Friday, September 22, 2017

Gov. Hogan proposes massive traffic congestion relief plan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed the largest traffic congestion relief plan in the nation on Thursday, which would widen the entire Capital Beltway (I-495) within Maryland, I-270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD-295). The $9 billion plan would add tolled Express Lanes to each road, but not charge for use of existing lanes.

To expand capacity on the B-W Parkway, the state would have to be given control of the road by the federal government. Hogan has begun preliminary discussions with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke regarding this issue, he said. A private partner will be solicited by the state to construct and operate the new Express Lanes on all three highways. Because of the public-private nature of the plan, Hogan can largely move forward on his own to implement it, another plus in what is sure to be a contentious election year legislative session in Annapolis.

In a press conference yesterday, Hogan called his plan "unprecedented" and "absolutely transformative." The popular governor predicted that the congestion relief would assist the entire region, not just Maryland residents. Aside from the clear practical benefits, the highway plan is a brilliant political move, as many of Hogan's rivals have already taken the bait and come out opposing traffic congestion relief(!).

Other politicians, even those not in Hogan's party, smartly endorsed the plan. Robin Ficker, a Republican candidate for Montgomery County Executive who has called for such a plan for I-270 for years, praised the governor's proposal. "We say thank you to Governor Larry Hogan for putting forth a plan to widen the 495 beltway and I 270," Montgomery County Young Republicans VP Dan McHugh said in a statement. "This will help alleviate the terrible traffic problems we have here in Montgomery County!! This is what happens when you elect Republicans - we get things done!!" Patricia Fenati, a GOP candidate for the House of Delegates in District 14, recalled the many hours she has spent over the years driving from the upcounty into the District for work. "Finally, a hero has come along to look at that problem, and come up with a solution," she said of Hogan.

Predictable criticisms and the old "induced demand" canard came from organizations engaged in the War on Cars in our region following yesterday's announcement. "Induced demand" theory has never been proven, as missing pieces of our regional freeway system have been to blame for growing congestion on our few highways. For example, there is no second Potomac River crossing, and no M-83 Midcounty Highway Extended, to relieve traffic on the American Legion Bridge and I-270. And the Capital Beltway was doomed to be jammed when anti-car forces foiled the original plan to run I-95 through Washington, D.C. That dumb move sends East Coast traffic around our Beltway 365 days a year, creating massive traffic jams.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

First debate for Montgomery County Executive candidates this Saturday, 10:00 AM

The 2018 election season is getting an early start this weekend. Five months before the candidate filing deadline, the men who have already thrown their hats in the ring for the open Montgomery County Executive office will square off in a forum hosted by the Montgomery County Muslim Council. The debate will be held this Saturday, September 23, from 10:00 AM to 1:30 PM at the Potomac Community Center, located at 11315 Falls Road in Potomac.

Expected to participate are Republican Robin Ficker and Democrats Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal. Democrat Bill Frick of Bethesda just entered the race yesterday, and I will update this article as soon as I can confirm his participation.

The event is free to attend and open to the public. From the schedule, it appears Congressional candidates will speak first, and the County Executive candidates will go on at noon. However, you will have the chance to "work the room" and speak one-on-one with the candidates between 10-10:30, and between 1-1:30. This is the first real chance to hear the platforms and positions of the candidates in their own words.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Veirs Mill Corridor master plan meeting October 4

The Montgomery County Planning Department will host its next Veirs Mill Corridor master plan meeting on Wednesday, October 4, 2017 at 7:00 PM at Newport Mill Middle School, located at 11311 Newport Mill Road. Topics for the session will include pedestrian and bicycle safety, connectivity, access to transit and community facilities, improvements to the streetscape and sidewalks, and bike paths.

