40 million to transform downtown Wheaton into a walkable, urban, transit-oriented hub, or $80million for an extra escalator to the Bethesda Metro. Now you tell me.

Okay yeah it's not just an "extra escalator" and it's an important project for improved access to the Metro station and future Purple Line connection, but come on, we're comparing the redevelopment of an entire town center to improved access to a station (with double the price tag!).

by King Terrapin on Feb 24, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

I think the one difference between investment in Wheaton and the Bethesda Metro is that the work in Wheaton is something that private interests are more likey to be interested in doing on their own with the right incentives.

The Metro, conversely, cannot be done with that sort of public/private partnership.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 24, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

"The cognitive dissonance between "smart planning" and the reality is quite stark." In this case reality would be defined as a "drab and run down commercial area". The inference is if you try to do something better will create dissonance becasue of the existing context's inherant suckiness. The disney criticism would be applicable to every new urban infill project such as Palmer Square in Princton to Rockefeller Center in NYC. If it tries to please it's disneyesque, wow. Let's set the standards as low as possible just incase we should feel slighted by a place worth being hangingout in.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

@ Thayer-D.... I never got that argument from people who are against new mixed use town center designs because it doesnt fit with surrounding "run down" commercial area. Would they rather have the more Sh$ty strip malls with cheap facades and crappy architecture?

by mike on Feb 24, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

@mike - I guess they want some Jane Jacobs fantasy of lots of little indie businesses in independently owned buildings, on independently owned plots of land with lots of jumbled uses, etc. My sense is that its VERY difficult to achieve that as infill, unless RE prices are extraordinarly high (which tends to rule out the kinds of areas the folks complaining want). Its also possible (and a bit more apt) that the complaint of "disney style" is a reference to the common use of historical architectural references - IE they would prefer that a clearly "modern" space deserves a more modern or post modern style to be authentic. While reserving judgement on that to some degree, I can also see why that would particularly get Thayers goat, and I appreciate his citation of rockefeller center as an example to show that this kind of infill development is not necessarily a "modern" use.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 24, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

I can't think of any non-political reason why Wheaton redevelopment (general government in the CIP)is competing with the Bethesda Metro second entrance (transportation in the CIP). It would make as much sense to say that the Wheaton redevelopment plan is competing with the Potomac library renovation, the Clarksburg fire station, and storm drain outfall repairs, all of which are also in the CIP.

by Miriam on Feb 24, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

I want to point out that many of the projects in the "Roads" section of the CIP are not merely roadway capacity expansion projects. The Century Blvd extension in Germantown would provide the right-of-way for the future Corridor Cities Transitway while the Snouffer School Road (not North) project is in an area that is already two lanes in each direction for the majority of its length (east of Flower Hill/Earhart). The project will actually add bike lanes and improved sidewalks within the ROW. Travilah Road involves filling in gaps in the sidewalk and bikeway network on a notoriously dangerous stretch of road.

This is not even mentioning the fact that the White Flint projects (and Chapman Ave Extended) would create a street grid to complement higher-intensity mixed-use development and the Bethesda streetscape improvement project on Wisconsin and Woodmont Avenues.

And while Montrose Parkway and the associated interchange with MD 355 has unfortunately had a deleterious impact on the walkability and future development potential of the White Flint area, constructing the overpass over the B&O tracks is sorely-needed safety improvement.

In short, I don't see an M-83 (or equivalent project) on this list.

by Reza on Feb 24, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity,

My issue with the Disney critique is that it's completely fatuous. I worked on the Bethesda Row infill project where the developer strove to have a "modern" look, not because a "modern space deserves a more modern or post modern style to be authentic", but becasue they thought it would be cool and thus more rentable.

So we crack open the trendy magazines and books to start developing the look of the facades. This idea that what we where desiging was more authentic becasue the magavines had Richard Rodgers stuff or the books where of 1930's Bauhaus rather than any other period of architecture is dumb. Strictly speaking, everything is derived from a "historical architectural reference". It's a modernist fantasy that architectural references beyond some arbitrary moment in history are inauthentic. They may be tacky, they may not be logical or appropriate, but they certainly aren't illegitimate becasue they're historical, becasue it's all "historical".

As for the Jane Jacobs fantasy, I completley agree. It's almost impossible to have smaller parcels develope the finer grained streetscapes we all love becasue of economies of scale. Maybe if they stripped down the permit process to where a developer could get the necessary permits without an army of lawyers and a string of meetings, the costs might be more managable, but it's still hard to beat out the large companies like a Federal Realty Investment Trust that assembled all the properties for Bethesda Row. Of course, knowing that Jane Jacobs was on to something, the facades are small but the rears still work as one. Is that inauthentic, maybe. Does it matter to the pedestrian? Not a bit.

by Thayer-D on Feb 24, 2012 8:56 pm • linkreport

so I searched bethesda row on GGW, and now I gotta ask - where is king of spain? it was good to have an intelligent voice defending bauhaus.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 24, 2012 10:06 pm • linkreport

To be frank, AWalkerInTheCity, Bethesda row has a very silly collection of shops. I've never forgiven Federal Realty for kicking out Second Story Books because they didn't attract the right kinds of folks.

