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Bethesda Building Could Prove To Be Obstacle To Purple Line Plans

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The Apex building is located at Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street in Bethesda.
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The Apex building is located at Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street in Bethesda.

Montgomery County officials are still waiting for an answer from a Bethesda property owner that is being asked to tear down its office building for the Purple Line light rail project.

Executives with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the owner and largest occupier of the Apex building in downtown Bethesda, say they have not decided yet whether to agree to demolish their building so the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) may build a larger underground station — a multi-modal transit hub — at Wisconsin Avenue for the Purple Line, a planned 16-mile, $2.2 billion light rail system in Montgomery and Prince George’s County designed to spur economic development as much as better transit. The Apex building also houses a large movie theater and other businesses.

Under the more ambitious plan, the underground station would connect to Metro’s Red Line via street level elevators and contain a separate underground tunnel for the popular Capital Crescent Trail.

If the owners of the Apex building decide to keep their office, the MTA would fall back on its original plan to build a less spacious station and no separate tunnel for the bike trail. County lawmakers are considering changing the Apex building’s zoning designation so the pharmacists can hire a contractor to rebuild it about ten stories taller than it is now.

“We can't just say today we are going to demolish the building,” said the Society’s COO David Witmer at a public hearing before the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday night.

Among the group’s concerns is whether enough parking for its clients could be built underground alongside a rail station.

“That could greatly limit commercial redevelopment interest and limit who could potentially bid on and seek to purchase the property, which would limit our ability to adequately market the property,” Witmer said.

The pharmacists are also unsettled by the possibility the project will not receive federal funding. A funding announcement by the FTA could come later this year. The MTA and county lawmakers want an answer from the pharmacists about their intent to demolish their office as soon as possible, considering construction of the Purple Line is scheduled to begin in 2015.

“Under any scenario, the sale of the Apex site, purchase or lease of new property, and the redevelopment of the property represents a complex, costly, and time consuming transaction that carries with it significant risk. Such an undertaking will result in a substantial interruption of our core operations,” Witmer told the Council.

Supporters of the Capital Crescent Trail also protested the proposed changes to the trail’s path to accommodate the more ambitious Bethesda station for the Purple Line.

Peter Harnik, who co-founded the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail in 1985, said rerouting the trail across one of the busiest streets in the county “would represent a major safety risk and also pose a huge inconvenience for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.”

The Council will next consider the Bethesda station plan at a meeting scheduled at the end of the month.

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