There's substantial evidence that the driving force behind the plan is the financial interest of one or more property owners along the corridor, who are seeking upzoning and increased density for their properties. That, combined with the developer-fueled Bus Rapid Transit plan for Veirs Mill, will lead to the demolition of several homes and apartment complexes.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Starbucks reopens at Rockville Town Square

Starbucks has reopened at Rockville Town Square after an extensive interior renovation. The renovations went beyond the cosmetic, with major upgrades to the kitchen and plumbing system. Look for new fall items on the menu, including Pumpkin Spice Chai, pumpkin scones, and - of course - the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Georgia Tech student killed was Rockville native

Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student shot and killed by a campus police officer Saturday night, was a native of Rockville, according to The Washington Post. Schultz was killed in what authorities lay out as a "suicide by cop" scenario, in which Schultz allegedly threatened officers with a knife and shouted, "Shoot me!" A Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesperson said detectives found 3 suicide notes in Schultz's dorm room. They also alleged that Schultz himself made the 911 call that drew a police response, and described a person resembling himself who was armed and dangerous. Family members of Schultz have questioned the details of the this account, according to the Associated Press.

Schultz was president of Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, which describes itself as "a student organization for LGBTQIA students and their allies." The organization's board released a statement crediting Schultz with the group's advancement and success over the last two years.

Violent protests spurred by the fatal encounter led to Georgia Tech urging students to remain indoors last night. At least two police officers were injured, and Schultz's parents urged demonstrators to remain peaceful in their protests. Classes at Georgia Tech are resuming this morning as scheduled, the university said in a statement.

Monday, September 18, 2017

162 new housing units proposed for King Farm, more Rockville jobs would be lost (Photos)

"Triplex" homes proposed for
King Farm Boulevard
King Farm could lose more future jobs if the Mayor and Council approve yet another request to convert planned office space in the development to residential. Developer Penrose Group is seeking the change, to allow construction of a condominium building and a series of "triplexes" on sites currently reserved for office space. The Mayor and Council will hear testimony on the proposal during a public hearing at tonight's meeting, which begins at 7:00 PM at City Hall.

120 of the housing units would be in a condo building at Piccard Drive and Choke Cherry Road, and 42 more would be in triplex homes on King Farm Boulevard. The units would be within the total number allowed by the King Farm master plan; 3,329 housing units have been constructed in King Farm so far, and 3600 units is the total permitted.
5-story condo building proposed
for Piccard Drive
However, the provision for office space in King Farm was designed to reduce traffic congestion by creating more job opportunities for residents of the development and the city. Swapping those for residential keeps all of the current commuters on the road, and adds the new residents who will commute in the morning.

While claiming that the revenue will help the City or County is perhaps the oldest canard in the developer PR handbook, the reality is that office developments create more net revenue for governments than residential. Not only does residential generate students for already-overcrowded public schools, but also requires the delivery of government services. In contrast, people working in the kind of offices you find in a place like King Farm are less likely to require government services. They not only may live outside of the jurisdiction, but also are probably making a decent white-collar wage and can support themselves.

The proposed change has been endorsed by the King Farm Citizens Assembly, and by a number of nearby landowners and developers.

Friday, September 15, 2017

B.F. Saul unveils vision for property by Twinbrook Metro (Photos)

Representatives of B.F. Saul/Saul Centers and their project partners unveiled plans for an 18-acre site on Rockville Pike by the Twinbrook Metro station at a public meeting last night. About 25 residents listened to a presentation, and gave feedback at tables designated for topics such as transportation, open space and project uses. The huge project, which could have up to 1865 housing units, will likely take more than a decade to fully build out, attorney Bob Dalrymple said. Anchoring the site will be a one-acre Central Park, and several smaller parks. The property is 600 feet from the Metro station, which executives say makes the site ideal for dense housing.
Todd Pearson, Senior VP at
B.F. Saul, welcomes attendees
B.F. Saul Senior V.P. Todd Pearson said the original 2016 project concept has been overhauled to incorporate community feedback. He said nearby residents asked for "great and engaging open spaces for the community," retail and entertainment options, and varied heights ranging from 6 stories near Twinbrook homes to 150'.

