Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Taxpayers left holding the bag for $45 million in Silver Spring Transit Center fiasco settlement

Is this a thing of beauty, or what?
Montgomery County taxpayers are left holding the bag in the Silver Spring Transit Center debacle settlement agreed to yesterday. County officials attempting to cover-up their failure to conduct their oversight role on the project filed a weak lawsuit in a case where they themselves were mostly to blame.

The result? Realizing they could not win, the County's ultra-expensive legal team reached a chump change settlement worth a paltry $25 million. That leaves you, the taxpayer, holding the bag and paying $42 million for the remainder of the $47 million in cost overruns, $20 million in damages, and $10 million in legal fees. The settlement also requires the County (a.k.a. you, the taxpayer) to pay $3 million to Foulger-Pratt to settle their countersuit, which was directly caused by the incompetence of the County and County Council. You are now on the hook for a total of $45 million.

The surrender settlement, while inevitable given the County's woefully-weak case, was a total betrayal of the promises made by County Executive Ike Leggett and the County Council. Leggett stated he would not leave taxpayers on the hook for even a penny of the cost overruns. Councilmember George Leventhal promised the Brickyard Coalition in 2014 that he would "ensure taxpayers will not be on the hook for the remediation of the transit center." Councilmember Hans Riemer said in April 2013 he would "protect the taxpayers."

Once safely reelected, Leventhal and his colleagues abruptly turned around and made multiple new appropriations of tens of millions of dollars for the transit center. The taxpayers be damned!, was the clear message from the Council.

On Election Day 2018, voters will deliver the overdue "rough, seat of the pants estimate" Leventhal and his colleagues asked for in January 2015 - with a steel-toed boot.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rockville redevelopment project seeking waiver on fire response

The Rockville Board of Appeals will hear a waiver request this Saturday from the Village at Rockville redevelopment project, located at 9701 Veirs Drive. That project does not comply with the rules requiring projects of this type to be within 10 minutes' response time from two fire stations. The Mayor and Council created a waiver provision on April 17 of this year, which the applicant is now seeking from the Board of Appeals.

A 3-member affirmative vote will be needed to obtain the waiver. The meeting will be held at City Hall this Saturday, June 3, at 9:00 AM.

Friday, May 26, 2017

MoCo Council passes tax hike budget, bloated with payoffs to donors and allies - and themselves

The Montgomery County Council yesterday unanimously passed another budget that will raise your tax bill for FY-2018, in order to cover their highest-in-the-region salaries, and taxpayer-funded giveaways to political allies in the non-profit and contracting fields. Buried in the Council press release is a legally-required admission that your tax bill will increase, not decrease. That's because, while the Council can technically claim they "held the line on taxes," the corrupt tax system they've put in place automatically hikes taxes based on increased real estate assessments.

Allies of the Council in the local media went even further than the Council's own press release Thursday, falsely declaring that taxes had decreased - even as the release stated otherwise. Fake news. In fact, the Council posted a required ad in local newspapers several weeks ago announcing a budget with an increase in taxes. This follows last year's all-time-high property tax increase of 9% (which many County homeowners found actually translated into tax hikes of 10% or more, based on - yep - those automatic tax hikes that happen whether the Council increases the rate or not), and a major hike in the recordation tax.

So "holding the line" in this case means we're still at the highest level of taxation in Montgomery County history. The Council didn't have to move a muscle to get all that, and a little bit more, from your wallet for this budget.

As I reported a few weeks back, the budget massively overpays for procurement purchases, and funnels money to key donors and political allies in often-duplicative non-profit social services. Some who receive salaries from those non-profits turn portions of their tax hikes into campaign donations for the very councilmembers who voted to approve the funding for their organizations. Funding for a new microlending "Bank of the County Council" can also be "paid forward" by recipients to the campaigns of councilmembers. Those involved in determining who receives the microloans are either directly appointed by the Council, or are within their direct orbits of political influence.

Whether you pay taxes in Montgomery County can also depend on who you are. As I reported this week, developer Regency Centers was found to be in arrears to the County, having not paid their tax bills on two Westbard properties. Yet their development proposals are being pushed through the approval process, at taxpayer expense. As you know, ordinary citizens like you and me can be denied various government benefits and services if we are delinquent on our taxes.

