Showing posts with label development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label development. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Conversion of vacant Rockville office building to housing proposed


Uniwest Management Inc. is seeking to convert a vacant Rockville office building into residential housing. The company has proposed adding three additional floors to the building at 12501 Ardennes Avenue in Twinbrook, for a total of 115' in height. There would be up to 190 residential units in the modified building, as well as existing garage parking that exceeds the City's minimum space number requirement, and the addition of new landscaping and design elements to reflect the residential use. 15% of the residential units would be set aside as Moderately-Priced-Dwelling-Units.


The building was only constructed in 2009, and has a nice curved facade. Unfortunately, the General Services Administration decided not to renew its lease at the property, and it now stands vacant as a result. Uniwest says it has attempted to find new tenants, but has concluded that "there simply is not an office market in this location." It notes that suburban Maryland has the highest office vacancy rate in the region, according to a JLL study. 


Montgomery County has not attracted a single major corporate headquarters in a quarter century. A Planning Commission meeting will be scheduled to review the Revised Site Plan that Uniwest has submitted to the City. 

 Photos courtesy Uniwest

Monday, February 12, 2024

Rockville Mayor & Council to be briefed on plan to replace church with townhomes


Rockville's Mayor and Council will receive a briefing on a proposal to demolish a church in the Twinbrook area of the city, and replace it with a new townhome development, at their meeting tonight, February 12, 2024 at 7:00 PM. Developer Pulte has proposed redeveloping the church property at 5906 Halpine Road with 36 "two-over-two" townhomes. No decision will be made tonight; the briefing is for information purposes only, and to allow the Mayor and Council to comment or provide feedback and suggestions to Pulte.  


At a future date to be determined, the Mayor and Council will hold a public hearing to allow residents and other stakeholders to comment. Then they would schedule a future vote on a resolution for rezoning the property, approving the Project Plan, and authorizing the necessary waivers for a side yard setback and layback slope for the project. 


Nearby residents have raised concerns about overflow parking, and the potential reduction of the setback required. The grade of the church property has also led to worries about drainage impacts from the future townhome site. Some residents of the adjacent townhome community are concerned that the contemporary design of the new townhomes could cast shadows onto their shorter homes. Many who have contacted City staff have also advocated for leaving the trees on the church property in place. Pulte's current plan would do that, and also plant additional trees as part of the new development's landscaping.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Another attempt to restore Office of the People's Counsel in Montgomery County


Montgomery County's government bodies - Board of Education, Montgomery Parks, the Montgomery County Planning Board, to name three recent examples - are in disarray, and have been embroiled in scandals. Incredibly, while holding oversight power, the County Council has actively chosen to not restore funding for a position that can help hold the County's planning authorities (including the Council itself) more accountable to residents and taxpayers: The Office of the People's Counsel. Never a popular position among the developers who have funded most or all of the councilmembers' campaigns this century, depending upon which Council term is under discussion, the OPC was axed in 2010 when the Council finally had an excuse to do so: a budget crisis of their own making. But in 2023, more than a decade after the "Great Recession" ended, the current Council still voted against restoring funding for the OPC.


Fed-up residents and responsible growth advocates are launching a new attempt to persuade councilmembers - some of whom vowed to fund the OPC, but then betrayed the voters and organizations they made the vow to, once in office - to restore the OPC in the FY-2025 budget. The Montgomery Countryside Alliance, which works to protect rural areas, open space and streams from impacts of overdevelopment, is taking a leadership role by creating an easy form to send a brief message to the County Council in support of funding for the OPC.


For those not familiar, the OPC is (or was!) a land-use attorney who provides free advice and technical information to residents regarding development and land-use issues. Residents, most of whom cannot afford the kind of powerhouse legal representation that developers and the County itself have at their disposal, can therefore be better prepared to defend their interests before the Planning Board, County Council and hearing examiners. The OPC can also point out when the Board or Council is in violation of the rules or breaking the law, which non-land-use-attorney citizens may not be able to recognize their own. Perhaps most importantly, the People's Counsel can represent residents' interests in administrative hearings.


