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Lot 31 Project, Closure of Woodmont Avenue on Track for Next Summer

Officials are gearing up for public education on the project.

When it comes to finding parking in congested downtown Bethesda, relief for drivers is on the way. But construction of a new county garage with about 1,200 public parking spots at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda avenues won't come without its growing pains.

The construction of the underground garage, known as Lot 31, and residential and retail space above it will likely begin next summer, according to Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Services Center. Groundbreaking is dependent on the re-route of a major Verizon Communications line that serves downtown Bethesda. With Verizon on track to complete the re-route on schedule, groundbreaking estimates have been tentatively moved up from late 2011 to June or July, Hartman said.

The construction will require a portion of Woodmont Avenue, from Bethesda Avenue down to Wisconsin Avenue, to be closed temporarily. Drivers heading south on Woodmont will either need to turn left or right at Bethesda, Hartman said. The construction will also mean the loss of the two surface parking lots on the site now, with about 270 public parking spots.

County officials are working on a plan to educate the public about the project, Hartman said.

"There's no reason to panic at this point, given the schedule," Hartman said. "We'll be ready with the whole public information roll out."

Hartman met last week with representatives from the Bethesda Urban Partnership, Stonebridge (the project developer) and county traffic officials to talk about educating the public about the road closure and alternative parking spots during construction.

In preparation for the project, Hartman said, officials will likely expand the Bethesda Circulator program, a free shuttle that loops around downtown Bethesda and stops at several public parking garages.

Montgomery County will also make sure the public is aware of alternative places to park and will look at expanding the pay-by-cell-phone project — which allows residents to pay at certain public parking spots with their mobile phones — to all of downtown Bethesda. County officials will also look at ways to make the oft-gridlocked public parking garage between Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street more efficient by adding more short-term parking spots, Hartman said.

"We're still pretty far away to put that in motion, but it's nice to have this opportunity to touch base and re-visit the project schedule," Hartman said.

Flashing signs will be placed on Woodmont Avenue well ahead of the street's closure to alert commuters and diners, he added.

The lot is in part geared to accommodate commuters headed to the Metro using a future Metro entrance that's planned for the site, along with a planned Purple Line station.

"I think it's already going to be a popular garage, but it's good to know this capacity is there for the Purple Line and for the south Metro entrance," Hartman said.

The lot would provide much-needed relief when it comes to parking downtown, he said.

However, some commuters who park in the current surface lot didn't exactly share Hartman's positive outlook on the construction plans.

For Torie Youngblood, who lives on Bradley Boulevard and works at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, the construction project will affect both her commute to work and where she normally parks. Feeding the meter in the surface lot at Woodmont and Bethesda avenues last week, Youngblood said she prefers to park in the lot because the public lot between Elm Street and Bethesda Avenue is so congested.

"Here, sometimes you have to wait for a spot. I don't mind waiting for a bit, but I mind having to wait 45 minutes to get out of a garage," Youngblood said.

When asked whether she would consider parking at a different public lot and riding the circulator downtown, Youngblood shook her head.

"That's too complicated," she said. "I'm all about convenience."

Youngblood also worried whether losing the parking spots temporarily would affect business downtown.

Rocco Armonda, who works at the National Naval Medical Center and lives in Silver Spring, said he would likely avoid the area and instead stick to downtown Silver Spring to shop and dine during the construction project.

"I think we need less cars and more public transportation," Armonda said. "I think more public spaces will encourage more cars."

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