Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New buildings seen as a boon in Bethesda

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While the development of new buildings in downtown Bethesda has meant noise from construction and traffic jams for residents, for shop and restaurant owners, it causes one sound to ring in their ears: ka-ching.

With three multi-use projects — Woodmont East II, the Lot 31 project and Arlington East — at various stages of development, nearly 700 residential units and 225 hotel rooms will be added to the area surrounding Bethesda Row, which is bounded by Arlington Road, Woodmont Avenue, Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue.

The Arlington East complex is slated to open later this month, while Woodmont East II and Lot 31 are still years from completion. Still, businesses are beginning to prepare for the arrival of thousands of new customers.

‘‘I think the new buildings will improve the flow of the area and bring in new clientele,” said Danny Pena, manager of Centro restaurant on Bethesda Avenue. ‘‘With more people come more customers.”

Woodmont East II, approved earlier this month, will bring a 225-room hotel, 250 apartments and office and retail space to the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues, next to the Bethesda Row movie theater. Across the street, the Lot 31 project will bring 250 more residential units and retail space to the site that is currently a parking lot. The Arlington East project promises 180 apartments and 65,000 square feet of retail along Arlington Road where the Giant supermarket used to be located.

Gillian Markert, manager of Tickled Pink, a women’s clothing store on Woodmont Avenue, said the store used the new Arlington East building as an opportunity to upgrade. The business will move to a bigger retail space under the 180-unit complex in May.

She believes the move will help the store create a localized following.

‘‘We hope people will walk downstairs and come into our store,” she said. ‘‘Where you live is where you shop, and hopefully people will stay here instead of going to Montgomery mall.”

Debate over the three projects has raged for years in Bethesda and at the Montgomery County Planning Board. The newest development, Woodmont East II, threatened a public space in front of Gifford’s Ice Cream, and also drew the ire of Capital Crescent Trail users who will have to follow a new route during the project’s construction.

And while the economic impact of having thousands of new customers steps from shops and restaurants is appealing, some recognized what the area must go through first.

‘‘There is an inconvenience with all the construction dust and road closings while the buildings are being built,” said Hatib Joof, manager of Spring Mill Bread Company on Elm Street. ‘‘Hopefully once all the construction is done people will want to drive on this road again and walk here.”

Joof said during the construction of the Arlington East project, the shop’s walk-up business has slowed, due to the closed road and general disarray of the area, but during breaks in the construction schedule, business rebounded.

While the construction has been a nuisance, he said his store is banking on the new customers the buildings will bring. The business just signed a new lease for the site, where they’ve been for the past 15 years.

Kevin Maloney, chairman of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, said the three projects will offer many amenities to the community and current business owners. Since each project is mixed-use — including both residential and retail spaces — they will provide not only new customers for current shops and restaurants, but also new shops for residents.

‘‘In a general sense, everyone benefits,” he said. ‘‘Customers get more places to go, and the businesses get more customers. This is a very positive thing for the Bethesda area.”