Boosting hopes for the return of this critical County government position is Bill PG/MC 112-24 at the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, which is sponsored by Senator Ben Kramer of Montgomery County. Senator Kramer has also been a leading voice to make the planning process in the County more directly accountable to residents, such as considering proposals to move some aspects of planning under the executive branch of County government. Kramer's bill would fully fund the Office of the People's Counsel in Montgomery County, just as other jurisdictions like Prince George's County have. In other words, Kramer is saying to the Council, "if you won't do it, we will." But, if you don't use this form to send a message to the Council and the full Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis in favor of funding the OPC, they might not!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Rockville Mayor & Council to be briefed on proposed Rockshire Village development tonight


Rockville's Mayor and Council will receive a briefing on the Rockshire Village development plan proposed by local developer EYA at their meeting tonight, December 18, 2023 at 7:00 PM. Approval of the plan would require amending the 1966 Rockshire development plan for this property, a former shopping center located at 2401 Wootton Parkway. 

The proposal under discussion is essentially the same as was first introduced this past spring. 31 single-family homes, 29 3-to-4 story townhomes, and a neighborhood park would be constructed on the property. The amount of commercial and office space proposed has been reduced from 5,500-square-feet to 5,200 SF (the original size proposed last spring was 5000 SF). EYA is also seeking a parking waiver related to the commercial/office portion of the project, as well as a road code waiver for a proposed private alley, which would not comply with a City requirement that any road constructed must either connect to an existing road or end in a cul-de-sac.

Following tonight's briefing, EYA will be asked to revise its plan to address existing concerns about the driveway access from Hurley Avenue, outdated traffic studies being used by EYA, trees, the relocation of a trail near the Korean Presbyterian Church, parking capacity, and pedestrian access to the retail structure from the Carl Henn Millenium Trail that were raised this fall by nearby residents and the Rockville Planning Commission. In addition, the plan revisions would address any new concerns expressed by the Mayor and Council at tonight's meeting.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Rockville bank building to become Take 5, promising "Fastest Oil Change on the Planet"


A vacant bank building at 1470 Rockville Pike will be demolished, and an automobile fluid maintenance facility will be constructed in its place, if a developer's proposal for the site is approved by the City of Rockville. CPC Acquistions, LLC is proposing replace the bank with Take 5, an auto maintenance chain that promises the "Fastest Oil Change on the Planet." Oil changes are typically completed in 10 minutes, the company boasts.


Take 5's business model allows drivers to stay in their car while their oil is changed, and air filters, fluids and wipers are checked and replaced as needed. Take 5 is open early and late seven days a week, and no appointment is required. 

At this location, a 10'-wide shared use path will be constructed along the Pike-facing side of the property in place of the existing sidewalk. An attorney representing the owner of the shopping center next door has expressed concern that vehicles waiting to enter the Take 5 service bays will back up onto the Pike in front of the that property. He also wants more information from CPC about their plans to alter the existing curb cuts that would affect his client's property - including making it difficult for 18-wheelers to enter to make deliveries to restaurants, and how they intend to keep dust from demolition and construction from blowing over to the restaurants in the shopping center. 

Proposed site plan for Take 5

This would be the first Take 5 location in Montgomery County. The fast-growing chain has an existing shop in Bel Air, Maryland. If approved, Take 5 would be another example of the success of the current Rockville Pike plan in maintaining the retail and service uses on the Pike that make it the biggest generator of commercial tax revenue in the entire state.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Prime redevelopment site on the auction block in Rockville Town Center


A property with one of the most-desirable and high-traffic locations in Rockville Town Center will be auctioned off in 28 days. 255 Rockville Pike is currently improved with a three-story office building and heavily-used parking garage. While that would provide a steady income for the winning bidder, the site is also directly across from - and connected to via skybridge - the Rockville Metro station. That means the property is also eligible for a transit-oriented redevelopment at much greater height and density than the current structure.