Yes, I'm still bitter.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 24, 2012 10:08 pm • linkreport

This post is a grossly biased misrepresentation of a multi-billion dollar capitol budget.

I argue that both the Wheaton project and the Bethesda project are being rushed. The State has said the Purple Line and the elevator bank project are connected to each other and cannot be built separately, or risk major redesign costs. Why not wait for the Purple Line to be under construction and build the two simultaneously using the same contractors and designers. The Wheaton project to build the platform above the bus bays is the first I have heard of such project. Shouldn’t this be built by the developer as part of their larger project, which has yet to secure a major tenant? Either forcing MNCPPC to sign as a tenant in the space or tax increment financing could pay for the platform that would cost the developer far less if built as part of the overall project. Securing MNCPPC would allow the developer to secure private financing for the project, meanwhile allowing MNCPPC to stop planning for the failed SilverPlace MRO development.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is another instance of gross overspending. Instead of a common sense route that bridges over Georgia Avenue and ties into the existing trail on Fenton, advocates want to tear down and rebuild the Burlington Avenue bridge for complete grade separation. A key piece of county-owned real estate that is currently blocking the trail route is also under negotiations to be redeveloped with the trail provided as a developer amenity. All of this would lower the cost by common sense and a small delay. Similar with the Capitol Crescent Trail that is planned to be grade separated entirely.

These projects are not ready to go. Meanwhile; projects such as Goshen Road South have been on the books for decades and have great usefulness if you have ever lived in that part of the County which is isolated from major highways yet densely zoned with townhouses – the resulting traffic congestion has lowered land values as the County’s HOC has gobbled up cheaper homes and has illegally concentrated affordable housing in this pocket of the County. Project like Snouffer School and Goshen South can provide improved access to major highways and commercial centers, for both autos and pedestrians alike. They affect land values and people just as much as projects downcounty.

There is money for all of these projects if the Executive can sequence them in an order that does not play to politics. Montgomery County is a diverse County with diverse needs spanning urban, suburban, and rural communities. It is unfair to play one community off the other.

by Cyrus on Feb 25, 2012 12:40 am • linkreport

Cyrus, The MTA has clearly stated that construction on the entrance would have to begin by 2016 in order to meet the 2020 start of operations for the Purple Line. Under the County Executive’s proposed CIP for the Bethesda South Metro Entrance, construction wouldn’t begin until after FY18, which would be too late for the station to be operational when the Purple Line begins service.

by Cavan on Feb 25, 2012 9:03 am • linkreport

A key piece of county-owned real estate that is currently blocking the trail route is also under negotiations to be redeveloped with the trail provided as a developer amenity. All of this would lower the cost by common sense and a small delay. Similar with the Capitol Crescent Trail that is planned to be grade separated entirely.

Details please! Where is this key piece of county owned real estate?

by Woodsider on Feb 25, 2012 9:29 am • linkreport

There is no compelling reason - based on the engineering involved - to link the construction of a South Entrance with the Purple Line. That is a political construct. That linkage can be accommodated easily in the construction of the south end elevators prior to construction of the PL.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 25, 2012 9:34 am • linkreport

Cavan - The Capital Budget in far years out can always be readjusted to move up a project. Note that the Capitol Crescent Trail is not even in the budget and would have to be built with the Purple Line. I am certain that if they build it sooner they are going to have to go through a very expensive redesign. If anything the elevators should be a state subproject of the Purple Line. In the meantime fast-tracking the building a new entrance at White Flint Metro where massive redevelopment is occuring would be far more beneficial to smart growth than another entrance at Bethesda. But the priorities are wrong again.

Woodsider - there is a county-owned property that houses Progress Place. With the redevelopment of the Ripley District, developers are eyeing that property for another highrise. The building directly blocks the path of the Met Branch Trail and was to be relocated by the project. If a developer could do that the cost would be far less. Same with waiting for the Burlington Avenue Bridge to actually need replacement before prematurely rebuilding it. This is common sense. There is no harm delaying things that can wait ahead of other priorities.

by Cyrus on Feb 25, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

The phrase "destroy irreplaceable Chesapeake Bay watersheds" does not make any sense. There is only one Chesapeake watershed. The term refers to all of the geographical area that drains to the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps what you meant was something like " destroy irreplaceable forests and wetlands which will in turn affect water quality in the Chesapeake".

by John on Feb 25, 2012 11:10 am • linkreport

where is the king of spain? He used to wield that "disney critique" line like a pro! Funny think is, there's no need to defend the bauhaus any more than one has to defend classicism or a vegan diet, unless you're one of those fundamentalists who feel the need to spread the gospel when confronted by architectural sinners.

