Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bethesda Downtown Plan - Citizens Advisory Board testimony

The following is testimony on the Bethesda Downtown Plan provided to the County Council by the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board on October 18, 2016:

Testimony to the County Council regarding the
Bethesda Downtown Plan

Thank you for this opportunity to provide feedback from the members of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board (the “Board”) regarding the draft Bethesda Downtown Plan (the “Draft Plan”).  The Board is pleased to be part of something that future generations will inherit and enjoy.

Overall the Draft Plan is a much needed update which sets a positive vision for Bethesda’s growth over the next 20-30 years. Bethesda’s success is due largely to the high-quality of life enjoyed by its residents.  The new growth envisioned by this plan can and should improve this quality of life for all.

In our review of the Draft Plan, Board members have identified the following specific concerns to bring to your attention: 

Affordable Housing

The Board wants to emphasize that every citizen and group who has provided input of the Draft Plan strongly supports providing affordable housing for all who need it whether it be for senior citizens, to attract new workforce entrants, people with lower wages, those with disabilities and those transitioning to permanent housing. Done properly we have an opportunity to fuel the vibrancy of downtown Bethesda and fulfill our social responsibility of housing those who need homes.

We firmly believe that the Plan should enable a diversity of housing options that are affordable to residents at a variety of income levels, and continue to build upon the successful MPDU program. 

School Facilities 

The impact on children in overcrowded schools is a serious issue.  We may reach a point in the not too distant future when renovations to existing Bethesda schools will no longer be an option to address capacity issues and new schools will need to be built.  In fact, B-CC has run out of space for future additions, and already has inadequate space for outside/after school activities.  We recommend that the Draft Plan include land acquisition for schools, particularly additional land for B-CC High School.

Traffic 

We support the Draft Plan recommendation concerning returning some one-way streets in Bethesda to two-way traffic. Two-way streets simplify navigation for drivers. They are more successful for retailers. They are also considered more pedestrian friendly. Changing these streets to two-way traffic could improve Bethesda’s urban fabric and make Bethesda easier for visitors to navigate.

We have heard from residents who say existing traffic has affected their way of life.  Residents of East Bethesda report “being trapped” in their community during rush-hour. Work schedules and activities for their children have to be altered based on the ability to simply get out of or into the area. Cut through impacts and neighborhood egress issues must be addressed in the Draft Plan.

Parks and Amenities

Outdoor space for neighbors to come together is vital to maintain and build our community.  We urge you to set a time frame for new parks to ensure that open space is available as growth occurs.  We support the vision for the transformation of Norfolk Avenue into a “shared space” which prioritizes people, not cars.  We are reminded of the streetscape goals in the existing Sector Plan that, due to costs, have not yet occurred. We welcome the park Amenity Fund concept, but the County also needs to allocate CIP funds to improve Norfolk Avenue, parks, and streetscapes in downtown Bethesda so those amenities are in place ahead of new development.

We support the mission of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, and believe that the management of new urban parks must be coordinated with them in a lead role to ensure a high standard of maintenance and co-branding with other BUP activities. 


Compatibility

It is critically important that new development must be compatible with neighboring single-family communities.  A lack of compatibility can severely impact quality of life for neighbors.  Set-backs, step-backs, building design, and traffic circulation are important elements of development review and should be a key goal of this Sector Plan.

Sidewalk and Lane Closures

Finally, the Board appreciates the work of Mr. Berliner, the Regional Services Center, and the Department of Permitting Services to minimize the impacts of sidewalk closures due to development.  Stringent oversight over sidewalk and lane closures must continue. Some growing pains are inevitable but not at the cost of stymying our ability to walk and drive without significant delays and jeopardizing safety.

Thank you again for this opportunity to provide testimony.

Scott Goldberg

Chair, Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board