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Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism

Planners drafting a master plan update for downtown Bethesda are running an online "visual preference" survey to get public input. But the choices they offer—and, even more, the questions they choose not to ask—tilt against the urban style of development that Montgomery County's most successful downtown needs.

The choices in the survey contrast higher-density streets with one-way traffic (top) with lower-density buildings facing two-way streets (bottom).

The survey compares two patterns of development. One is low-density development with two-way streets; the other, mid-rise and high-rise buildings on one-way streets. But these aren't the only options. Two-way streets are much more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no reason a dense area can't have them.

Equally important is what's left out of the images entirely. A low-rise shopping district, like the one in the lower right of the picture, could never survive in Bethesda on customers who come by Metro from DC. It needs either dense housing and jobs nearby, or lots of parking.

The parking cannot be underground because single-story stores can't support the expense of underground garages. A realistic picture of low-density retail must include big parking lots or multistory above-ground garages.

Something else is missing from all of the images. Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings.

Zoning forced the Lionsgate mixed-use high-rise to include this little-used plaza where busy sidewalk-facing storefronts once stood. Photo by the author.

This rule, fiercely defended by homeowner groups protective of the county's suburban image, gives us the empty plazas which blight Wisconsin Avenue and are spreading into the Woodmont Triangle. To be accurate, the survey should offer a choice between the attractive streetfront stores in its images and the bleak streetscapes that may emerge if the master plan preserves the status quo in this realm.

Missing entirely from the survey is the relationship between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Although most nearby single-family homeowners enjoy their proximity to downtown, neighbors opposed to urbanism often seek to wall themselves off. The connections that emerge from contentious development debates are of widely varying quality.

Three ways Bethesda connects (or doesn't) to adjoining neighborhoods: the Giant parking lot, the Whitney, and the Chevy Chase Bank building. Photos by the author.

The public should get to choose whether to border downtown with attractive buildings, walkways, and streets, or "buffers" made of walls and parking lots. This choice should not stay hidden, only to emerge later out of closed negotiations between individual builders and the opponents of their projects.

The last page of the survey reveals its authors' bias once again. There, it asks voters which category they belong to: resident, property owner, development professional, student, or special interest/activist. There are no categories for a regular shopper/diner or office worker.

Nearby homeowners are stakeholders, even if they hate the downtown and never go there. But if you work or shop in Bethesda, you're off the planners' radar screen. And never mind the rest of the region, all of which suffers from car traffic that's made worse by Bethesda's overly auto-oriented design.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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"Survey is Closed." Well, that was fast. Good work!

by Tom Veil on Jun 17, 2014 12:00 pm • linkreport

On the one hand, it's nice to have something a little more quantifiable for survey takers rather than a question like "should Downtown Bethesda be more urban or suburban?" which is a false choice.

Of course, it's then absolutely essential that the photos be accurate rather than what you could up with from a search of terms in Getty images or what not.

Plus, the images are fundamentally the same type of design. Just at different scales, but that's hard to tell at first glance. If you really want to ask about density rather than design you should have 4 photos that have a similar design but different densities.

by drumz on Jun 17, 2014 12:43 pm • linkreport

The survey was very poorly designed and lacked context. The options provided for the questions were pretty vague and for some it was difficult to tell what you were actually voting for. The "gathering spaces" question was the most baffling one.

Because of the survey's poor design I think the author of this article might be looking into it too deeply. The first question seems to simply be a matter of building scale/density, irrespective of current zoning (since the point of the entire project is to modify zoning in the sector). The average respondent can barely make out the differences in scale between some of the photos, much less minutiae such as one-way vs two-way streets or number of parking garages.

For the record, according to the results, the only neighborhood where respondents favored the 1st low-density option (the 3rd photo) was South Bethesda (which already looks like that anyway). The other low-density option (the 4th photo) wasn't favored for any of the 10 districts.

As for connections to the surrounding communities. The NIMBY residents of these communities (particularly those west of Wisconsin and south of Bradley) have specifically opposed any such connection and want nothing to do with downtown Betehsda. Recently, the community behind the public parking lot and adjacent farmer's market on Wisconsin have asked for a park to be built on the site (which actually isn't a bad idea) to preempt any possible development.

Overall, I surprisingly pleased with the results, and it shows that despite the large, vocal NIMBY presence in the area there is a large contingent of residents that would actually like to see enrich it's character as a dense, walkable, active urban community.