255 Rockville Pike was once part of the now-demolished Rockville Mall. In recent decades, it was home to Montgomery County government offices. Now that those have been moved to the County's new government building in Wheaton, the vacant building is being put on the auction block. This puts a transit-oriented site on the heavily-traveled MD 355 highway corridor into play on the City of Rockville's economic growth chessboard. The Metro station across the street is not only served by WMATA's Red Line subway trains, but also Maryland's MARC commuter rail, and Amtrak's Washington D.C. to Chicago route trains.


Transwestern, which is marketing the Ten-X Commercial auction, notes that the current building's 12-foot ceilings would also make it a prime candidate for conversion to a biotech facility. It could also be redeveloped as a high-visibility corporate headquarters. Of course, as Montgomery County hasn't attracted a major corporate headquarters in a quarter century, there is also the very real probability of the site being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential tower. Some have long touted the need for more residents in the Town Center, to support the businesses in that struggling area, which the latter use would provide, although others have pointed to parking issues as the primary culprit for the area's empty storefronts.


The City of Rockville's 2040 Comprehensive master plan anticipates that 255 Rockville Pike will indeed be demolished and redeveloped. "It is recommended that the City take an active role in the
redevelopment of this area as a prominent site in Rockville’s downtown," the plan states regarding 255 Rockville Pike. "Redevelopment of this property should contribute to the realization of the Town Center downtown L-shaped ‘spine,’ and incorporate an expanded pedestrian promenade over MD-355 to the Rockville Transit Station."


Such recommendations suggest that the City, which is about to elect a new mayor and City Council, will be heavily engaged in any redevelopment of this property. While this could add to the complexity of building something new here, it's also likely that the new property owner could wrangle some benefits or concessions from the City if it presents a project with the amenities and potential to improve the Town Center/Metro station area's environment, business climate, and pedestrian safety. With such a rare opportunity for new construction at the Rockville Metro station, there should be no shortage of bidders. As the auction listing notes, the site's PD-RCI zoning allows for high-rise construction, but also the most Metro-accessible location for a biotech facility in the I-270 life sciences corridor.

Photos courtesy Transwestern

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Toll Brothers proposes redevelopment of Rockville townhome complex into condos


Developer Toll Brothers has proposed redeveloping a commercial townhouse complex at 622 Hungerford Drive (MD 355) at the north end of the Rockville Town Center area into a 2-over-2 condo complex. That style of building gives the visual appearance of 4-story townhouses, but inside, each townhome is actually two apartment units stacked one over the other. The proposed plan would include 48 condo units, with a maximum height below the city's zoning limit of 65' on this site. 15% of the property would be allocated to open space, under City of Rockville guidelines.


Each unit of the development, which would retain the Washington Square branding of the current townhome property, would have 2 parking spaces. There would also be 7 overflow parking spaces for guests. A central plaza, and a landscaped green space area at the south end of the property, would fulfill the open space requirements. The southbound slip lane to N. Washington Street by the U.S. Post Office would remain in place under the current proposal.

Current state of the property,
looking north

The College Square condominium association has expressed concerns about potential parking issues spilling over from the new development. Toll Brothers' attorney, Pat Harris, said that sales contract would specify that no parking is allowed on Ivy League lane. College Square is also concerned about the potential of owners at the future Washington Square development renting out their units. A Toll Brothers representative stated "our intention is that there would not be rentals [allowed] here."

Proposed configuration

After Toll Brothers submits its plans to the City of Rockville, a public hearing will be scheduled before the Rockville Planning Commission.

Images 1, 2 & 4 courtesy Toll Brothers

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Rockville shopping center redevelopment meeting scheduled for August 23


An in-person public meeting has been scheduled to present the latest redevelopment proposal for the Rockshire Village Center in Rockville. Two sessions will be held on August 23, 2023, from 6:00 PM to 7:15 PM and from 7:30 PM to 8:45 PM, at the Thomas Farm Community Center at 700 Fallsgrove Drive in Rockville. To register for the meeting, fill out the online form. You can also view the presentation materials for the meeting on developer EYA's website.

