The ghosts of Bethesda
Old neighborhood institutions threatened by development
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).
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.
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.