“No one’s seriously looking at it on the county level,” said Ken Hartman, who reports to the county executive as director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
“The county has no plans to redevelop Lots 10 and 24,” said Esther Bowring, a county spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the lots.
But in Chevy Chase, where some are worried redevelopment would erase the neighborhood’s buffer area from downtown Bethesda, the fate of the parking lots has become a hot topic in the Town of Chevy Chase election, set for Tuesday.
“Just this week developers were surveying the parking lots in the hopes of developing one of the last open spaces in Bethesda,” wrote Town Council candidate Grant Davies in a prepared release. “Rather than selling this land to developers for another high-rise building, we should use the land to create recreational space while at the same time increase badly needed parking.”
Incumbent Town Councilmember Al Lang and candidate Kathie Legg have also spoken about transforming the lots into a park with underground parking. Legg said she first started floating the idea as a part of the Town’s Long-Range Planning Committee.
“I don’t think we can find a world-class city anywhere that doesn’t have substantial green space centrally located,” Legg said. “The more of us who support it, the better.”
Lang said he’s spent three months investigating how the Town might be able to use some of its $8 million surplus to buy the lots from the county. He said he envisions a bond deal similar to how the Town purchased the former Leland Junior High School, which today serves as Town Hall and a county-operated recreation center.
The Lot 31 project on Woodmont Avenue — in which the county partnered with a developer to build an underground garage and two new residential buildings — has some in the Town anticipating a similar fate for the surface parking lots close to them.
“From my perspective, if you look at Lot 31, these two lots have to be extremely valuable,” Davies said. “One could assume that lot is not going to lie there vacant. It’s going to be used for something. I doubt it’s going to be kept covered with asphalt.”
The recent pattern of development in the county includes a number of surface parking lots near transit stations that have been redeveloped into multi-level mixed-use residential buildings. Hartman said the price of building an underground parking garage makes a residential building one of the only financially viable uses for the property.
“Spending all that money to underground the parking and opting to put a park on top, I can’t see us getting into that sort of deal,” Hartman said. “I know we are nowhere near any sort of serious discussions with the Town of Chevy Chase over those lots.”
The lots have more than 300 metered parking spots behind the Farm Women’s Market east of Wisconsin Avenue, and just south of Elm Street Urban Park.
The ongoing rewrite of the Downtown Bethesda Sector Plan, which could mean new zoning, also has the Town paying attention to the lots.
“Whether they decide this time to rezone it, this is prime real estate,” Legg said. “As Bethesda grows, I think this is going to be a place that developers will soon eye, once some of the other vacant lots are taken over. It might not be an immediate threat now.”
Lang said he’s broached the subject with Rick Siebert, who runs the Department of Transportation’s Division of Parking Management. He said he got the idea from a Town resident and that he’s discussed how a potential deal to buy the lots would go down with those involved in the Leland Junior High purchase.
He’d like a three-floor underground garage with a large park on top. He’s also optimistic the valuation of the lots could be less than anticipated because the adjacent strip shopping center on Wisconsin Avenue is owned by different landlords, meaning it would be difficult to assemble for one project.
“I think there’s a possibility to balance these three things: The parking lot revenue, which is very important to Montgomery County. I think there’s a real interest from Parks and Planning in green space in the downcounty. Third, you’ve got to balance this against the potential revenues of whatever density might go in there,” Lang said. “There’s a lot of steps here but I think it’s a worthwhile effort.”