Rendering courtesy EYA

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Loehmann's Plaza redevelopment proposed in Rockville


The owner of Loehmann's Plaza at 5926 Randolph Road is proposing a long-term redevelopment of the shopping center property. Rosenfeld Investments, LLC has proposed a first phase of redevelopment that will add 84 townhomes to the property, very similar to what was completed recently at Cabin John Village in Potomac. A future stage would see the entire property redeveloped with nearly 600 more housing units in the form of apartments, as well as 50,000-square-feet of retail and a pedestrian woonerf street designed to be shared by pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists.
Existing shopping center

Proposed Phase 1 redevelopment with
townhomes at left and right


Friday, July 7, 2023

Rockville church could be replaced with townhomes


A Rockville church could be demolished to make way for 38 "two-over-two" townhome-style condominums, if approved by the Rockville Planning Commission and Mayor and Council. Developer Pulte has proposed the project for the Twinbrook Community Church property at 5906 Halpine Road. The 65,580-square-foot property currently holds a church building and a daycare center. 


Pulte says that the church is going to vacate and sell the property to them because of declining attendance at worship services, and "economic forces." It is seeking to rezone the R-60 property to RMD-15 or MXD, under the Rockville 2040 master plan recommendations. A preliminary traffic study shows that the townhomes will generate 45 fewer morning automobile trips, and 40 fewer evening trips, than the current church and daycare.


The existing church architecture is quite nice, and the new use will certainly change the character of that corner, which is directly across from single-family homes. However, the church property is on other sides surrounded by multifamily developments: Kanso Twinbrook, The Alaire, and Cambridge Walk. It is less than 1000 feet from the Twinbrook Metro station. The Rockville Development Review Committee will review Pulte's application at its July 26, 2023 meeting, and the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the project at a future date to be scheduled.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Rockville Planning Commission to review site plan for new biotech development along I-270


There's a rare bit of good news on the high-wage employment front in Montgomery County, and not surprisingly, it's coming to us once again from the biotech sector of the economy. 2 Research Place, LLC (a shell company that appears to be an entity of Soltesz) has proposed a seven-story life sciences building for 2 Research Place in Rockville, along I-270. The development would include a six-story above-ground parking garage with 400 parking spaces, and a park. An existing office building and parking lot on the 2.82-acre property would be demolished.

Existing site as seen from I-270

The office building will be placed on the side of the property that fronts I-270, to take advantage of the visibility to the 250,000 cars that pass by the site on the interstate each day. This prominent vista will  "promote Rockville as the center for life science uses," the applicant's attorney, Pat Harris, writes in a letter to planning staff.  The building is being designed as a state-of-the-art research office building, with floorplates and ceiling heights scaled to the ideal measurements for laboratory uses as much as office use. 


I-270 is also figuring prominently in the office building's design. Its long facade facing the highway will be "sheathed in an iconic, high-performance glass and metal fa├žade system with variable panel shapes and spacings that amplify the feeling of movement, making a strong connection to the high-speed passersby," Harris writes. Alas, there are no high-quality renderings of the proposed architectural design available as of this writing, only the totally-uninspiring placeholder diagrams shown here.

Proposed site plan

The applicant is going above-and-beyond on several fronts. 100 more parking spaces than the 300 required by the City will be provided in the garage. And the development would include 12,267 square feet of public use space, essentially double the amount required by the City for a project of this size and use.

Office building rear with lobby entrance at left,
and loading docks at right

Side view of office building

The other side view

A centrally-placed large, central lawn will provide a park-like setting with seating. It will be placed in front of the rear of the office building and the parking garage. Auto traffic will circulate around it between the office, garage and main driveway access. A separate patio space with landscaping is also proposed for an area between the office building and the garage. The applicant is proposing a 4' sidewalk to connect the office building with Research Place, but is seeking a waiver to allow the sidewalk to be a foot narrower than the 5' required by the City.

Parking garage

The applicant is seeking a second waiver regarding the rooftop of the office building. Due to the specialized equipment required for life science research uses, the applicant is seeking permission to have more of the roof area dedicated to such equipment, and for the setback from the roof edge to be less than required under current City code. A 19'-high screen is proposed to hide the equipment from view.


