Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Is This Smart Growth?

In April, the Post depicted the battle over a new office tower on the Bethesda Metro station as a struggle between Goliaths: the developer proposing the tower and the surrounding building owners and tenants opposing it. But this dispute is about far more than that. In fact, the Planning Board’s impending decision on this issue may very well change the allowed densities of commercial development all around Montgomery County.

In one sense, the Post is right: both parties to the dispute include commercial property owners. Meridian, which owns the 3-story food court building on the Metro station, would like to replace it with a 16-story office tower. The owners of the Clark Building (just to the north) and the Chevy Chase Bank building (across Wisconsin Avenue) oppose the new tower because it would interfere with their views and sunlight, thereby lowering their property values. But Meridian’s opponents also say that the new tower violates the Bethesda Central Business District Master Plan. Does it?

The key disagreement involves the concept of Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a planning standard designed to regulate building density. FAR is defined as gross building area divided by lot size. So a 10,000-square-foot lot with a FAR designation of 2.0 could have, at most, a 20,000-square-foot building. FAR limits are key components of proposals to limit density and “mansionization” in both Chevy Chase and more broadly throughout the county.

The Bethesda CBD Master Plan sets a FAR limit of 4.0 for an area around the Metro station bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, Edgemoor Lane, Woodmont Avenue and Montgomery Lane. That area includes not only Meridian’s food court building and the pedestrian plaza but also the Clark Building to the north and the Hyatt Hotel, Lorenz Building and Post Office Building to the south. That FAR limit has been in effect for at least 30 years and has served to balance space in the existing buildings against the open space between them. Indeed, the developers of the existing buildings had to respect that FAR limit when those buildings were originally constructed.

Meridian’s opponents claim that the new 16-story tower would push the FAR limit for the area around the Metro station above 4.0, thereby violating the master plan. But in recommending approval for the project, the Planning staff calculated the FAR limit differently from the opponents. The staff cited a 1989 definition for gross tract area, the denominator of FAR, appearing in the county’s zoning ordinance:

Gross tract area: The total area of a lot or parcel of land including any existing or proposed streets, highways, or other land required for public use that is attributable to the lot or parcel dedicated by the owner or a predecessor in title.
This provision was designed to compensate a developer for turning over, or “dedicating” a portion of their land for public use to win approval for a project. If a developer did surrender land for a park, road or other amenity, he or she could still use the land for the purpose of calculating the allowable density of the project under a FAR limit.

But the Planning staff went further. They based a new FAR calculation for the Meridian project in part on a lot size that includes half the width of Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road, Edgemoor Lane and Montgomery Lane – the streets that surround the FAR-limited area. (The expanded lot size under the new calculation is indicated by the blue lines on the staff’s map below.) The staff presents no evidence that the owners or former owners of the property ever dedicated or turned over any of these streets to the county as a condition of their properties’ development. How could they when the streets are centuries old?

The Planning staff’s arbitrary inclusion of surrounding street area in density calculations has sweeping consequences for the county. FAR limits are contained in many of the county’s zoning codes. If Meridian is allowed to benefit from this new, more permissible definition of FAR, then property owners elsewhere will want the same right. This will lead to greater density in areas all over the county, including office developments far away from any transit. How smart is that?

If the Planning staff wanted to approve Meridian’s office tower, they could propose amending the Bethesda CBD Master Plan or even writing a new one. But that would take many months of staff time, many thousands of dollars and lots of community input. That would slow down Meridian’s timeline. Instead, the staff has chosen to create a new standard for measuring density that would speed this particular project but create unintended consequences down the road. I have previously written in favor of channeling development into downtowns, but not at the cost of opening a Pandora’s Box of soaring density everywhere else.

Will the Planning Board go along with the staff? We’ll find out after they hold a hearing on the project on June 12.