Slide showing a previous owner's
approved site plan, while Saul Centers
was acquiring the properties outlined
in red to the north
The project has also grown in size, after the company was finally able to reach an agreement with the property owner at the northeast corner of Rockville Pike and Halpine Road. Both Saul Centers and the City of Rockville had wanted that last corner to be added, a gateway location Pearson called "the front door to the project." Tom Gallas, CEO of Torti Gallas, said a planned office building at that corner will be a "signature gateway" to the development.
2016 concept; note bottom right
corner was not yet owned by B.F. Saul

Among the highlights of the new 2017 plan are the aforementioned Central Park green space, a straightening of Festival Street and Chapman Avenue Extended, and a plan to keep all loading docks and truck traffic away from the Central Park area. To achieve that, a service road will run under the cantilevered edge of the buildings along the Metro tracks, placing all deliveries and loading docks back there out of sight of both the development's future residents, and Twinbrook residents across the tracks.
Snapshot of development in
the Twinbrook area: Red is the
Saul Centers project, Orange is future
development, and Purple is completed
development; the thick white lines at the
lower left represent future road connections
The proposed Central Park would be four times the size of the square at Rockville Town Square, and three times the size of Rose Park at nearby competitor Pike & Rose. Daniel Ashtary, AIA, a principal at Torti Gallas, said the green will have real grass. Asked if architects had considered moving the 2-story restaurant building at the north end of the park - or the kiosks at the south end - to create an even-larger green space, Ashtary said the park will feel much bigger in person due to the scale of the buildings around it. B.F. Saul said all such suggestions from attendees will be considered going forward. There is also the possibility of bringing in a large tree to help create a sense of place as Pike & Rose recently did, Ashtary said.

A dedicated bike lane is expected to run alongside the Pike in front of the development. One attendee stressed that he would like to see that bike path added "sooner, rather than later," in the staging process. He said such an example would put pressure on future developers along the Pike to add such bicycle infrastructure.
An aerial view of the site today (above) was shown, and then compared to a rendering of what the site might look like a decade from now (below). Click any image to enlarge for greater detail.
Another idea on many minds at the event was the long-discussed possibility of adding a new pedestrian connection between Twinbrook and Rockville Pike over the railroad tracks. B.F. Saul representatives said that, while this is not in the preliminary design plans, they are open to the idea. There are some residents who aren't receptive to the idea, worrying that apartment dwellers across the tracks will litter and leave dog waste in Twinbrook.
Pink represents residential and
retail buildings; orange is an office building
School overcrowding is a topic of concern at every meeting on a new development, and last night was no exception. No estimates of student generation rates were discussed. Some questioned if Saul Centers could fill all of the retail spaces in these 10 buildings. "Is there too much retail already?" one attendee asked. "We don't want empty storefronts," Gallas said of these questions later in the meeting. Getting the parking number right was also a concern. One intriguing idea was the possibility of adding a platform where people could watch trains passing behind the building. Others stressed that they would like to see local businesses in the development, rather than national chains.
Open space concepts
One major issue that drew many questions during the breakout session was staging. Some of the team partners suggested that the signature office building at the corner of Halpine and the Pike might be the first constructed. However, John F. Collich, Senior VP of Acquisitions and Development for Saul Centers, said that no such plan is in stone yet. He said the ultimate staging is up in the air at this point, and will be entirely market-driven. Delivering the expensive Central Park amenity for example, Collich said, will require getting some revenue coming in from the property first. And the project hasn't even been approved by the City yet, a key first step in attracting tenants, he added.
View of Central Park from
Festival Street
Going forward, the City's Development Review Committee will take up the Project Plan application on September 28. Review of that plan by the Planning Commission and Mayor and Council will take place between this fall and early 2018. In the future, site plans will be submitted for the various stages of the project, and those will have to be approved by the Planning Commission.
Central Park
Pearson emphasized that B.F. Saul has been around since 1892, and has a long-term commitment to its projects. "We are not a build-and-flip type company," he said, which "incentivizes us to work with the community." A website for the project was announced, as well as other contact information for community feedback (see last image at bottom).
How office building at
Halpine and 355 will look
driving north on the Pike

View of Central Park from
Chapman Avenue Extended


Each star represents a parking
garage entrance in the
development

How bikes and pedestrians will
circulate through the development

Service/truck routes



Smoothie King to open, Lucy to close at Congressional Plaza in Rockville


Smoothie King is coming soon to Congressional Plaza in Rockville. The health-oriented beverage cafe has an existing Rockville location on Shady Grove Road. Next door neighbor Lucy Activewear will close by the end of the year, according to a corporate spokesperson.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sign installed at Brightview West End in Rockville (Photos)


