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New developments crowding Bethesda

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Photo - A construction site on the corner of Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
A construction site on the corner of Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

At least a dozen major developments are under construction or in the pipeline in downtown Bethesda, prompting many area residents to worry that the wealthy Montgomery County suburb is getting too crowded.

Giant construction holes and zoning permit signs can be found throughout downtown, from the Bethesda Row neighborhood to the older Woodmont Triangle.

At the southern end of the Woodmont Triangle, for example, developers are planning the Bainbridge Bethesda, a 17-story luxury apartment building where there are currently shops and some empty storefronts. Meanwhile, Lot 31, the former parking lot at the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues, is expected to hold 162 apartments, 88 condos and 40,000 square feet of street-level retail.

Welcome to the neighborhood
Projected growth in Bethesda
  2010 2015 2020 2025 2030 2035 2040
Households in single-family units 25,158 25,327 25,384 25,463 25,501 25,501 25,501
Households in multifamily units 14,463 16,870 18,718 19,498 19,998 21,050 22,187
Total households 39,621 42,197 44,102 44,961 45,499 46,551 47,688
Total population 101,982 110,885 116,067 118,740 120,106 122,306 124,305
Total Montgomery County population 971,587 1,015,563 1,065,411 1,109,727 1,153,982 1,185,502 1,203,882

And just up the street from each, there are at least half a dozen other projects, including some that haven't started, many of them apartment and condo buildings.

The construction has triggered much discussion about whether clogged roads and parking garages can handle more cars and whether overcrowded schools can house more students.

The number of Bethesda families living in apartments and condos is expected to jump from 14,463 to 22,187 by 2040, according to Montgomery County planners, while the number in single-family homes is expected to plateau at 25,501. The overall population is expected to climb 22 percent to 124,305.

For Robert Smythe, head of the Sacks Neighborhood Association just south of Bethesda Row, the biggest concern is traffic, especially while construction blocks streets. He pointed to Woodmont Avenue, which is set to be closed south of Bethesda Avenue for nearly two years beginning Monday.

"We already have gridlock on Bethesda Avenue and the other streets because the streets are not capable of providing enough space for the cars that come to the area," he said. The traffic is so bad that his wife goes to Friendship Heights to buy her groceries.

Even walking to Bethesda Row -- which he can see from his house -- has become a nuisance because of the blocked sidewalks, he said.

"The businesses are going to be in trouble," he said. "People can't get there."

After the construction, there will be more problems, said Jon Weintraub, chairman of the Downtown Bethesda Condominium Association.

Even if the new apartment buildings house a small number of families with children, that still means more students, he said.

The overcrowding in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster is so bad that Sara Gilbertson, former president of the Battery Park Citizens Association, sent her son to private school. "We know that there are plans at the county level to expand these schools, but there's no physical space for them to go," she said.

The schools are not at the point where county planners must turn developers away, said Bruce Crispell, director of the school system's Long-range Planning Division.

But even if more buildings can fit, maybe they shouldn't, Smythe said, lamenting the lack of green space.

"We call it the Manhattan-izing of Bethesda."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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