Planning staff are recommending approval of the Site Plan, with conditions. The Rockville Planning Commission will review the plan at its meeting tonight, June 28, 2023 at 7:00 PM.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Rockville would welcome Little Saigon from Falls Church


The City of Falls Church appears to have gotten caught trying to do its version of Montgomery County's highly-controversial "minor master plan amendment," for a small area that includes the popular Eden Center at 6751-6799 Wilson Boulevard. Home to over 100 businesses, the Eden Center is a commercial and cultural center for the local Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, and is often referred to as "Little Saigon." A plan seeking input about the future of that property and others surrounding it understandably rattled that community, and the small business owners. Falls Church is now furiously backtracking, telling The Washington Post that the plan was actually meant to explore how Eden Center "might be enhanced," and the center's owner has vigorously assured tenants and patrons that it did not request the initiation of the "Small Area Plan."

I don't closely follow local politics in the City of Falls Church, so I can't tell you if the city government is controlled by developers like Montgomery County's is. Is there a Falls Church equivalent to the Montgomery County cartel? I can't answer that, either.

But the Falls Church plan's "scope of work" looks very close to a Montgomery County minor master plan amendment. Such an amendment, the legality of which has been strongly debated but not successfully challenged in Montgomery County court so far, is virtually always initiated by a landowner in the area in question. Because it is illegal to rezone a single property for the benefit of its owner, Montgomery County created the MMPA process to provide a quick road to developer profits without requiring the complication of a full sector plan update.

How does the MMPA process work? A landowner and developer quietly approach elected officials and the Montgomery County Planning Department with their plans. Planning staff are directed to draw up a small map that includes the property seeking upzoning and redevelopment, and several other random properties around it. The Planning Department, Planning Board, and County Council tell the public the MMPA is simply an attempt to create a vision for the future of the area in question. In reality, a precise zoning change sought by the landowner/developer is already known, and will be ratified by the Board and Council after a "public process." The landowner/developer then submit preliminary and sketch plans for the redevelopment that was planned all along, but which the public has usually been kept in the dark about throughout the MMPA process.

To add insult to injury, the Planning Board and County Council rarely use the significant power they wield in the MMPA process to extract community benefits from the future development the new upzoning will allow. For example, a developer initiated the MMPA process for an area around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street in Bethesda over a decade ago. It was seeking to redevelop 7272 Wisconsin Avenue at greater height and density than allowed under the zoning at that time. Greater scale means greater profit, and the MMPA is what allows that profit to be reaped.

Did the Planning Board and County Council use the opportunity to require the future developer of 7272 Wisconsin to construct a replacement Capital Crescent Trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue? No. In fact, it extracted no concessions at all in that MMPA. The original developer got the upzoning it sought, but ended up dropping its plans, and a second developer later successfully redeveloped the site. Now Montgomery County taxpayers are facing an $82.5 million tab for a tunnel that may never even be built at this point, all because the Council couldn't burden its developer sugar daddies with any extra expenses on their extra profits gained at public expense (schools, roads, services, and...trail tunnels).

So, while it may well be true that the owner of Eden Center did not request the City of Falls Church to initiate the "Small Area Plan," the process and zoning tool sound extremely similar to Montgomery's MMPA. I would suspect it's very likely some property owner within the plan area absolutely did get this process started. 

While many assurances are being made to the public and press about what the Small Area Plan plan won't do, city leaders are indeed going to be voting on a plan this Tuesday night. That plan states that introducing residential housing to the commercial sites that are included in the plan area is a high priority. It does propose squeezing a hotel with a ground floor cultural center onto the parking lot of the Eden Center, kind of a strange idea for shopping center that currently has a shortage of spaces at peak times.

However, the plan doesn't recommend redevelopment of the Eden Center at this time. It appears the well-organized efforts of the engaged community who patronize or own businesses at the center were effective in forcing a retreat by the City of Falls Church. 

