A request for a parking waiver by JBG entity "Hungerford Retail II, LLC" failed to convince a skeptical Rockville Planning Commission last week, leading the development's attorney to request a deferment of the petition. The project is a 2-story, mixed-use building with office and restaurant space, where a former Giant grocery store was recently demolished. A 41% decrease in parking spaces was requested for the structure, which will include a one-level, below-grade garage.
The waiver request stumbled out of the gate, with the last-minute revelation that the applicant had not apprised nearby residents of the parking changes. A communication from the West End Citizen's Association earlier in the day suggested neighbors were not yet informed of the plan, and requested a postponement of the decision. “It is with some puzzlement that I’ve learned that WECA was not involved, was not notified about this parking waiver," Commissioner Jack Leiderman said. "We did receive a letter from the president of WECA to postpone the waiver. As a commission, we need to slow down and get the input of the community." Commissioner John Tyner concurred, characterizing the applicant's failure to inform WECA in advance as "a strategic error." City planning staff member Cas Chasten said that, while waiver applicants are not required to notify neighbors, city staff had strongly advised them to do so.
Commissioner Dion Trahan was equally concerned about neighborhoods that would be affected by parking changes in East Rockville, such as Lincoln Park. The failure to notify them made the applicant appear "insincere," he said. "Whenever the citizenry talk about these back room deals going on in City Hall, this is what they’re talking about,” Trahan added.
The applicant's attorney, Erica Leatham, said they apologized to WECA and the Planning Commission for the lack of communication.
Another major concern among commissioners was the relevance and accuracy of the parking studies submitted by the applicant, which were designed to support approval of the waiver.
The wheels came entirely off when the applicant's parking consultant, Edward Papazian, was caught off-guard during cross examination by Leiderman.
Papazian had stated that the high volume of parking recorded in a study of Rockville Town Square garages on Thursday, December 12, 2013, was atypical. Demand would be less on the average night, Papazian claimed, because the city's Christmas tree lighting event had inflated the numbers on the 12th.
"Would it surprise you, sir," Leiderman asked, "to learn that the tree lighting event was actually a week before, on Thursday, December 5th?”
"We were there, our people were there," Papazian insisted.
Leiderman begged to differ, citing official transcripts of a Mayor and Council meeting three days before Papazian's claimed tree lighting ceremony.
"It’s a matter of public record," Leiderman said. "I have The Mayor and Council meeting [transcript] of December 9th, [during which] Councilmember [Beryl] Feinberg reported that she attended the Rockville Christmas tree lighting on Thursday, December 5th."
Leiderman said the false information regarding the parking counts called the whole report into question. "I don’t trust your report, with all due respect. If I had more time, what other junk would I find in it?" Leiderman asked. "You’re coming here with this report that’s filled with numbers, and we’re supposed to base important land use decisions on the accuracy of them. You’re attributing [numbers] to something that didn’t even happen, some data that could have just been a routine Thursday night with [it being] hard to park in the city. You’re saying it’s [the tree lighting]. It didn’t happen. So, I’m looking at this report going…”, Leiderman concluded with an expression of disbelief.
Many commissioners, including Chairman Don Hadley, expressed concern that the urban parking concept was out of sync with the reality of Rockville as a suburban city of residential neighborhoods. Using Montgomery County parking studies and practices would put future growth in Rockville on a course more in line with denser areas like White Flint or downtown Bethesda, something the city does not want, Hadley suggested.
"The assumption that this is an urban area…probably misses the mark on what we deem or believe to be the reality in Rockville, now and for the future," Hadley said. "[I]f [people] want an urban area, they can go to New York, Chicago or L.A." Large parking garages may not be preferable to suburban clientele, Hadley said. Most families with children won't ride bikes to the town center, he argued, saying most will "hop in the car." Moreover, between existing transit options, and those on the drawing board, many suburban residents "won’t have public transportation that is desirable for their preferences” anytime soon, he said. Hadley noted that Montgomery County Government's perception of urban is “vastly different” from Rockville’s definition.
Leiderman expressed similar skepticism of the applicant's smart growth predictions. He pointed out that previous town center projects were held to a higher standard than the applicant was proposing for itself. Urbanization proponents, Leiderman said, are "wanting to buy in to the aspirational goal that Rockville will no longer be a suburb, it will be an urban center, and everyone is going to be on a bike, and walking, and 75% of the people working here will use transit…that’s not what the numbers for the Choice Hotels site were based on." Leiderman predicted "people are going to park in the residential neighborhoods,” or take their business elsewhere, if parking is difficult.
Commissioner Charles Littlefield expanded on Leiderman's reference to the impact on businesses, warning that one bad parking experience is enough to send patrons elsewhere to dine and shop. Littlefield cited the free and ample parking at Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Center as a better model. "I’ve never once not been able to find parking” at Washingtonian Center, Littlefield noted. Leiderman said difficulty and inconvenience locating parking would deter customers, "as things get built out, having a harder time finding parking, having to go higher and higher” in the garages, he said.
The idea that customers could park in other garages would be shifting the cost of parking to taxpayers and other adjacent property owners, Leiderman said.
By this point, the applicant had also lost Commissioner David Hill's support. Considering that the applicant had already received significant exemptions on parking for the project, Hill said, "I as a public official can’t countenance making that number bigger. He said Bethesda or White Flint-style development is not what Rockville wants for its future.
"I'm not comfortable passing our responsibility onto the chief of planning," Hill said. "I have no problem with the argument that you qualify for the waiver [but] I would like to see us leave this in a position where we can continue talking."
In addition, Hill felt that the city is facing a larger issue with this and future parking waiver requests, which the city's zoning code is currently unequipped to address. "I think that what we should be doing right now is having a legislative discussion about changing the zoning ordinance," Hill suggested. He also doubted the numbers regarding how many customers would indeed be on-site, as opposed to traveling by car. "You haven’t cleared the very high wall" to justify an exemption, Hill concluded.
With the request obviously heading for rejection, Leatham then asked the commission for a deferral. After some discussion among commissioners as to how citizens could best be heard, and to whether or not it would be best to extend this petition, or require a new one, the commission voted unanimously to defer the waiver request, and leave the public record open.
The applicant was advised to gain public input from residents of nearby neighborhoods before returning. Leatham said there was no guarantee the specifics of the request would change, but that the applicant would gather more data in support of a waiver.
Hadley somewhat jokingly apologized to the applicant's representatives, for having to take a "horsewhipping" during the four-hour meeting.