The ghosts of Bethesda

Old neigh­bor­hood in­sti­tu­tions threat­ened by de­vel­op­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY BILL TURQUE Rachel Eas­ton and her hus­band, Harry Eas­ton, at their pro­duce stand in­side the Bethesda Farm Women’s Mar­ket. The mar­ket sits on a par­cel of prime real es­tate at Wis­con­sin Av­enue and Wil­low Lane, just south of the Bethesda Metro sta­tion.

Ev­ery down­town has its ghosts. As Bethesda evolved into a high-end district of con­dos, restau­rants and bou­tiques, cher­ished neigh­bor­hood places were swept away — by de­vel­op­ment, chang­ing tastes or own­ers de­cid­ing it was time.

The 1980s saw the demise of the Psy­che Delly, the sand­wich-shop-turned-pro­gres­sive­rock-club, and its coun­ter­cul­tural soul mate, WHFS-FM. The Hot Shoppes, home of the dou­ble-decked Mighty Mo burger and the Orange Freeze milk­shake, and Lowen’s, the toy em­po­rium, closed in the 1990s. The Bethesda lo­ca­tion for O’Don­nells Seafood Restau­rant made it to 2001.

Now the clock may be run­ning out on three other lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions: the Tas­tee Diner, the Farm Women’s Mar­ket and Barnes & No­ble on Bethesda Row. The is­sues fac­ing each busi­ness are dif­fer­ent. One is a land­lord­tenant re­la­tion­ship gone sour. The oth­ers in­volve aging own­ers and the sky­rock­et­ing value of their land.

Their pos­si­ble demise has spawned re­morse and re­sent­ment. New­com­ers and those who re­mem­ber Bethesda as a pleas­ant and un­pre­ten­tious subur­ban cross­roads have pushed back, with some pre­dict­ing that county plans to bring big­ger, taller build­ings to the Metro-ac­ces­si­ble Wis­con­sin Av­enue cor­ri­dor will mean the end of prized places to gather, shop and dine.

“I hate what Bethesda has be­come,” wrote 29-year res­i­dent Char­lie Cook, ed­i­tor and pub­lisher of the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port, in a re­cent piece for the Bethesda Beat blog. “As

best as I can tell, the Mas­ter Plan is to al­low Bethesda and pre­sum­ably any­place else with a Metro stop to be­come antiseptic places of con­crete, steel and glass, with no charm or per­son­al­ity — just tax rev­enue for the county.”

Mont­gomery County of­fi­cials said they un­der­stand the re­sponse but are en­thused about the pos­si­bil­i­ties for growth in a com­mu­nity they re­gard as the county’s eco­nomic en­gine. In ex­change for in­creased den­sity in their land use plan, they said, in­clud­ing a new cor­po­rate head­quar­ters and ho­tel for Mar­riott In­ter­na­tional, the area will get much-needed af­ford­able hous­ing and green space, paid for pri­mar­ily by de­vel­op­ers.

“I think we’ve put to­gether a pack­age of ex­pec­ta­tions for new de­vel­op­ment that will serve the com­mu­nity,” said County Coun­cil mem­ber Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).

Mar­ket vo­latil­ity

That’s small com­fort to long­time cus­tomers at the farm­ers mar­ket, which prospec­tive de­vel­op­ers have buzzed about for years, drawn by its prime lo­ca­tion at Wis­con­sin Av­enue and Wil­low Lane, just south of the Bethesda Metro sta­tion and a fu­ture stop on the planned light-rail Pur­ple Line.

“I un­der­stand ur­ban re­de­vel­op­ment, but this is so spe­cial, its amaz­ing,” said Nancy Matthews, 82, who lives in an apart­ment within walk­ing dis­tance and on a re­cent day was car­ry­ing out a batch of the farm fresh eggs she’s been buy­ing at the mar­ket since 1967.

The mar­ket is still housed in its orig­i­nal 1932 clap­board house, where De­pres­sion-era farm wives sold pre­serves, baked goods and pro­duce. Eighty-five years later, ev­ery Wed­nes­day, Fri­day and Satur­day, cus­tomers come seek­ing the same — along with the lat­est in olive oil, ar­ti­sanal sheep cheese, pork from free-roam­ing pigs, jew­elry and crafts. Work­ers from the sur­round­ing of­fice tow­ers stop by for car­ry­out lunch.

