A high-powered group of residents, business owners and real estate professionals thinks Bethesda has enough pocket parks buried behind buildings and art hidden behind lobby doors.
The Board of Directors of the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, a division of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, is pushing for the chance to sell its vision for public art projects required with private development in downtown Bethesda.
As the Montgomery County Planning Department gathers community input on its new master plan for the area, the Arts & Entertainment Board sees a golden opportunity.
“The task that we’ve undertaken really is going to help develop the value of Bethesda, the character of Bethesda and the community. It gives it a sense of place, a sense of purpose in some respects,” said Debra Moser, a member of the Board and co-founder of Bethesda’s Central Farm Market. “Our purpose at looking at this is really to bring this community together and have people understand the context of the community they live in.”
What the Board wants, in a nutshell, is money from the private developers of downtown Bethesda to help finance projects like a semi-permanent sculpture garden along Norfolk Avenue, a community black box theater or a civic green space that’s accessible and visible.
Montgomery County now provides a public amenity option to developers that want increased density, a common occurrence in downtown Bethesda. In an attempt to create a more vibrant urban place, developers can provide open spaces and public art.
But in Bethesda and elsewhere, those amenities are usually restricted to the developer’s property.
Jane Fairweather, Bethesda realtor and a member of the Board, said the building she lives in has an open space that’s closed off to visitors. There are also examples of public amenities inside of building lobbies or on private rooftops, which doesn’t benefit the general public.
“Just because it says public amenity, doesn’t mean it really is a public amenity,” Fairweather said. “What we’re saying to developers is, ‘Look at this as a complement to your building. The more lively the art and entertainment district is, the more economic benefit you get from it.’ We don’t want some Miami architect who builds your building to decide what the community public art should be without at least a conversation.”
Based on the last Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan, adopted in 1994, many developers have built open spaces off of main streets. The result has been spaces such as the virtually unused green space near the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
It has left many clamoring for more focus on civic space in the master plan rewrite.
“We think we’re more than just restaurants,” said Fairweather, when discussing how more civic space and public art could improve Bethesda’s image.
The Planning Department does have an Art Review Panel that reviews and provides feedback on public amenity art proposed by developers. Bethesda architect and artist Mark Kramer is a member of both the Art Review Panel and the Arts & Entertainment Board.
The Art Review Panel is more geared toward looking at how functional particular art pieces are, and only in the context of individual projects.
The big sell Fairweather, Moser and Board President Jerry Morenoff must make is to convince private developers to agree to amenity projects that wouldn’t necessarily be built on their properties.
The group has a wish list of projects and will provide recommendations to county planners putting together the master plan rewrite. Fairweather said the amenities could be built close to the developer’s property, or perhaps include their name.
“We’re putting ourselves into it whole-heartedly,” Morenoff said. “My personal feeling is, once I start something, I make sure it gets done.”
Morenoff has reason for confidence.
The Arts & Entertainment Board is unique in its make-up. It includes residents, resident business leaders such as Fairweather (who also serves on the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber’s Board of Directors) and some of the developers who are remaking downtown Bethesda.
Frank Craighill, from Chevy Chase-based developer JBG, is on the Board. Chris White, whose MRP Realty company bought and is renovating the Air Rights Center, and Linowes & Blocher land use attorney Anne Mead also take part.
The Board has spearheaded efforts to create the Tunnel Vision project at the Bethesda Metro station, art studio space in a partnership with a downtown office owner and a short-documentary film festival heading into its second year.
At a Bisnow Media event last week at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club, Fairweather led a panel of developers and asked what they would think about pitching into a general amenity fund that would allow the community to decide what art and open space projects to pursue.
“From a developer standpoint, we’re paying for it one way or the other,” said Marc Dubick, co-founder of Duball, which developed the Lionsgate Condominiums on Woodmont Avenue.
Duball is also breaking ground this fall on a luxury condominium project at the corner of Battery Lane and Woodmont Avenue.
“I think it’s better to have it done on a project-by-project basis,” Dubick said. “There’s a lot of developers in the audience and they know how to do this stuff.”
“That’s what we usually hear,” Fairweather said in an interview on Friday. “Developers say, ‘Everybody asks us for money and we’re not going to put any more money out there. We don’t like the idea of amenity funds. It’s another give and we feel like we don’t get anything.'”
Doug Firstenberg, a founding principal of Bethesda-based developer StonebridgeCarras, told attendees at the BisNow event he might be open to an amenity project off his property if it was clearly laid out.
“We are profit-driven, sleazy developers. We want to do good projects, but we are profit-driven, so give us a reason to understand why you would pay into a fund,” Firstenberg said. “If you want to incentivize developers to do that, tell them what the price is. There’s the Farm Women’s Market sitting there in a prime location. If people had an enormous vision to do something cool there and you set the bar, that could be more logical.”
Fairweather said the Board has learned the best way to improve art and open space amenities won’t be through a fund, but through one-on-one interaction with developers.
“Our goal during this is to insert ourselves into that process at some point,” Fairweather said. “We represent community needs and we have a better sense of what the gaps are and what the funding needs are. So all we’re saying to park and planning is, ‘Help us have that conversation.'”