There's a lot in this budget for the beleaguered County taxpayer to review, and perhaps even more for the FBI to examine. Such an examination could turn the Council's unwarranted budget victory lap into a perp walk outside of 100 Maryland Avenue.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Shuttered Rockville pizzeria's equipment being auctioned off

Know an aspiring chef who needs a revolving pizza oven? Point him or her in the direction of the Pie 360 auction. The pizzeria in the Galvan at Twinbrook recently ended one of the shortest runs in Rockville restaurant history. Now their natural gas pizza oven can be yours, as can 3 soft-serve ice cream machines.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mayor and Council to hold walking town meeting at Americana Centre Thursday

A walking town meeting will be held by the Mayor and Council at the Americana Centre tomorrow, Thursday, May 25, at 6:30 PM. Meet in front of the Hamilton House at 4 Monroe Street at 6:30. In case of rain, the meeting will move inside the Hamilton House multipurpose room.

Residents of Americana Centre have already put forward the following items for the agenda, but attendees will be able to expand beyond these: Future development plans in the area, and pedestrian safety on Monroe Place and the intersection of Monroe Place and Monroe Street.

If weather conditions allow, here is the route the tour will take:
Click map to enlarge

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rockville outdoor smoking ban passed by Mayor and Council

Rockville's Mayor and Council passed a new ban on smoking in outdoor dining areas last night in a 4-1 vote. The vote came after an emotional appeal by the leading advocate for the ban, resident Adam Zimmerman, during the Community Forum portion of the meeting.

Councilmember Mark Pierzchala cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he fears an outcome such as residents living adjacent to Montgomery College experienced, when that campus went smoke-free. Smokers who couldn't light up on college property migrated into the residential community behind the college to puff away instead.

Pierzchala predicted smokers banished from Rockville Town Square dining spaces will likely move in front of other businesses and properties downtown, calling these "unintended consequences" of the ban.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mr. Smoothie for sale at Rockville Town Square

Mr. Smoothie is for sale at Rockville Town Square. The smoothie and frozen yogurt cafe has been in business since 1996, and remains open at this time. Sale price is listed at only $59,999.

Friday, May 19, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre to close temporarily this summer for repairs

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville will close temporarily for repairs late this summer, from July 24-September 6, 2017. Roof beams will be reinforced, and a new motorized light bar will be installed, during the closure.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mayor and Council could pass outdoor dining smoking ban Monday

Smoking in outdoor dining areas could be banned in the City of Rockville as soon as Monday night. The Mayor and Council are scheduled to discuss the ordinance, but could waive a layover and cast their final vote, as well.

Of the public feedback on the proposal received by the city, 22 of 24 written comments supported the ban. However, one of the two negative submissions is a petition opposing the ban, signed by 189 people who oppose it. City staff has been unable to confirm how many of the 189 are Rockville residents, but then again, not everyone dining in Rockville is necessarily a Rockville resident.

Residents, businesses and patrons of Rockville establishments will have the opportunity to address the Mayor and Council on this issue during Community Forum, which is earlier in the meeting. The meeting begins at 7:00 PM this Monday, May 22, 2017, following an executive session that is closed to the public.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mayor and Council seek permission to demolish Rockville home for parking lot

The Historic District Commission will consider whether or not to declare a 1977 home in Lincoln Park historic at their meeting tomorrow night, May 18, at 7:30 PM at City Hall. Rockville's Mayor and Council purchased the home recently, for the purpose of demolishing it to make room for a parking lot at the Lincoln Park Community Center.

Although the area is historic for being one of the first subdivisions in Montgomery County available for purchase by African-Americans, the home itself is on a parcel that was created in 1976, 313 1/2 Frederick Avenue. Staff liaison Sheila Bashiri is recommending against historic designation.

For my part, having attended a number of events and meetings at the community center, I can attest that additional parking spaces are desperately needed at this facility.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Halpine View setting stage for redevelopment

The case of Halpine View and the taking up of the Veirs Mill Corridor sector plan by the Montgomery County Planning Board looks very much like a case of the tail wagging the dog. But for being one of the few actual growth sites in the plan area, the venerable garden apartment complex's ownership had few details to put on the table at a public meeting last night at Newport Mill Middle School.

Attorney Bob Dalrymple, representing the original family that still owns the complex, started off by noting that he grew up in Aspen Hill, and therefore feels personally invested in the area. He acknowledged Halpine View has been sector plan-shopping for several years, and are glad to have found a home in the Veirs Mill plan.

Nothing is imminent for the property, however. Dalrymple said the owners need the rezoning via the new sector plan in order to move forward. That means it's unlikely anything would happen for 2 years.