But if the feared gentrification does come to pass in the future, the City of Rockville will be more than glad to warmly welcome the businesses at Eden Center to relocate here. Similar gentrification of Asian commercial hubs in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia have been a boon for Rockville over the last two decades, as many of those businesses and residents have relocated here. As a result, Rockville is now arguably the top dining destination in the region for Asian cuisine, in addition to the many Asian retail and service businesses here. 

The Asian community in Rockville has become a major economic engine for the city. One reason this has happened is that land use decisions in Rockville are not made by the Montgomery County Planning Board or Montgomery County Council. The city has its own planning authority. Politically-active residents, and two consecutive mayors who made it a priority to retain Rockville's small town neighborhood character, have been able to hold off the high-density urbanization happening elsewhere in the County. Among the benefits of that, is many storefronts ideal for small business that might have been lost are still here.

A plan that envisioned turning Rockville Pike into a concrete canyon was batted down and soundly defeated in the last decade. As a result, the Pike has remained the retail powerhouse that has made it the biggest generator of commercial revenue in the entire state of Maryland. Sites like the former Century Ford dealership, that had been envisioned by out-of-town consultants as another cookie-cutter urban "town center," ended up redeveloping in classic Rockville Pike style, with fast food restaurants, AAA auto services and an urgent care clinic. While the Twinbrook Quarter development received a density exception, largely on the basis of its eagerly-awaited Wegmans grocery store retail anchor, imagining developments of its size up and down both sides of the Pike reminds us of the bullet Rockville dodged in recent years.

Assuming Rockville voters continue to make wise choices at the ballot box this November, the city should remain an attractive destination for diners and Asian businesses alike. If Falls Church elected officials someday find developer profits to be a higher priority than keeping the jewel of Little Saigon within its borders, Rockville will be more than happy to add those businesses to our fold.

Map courtesy City of Falls Church

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Montgomery County Council PHP Committee recommends against funding Office of the People's Counsel


The Montgomery County Council's Planning Housing & Parks Committee has recommended against restoring funding for the Office of the People's Counsel in the FY-2024 budget. Not funded since 2010, the Office of the People's Counsel provided a land-use attorney who could assist the public on land-use matters, and represent their interests at administrative hearings. Committee members Andrew Friedson (D - District 1) - who serves as chair, Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D - District 6) and Will Jawando (D - At-Large) extensively criticized the office of County Executive Marc Elrich for not working with the Council to define what the People's Counsel position should be, despite the fact that the office falls under the legislative branch and not the executive branch.

It was claimed that a tight budget year would also be a hindrance to restoring funding. In reality, the funding sought by Elrich for the People's Counsel represents only 0.0004% of the entire FY-2024 operating budget.

Committee members had some novel ideas as to why the office should not be restored at this time. Jawando appeared unfamiliar with the Office of the People's Counsel as it was constituted in the past, claiming the executive branch had failed to enlighten the Council on this since it was discussed a year ago. He also echoed a talking point used by a lobbyist for developers, that certain resident groups whom he did not identify would use the office to stop development.

Fani-Gonzalez, amid chewing out executive branch representative Meredith Wellington, said there is no need for a People's Counsel to assist and represent residents' interests in land-use matters because the councilmembers already do that. Alas, none of the eleven councilmembers is a licensed land-use attorney, which is the whole point and defining characteristic of the People's Counsel. Fani-Gonzalez also created an awkward moment while chastising Wellington. One of the youngest past commissioners on the Montgomery County Planning Board, and now one of the youngest people to serve on the County Council, Fani-Gonzalez described septuagenarian Wellington as having been on the Planning Board "thirty years ago. A long time." "I was there until 2008," Wellington responded. "Oh, there you go," Fani-Gonzalez replied. "It feels like ages ago." 

Friedson, who has been feted at fundraising parties hosted by developers, had made his revulsion toward the Office of the People's Counsel clear long before the committee meeting. He actually introduced a bill this spring to permanently kill the position altogether. Everybody who has been paying attention knows what the office was, yet the Council keeps hiding behind a musty, old Office of Legislative Oversight report that didn't even say what they claim it said about the position. In fact, the OLO report never suggested defunding the office!

