THE BLOG
12/29/2014 08:35 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

The Greening of a Suburban Downtown

If planners for Bethesda, Maryland fully realize a conceptual vision now being offered to community leaders and the public, the once-quiet but now-bustling suburb's downtown could become a nationally relevant example of urban sustainability.

While the thinking is in its infancy, the Montgomery County Planning Department - under Maryland law, the county has legal authority - is considering a comprehensive green overhaul of Bethesda's downtown plan, currently being updated by for the first time in twenty years. Particularly significant, in my opinion, would be two to three neighborhood-scaled "ecodistricts" within the downtown that would lead the way with showcase practices to accelerate and intensify environmental performance. The Department is being exceptionally cautious in stressing that for the moment its ideas are only conceptual and preliminary in nature, and will be subject to extensive review and refinement, but they point in the right direction.

Bethesda, just a few miles outside of Washington, DC, has been a leader in the smart growth and urbanist trends that were born in the 1990s and are still being put in place in many jurisdictions. A lot of progress has been made, and most of its downtown is now highly walkable and transit accessible, especially for a suburb. But, with a few exceptions, the community has not taken the next step to become "green" as well as "smart." What was progressive two decades ago is merely good practice now. Leadership requires more, and the county's new initiative is timely.

Bethesda was once best known for housing beautiful, upscale, single-family neighborhoods, the National Naval Medical Center, and the neighboring National Institutes of Health. (Those in the know also made the trip from elsewhere in the DC metro region to Bethesda for the Tastee Diner, Gifford's Ice Cream and O'Donnell's Seafood Restaurant.) But the sleepy suburb's downtown area was transformed in the last few decades by the Washington region's booming growth and, in particular, by the arrival of the area's MetroRail system, which has a busy station in the heart of the commercial area.

It is now one of the region's most walkable suburban downtowns, served also by one of the metro area's most popular bicycle trails, multiple bus lines (including a downtown Circulator) and soon, I fervently hope, the long-delayed Purple Line light rail system intended to link Bethesda with other suburbs to the east. While some of the downtown's architecture is a bit undistinguished and not sufficiently relatable at the human scale, there are important exceptions including what in my opinion is the country's very best example - and certainly one of its most successful and popular examples - of a mixed-use, walkable retrofit of what was previously a very run-down, automobile-oriented suburban strip. (See photo immediately above.) Over 10,000 residents live within the downtown planning boundary.

Judging by slides presented to a planning board meeting in December and posted online, the planners did a good job of identifying downtown Bethesda's strengths and weaknesses. Assets include established residential neighborhoods, adjacency to the two major federal employers, excellent arts, entertainment and nightlife, and good walkability and transit service. But the presentation concedes that downtown lacks central green spaces and continuous tree canopy, contributes an abundance of impervious cover within watersheds with substandard water quality, and provides insufficient affordable housing. The presentation also notes that Bethesda has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Green responses to these conditions are infused throughout the planning framework, which includes attention to such sustainability concepts as vegetated walls and roofs, habitat restoration, tree canopy, streetscape character, urban agriculture, bicycle infrastructure, shared streets, "parklets," and public gathering spaces, including expanded green spaces.

I took a close look at the proposals for two of the nine planning districts: First, the Woodmont Triangle, a low- to mid-rise sector northwest of the heart of downtown, is being considered for enhancement as an arts district with mixed-income housing, improved water quality, and enhanced green space. Second, the Wisconsin Avenue corridor is Bethesda's main commercial street, running north-south with the Bethesda Metro station at its heart. The current streetscape is seriously unappealing to my eye. It would be slated for multi-modalism (including a bus rapid transit line and better sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure), enhanced "downtown atmosphere," and energy conservation and generation. The historic Farm Women's Cooperative Market, south of the Metro station, would become the centerpiece of "a newly green and connected civic space."

Both Woodmont and the area around the Metro station in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor are under consideration for treatment as ecodistricts, according to a story written by Katherine Shaver and published in The Washington Post. Shaver, who spoke to a county planning official, describes the districts in terms of their environmental, economic and social goals:

The 'environmental' piece could include more environmentally friendly high-rise office and condo buildings, perhaps with renewable energy sources such as solar panels, and surrounded by more trees and green space. The 'social' goal eyes more public gathering spots and better-connected paths to encourage walking and cycling. The 'economic' goals could include more affordable housing and retail space.

Tina Schneider, a senior environmental planner for the county, said planners want to 'push the envelope' to make downtown Bethesda a 'really vivacious, desirable place that's seen as being innovative and technically advanced.'

'It would be doing more good for the community and the ecosystem rather than doing less harm,' Schneider said. The designated areas, she said, would 'function in a way that's not depleting our resources but perhaps even improving them.'

Bethesda already has decent green-building incentives, but the designated high-performance areas, according to the presentation, would seek to reach an enhanced level of environmental sustainability by further reducing energy demand and water use, using green infrastructure - including green roofs - to control stormwater runoff, and employing green streets with enhanced tree canopy and high efficiency street lighting, among other things. There's a slide headlined "getting to zero," which implies that the ultimate goal in these districts would be to achieve net-zero performance for energy and water.

The conceptual framework also references good sources of standards, including the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, among many others. (The Natural Resources Defense Council, which cofounded LEED-ND, has been working with clients and partners to use the system to guide sustainability planning across the country, including in downtown Los Angeles's Little Tokyo neighborhood.) Planners say they will aim high for the showcase districts, to create national models of sustainability and design, accelerate performance to reach goals sooner than in other parts of the planning area, and use density bonuses among other tools to reward developers for pursuing environmentally progressive techniques.

(I didn't take the time to watch the full, two-hour video of planners' presentation to the planning board, but it's on the website for those who want more.)

It's all a bit vague, to be honest, and at best the vision would take decades to fully realize. Shaver's article quotes a local developer as grumbling that county environmental requirements are already stringent enough, which only reinforces my hunch that the preliminary framework points in the right direction. This is not a time in the history of our planet when we should be resting on our laurels. Local environmentalists would do well to push the planning department and, ultimately, the County Council, to pursue these objectives with specificity, rigor, and dedication.

Will Bethesda indeed become the sort of national model that its planners envision? It's way too soon to know, but I applaud the effort.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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