When it does happen, a representative of Grady Management said, Halpine View residents will get a year's notice of demolition. Surprisingly, in a county supposedly in an affordable housing crisis, he said Halpine View is experiencing a lack of interest from the market, and has vacant units.

Given that Halpine View is among the rapidly shrinking number of naturally occurring affordable apartment opportunities in MoCo, it's hard to believe they have habitable units sitting vacant. The Grady rep said renovation is not an option on the table.

The loss of 550 affordable apartments would be quite a blow. Unless the ultimate plan has that many MPDUs, it would mean a major net loss of affordable units. Dalrymple said affordable units will be "part of the discussion,' but the applicant isn't committing to anything beyond the minimum 12.5% of units required by the County at this juncture.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Another MCPS security employee charged with having sex with student

Montgomery County police have arrested and charged a Montgomery County Public Schools employee for allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old student at Col. Brooke E. Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, where he was a "security employee." Mike Anthony Lievano, 21, of University Boulevard in Silver Spring, has been charged with sexual abuse of a minor, a third-degree sex offense, and fourth-degree sex offense.

Police say Lievano turned himself in late last night, and was transported to the Central Processing Unit. He is being held on a $10,000 bond.

Lievano is the second MCPS security employee in a month to be charged with having sex with a minor girl at the school he was assigned to. In the first case, at Richard Montgomery High School, it was revealed that MCPS had failed to do a background check on that employee, who had faced charges in a strip club gun incident easily found through a Google search.

Detectives say Lievano and the girl at Lee MS started "dating" on March 29, after an exchange of text messages. They did not say how the suspect obtained the girl's cell phone number. "Inappropriate sexual contact" took place between the two at his home, and her home.

Police ask anyone who believes that his/her child may have been victimized by Lievano in a similar way to call the Special Victims Investigations Division at 240-773-5400.

Timpano demolished at Montrose Crossing (Photos)

Timpano Italian Chophouse has been utterly obliterated at the Montrose Crossing shopping center in south Rockville. All that remains of the restaurant is a pile of rubble, and a graded dirt area. Property owner Federal Realty plans to build a new retail structure in its place, which will hold multiple retail and restaurant tenants. That structure will likely serve the same purpose at the front of the property as the holdover, low-rise retail did at Federal Realty's neighboring Pike & Rose, when Montrose Crossing is redeveloped in the future.

Friday, May 12, 2017

New development aims to "fill the gap" between Metro and Rockville Town Square

Developer Foulger-Pratt unveiled its plans for a mixed-use development at 220 E. Middle Lane at a public meeting last night at Rockville Town Square. An 85', 230000 SF mixed-use building will include 240 rental apartments, and about 8000 SF of ground floor retail. BKV Group is the architectural design firm for the project, which will sit between Federal Realty's Rockville Town Square and Foulger-Pratt's two Class-A office buildings, Rockville Metro Plaza and Rockville Metro II, on what is currently a surface parking lot.
Foulger-Pratt SVP Dick Knapp
introduces the project team
at VisArts last night
Foulger-Pratt Senior Vice-President Dick Knapp said the project is designed to "fill the gap" between the Rockville Metro station and Rockville Town Square. Ground-level retail, landscaping and amenities will be utilized to activate what is currently a dead stretch of E. Middle Lane. "To the extent E. Middle Lane is activated," Knapp argued, "it's going to make that connection between the Metro and Town Center that much better." 
The existing site of the
future apartment building,
looking northwest from
E. Middle Lane
Knapp said the theme of filling the gap expanded, after the company met with Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, and City Councilmembers Julie Palakovich Carr and Mark Pierzchala.

"We got a lot of excellent feedback from those three," Knapp said of those elected officials. In direct response to their input, he said, new elements were added to the project that fill needs for the city. Knapp said that Foulger-Pratt has agreed to Newton's request for family-size, 3-bedroom units. As a result, 11% of the MPDUs in the building will be 3-bedroom units, a longtime housing priority for the mayor.