The unanimous opposition of the PHP Committee to restoring the Office of the People's Counsel was particularly astonishing given that 90% of the residents who testified on the matter before the Council last month favored funding the position. Once again, the Council - like the Planning Board - is openly legislating against the wishes of a majority of its constituents. How long this thumbing of the nose at residents can continue is ultimately up to the voters of Montgomery County.

All eleven councilmembers will vote on the question of the People's Counsel at their Thursday, May 11, 2023 meeting, and will have to go on the record at that time. The vote will be especially awkward for councilmembers who had promised the Montgomery County Civic Federation to restore the Office of the People's Counsel in interviews prior to the 2022 election. 

There is a palpable fear among some on the Council, and their developer sugar daddies, of having an Office of the People's Counsel in place during the upcoming process of ramming through the zoning text amendments that will weaponize the controversial Thrive 2050 plan. Those ZTAs that will make it possible to build market-rate multifamily housing within single-family home neighborhoods, a tactic that has failed to lower housing costs in the few jurisdictions that have employed it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Maryland taxpayers to sink $166M into Baltimore Harborplace scheme


It's deja vu all over again in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A great gem - a doorstep to the city, if you will! - has somehow fallen into disrepair. But it's not up to the property owner, nor the elected officials who've run the city it's the doorstep to the whole time, to sacrifice for a solution. No, it's you, the hardworking taxpayer of Maryland who must step in, and share your hard-earned dollars with very wealthy developers. Stop me if you've heard this before. 

Are we talking about Union Station in Washington, D.C.? No, it's the Harborplace development in Baltimore. But both now share a special pedigree. These properties have failed...twice. And each time, the taxpayer has involuntarily-volunteered to pick up the tab for "renewal" and "rejuvenation." 

You can't entirely blame the political machines of Charm City and the District of Columbia. They know both cities are more transient than most in America. And both are rapidly gentrifying African-American residents out of their homes and neighborhoods, to make room for more luxury condos for rich, white people. Why, you probably haven't lived here long enough to realize this isn't the first time the city's gemstone was tarnished.

Except, some of us have. I remember when Union Station and the Inner Harbor were said to be in desperate need of revitalization. Some years, and many more taxpayer dollars later, we were told the effort was successful. Shops! Restaurants! Gleaming and new!

Three decades pass.

And suddenly, it's happened again.

Union Station and Harborplace are derelict! They're outdated and have fallen behind the times! Nobody goes there anymore! Wealthy development firms are standing by to save the day, but...they're going to need your help. So they're going to cut us in on the deal? We'll earn a dividend for the tax dollars we're putting up, just like the other investors?

Oh, no. And your investment is not optional. We just rammed it through in Annapolis. The taxpayers of Maryland - yes, even you in the hinterlands, are going to fork over $166 million. And Baltimore City residents, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck, get to hand over an additional $1 million.

Why are Union Station and Harborplace "derelict and underperforming?" The tenants! Well, wait a minute. Union Station has Shake Shack, Pret-a-Manger, Au Bon Pain and CAVA, names about as hip as train station commercial retail can get. Tourist-driven Harborplace has tourist traps like UNO Chicago Grill, Johnny Rockets and Hooters - it even has The Cheesecake Factory, for Pete's sake! What else would you want to eat by the water? 

Want local, small businesses instead? Charge a rent they can afford for the empty storefronts. 

Well, it's not the tenants or the times, you see. Why don't people want to go to Harborplace or Union Station?

It's that the D.C. government let crime and the homeless take over Union Station. Columbus Circle at sunrise can resemble a giant bedroom, as the least-fortunate of Washington awake from slumber among scurrying rats and trash. Baltimore City let crime run rampant in the Inner Harbor, with tourists often the target. At some point, elected officials have to be held accountable. This is a novel idea in Washington and Baltimore.

