This could be Bethesda's newest skyscraper. All images from the Montgomery County Planning Department. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

Bethesda could soon be home to one of the region’s tallest buildings, as a former movie theater on Wisconsin Avenue gives way to a 290-foot tower above a future Purple Line station.

Last week, Montgomery County’s Planning Board approved a proposal for 7272 Wisconsin Avenue, a complex with two apartment towers containing 480 units and a 360,000-square-foot office tower at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street. It's rumored as one of many possible sites for Marriott, which wants to move to downtown Bethesda from its current office park a few miles away, though the building includes less office space than the 700,000 square feet they're looking for.

The proposed design is striking and modern, with a stack of large, steel-and-glass-clad boxes shifted in different directions to make the towers feel less massive. The building would be one foot taller than North Bethesda Market I, the county’s current tallest tower at 289 feet. Its envisioned neighbor, North Bethesda Market II, would have been 335 feet tall, but that project has currently stalled. The tallest building in the DC area is 1812 North Moore Street in Arlington, which is 412 feet tall.

A diagram showing how the three towers would relate to each other and to the street.

But at the street level, passers-by might not even notice how tall the building is. The three towers would sit atop a 5 to 6-story “podium” containing shops and restaurants, as well as “townhouse-style” apartments with individual doors facing Elm Street. Walking by, it'll feel much shorter.

The building would include this new plaza at Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street.

A 7500 square foot multilevel plaza at the corner of Wisconsin and Elm would have an entrance to the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs beneath the building, as well as the region's largest bicycle parking garage with space for 250 bikes, showers, and changing areas.

There will also be a future underground Purple Line station, which is currently stalled in court but is slated to open around 2022. A historic hardware store currently on the site would be moved to make way for the new buildings.

A new building means a better Purple Line station and trail below

County officials and local developers have been working on this project for several years, and for a while it didn’t seem like it would happen at all. Right now, the site is home to a five-story, 1980’s-era building containing a movie theatre and offices, dubbed the Apex Building. The original developers left room underneath for a then-planned streetcar line between Bethesda and Silver Spring, which became the temporary Capital Crescent Trail.

The Capital Crescent Trail and proposed "bike room" with space for 250 bikes would sit beneath the building.

As that streetcar line evolved into the much bigger Purple Line, running from Bethesda to New Carrollton, there was no longer enough room for a station and the trail. Bike advocates weren’t happy with proposals to route the trail on local streets instead.

Tearing the building down would make it easier to build the Purple Line station and trail, but the owner felt that existing height restrictions wouldn’t make a new building cost-effective. As part of a bigger planning process for the future of downtown Bethesda, Montgomery County changed the zoning to allow buildings up to 290 feet, creating an incentive to redevelop the property. And since developer Carr Properties has agreed to make room for the Purple Line station, the county will allow it to build less parking, since there isn’t space to build it underground.

More people and more activity for downtown Bethesda

This project still needs additional approvals before construction can start, but in the meantime, office tenants and the movie theatre have already left the Apex Building. The next question is what will happen to the trail. Carr will not pay to design and build a trail tunnel underneath Wisconsin Avenue, and Montgomery County hasn’t set aside money for it. It would really be a shame if the Capital Crescent Trail, which is finally being completed as part of the Purple Line, would suddenly become a dead-end as part of this project.

Bethesda is one of Montgomery County and the DC area’s largest downtowns, and the Purple Line will make the area more desirable for new residents and businesses. This new tower will not only help meet that demand, but add some more street life to the area.