Those 3-bedroom MPDUs will rent for only $1400-a-month, Knapp said. 1-bedroom MPDUs will run as low as $1000, and 2-bedrooms for $1335-a-month. He predicted market-rate units in the building would be similar to The Upton across the street. Studios would likely start at $1500-a-month, 2-bedrooms at $2300, and 2-bedrooms with dens at $2500.
This existing vehicle
access to nearby buildings
will be preserved under the
future building
The building construction will be wood-frame atop a concrete base, with 6 levels of residential over parking and retail. In order to preserve access to the existing parking for both The Palladian and the Foulger-Pratt office buildings, as well as to the existing loading docks, a sizable garage entrance will be located on E. Middle Lane. On the right side of the building, an "urban grotto" will provide pedestrian access to the office buildings and parking.

Aerial view of the site,
with future building at
center in white
In the garage entrance on the left side near HSBC Bank, there will be a Capital Bikeshare station, a map of parks and trails in the city, and a bike repair station with tools and an air pump. Knapp credited Palakovich Carr and Pierzchala, both cycling advocates, for suggesting those amenities. Out front, there will be cafe seating potential, if a restaurant tenant ends up leasing space there. The building will wrap around a central courtyard, which will feature a pool. Environmental features will include a green roof, a green panel along the building's frontage, and a bio-retention facility.

Closer view
(click to enlarge)
As Phase 3 of Foulger-Pratt's development of this site, the project has existing approvals from the City of Rockville. But that approval was for a 100' office building, not residential. The applicant will have to file, and get approval for, a project plan amendment to make the change. Barbara Sears, the applicant's attorney, said the project already complies with the city's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. Bill Robinson, a civil engineer with VIKA working on the project, said the team believes the existing water main at E. Middle Lane and Monroe Street - which flows south toward City and Montgomery County government buildings - is adequate for the new sewer demands this project will represent. If during the process they find otherwise, they will be prepared to address that, he said.

Sears said school capacity is "adequate under the test" now applied under the city's updated APFS. Students living in the new building would attend Beall Elementary, Julius West Middle School and Richard Montgomery High School.  The target demographic for the project includes "singles and couples in the technology field," and empty nesters, Knapp said. Foulger-Pratt anticipates both groups will find the "lock-and-leave" services the company will provide as the property manager appealing. He said the company plans to hold on to the property for the long-term.

Tree-lined path pointing
NW at right is the
"urban grotto"
Both Sears and Knapp suggested traffic would be lighter under the residential use than the original office proposal. There will be 1.2 parking spaces per unit, Knapp said, as well as capacity in nearby garages. He noted that hundreds of spaces were available in the adjacent Maryland Avenue garage at Rockville Town Square, when he pulled in last night. "We're going to provide plenty of parking, I assure you."

The interior bike station
accessible from E. Middle Lane
Montgomery County's moribund private sector economy continues to drag down demand for office space. No major corporation has relocated to the County in two decades. Foulger-Pratt's Phase 3 office project seems to be the latest victim. County officials eager to get rid of office parks favored by biotech and defense firms have tried to spin the office vacancy crisis, arguing that only office space near Metro is viable.

Vehicle and bicycle access
from E. Middle Lane
Foulger-Pratt's real-life experience suggests otherwise. The company tried to attract an anchor tenant for the third office building, steps away from Metro, Knapp recounted, but there were no takers. He said demand is hurt further by the large number of vacancies south of Rockville, in places like White Flint and downtown Bethesda. "Bethesda has a lot of vacancies," Knapp said. Rather than continue to sit on the property, he said, the company decided to switch gears and develop as residential. Duball, LLC has its own residential project that will be directly across the street. Knapp announced that construction on that project should begin next summer.

Courtyard with pool
Construction was on the minds of nearby residents who attended the meeting. Noise and dust were immediate concerns for residents of The Palladian at Rockville Town Square, which is directly adjacent to the Foulger-Pratt site. One resident of that building was concerned that the E. Middle Lane access for Palladian residents to Garage B would be cut off when Maryland Avenue closes for events. A representative of the architecture firm said the design will maintain that vehicle access. He said they are working closely with Federal Realty on that issue, as well as on making the side of the building that will be seen by Town Square patrons walking between the development and the garages, appealing. Residents of the new building will have elevator access from that side. "We are looking closely at that design. It's a challenge."
Town center residents also expressed strong opinions on current retail, and potential tenants for the new building. Knapp said project planners were making locally-owned retail and restaurant tenants a priority, but some residents dissatisfied with limited options said they would welcome a chain grocery store or market. "This place is so dead," said a resident of the town center. Dawson's Market is too small and specialized, she said, and the closest full-size grocery store is "the most pathetic Giant I've ever been to." The resident said she had moved north from White Flint, and noticed the difference in retail options. "I miss Harris Teeter," she said.
View from E. Middle Lane
The resident suggested a more mainstream grocery market as the tenant for the 8000 SF of retail space in the new building, far less than typical grocery stores require. "It's one thing to make money," she said. "It's another thing to say, 'Here's some trees, here's a place to sit, and here's a market.'"  Knapp said the technical term for what she wanted was "small format grocer." He assured the woman her market suggestion "will be in the minutes" of the meeting. Another resident disagreed with having a chain, saying he preferred Foulger-Pratt's original concept of attracting local tenants.
A resident who lives across E. Middle Lane from Rockville Town Square lamented the vacancies in that development. He suggested that adding residents from the new building to the area would help. "We need more residents here...who can shop here," he said. Knapp agreed. "Town Center needs support."

