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Planners Want Better Purple Line Station, But Property Owner Seems Uninterested

by Aaron Kraut — June 17, 2013 at 11:30 am 776 7 Comments

The Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Ave. Rendering of the Bethesda Purple Line station, via Maryland Transit Administration

County and state transportation planners want a downtown Bethesda office building torn down so they can build a better Purple Line station below it.

Problem is, they can’t get the owner of the building on the phone.

The Maryland Transit Administration plans to build the westernmost station of its 16-mile Purple Line light rail under the three-story Apex Building (7272 Wisconsin Ave.) in the existing Capital Crescent Trail tunnel that today provides easy crossing for cyclists and pedestrians under Wisconsin Avenue.

The Planning Department is hoping for a last-minute solution that would allow the MTA to include both a large section of Trail and the station in the tunnel. Without the demolition of the building above, planners say it will be too costly and risky to build both.

The station itself would have building columns blocking riders. A curved platform area, instead of a straight design planners say would be optimal, could mean gaps between the boarding area and the light rail cars.

But it’s unclear if the owner of the building is willing to demolish the building in exchange for tax incentives or upzoning. The property is managed by Potomac-based Vanguard Realty Group, for owners who apparently have it as part of a retirement package.

During a Thursday discussion of the property at the Planning Board, Purple Line project manager Michael Madden explained how those owners might be more reluctant to tear down their building than a traditional developer, even in exchange for incentives from the county that might pay off big in the long term.

“It’s not like there’s opposition to development. They use this as kind of a retirement fund. They have no incentive to do it,” Madden said. “They’re fine with what they are doing and they’re making money. That doesn’t mean that somebody couldn’t come in and make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

Planners are hoping a study might get all parties talking, which could lead to a sale or a change of heart from the owner. But the idea of a Minor Master Plan Amendment for the area, which the County Council amended the Planning Department’s budget to allow, seems implausible by the end of the year.

“I have worked very hard with no luck,” said Acting Planning Director Rose Krasnow on attempts to reach the property owner. “Two weeks ago I got a call stating basically, they’re away until at least the end of June.”

Complicating the matter is the MTA’s tight timeline. Madden said the state needs something in writing about the future of the site by December, as the MTA prepares to make a final push for federal funding of the estimated $2.15 billion light rail system.

The building is home to the Regal Bethesda 10 movie theater, headquarters of the American Society of Health System Pharmacists, the Food Wine & Co. restaurant and others.

Planners said leases could be another issue. Movie theaters typically have long-term leases at cheap rates.

But the Planning Department does not want to give up on the idea of demolishing the building, Krasnow said, because allowing MTA to build a station without having to worry about disturbing a building above it would provide a much better alternative.

If the Trail can’t be built alongside the light rail in the tunnel, bikers and runners would have to cross Wisconsin Avenue at street level on Bethesda Avenue. MTA officials said it will be cheaper to build the station and the county-funded entrance to the Bethesda Metro station if the building is demolished before construction.

Council staff member Glenn Orlin told a Council Committee that razing the building would allow for $5 or $6 million in savings at the county’s estimated $80 million Bethesda Metro South Entrance project, according to a conservative estimate from the state.

Planners would also be able to incorporate a required 92-foot tall ventilation tower into the new property. That tower is now planned for the small public plaza at the entrance to the tunnel, what some have already worried will be an eyesore in one of Bethesda’s busiest areas.

“I wouldn’t be pushing this schedule if it wasn’t for the really large benefits of this,” Madden said. “We will build it the way it’s designed, which is the station on a curve with the columns in the way and the Trail not going through, and it’s OK, but it’s not great.”

Krasnow proposed the special study as something that could be rolled into the coming rewrite of the Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan, set to start this summer and last 18-24 months. Planners hope that study would pave the way for upzoning that could lead a buyer to swoop in and take over the building.

“There’s still a very optimistic part of me that thinks if we at least get people talking to each other, we could get something out of it,” Krasnow said.

But Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier had doubts about the legality of the special study process. A Minor Master Plan Amendment, which faced some friction of its own on the Council, would formalize any incentives or zoning changes with a public hearing at the Board and the County Council.

The Planning Board is set to examine the legal issues of a special study in a closed session this week.

Rendering via Maryland Transit Administration

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  • alco

    I don’t understand why the Property owner would be inclined to demolish the building to help simplify the construction of the Purple Line. Wouldn’t they lose profits from the leases? It seems wasteful to destroy a perfectly good building if the construction of the purple line is still possible with the building intact.

    • Crickey7

      It’s a 3 story building in the heart of Bethesda,right on top of a rail connection. It’s only a matter of time till it gets torn down, and it would be better to do it now. That way the trail can be kept, there would be less disruption to the rail line when the building is replaced and the owners get a better building.

  • Toastmaster1

    It appears that the Planning Board and County Council are headed towards “spot zoning” with a Minor Master Plan Amendment. This type of zoning is illegal.

  • MechanicalTurk

    Just the amount of traffic this demolition will cause on Wisconsin is horrifying.

    • suspicious_package

      I can’t imagine it would cause much traffic at all. They tear down buildings all the time with no impact on traffic

  • DrLRonHoover

    Sure – tear it down. While we’re at it why don’t we just tear down every single building in Bethesda at the same time? We don’t have nearly enough construction noise and traffic at this time. Maybe if we work real hard everyone in Bethesda can share the joy of overloaded dump trucks and concrete pumpers barreling down their street at 5 am! Or cheap-a** construction workers choking pool and park lots with their cars! And just think what we’ll have at the end! A giant purple elephant of a rail line that is neither necessary nor desired, one giant homogenous cupcake shop and lots of FOOD TRUCKS! Yay!

  • Nuwanda

    The Govt should use eminent domain and take the property if the owners will not agree to a deal. The Purple Line and the CC Trail is a huge matter of public-interest, so I highly doubt that any court could stop the Govt from using eminent domain under that law as the SCOTUS has interpreted it.

    And for the naysayers out there, downtown Bethesda was not designed to be an urban area but it’s de facto become one. So instead of fighting the change that has already occurred, let’s embrace it for what it is. There’s a reason why housing costs are so high around downtown Bethesda – people actually want to live in urban areas. If you want to live in surburbia, then you can still do so by moving to “North” Bethesda (aka Rockville).

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