But the co-op board, com­posed largely of de­scen­dants of the found­ing farm fam­i­lies, is aging, and ac­cord­ing to county of­fi­cials, some mem­bers have in­di­cated an in­ter­est in get­ting out. Board pres­i­dent Bar­bara John­son turned 92 this year.

“Yes, we’ve talked among our­selves that this could be a pos­si­bil­ity,” said board mem­ber Carol Car­rier, 61, co-owner of Plant­mas­ters, which has sold flow­ers grown on her Lay­tonsville farm at the co-op for 37 years. “But it could have been a pos­si­bil­ity 10 years ago and 10 years be­fore that.”

Pro­pos­als for in­creased den­sity along Wis­con­sin Av­enue have only in­ten­si­fied in­ter­est in the site. Ac­cord­ing to an April 14 staff memo to the County Coun­cil, the owner of two low-rise build­ings just to the south, Bern­stein Man­age­ment Corp., is in­ter­ested in buy­ing the prop­erty, which could be worth more than $6 mil­lion. A Bern­stein spokesman de­clined to com­ment.

The new mas­ter plan, sched­uled for for­mal County Coun­cil ap­proval later this month, en­vi­sions the co-op site as part of a civic green for com­mu­nity gath­er­ings. Plan­ners would like to see Bern­stein, or some other nearby landowner, buy the par­cel, along with the county-owned park­ing lot just to the east, and de­velop the con­sol­i­dated site with of­fice, re­tail and green space.

The co-op build­ing is a des­ig­nated his­toric land­mark and can’t be de­mol­ished or sub­stan­tially ren­o­vated. But there is no guar­an­tee that it would con­tinue as a farm­ers mar­ket un­der new own­er­ship.

Just as likely, said mar­ket­ing direc­tor John O’Beirne, its next in­car­na­tion would be along the lines of a Dean & DeLuca or a Patag­o­nia out­let — ex­actly what reg­u­lars and ven­dors don’t want to hear.

Karen Ja­cob, who sells home­made straw­berry scones, snick­er­doo­dles and doggy treats from one of the many stands set up out­side the old build­ing, said it would be painful to see the co-op join a length­en­ing list of in­de­pen­dent busi­ness that have left Bethesda.

“I’m glad to see the econ­omy do­ing well,” said Ja­cob, who has lived in Chevy Chase for 17 years but dis­cov­ered the mar­ket only re­cently. “But it makes me sad. We’re los­ing a lit­tle bit of his­tory.”

A moving tar­get

The neon sign in the win­dow of the Tas­tee Diner cov­ers the essen­tials: “OPEN EAT.”

That’s been the mantra at the diner since 1935: 24-7 ex­cept for Christ­mas Day and af­ter a nasty fire in 2002. It’s one of the last of the gen­uine joints, serv­ing up eggs, hash browns, pan­cakes, chipped beef and dozens of other gut-bust­ing, artery-lin­ing en­trees.

A bi­par­ti­san gallery of politi­cians and as­sorted big-shots lines the walls, tes­ta­ment to Tas­tee’s his­tory as a place to be seen, as well as to eat. Par­ents whose brought them to the diner now ease into the sturdy wooden booths with their own chil­dren af­ter soc­cer or mu­sic lessons. Satur­day nights on the late side, teenagers seek refuge there.

“I’m on my fourth gen­er­a­tion of cus­tomers,” said Beth Cox, who started as a wait­ress 40 years ago, when she was a teenager, and is now man­ager of the restau­rant. “Peo­ple have pro­posed to their spouses here. They’ve got­ten en­gaged here.”

But the diner’s fu­ture is murky at best. It sits at Wood­mont and Nor­folk, the cor­ner of the block where Mar­riott will build its new cor­po­rate cam­pus, slated for com­ple­tion in 2022 and ex­pected to house some 3,500 em­ploy­ees. One build­ing on the block is al­ready de­mol­ished, and sev­eral busi­nesses on the street have closed up as their leases ex­pired.

The par­cel that in­cludes the diner is owned by Gene Wilkes, 74, who also op­er­ates Tas­tees in Sil­ver Spring and Lau­rel.

