Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Need for Bethesda garage questioned

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For as long as Bethesda has been attracting shoppers and diners to its downtown, people have been complaining about parking. But now the complaints have taken a strange turn.

Land-use groups are upset with the size and cost of a new $89 million parking garage that the County Council recently approved. Even with developer subsidies, the five-story, nearly 1,500-space garage will cost nearly $73,000 per space.

The garage, located at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues, is part of the redevelopment of Lot 31 and Lot 31-a, two surface parking lots with 279 parking spaces situated just across from Barnes and Noble along side the Capital Crescent Trail. The new project would be located beneath a mixed-use development, and would have a five story, below ground, 1,458-space garage.

Of the 1,458 spots, 300 would be reserved for residents of the two new condominium buildings above the garage. A total of 250 units will be available in the two buildings.

‘‘We certainly support mixed-use development, but at these costs we really need to make sure we’re getting the most out of our investment,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington group that focuses on development and how it affects transportation.

The project was approved as part of the fiscal 2009-14 capital budget. Each space in the new garage would cost the county about $73,000, after discounting a $4.2 million contribution from the developers for rerouting of utilities. The developers for the project are PN Hoffman of Washington, D.C., and Stonebridge Associates of Bethesda.

Revenues from the Bethesda Parking Lot District, including parking fees and fines, will cover most of the costs. Over the next four years, according to county budget numbers, the sale of the Lot 31 land at $35.5 million and the sale of revenue bonds will cover the remaining costs of the garage.

The Montgomery County Planning Board approved the site plan in September, after more than three years of debate. Debate ranged over the use of the space, including the closure of Woodmont Avenue, brought on by the project’s construction.

The final County Council vote for the item is May 22, when the county’s capital budget is approved.

Opponents of the garage, however, say there is already enough parking in Bethesda. There are 5,840 garage spaces in downtown Bethesda, according to county records.

Parking garages further north in downtown Bethesda, along Woodmont Avenue, are nearly empty some nights, according to David Hauck, chair of the Montgomery County Sierra Club.

‘‘I’m not opposed to all parking, but if Bethesda is trying to become more public transportation-friendly, the size of this project just doesn’t make much sense,” he said.

Cort agreed, saying that the county should install signs on county-owned parking garages indicating the number of open spaces inside. Drivers would then know there was still space to park, and Cort hopes, maybe walk a little.

A similar system is currently used at Rockville Town Center, where drivers can see the number of spaces available prior to entering the garage.

County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac said while he has some concerns about the project, it needed to be approved.

‘‘This is a project that’s gone through four years of scrutiny and process and have complied with all the rules,” he said. ‘‘So where as I personally may believe we have to modify the approach to building, I don’t believe it’s fair to hold a project up because of it.”

Berliner said he hopes the county will adjust its process for determining the need for public parking spaces by increasing the radius of surveys to include existing parking lots blocks away.

Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park said it’s important to remember that parking serves many purposes.

‘‘The real question is how do we allocate parking spaces in an urban district that serves many functions,” she said. ‘‘Retailers need parking, but so do residents. It’s tough.”