Development blitz under way in Bethesda -- Gazette.Net


It might look just like a massive hole in the ground right now, but in a few years, the area of downtown Bethesda across the street from Barnes & Noble will be teeming with new residential units, retail shops and parking spaces, Doug Firstenberg says.

The mixed-use project at Woodmont and Bethesda avenues is just one piece of the most furious development activity in Bethesda in years, developers and others said during a forum Wednesday. The event, organized by digital media company Bisnow Media at the Montgomery County Conference Center in North Bethesda, attracted about 400 industry executives and others.

The “massive hole” project, known as Lot 31, will include up to 250 residential units and 40,000 square feet of retail, as well as about 1,200 underground parking spaces, said Firstenberg, principal of StonebridgeCarras. The Bethesda development company is spearheading the $200 million project — which is largely on the site of two former county surface parking lots — with Montgomery County and PN Hoffman of Washington, D.C.

As workers labor on the project, parts of Woodmont Avenue have been closed, but the street should reopen sooner than expected next year, Firstenberg said. The first phase of residential and retail space should be open by 2015, he said.

The StonebridgeCarras-PN Hoffman project is one of about 20 under construction or being planned in downtown Bethesda and North Bethesda. Another under way is the Gallery of Bethesda at Auburn and Rugby avenues being developed by Donohoe Development of Washington, D.C.

That project is planned to have 234 apartments and 4,660 square feet of retail by 2014. A second phase is to be completed by 2015.

Undertaking such major projects in downtown Bethesda requires several years of acquiring smaller chunks of land piece by piece, said James Donohoe IV, a vice president with Donohoe Development.

“There is land available in downtown Bethesda, but not in large enough tracts,” he said.

There aren’t many opportunities to replicate what Federal Realty Investment Trust has done with Bethesda Row, with its 500,000-plus square feet of retail, restaurant and residential space in downtown Bethesda, said Robin McBride, COO for the Rockville company’s mid-Atlantic region.

“But we can replicate it with Pike & Rose,” she said.

Pike & Rose broke ground this year on a massive project to replace the Mid-Pike Plaza shopping center at Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike in North Bethesda. The first phase with 150,000 square feet of retail, 80,000 square feet of offices and some 500 residential units is slated to open in 2014, McBride said. Officials hope to eventually develop out the 24 acres with much more office, retail and residential space, as well as a hotel.

Some tenants have complained about difficulty in obtaining Montgomery County permits to open, McBride said.

The county is reviewing that permitting process, said Steven A. Silverman, Montgomery County’s director of economic development.

“That is job one,” Silverman said.

The Great Recession put a lot of office space on the market in downtown Bethesda that leasing agents are still trying to fill, said Phil McCarthy, executive vice president of Bethesda commercial real estate firm Transwestern.

“Everyone is taking less office space,” he said, citing telework and other trends.

Office designers need to develop sites “where you want to go, not like your dad’s office,” McCarthy said. “You want to feel like you are at Connecticut Avenue and K Street [in downtown Washington] without having to drive to Connecticut and K.”