Wilkes is ac­cus­tomed to keep­ing a cou­ple of steps ahead of the de­vel­oper’s shovel. In 2000, his Sil­ver Spring eatery was hoisted onto a flatbed truck and moved from its orig­i­nal spot at Ge­or­gia and Wayne av­enues to Cameron Street to make way for Dis­cov­ery Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The Bethesda diner mi­grated to its cur­rent lo­ca­tion in 1958, af­ter 23 years on Wis­con­sin Av­enue.

This time Wilkes has sent mixed sig­nals, sound­ing by turns like an in­ter­ested seller and happy to stay put.

In Jan­uary, shortly af­ter Mar­riott an­nounced its head­quar­ters project, he told Bethesda Beat he was pleased with the prospect of ad­di­tional foot traf­fic and that no sale was on the hori­zon.

A month later, he re­ported to the blog that Bern­stein Com­pa­nies (not con­nected to Bern­stein Man­age­ment), which is part­ner­ing with Bos­ton Prop­er­ties to build the Mar­riott project, had made a se­ries of of­fers — and that he was will­ing to lis­ten for the right price. In late April, he claimed that Mar­riott had given him a three-week ul­ti­ma­tum to come to terms.

A day later, the ho­tel gi­ant an­nounced that it didn’t need the Tas­tee site, ru­mored to be worth $7 mil­lion. Bern­stein said the same in a May 5 state­ment to The Post.

Since then, Wilkes has gone silent. Nu­mer­ous calls to his restau­rants and home have gone un­re­turned. Cox said her boss has not con­fided in her, but she puts lit­tle stock in the of­fi­cial pro­nounce­ments.

“It’s all a lit­tle dance they do, I think,” she said. “My gut tells me it will hap­pen. And I’ve never felt that way be­fore.”

Re­fus­ing to turn the page

Nearly 5,000 peo­ple have signed a change.org pe­ti­tion de­par­ents mand­ing that Fed­eral Realty In­vest­ment Trust strike a new leas­ing deal with its tenant, Barnes & No­ble, which is lo­cated at the busy cor­ner of Wood­mont and Bethesda av­enues and is sched­uled to close at the end of the year.

The pe­ti­tion’s pream­ble calls the book re­tailer “the crown jewel” of Bethesda.

While the three-level store is an out­post of a big na­tional chain, it is also a beloved lo­cal hub and a cul­tural coun­ter­weight to the crush of bou­tiques and pricey restau­rants that sur­round it.

Par­ents with small chil­dren de­scribe the store’s story times as a life­line on a rainy day or a long sum­mer af­ter­noon. The third­floor cafe is usu­ally packed with cof­fee dates and lap­top­pers seek­ing a quiet place to work.

Carolyn Ele­fant, an at­tor­ney whose el­dest daugh­ter was a baby when the store opened its doors in 1997, called it one of the des­ti­na­tions that made Bethesda “kid-friendly and walk­ing-friendly.”

“We spent a lot of time there,” she said.

County of­fi­cials said the chain, which has been shed­ding stores lo­cally and na­tion­wide as it con­tin­ues to lose sales to on­line re­tail­ers like Amazon.com (founded by Wash­ing­ton Post owner Jef­frey P. Be­zos), sought a new lease for a space smaller than its cur­rent 37,000 square feet, to no avail.

Nei­ther Fed­eral Realty nor Barnes & No­ble, which still has out­lets in Rockville and Claren­don, would com­ment this month ex­cept to say that they couldn’t come to terms.

“We only have the ut­most re­spect for Barnes & No­ble and have re­spected and ap­pre­ci­ated their part­ner­ship over many years,” said Fed­eral Realty Vice Pres­i­dent Chris Weilmin­ster, adding that the search is un­der­way for another book store for the Bethesda lo­ca­tion.

“All we would say to the com­mu­nity is, have a lit­tle con­fi­dence,” he said.

JA­SON ANDREW FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY JA­SON ANDREW FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Cus­tomers sit at the counter of Tas­tee Diner, 7731 Wood­mont Ave., Bethesda, for break­fast on April 29. BE­LOW: Tas­tee Diner’s short-or­der cook, Allen Snow­den, writes down an or­der for a cus­tomer.

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