The permanent sign has been installed at the Brightview West End senior living apartment building in Rockville Town Center. Featuring 195 units for assisted living, independent living and dementia care, the building is expected to open next month.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Starbucks renovation underway at Rockville Town Square (Photo)

The expected remodeling of the Starbucks at Rockville Town Square is underway. Although the coffee shop had requested a permit to be able to operate a "temporary cafe" during the renovation, when I stopped by yesterday, the Starbucks was simply closed. Old furniture and carpets had been pulled out onto the sidewalk. There was no sign visible stating when the store would reopen yesterday, or what the schedule is during the work.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Rockville mayor: City needs another elementary school

Rockville needs another elementary school in addition to the one currently in the works for the Richard Montgomery cluster, Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said Monday night. The Mayor and Council were discussing talking points for a letter to Montgomery County Public Schools regarding the relocation of a Chinese immersion program from College Gardens ES to another nearby school. 

Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said the proposed options of moving the program, which requires six classrooms to accommodate, to Twinbrook Elementary or Beall Elementary would be unfair to the neighborhood children who would be forced out of their school. An MCPS report recommended those two schools, and the future "RM5" ES as the three options. Pierzchala argued that the City should not only back RM5 as the Chinese immersion site, but also insist MCPS increase the new school's capacity to 740 seats.

The increase would just barely provide sufficient capacity for students redistricted into RM5, additional students generated by new development, and the Chinese immersion program's six classroom requirement. With student growth expected to continue citywide, and the new school's location in the Hungerford neighborhood, Newton called the situation "a tsunami waiting to happen."

Newton and the Council backed talking points Pierzchala sought to add to the letter regarding the Chinese immersion program. Linda Moran, Assistant to the City Manager, said she had already added Pierzchala's comments to the draft of the letter, and that she and the Mayor could make minor edits this morning.
# # #
Also at last night's meeting, Rockville Sister City Corporation President Drew Powell and Vice-President Brigitta Mullican introduced two of the many Pinneberg, Germany residents expected to visit Rockville this year. This is the 60th anniversary of the relationship between Rockville and Pinneberg, and a delegation from Pinneberg is scheduled to arrive in the City in October. They will participate in the Rocktobierfest on Saturday, October 7, among other activities.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sears Auto Center closes, leaving only one location in Montgomery County (Photos)

Sears Auto Center has closed at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. Signage has been stripped from the building facade, although some of the lettering has left behind a ghostly image. Now only the White Oak Sears Auto Center remains in Montgomery County.
Handwritten sign
announcing the closure
The closure has added urgency to the debate over when the Sears store at the mall might close. Westfield has already purchased the store building from Sears. But this auto center closure comes as a knowledgeable source tells me Sears is planning a new round of store closures in the coming days or weeks. Notably, this set of closures will now include some profitable Sears locations.

Sign that directs loyal
Sears Auto customers to their
White Oak location


Friday, September 8, 2017

Senior moment passes for 50 Monroe Place, now to be affordable/special needs housing (Photos)

A senior housing project proposed last year for the former IBM site at 50 Monroe Place in Rockville has gone the way of the dodo. In its place, a new development team is envisioning a 7-story, 70-unit residential building with ground floor retail - expected to be a coffee shop. 90% of the units would be affordable, with at least 25% of units reserved for adults with developmental disabilities.

Some of those disabled individuals would work in the coffee shop. The focus on residents with developmental disabilities is the result of the developer's partnership with the Main Street organization. There will also be amenity space that can be utilized by the public, as well as by residents. Parking access will be from Monroe Place.