As for second story books, they're still down in Dupont (I think) and they have a warehouse off of Randolph road in Rockville. They're one of those few used book stores left that every once and a while has a nice old architecture or urban design book, if one ever got a hankering for sinning.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

@Walker, Thayer-D

Nothing gets my goat more than when people call a new development "Disney-esque." While I agree with Thayer that everything is a derivative of something that came before, I think that we also can't judge a new project, particularly one as complex as a town center, right out of the gate.

It takes a long time for these developments to become fully occupied. Bethesda Row took 10 years to complete. Rockville Town Square opened in 2007, but it took years to fill all the apartments, and the grocery store never opened. Downtown SIlver Spring opened in 2002 and their apartments are just being built now.

On top of that, you have to let people "make their mark" on the space. The apartments fill up. The shops might turn over until the "right" retail mix is found. And the introduction of publicly-owned and operated space, like Rockville's town square or Silver Spring's civic building, gives people First Amendment rights to assemble and protest, something that most shopping centers or Disney World will never have.

We can't make an "authentic" place from the start. Give it a few years, however, and we'll see if these "town center" developments can become real places. My guess is they can and will.

by dan reed! on Feb 25, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

Well Bethesda Row has Disney-like tendencies. For quite a long time there were a number of shops that didn't seem to ever have any customers. Then there was the time Federal Realty leased a shop to Bruegger's Bagels...two doors down from Bethesda Bagel. The ultimate crime was kicking Second Story Books out - it co-existed just fine with Barnes and Noble - and replacing it with a trinket shop called "Artsy Fartsy." Really. They didn't last long. There was a shop on Woodmont - Vivi - that, truly, NEVER seemed to have customers.

'Real' places don't maintain shops like that as long as Federal Realty did there. If you're a real business, the dead footprint they bring to the row must be maddening.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 25, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

@Capt. Hilts

I think you're underestimating how difficult it was for Federal Realty (or any developer) to market and run a retail project that, for the most part, didn't exist before. When the first segments of Bethesda Row opened 10 years ago, there wasn't anything like it in the DC area, except the Market Common in Clarendon, which opened about the same time. There were no examples for what tenants succeeded in a "town center" or "main street" format, and retailers used to shopping malls weren't yet convinced they could do well there either. Not only that, but we were only at the beginning of DC's renaissance, which in turn made Metro-accessible suburban downtowns like Bethesda more happening (read: profitable) places to be.

Hence, it's understandable that Federal Realty didn't know what to fill Bethesda Row with in the beginning. But as that development has proven its worth, they've found a group of tenants that I think complement each other well and drive customers to the area.

by dan reed! on Feb 25, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

To elaborate on Dan Reed!s point, I was just at Langley Park today and marveled at the Jane Jacobesque small store grain of the place. Those old strip centers would have been developed by one company much like Bethesda Row, yet time and immigrants gave the place a village like feel in a modernist car oriented environment. Even the surrounding Levvitown neighborhoods are charming with the slow individualisation of each house and a mature tree canopy. I'm not going to say it rivals Chevy Chase, but withholding judgement has it's merits.

I'd also add that much like the newer Reston town center, how these "centers" meet their surrounding context is very important. Floating in a sea of parking or connector roads does not authenticity breed. I worked on Santana Row in San Jose (same firm as Bethesda Row) and that's even more disconnected from it's surroundings. All though when you walk around the term "gift to the street" comes to mind. Hopefully, master plans like White Flint will ensure the continuity these centers sometimes lack.

by Thayer-D on Feb 25, 2012 9:09 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by TGEoA on Feb 26, 2012 12:03 am • linkreport

Yes, pointing out that some development priorities are misguided is the height of condescension. Would it help to put it as good vs. bad or smart vs. dumb? It is important to have a clear definition of smart growth (to prevent the term from being co-opted by any and all groups for one) but its dumb to not even pay attention to the merits of the argument because you feel like someone may act smug.

by Canaan on Feb 26, 2012 12:58 am • linkreport

Dan, Bethesda Ave. has been around a lot longer than 10 years! I'm told there used to be a shop that made fresh doughnuts on the premises. Bethesda Bagel was there far longer than ten years as was Second Story books, Dunkin Doughnuts, Quartermaine and so forth. There was a Boston Market. These things all pre-dated the Barnes and Noble. Even before the Barnes and Noble was there, weekend mornings were very crowded with foot traffic, so, Federal Realty wasn't taking a big risk.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 26, 2012 1:05 am • linkreport

@thayer - you've never hung around atkins (or worse, paleo) diet people if you don't think veganism needs to be defended ;) There are lots of attacks on modernism here and elsewhere - some apt, some unfair, IMO.

@dan - yes, old shopping centers have evolved. They still are owned by a single owner, which I guess limits them somewhat from the kind of variety and surprise that some look for from an urban area with independently owned storefronts etc.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 27, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

@ MR

Goshen Road should not be spoiled, and people need to learn to go west to other roads, such as Mont. Village Ave. etc. How long are we going keep spoiling roads so rich folks can drive to tehir new homes on farmland/ HOW LONG????????????????

by dj on Feb 27, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

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