Bethesda ice rink set to close in March
Jan. 23, 2002
Scott Herbstman
Staff Writer

Darwin Weigel/The Gazette

Ice skaters take advantage of the Bethesda Metro Ice Center rink Sunday morning. The rink is set to close March 15 as part of a plan to renovate the Metro Plaza.

Skaters, employees taken by surprise

Rebecca O'Bryon skated backwards with a friend last Thursday evening at the Bethesda Metro Ice Center, surrounded by tall downtown office buildings.

The 13-year-old girl from Chevy Chase comes to the outdoor ice rink off of Wisconsin Avenue every few weeks.

Next winter, however, she won't be able to skate there. The rink is set to close on March 15 as part of a plan to renovate the Metro Plaza.

"It's kind of sad. There's no other rink [near my home]," O'Bryon said, explaining that she likes outdoor skating because it has "more of a lake feel."

Bethesda-based Meridian Group and New York-based Blackstone Real Estate Advisors own the 90-foot-by-45-foot ice rink as well as the plaza and the buildings surrounding it. The Planning Board last October approved the companies' plan to change the ice rink into a park with grass and flowers, but some skaters and ice rink employees were taken by surprise by the news this winter and want the rink stay open.

Victor Lewton, who has managed the rink since it opened in 1985, said he didn't know about the Planning Board's approval of the plan to close the facility. Lewton heard about the closing at the end of November, when Bethesda-based Realty Management Company, the company that manages the rink, told him that he should cancel an order he placed for 50 pairs of new rental skates. Realty Management Company did not return phone calls this week.

On Jan. 16, a customer left a petition opposed to the closing at the rink's skate rental desk. By Monday evening it had about 200 signatures, Lewton said. The customer plans to send it to local officials.

But the petition won't change the property owners' minds. David Cheek, Meridian Group president, said "the plan has been approved ... Montgomery County would not have processed it if it wasn't done properly."

At the Planning Board's approval on Oct. 18, no one spoke against closing the ice rink. The notice about the meeting was advertised according to Montgomery County requirements, Cheek said.

Margaret Kaii-Ziegler, a county planner for Bethesda, said that Meridian Group properly notified neighbors about their renovation of the plaza before the approval meeting.

"It was done," she said, adding that about 40 notifications were sent out to citizen organizations and to individuals.

The Gazette also reported Oct. 17 that the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board endorsed the plan for plaza renovations, which included closing the rink. The story included information about the upcoming Planning Board meeting on the project.

Kaii-Ziegler said she has received some calls from people upset about the rink's closing in the last few weeks. There are 30 days to appeal a Planning Board decision, but that time has passed for the ice rink, she said.

"Any future changes would have to come at the request of the applicant [Meridian Group]," she said.

Cheek said that not many people use the rink now. More residents will use the grass area planned for the center.

Just before 5 p.m. last Thursday, 12 people were skating at the rink. Lewton said that the rink is usually not too busy during the week, but that a weekend can bring as many as 300 or 400 skaters.

Some seasons are profitable, while others lose money, Lewton said. He estimated that money lost or gained is as much as $10,000. However, he said on average, the rink breaks even.

Skaters said last week that they were upset with news of the rink closing. "It just stinks. The whole thing reeks," said Steve Rurka of Chevy Chase, who brings his four young children to the rink a couple of times each week. "We have parks around here. There is a dearth of rinks."

Rurka did not know that the rink would close. "If I would have seen anything, a blurb, I would have taken notice of it," he said. "There should be a very, very thoughtful community process."

Philippa Cottle of Bethesda said the rink is unique to the area. "It's a great place for beginners, small children. My children learned there."

Naomi Freeman of Bethesda brings her two daughters to skating lesson on Sundays. She said that having the park open most of the year and the rink open in the winter would make sense.

Meridian Group would not consider that option, however, Cheek said.

"It's not possible to have both," he said. "It's a closed matter as far as we're concerned."