North Bethesda's Critical Challenge: Fixing The 'Unfriendly And Unsafe Walk' Across Rockville Pike
The North Bethesda area is continuing to grow, with Pike & Rose adding new office tenants and retail amenities, but developers still say the area needs greater public investment to help make it more attractive to companies and residents.
Executives from Federal Realty Investment Trust, Willco and LCOR, three of the most active developers in the area, said Thursday on Bisnow’s Welcome to North Bethesda event at Pike & Rose that the county needs to make greater infrastructure investments to connect the mixed-use project to the White Flint Metro station and to other nearby developments to make the area more walkable.
Federal Realty in April signed four new tenants at 909 Rose, the Pike & Rose office building that delivered last year, bringing the 212K SF building to two-thirds leased. Federal Realty Vice President Jay Brinson said the building has landed tenants because of the development's walkability, but he wants to see the county invest in more infrastructure in the surrounding area, something Federal Realty CEO Don Wood has been pushing for years.
“We’re getting tenants coming from throughout the county and they’re willing to pay a premium in rent over their current locations because they see the value in what they’re getting here,” Brinson said. “If North Bethesda's future is going to be successful, we have to continue to build on that, and that means connecting the various development parcels together, focusing on making Rockville Pike more friendly for pedestrians coming from the Metro entrance."
The area could stand to benefit from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate Tuesday, including $110B in investments for roads, bridges and highways and $66B for passenger and freight rail.
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said he supports more infrastructure investment, and he is “interested in entertaining” tax-increment financing packages, a public investment tool that the District uses often but that hasn't previously been used in Montgomery County. A major land use plan currently going through the Montgomery County Council recommends the use of TIF packages.
“We’re going to change the way we do business, we’re going to change the way we build infrastructure," Elrich said. "The business community has said over and over that the lack of transportation in this county is an impediment to growth.”
In order to fund more infrastructure investments, Elrich said the county needs to expand its tax base by adding more private employers, an area where Montgomery County has lagged behind other parts of the region. Elrich said he hopes to draw activity from the county’s booming I-270 life sciences corridor to the North Bethesda area to help grow its tax base.
The county is working on a deal with WMATA at the White Flint Metro station to create a life sciences hub, and Elrich said he is seeing interest from life sciences companies to relocate to the area. He said he thinks it could replicate Kendall Square, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, life sciences hub with the highest rents in the country.
“I think we’re going to be able to make this place take off," Elrich said. "And frankly, if this takes off, we get a signature development in Montgomery County. We don’t have signature developments like Fairfax does. Bethesda’s not a signature development. It’s big, it’s important, but it’s not a shiny gold object, and Fairfax has managed to pull off some shiny gold objects. We’ve got to figure out how to compete in that space."
Brinson, speaking on the panel after Elrich, said he sees Pike & Rose as a “gold shining star,” of Montgomery County’s development. He also said he thinks the area could benefit from the life sciences activity.
Federal Realty received Montgomery County Planning Board approval last month to swap out a planned multifamily building at Pike & Rose with a 10-story research and development facility, the Washington Business Journal reported. The developer hasn't committed to building the life sciences use but said it is exploring the potential.
In order to land life sciences tenants at the rent prices it would take to make the project pencil, Brinson said the area needs infrastructure improvements to make it more walkable and connected.
"To get those high-rise rents that we need there, to get people to pay those premiums, you need to have those amenities," he said. "As great as it is here at Pike & Rose, it’s only 23 acres. It needs to be much broader. It needs to be a connected urban grid. We have so many office tenants, and many that aren’t coming here they look down the street at that Metro entrance and go, ‘That’s an awfully long walk for our employees, and it’s an unfriendly and unsafe walk.'"
One of the developments that could expand the area's urban street grid is Willco's Rose Village, a 20-acre project planned for up to 2,063 residential units directly to the west of Pike & Rose. Willco Chairman Gary Cohen said he sees the project as an extension of Pike & Rose that should make the area feel like one unified community.
Cohen also said he wants to see more infrastructure investment in the area. He praised the plans for a second, northern entrance to the White Flint Metro station, which could soon be renamed the North Bethesda station. But the new entrance would still be on the east side of Rockville Pike, across the busy thoroughfare from Pike & Rose and Rose Village, and Cohen said it needs a new pedestrian connection.
"The infrastructure is important,” Cohen said. “The fact the North Bethesda Metro is coming closer, that’s great. When they get off the Metro, how are they going to get to the other side? Are we going to build a bridge or a tunnel? Are we going to make Rockville Pike more friendly to cross? That’s a big deal.”
Montgomery County Council Member Andrew Friedson, who represents the North Bethesda area, said he led the effort to restore funding for the second Metro station entrance, and he also wants to see more improvements to pedestrian infrastructure.
"We’ve been pushing a lot on pedestrian safety and the walkability of the urban environment," Friedson said. "If you show a potential tenant an area and say, 'This is an urban lifestyle,' and they can’t cross the street, they’re not going to sign a lease. That’s up to us on the public side."
LCOR earlier this year delivered the 294-unit Arrowwood apartment building, the third phase of its project at 5410 McGrath Blvd., less than a half-mile from the White Flint Metro station. LCOR Executive Vice President Harmar Thompson said its residents want better connectivity in the area.
“Infrastructure in this market is something that’s greatly needed to tie all of these great projects together," he said. "It’s what our residents want. They want green space. They want walkability. They want to be able to transgress the Pike, and they want easy access to the Metro."
Industrious Director of Real Estate Peri Demestihas said connectivity and walkability are important for the members of its new 43K SF flexible office space in the 909 Rose building, which opened Monday.
"Making sure walking around is safe and crossing the road is safe, that’s huge," Demestihas said. "Our members expect that. That’s usually outside of our control, but it’s something we pay attention to when we do site selection."