Downtown Bethesda, MD- a lesson on how to transform a mid-century American suburb into a thriving urban district

My evaluation for Downtown Bethesda included the dense Bethesda core along with the more urban pre WWII neighborhoods surrounding it. My main criteria was good connectivity to the dwtn and sidewalks. I also used block groups as a general guide to create the boundaries. The boundaries generally include Maple Street and the Columbia Country Club to the east, Chestnut St. to the north, Cluster & Fairfax Rd to the west, and Little Falls Pkwy and Norwood Park to the South. This includes several Chevy Chase neighborhoods (i.e. West Chevy Chase Heights and Chevy Chase Terrace).

Bethesda remained a small crossroads village through the 19th century. A streetcar line was established in 1890 and suburbanization increased in the early 1900s. Bethesda’s population really didn’t explode until the 1920s with the advent of the automobile. Following WWII Bethesda saw several major employers move to the City with the establishment of  National Naval Medical Center and NIH Clinical Center. Rigorous Dwtn growth filled the expansion of the Metrorail into Bethesda in 1984. DC’s height limits also encouraged mid and high-rises to come to Bethesda. Downtown Bethesda’s most recent urban project is the Bethesda Row mall, a well planned new urbanist mixed-use shopping center that integrates well into the Downtown Fabric. There are also several residential subdistricts surrounding Downtown, a mix of large single family homes and apartment/condo buildings.

Downtown Bethesda really excels at creating an retail & cultural amenity rich but walkable environments. It also has good schools, quality parks, great bike infrastructure and convenient transit access. The major area for improve here is more affordable housing. That also drives a lack a racial and economic diversity in the City. 
Click here to view my Bethesda album on Flickr

URBAN STRENGTHS:

* Convenient access to Dwtn DC with only a 25 minute metro ride. Car access is also pretty good if traffic is reasonable. The Capital Crescent Trail is a dedicated bike trail that can connects to dwtn in only about an hour.
* Several other bike paths in Bethesda and good bike station coverage in Dwtn.
* Over 50% of households are family households, a very high number for DC. Median age is a bit high. 
* Some affordable housing exists here thanks to progressive Montgomery Co policies, but still not enough.
* Excellent tree canopy including lots of street trees in the core of Dwtn.
* Great mix of parks and recreational amenities including well dispersed urban parks, dwtn plazas, trails, a public pool, recreational centers, and sport fields.
* Great cultural amenities including diverse restaurants, tons of bars, cafes, and live music venues, several theaters including some historic ones, a cineplex, many art galleries and a modest Children’s museum.
* Dwtn Bethesda is also well served retail amenities including several supermarkets & pharmacies, a dwtn target & staples, Bethesda Row (a well integrated urban mall with tons of shops and clothing stores), a post office & Library, and good array of locally owned boutiques, bookstores, and antiques. Several Hospitals are also located a mile north.
* Very safe community with limited blight.
* Solid walkable access to several highly rates public elementary schools and the Chevy Chase High Schools.
* High quality sidewalks and ADA access. A couple spots that are more stingy with sidewalks due to historic suburban layout.
* Very urban and well design in-fill. Less attractive 60-80s buildings remain but have decent urban form. 

URBAN WEAKNESSES:

* Street grid is connected but can be confusing at times as many curvilinear roads meet with standard gridded streets.
* Diversity is surprisingly limited in Bethesda (about 82% white). This is also a very wealthy area (Medium income is 150K). Only 2.5% of population lives in poverty.
* Good diversity of For-Sale housing product with a mix of condos and SF homes. But very expensive. 1-bedroom condos sale 250K-500 and 2-bedrooms 350K-600K although new product can be more. 3-bedroom start at 650K and go up into the low Millions. 4-bedrooms above 1-million.
* Rentals start in the 1,000s for Studios, 1-bedrooms start in the high $1,000s, and 3 bedrooms start in the high $2,000s. Lots of product. 

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