The 50 Monroe Place project will be taken up by the Development Review Committee at its September 28 meeting. But first, a public meeting will be held on Monday, September 18, 2017 at 7:00 PM in the Rockville Memorial Library 2nd Floor conference room, at 21 Maryland Avenue.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Public meeting scheduled on Chestnut Lodge park proposal

A required pre-application area meeting on the proposed conversion of three Chestnut Lodge parcels into parkland will be held on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 7:00 PM in the Mayor and Council chambers at Rockville City Hall. The proposal would remove three land parcels from the Chestnut Lodge Planned Development at 500 West Montgomery Avenue for future use as a public park.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Debate excluding Republican candidate still charging $70 to get in on website

Debate ticket order form
still showing $70 admission fee
for general public this morning
Responding to a public backlash against the idea of charging voters $70 to hear three Democratic candidates for Montgomery County Executive debate on November 15, event co-sponsor Bethesda Magazine announced on its website yesterday morning that the entry fee would be waived, and the debate open to the public. But Republican candidate Robin Ficker, who remains excluded from the debate, questions why the forum's other sponsor is still charging the $70 admission fee on their website.

As of press time, the debate ticket order form on the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce website still shows admission charges for members and non-members of the Chamber. It's possible that people are still buying tickets without knowing the event is now free.

Ficker and others continue to press for his inclusion in the debate. A non-profit hosting a debate that promotes only one of the several political parties active in the County raises some questions. Organizations with tax exemptions cannot endorse candidates or parties unless the expenditures are through a separate political action committee. The Chamber has operated such PAC in the past, but it is not listed as the sponsor of this debate.

Another reason Republicans are wary of Ficker's exclusion is that, in heavily-blue Montgomery County, few debates are held after the primaries. Republican, Green Party, Libertarian and independent candidates are given few public forums to reach voters then, and so it is urgent that organizations include them in primary season debates.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ficker blasts County Executive debate hosts for inviting only Democrats, charging $70 for tickets

Montgomery County Executive candidate
Robin Ficker is mobbed by supporters
after speaking at County Council building
earlier this year
Republican Montgomery County Executive candidate Robin Ficker strongly criticized news that he has been excluded from a November 15 debate hosted by the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce and Bethesda Magazine. Only the three Democrats who have filed for the office so far - Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal - are invited to participate. Ficker said that, in contrast, the Montgomery County Muslim Council has asked him to be part of their September 23 County Executive candidate forum at the Potomac Community Center on Falls Road at 10:30 AM.

Ficker and County Republican Party Chairman Dick Jurgena questioned the non-partisan status of the hosts in a statement released this morning by the Ficker campaign. "Is this just a dog and pony (or should I say circus animals) show to help the Democrat particpants to energize their base?" Jurgena asked. Ficker charged that the Chamber enjoys non-profit tax status, but is displaying favor toward one political party.

"Obviously there is a quid pro quo between the council member-county executive candidates and the Chamber," Ficker alleged.  "By promoting their candidacies, the Chamber is not only taking advantage of these public office positions to collect $70 a head, but the council members must have promised the Chamber something in return for holding this campaign forum. What is the quid pro quo?"

Both men also questioned the admission price of $70 for non-Chamber members. "If [County] residents want to hear only one side of the issues, they can go to the Montgomery County Council meetings and listen to the term-limited Democrats, and they can save the cost of the $70.00 ticket fee for admission," Jurgena said. Chamber President and CEO Ginanne Italiano said the high price is due to the debate's inclusion in the Chamber's annual legislative event, and that ticketholders would have access to an open bar cocktail reception afterward.

Ficker took a shot at the three Democrats invited, noting that all are barred from running for their current Council seats, due to voters overwhelmingly approving Ficker's term limits ballot question last November. "If these Term Limited County Executive candidates want to hold a forum hosted by a political party club, exclude me and charge party members $1,000 to attend, that is fine with me," he said. "But when a nonprofit Chamber of Commerce holds a County Executive forum, they should invite candidates of both parties and should accommodate Montgomery Countians to listen for free."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Prostitution bust at Rockville hotel

Montgomery County police responded to a report of prostitution at an unspecified hotel on Research Boulevard in Rockville on Friday, just after 1:00 PM. No further details are available at this time.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hungry Howie's in Derwood becomes Favor & Flavor pizzeria

Hungry Howie's is gone at 17609 Redland Road in Derwood. Replacing Howie's flavored crusts is Favor & Flavor pizzeria, serving pizza, calzones, salads, wings, a variety of breads, and dipping sauces.

There is a website for Favor & Flavor with a menu, and you can also use it to place an order. The restaurant is located in Redland Plaza.