@Tom Veil
The survey was scheduled to close June 16

by King Terrapin on Jun 17, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

@King T--

Edgemoor to the west has also ensured that traffic and parking impacts of denser, Bethesda Row do not spill over. While some may lament the lack of "connectivity" to surrounding areas, I see it as a plus. It allows density to occur near transit and adjacent to SFH neighborhoods while mitigating the impacts of denser, busier uses. It also addresses and mitigates opposition to such density, demonstrating that two very different land uses can co-exist in proximity. I think that Bethesda and Arlington have done it right -- DC could take a page from their playbook on this.

by Alf on Jun 17, 2014 6:10 pm • linkreport

The photo in the upper right of the urban center is in fact Center City Philadelphia at 15th & Market. I highly doubt Bethesda is planning on building an almost 1000 footer, like Liberty Place, that is depicted in that photo.

by dlg on Jun 17, 2014 9:06 pm • linkreport

to King Terrapin,

Is it really NIMBY to want a park in a downtown area? I would think that would be a nice amenity amidst the tall buildings. A single usable park is certainly a better option than requiring developers to waste valuable retail space by building "pocket parks" next to their buildings that nobody uses. I'm speaking generically because I don't live in Bethesda and I'm not familiar with the specific motivation of the neighbors you speak of. But I would like a little green space in downtown Silver Spring.

As for the survey itself, I doubt it is very useful as a planning tool. We will see real public reaction when there is a real plan proposed.

by woody brosnan on Jun 18, 2014 8:25 am • linkreport

I actually think the park, which will replace an ugly surface parking lot, is a great idea at that location. The NIMBYism in this instance stems from the proponents' motivations--if we build a park the lot can't possibly be developed. Overall, the sfh residents don't want any connection to downtown Bethesda.

Further up Wisconsin residents along Middleton Ln have physically disconnected themselves from downtown since the street ends at an abrupt dead end, just short of Wisconsin.

Downtown SS should be getting some green space within the next few years as the Blair property is redeveloped.

by King Terrapin on Jun 18, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

Don't really get what's wrong with the survey, but okay.

by asffa on Jun 18, 2014 11:27 pm • linkreport

I am the Planning Director in Montgomery County and was just made aware of Mr. Ross's posting [“Bethesda's planning survey loads the dice against urbanism” June 17].
I'm glad that the informal on-line survey is generating discussion - which is what it was intended to do - but I think that many of Mr. Ross's assumptions are way off base. In particular, I take issue with the idea that we are not focusing our outreach on the people who actually live and work in downtown Bethesda - but rather listening only to developers and people who live in adjoining single family neighborhoods. In fact, I would argue that we have done more to get input from the people in the actual downtown area than in any other planning exercise that has been conducted for Bethesda. The online survey (which has had close to 2,200 completed surveys submitted) was only one tool. Community meetings and "happy hours" at Bethesda restaurants have been some of the other tools to get ideas from a broader group. We have had great attendance at these events and have gotten great ideas. In fact, we are still getting ideas and our next "happy hour" event is tentatively scheduled for July 17th at 6 p.m. - check out the website at for more details.
In terms of urbanism and density, we have recognized - through input from the community - that there is not just one "downtown" in Bethesda and that there are a variety of existing centers and emerging centers in the downtown area. Each of these will be looked at in detail during the planning process and we believe that not all have to have the same urban character. In fact, what makes cities great are that there are unique neighborhoods and that not everything looks the same (i.e. the "sameness" that we all decry in suburbs.)
But be assured that we will not shrink from high density in downtown Bethesda - in the right locations. In fact, our recent minor master plan amendment for the area around the future Purple Line station recommended densities of 8 FAR and heights of 250 - all of which was approved by the County Council.
I firmly believe that as planners we have to get beyond the notion that simply adding density and height to an area will result in great urbanism. The planning issues are more nuanced than this and we intend to have a downtown plan for Bethesda that will take into account this need for nuance.
With all that said, I encourage everyone who cares about downtown Bethesda to get involved and stay involved as this planning process moves keep checking in at for the latest.

by Gwen Wright on Jun 20, 2014 2:00 pm • linkreport

I took the survey. GGW is right - it was superficial and didn't reflect any real choices. For example, none of the pictures had any relationship to what "Wisconsin North" might realistically look like. Instead of choosing between pretty pictures, why not ask more specific questions like whether people agree one posed in the post, about "Montgomery County zoning requires empty land (known by the Orwellian name of "public use space," although productive use of the space is banned) next to all mixed-use buildings."

by Tomas Bridle on Jun 22, 2014 9:34 pm • linkreport

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