That support is still nearly five years away, however. "It's going to take awhile," Knapp acknowledged of the timetable. He said groundbreaking is two years away, and that it will take about two years to construct the building. Sears predicted the project's Pre-Application Submittal would likely be filed "toward the end of the month." Next up, will be informal presentations to the Planning Commission and Mayor and Council, followed by the formal approval process and public hearings before both bodies.

With the announcement of a Japanese steakhouse as the future ground-floor tenant at Rockville Metro II next door, the entire block between MD 355 and Maryland Avenue could be fully-activated at street level by 2021 or 2022.

Kabu Japanese Steakhouse to open in Rockville Town Center

The wait for a ground floor tenant in the Rockville Metro II Class A office building seems to have paid off for Foulger-Pratt. Kabu Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi will open in an 8250 SF space on the ground floor of the building in late summer 2017.

There is currently a Kabu Japanese Steakhouse in Laurel. The menu is centered around hibachi grill cuisine with a theatrical presentation, as well as sushi, sashimi, and a full bar with signature cocktails. Located at One Choice Hotels Circle, diagonally across the street from the Rockville Metro station, the building is anchored by the international headquarters of Choice Hotels.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

There's a nominee for the Rockville Planning Commission

The Rockville Planning Commission currently has two vacancies. At next Monday's Mayor and Council meeting, May 15, at 7:00 PM (there will be a closed executive session at 6:00 PM), the Council will consider a nominee for the appointment, Jane E. Wood.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Montgomery County Council: Building a better $640 toilet seat...for $22000

Non-profits continue to be one of the biggest sinkholes in the Montgomery County budget, and as a source of political patronage, a hotbed of scandal for elected officials. A bloated Health and Human Services Budget remains just as "taxing" - pun intended. As I've previously mentioned, some non-profit employees who receive salaries and raises from the County Council turn around and write campaign checks to the councilmembers who voted for those outlays of taxpayer funds. Even as that scandal goes uninvestigated, your tax dollars are being wasted in outrageous grants to programs and non-profits that often defy common sense.

From the County that brought you the $900,000-over-budget sewer pipe in Glen Echo Heights, comes their next attempt to emulate the Pentagon's infamous $640 toilet seat. Yesterday, the County Council approved a barrage of budget line-items for County services and non-profits alike for FY-2018. Some were well-justified, and others a complete waste. Among the wasteful items was $22,000 for the purchase of a 4-camera security camera system for the County's new Supervised Visitation Center.

$22,000 for 4 security cameras in the year 2017? That price would certainly have gotten my attention if I were on the Council. If you consider that any County building would already have WiFi, you're talking about the four cameras, and video storage. According to Popular Mechanics, security cameras range in price from $100 to $950., a website that estimates project costs, states that Network-Attached-Storage devices range from $168 for 1 TB of storage, to $499 for 4 TB. Installation labor costs are estimated by to be $680 for four cameras. In other words, this whole system could be purchased and installed for under $1000, but the Council is picking your pocket for $22,000.

Interestingly, the $22,000 camera figure was not broken out in the Council staff report, but lumped with other costs in a $34,500 line item. The camera cost was mentioned by a staff member testifying before the Council yesterday. Not a single councilmember questioned the cost, and the item passed unanimously.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rockville construction update: Metropolitan at Rockville Town Center (Photos)

Construction crews have been working on a terrace above Beall Avenue at the future Metropolitan at Rockville Town Center. Scheduled to deliver in the 4th Quarter of 2017, the Metropolitan will house 275 apartments, and 6033 SF of retail space. The retail space is below the terrace at street level in the above photo, and is being marketed by real estate firm Streetsense.