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Planning director: Affordable housing key for downtown Bethesda

By Aaron Kraut

Thursday - 8/14/2014, 3:00pm  ET

Planning 
Department Director Gwen Wright, via LinkedIn Montgomery County Planning Director Gwen Wright went on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” Thursday and reiterated the agency’s hope for more affordable housing and better public spaces in the future downtown Bethesda.

After callers into the show laid out a wide range of concerns about parking, traffic, density and affordability, Nnamdi ended the segment by offering Wright what he deemed was a much-needed “good luck.”

Wright and a team of county planners are working on the Bethesda Downtown Plan, the master plan rewrite for the central business district that could mean new zoning, new pockets of development and new guidelines for parks and roads.

While they’ve yet to make their recommendations to the Planning Board, it’s likely county planners will push for a public amenity fund (or similar concept) to create bigger and more useful public spaces.

Wright said downtown Bethesda has been a mostly successful urban community since the last downtown master plan in 1994. But she did say planners are hoping “to rectify” the collection of lightly-used pocket and interior parks spurred by county requirements for each developer to include public use space on a property.

“We’re looking at ways that folks, instead of putting up a little postage stamp public space on their land, might pay into a public amenity fund that would allow for the acquisition or development of larger pieces of public open space that may be more useable,” Wright said.

Draft recommendations will come in the fall. The Planning Board will review and likely rework those before sending the plan on to the County Council.

Planners now are working on concepts for each district to show what each might look like as prescribed change happens. There will also be development scenarios to help traffic and transportation studies, a retail study with private firm Streetsense and an online feedback loop to get responses on the draft recommendations.

Engaging millennials has been a prominent goal of county planners working on the plan. Hillary, a 22-year- old from Rockville, called into the show and asked Wright how downtown Bethesda could attract millennials if housing is as expensive as it is.

“We’re looking at how to increase the supply of affordable housing not only by the county’s existing MPDU laws…but also on how to preserve existing affordable housing units,” Wright said. “So that it can be a community that is a mix of incomes, a mix of people. We want to create opportunities for millennials to live in Bethesda.”