The Bethesda Fire Department’s risky plan
Bethesda residents are learning more about a proposal to rezone the fire station site at Bradley Boulevard and Wisconsin Avenue to allow the fire station to be embedded in an eight-story residential building. The proposal calls for a mixed-use development with zoning that could include commercial uses as well as residential.
The fire station serves about 30,000 residents and workers. However, nearby town governments, civic and condominium associations and an umbrella organization representing 19 communities, altogether representing more than 12,000 residents, have expressed to the Montgomery County Planning Board and elected officials their desire to keep a stand-alone fire station at this site.
What about the degradation of emergency response? This site effectively has five sides. One is greenspace adjacent to another property, two are state roads ( Wisconsin and Bradley) and two are county roads (Chevy Chase Drive, a narrow, congested street, and Nottingham Drive, which ends at Norwood Park). Emergency vehicles exit the station directly into the Bradley/Wisconsin intersection. Redevelopment proposals call for moving their exit to the narrower Bradley Boulevard, near its intersection with Chevy Chase Drive, making turns more difficult for the fire trucks — adding to their response times.
Traffic from added commercial and residential uses will increase congestion at the Bradley/Wisconsin intersection, already among the top 10 in the county for congestion midday and during afternoon rush hour. Added traffic also means added hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.
A mixed-use building at this site would require one set of driveways for emergency vehicle entry and exit and another at the necessary underground parking for fire personnel, residents, guests and commercial visitors. There is already a shortage of on-street parking here. The building will need a dumpster someplace, access for a garbage truck and a loading dock. The concepts presented to the public envisioned all of these on Nottingham and Chevy Chase drives. These potential obstacles are unacceptable. They would be in the only route that emergency vehicles could take into the station, where they would have to repeatedly prepare quickly to respond to one of the more than 330 calls they get each month.
The updates the fire department wants could be addressed within the existing building. These include separate sleeping quarters for women, higher garage ceilings, improved heating and air-conditioning systems, a larger kitchen and an exercise room. Dingy buildings far older than this one have been modernized.
If feasibility studies, marketing studies or financials have been done, they haven’t been publicly released. The Bethesda Fire Department is only now looking for bids for a study to determine the projected life of the building’s systems. The condominium and apartment properties in the area date from the same era as the station. Owners in those buildings have invested in building improvements and updates. Why can’t the Bethesda Fire Department?
In terms of fire safety, what’s there works well and can be upgraded without major disruption. Reconfiguring the intersection and greatly intensifying the density and mixture of uses is iffy and costly. Why mess with it if it isn’t broken?
A rendering of the proposed redevelopment of the Bethesda Fire Department’s Station 6.