Mayor and Council
to vote on APFS
school capacity change
The stakes in a debate over school capacity standards were raised dramatically at a Mayor and Council worksession last night, as one of the developers currently facing a building moratorium declared their prize anchor tenant hangs in the balance. Todd Pearson, a Senior Vice-President with developer B.F. Saul told city leaders that grocer Wegmans will break the lease agreement they have at Saul's Twinbrook Quarter development if ground isn't broken by Q1 2020.
Pearson prefaced his warning by saying, "This is not a threat by any means." But he noted that Wegmans is "the most highly-coveted retail tenant in the country," and has no shortage of suitors for their stores. Time is literally of the essence in regards to both the firm deadline, and the impatience of the Rochester-based grocery chain.
Wegmans chose the Twinbrook Quarter site, located at the corner of Rockville Pike and Halpine Road, because they had lost patience with Lerner's White Flint Mall redevelopment. When it was clear that Lerner was set on a protracted legal fight, Pearson said, Wegmans decided to go with B.F. Saul up the road. But if they don't get the time advantage they sought with a Q1 2020 start, "Wegmans walks from the lease," Pearson warned.
Pearson also outlined the laundry list of items that must be achieved in the next year to facilitate a Q1 2020 groundbreaking, including approval of its delayed Project Plan and Site Plan by the Planning Commission, and utility cutoffs and receipt of the necessary permits from the City. Any delay beyond the end of January for the school capacity decision could potentially deep-six the already-tight schedule, Pearson said. "Unfortunately, that timeline has shortened," Pearson told the Mayor and Council. "We are highly concerned."
Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton expressed hope that a longer deliberation on the controversial topic of school overcrowding could be held, with the City streamlining the approval process for the project afterword. City staff confirmed that the Planning Commission could begin its approval process in January, but commissioners would not be able to vote on it without a vote by the Mayor and Council to loosen the school capacity standard.
Officials held an extensive debate on how to move forward. Newton asked Montgomery County Public Schools' Director of Capital Planning Adrienne Karamihas if the City would actually get a new addition or new high school if it loosens its overcrowding maximum from 120% to 150%. "I can't answer that question that way," Karamihas replied. Any new school would be unlikely to come online before the mid-2020s, she speculated.
Councilmember Mark Pierzchala argued that the B.F. Saul project and two others in the Town Center area would not put Richard Montgomery at 150% by themselves. Councilmember Beryl Feinberg countered that several projects west of I-270 will also feed into Richard Montgomery, and must be taken into account. In the short term, however, any students generated by the initial phases of the Twinbrook Quarter project will be assigned to the Walter Johnson cluster in Bethesda.
Newton expressed frustration at the framing of a "Wegmans versus education issue," and that she and the Council were not alerted to a letter from B.F. Saul sent to City staff last January regarding this very matter. Had they known then, she said, a more deliberate process could have been undertaken without threatening the Wegmans deadline. "I'm trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," Newton said. Options she would like to examine before voting to change the APFS on school capacity include whether a new high school upcounty or planned redistricting would provide the capacity needed for the Twinbrook Quarter project.
The Mayor and Council, after consulting with B.F. Saul on their timeline, ultimately decided to extend the decision period until January 28. A January 7 public hearing on the APFS question was canceled, and rescheduled for January 14. The final vote will be held at the January 28 meeting. Residents and civic association leaders from the West End, East Rockville and Twinbrook addressed the Mayor and Council during the Community Forum earlier in the meeting, and the vast majority opposed loosening school overcrowding standards.
"What does Rockville stand for, and who is running the city?" asked resident Jack Gelin, who exhorted the Mayor and Council to "gain control of the city" back from whoever is driving the growth debate now. "Are we going to go from 'bad' to 'even worse'?" one parent of Richard Montgomery cluster students asked.
Pressure from the other side is equally strong, as City officials attempt to deliver Twinbrook Quarter, which they have designated a "champion project." Most of the excitement about that project among the general public has been about the Wegmans. "Without school capacity, we can't move forward," Pearson said Monday night.