Change coming down the pike

Retail, residences, retirees converge on downtown Bethesda and Chevy Chase as Wisconsin Avenue undergoes massive redevelopment

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
Downtown Bethesda’s traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, is on the verge of major growth as a string of commercial and residential development projects take shape over the next few years. Officials estimate as many as 3,500 new residential units will soon be on the market.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
Sylvia Rothstein of Friendship Heights strolls down Wisconsin Avenue in front of The Collection at Chevy Chase, a string of luxury boutiques hailed as ‘‘the Rodeo Drive of the East Coast.” Fixed-income retirees like Rothstein, 93, are just waiting for their grocery store and pharmacy to reopen.

Downtown Bethesda and Chevy Chase could be the county’s newest retirement community, business and community leaders predict — albeit one with a happening nightlife.

The thousands of new luxury apartments and condos planned and high-end retail shops and restaurants already popping up make Bethesda and Chevy Chase the perfect spot for aging baby boomers ready to trade in sprawling houses and three-car garages for sidewalk cafés and lobby valets.

‘‘People no longer want to take their car to a restaurant or the dry cleaners — they want to take their elevator,” said Dave Dabney, executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, an organization that maintains and promotes downtown Bethesda.

Chevy Chase and Bethesda are undergoing a major transformation from a place where people work to a place where people live, shop and play.

‘‘It feels like you’re living in a mall,” Bethesda realtor Jane Fairweather said. ‘‘You go outside and there’s everything you want, and it’s beautiful to look at, and there are your friends.”

According to the U.S. Census, 52 percent of the people in Montgomery County are over age 50, and if the waiting lists for some of Bethesda’s new condos are any indication, many of them have eyes for a downtown lifestyle.

‘‘They don’t need their five acres in Potomac,” Dabney said. ‘‘They want the convenience that Bethesda offers.”

The trend is not unique to Montgomery County, Fairweather said. When baby boomers in the prime earning time of their lives needed a safe place to invest their money, especially after the shaky stock market following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they invested in their homes.

Today, those same people are reaching their 50s and are ready to reinvest. In Bethesda and Chevy Chase, the result is an explosion in condominiums entering the market over the next five years, transforming Bethesda into what Friendship Heights has already become — a naturally occurring retirement community, or NORC, to use the real estate buzz word.

‘‘That’s what Bethesda is going to be,” Fairweather said. ‘‘It costs so much money to live there that most of the people who can afford it are people trading out of their single-family homes, which have enormous equity, and are rolling that into equal to or more expensive condominiums.”

Interactive map
For more, see The changing face of Bethesda-Chevy Chase.
The growing number of residents is likely to command a lot of attention from county and state officials as well. In the last few years, people coming into and out of Bethesda and the District have contributed to Rockville Pike having the two most congested intersections in Montgomery County at West Cedar Lane and Jones Bridge Road.

‘‘I think they will be a very significant political bloc as well,” Fairweather said. ‘‘[Politicians] will pay attention to these people.”

From the opening of The Collection at Chevy Chase to the closing of such neighborhood standbys as Flanagan’s pub and Olsson’s bookstore, all along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor the signs are easy to see.

Over the next several years, more than 3,000 residential units and at least 164,000 square feet of retail space will be coming to the approximately three-mile stretch of road.

Marilyn Clemens, Bethesda community planner with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, refused to comment.

‘‘The estimates are for 3,500 new residential properties [in downtown Bethesda],” Dabney said. ‘‘There is going to be a change in demographics, the skyline will change, the animation on the street will change. It’s exciting.”

But it’s not exciting for everyone.

From the 17th floor of Highland House West, Sylvia Rothstein could see trees from Friendship Heights to Bethesda. That was in 1976.

Today her block includes The Collection at Chevy Chase, what developers hope will become the Rodeo Drive of the East Coast.

‘‘I don’t know who’s going to shop there,” Rothstein said, ‘‘but I guess they need an address.”

Rothstein, 93, said she and other residents in the village’s large retired population who are on fixed incomes could care less about Gucci, Jimmy Choo and Ralph Lauren. They’re just waiting for their grocery store and pharmacy to return.

Part of the Chevy Chase Land Company’s $165 million redevelopment of the Chevy Chase Center — formerly a shopping center of neighborhood retail and offices along Western and Wisconsin avenues — includes building a new expanded Giant Food store with a pharmacy. Until then, the developer is footing the bill for the village to shuttle residents to the Westwood Shopping Center for their grocery and pharmaceutical needs.

‘‘Until they tore down everything on Wisconsin Avenue and put up all those fancy stores, it really was like a village ... they had all the amenities,” Rothstein said. ‘‘If we didn’t have the bus, I don’t know how we would manage.”

Some business owners and residents worry that the redevelopment will price them out of the neighborhood.

‘‘I think the high rents are making it very hard for the small businesses,” said Pat Rich, a store manager at the Opportunity Shop, a Bethesda consignment shop operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. ‘‘I think we’re all going to be replaced by Barnes and Noble and restaurants.”

The Opportunity Shop, which has been a Bethesda fixture for more than 50 years and contributes to local charities, recently was given six months to vacate its Bethesda Avenue location to make room for a higher paying tenant, Rich said.

‘‘We have looked at several [Bethesda] locations that we hope we can move into,” she said, ‘‘but if we can’t, we’ll have to close.”

That would be a real loss, she said.

‘‘It’s more than a shop,” she said. ‘‘It’s a community service.”

Still, business and community leaders see the redevelopment as a positive move for area businesses and residents.

‘‘The retail business that is currently there that can hold on through the redevelopment will thrive,” Dabney said. ‘‘They’ll have the new residents to support them.”

Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce agreed.

‘‘There’s going to be more economic development, more businesses that want to come here,” she said. ‘‘For the businesses that are here now, it’s just added growth to their economic background. For the residents, the values of their homes have gone up, but also, it’s going to be a better place for them to live, a better quality of life.”

Rothstein, who only recently gave up her car, enjoys living so close to public transportation. Despite the dramatic changes the community has gone through in her 30 years living here, it’s still home.

‘‘I wouldn’t move anyplace else,” she said.