$166 million? You could put 415 homeless people into permanent homes in the D.C. area, and even more in Baltimore, for that amount. It could be a not-insubstantial down payment on building the Red Line, especially the Dollar General version of the Red Line pols are cynically trying to pass off on West Baltimore these days. "By the time the buses start running, those voters will have been gentrified out of there, anyway," elected officials must figure. Imagine the parks you could build. Or schools that actually have air conditioning!!

But a better recipient than the general public has been found - wealthy and well-financed developers. The public involuntarily gives generously. Buildings are demolished. New ones rise in their place. The property is sold. Profits are made. Elected officials fail to execute their basic functions to provide a strong business climate, maintain city infrastructure and ensure public safety. 

And the cycle starts over again. We've seen this here in Montgomery County, where a greedy mall buyer along with County officials allowing crime to get out of control led to the demise of Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg. As long as our elected officials get away with directing our money to their developer sugar daddies, we'll see it again.

Inner Harbor crime:

"Inner Harbor Mayhem"

"Death at Baltimore's Inner Harbor"

"Dangerous at night"

"3 people robbed at gunpoint in Inner Harbor"

"New Jersey family attacked at Baltimore's Inner Harbor"

"If this is what a Saturday night at the Harbor is going to be like, we will not be going there"

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Montgomery County residents overwhelmingly favor funding Office of the People's Counsel

Peggy Dennis and Ruben Meana Paneda
testify before the Montgomery County Council

Ten of the eleven residents who testified before the Montgomery County Council yesterday urged councilmembers to restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel in the FY-2024 operating budget. All ten also spoke in strong opposition to the bill that was the subject of the public hearing, a legislative move to permanently eliminate the office, which the Council has failed to fund since 2010. Bill 18-23, introduced by Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D - District 1), would kill the position of People's Counsel, an attorney who could advise residents and civic associations on land-use and zoning issues, and represent their interests in administrative hearings. Friedson's bill would replace the People's Counsel with a toothless resident advisor, who would not have to be a licensed attorney, and who would not be allowed to participate in administrative hearings, would be unable to call or cross-examine witnesses, and would be forbidden to introduce evidence or point out violations of zoning law in those hearings.

Resident Sue Present said Friedson's developer-friendly bill "keeps the fat cats fat, and throws neighbors and neighborhoods under the bus." Friedson has received extensive campaign contributions from development interests, and developers have hosted fundraisers for him. 

The only resident to testify in favor of Friedson's bill to eliminate the People's Counsel was Jane Lyons-Raeder of Silver Spring, who has previously been employed as a lobbyist by the developer-funded Coalition for Smarter Growth. Lyons-Raeder said the quiet part out loud, expressing concern that a restored People's Counsel "could quickly turn into a free lawyer for people who oppose development in their neighborhood." She argued that Friedson's proposed advisor position would be preferable, as it would not "allow for free legal representation" for residents.

But the small way in which the Office of the People's Counsel takes a tiny step toward leveling the playing field with development interests who can afford high-priced lawyers is precisely what the 90% of residents who testified in favor of restoring the position yesterday see as its central appeal. Resident Max Bronstein pointed out that in a land-use dispute he was engaged in from 2007 to 2012, the developer had two lawyers, and a team of five land-use specialists. Montgomery County government has over 100 attorneys who represent it, he added. "Should not the 1 million people of the county have 1 lawyer representing them?" Bronstein asked the Council.

Bronstein said the Office of the People's Counsel was "a great aid" in his case up until 2010, when the Council defunded the office. He pointed to the Office of Legislative Oversight report on the OPC, which recorded that the People's Counsel participated in an average of 44 land use cases per year, and provided information on zoning and land use to residents an average of 347 times per year before being defunded.

Nowhere in the OLO report was it recommended the Office of the People's Counsel be closed, Bronstein noted. He said the People's Counsel will be particularly needed in the coming years, as the Council attempts to implement the controversial Thrive 2050 plan, which will allow attached housing and small apartment buildings to be constructed in existing single-family home neighborhoods.

Rick Meyer of the MoCo Coalition for Control of Cell Towers concurred that expert advice is needed for zoning text amendments, and not just for residents, but for the Council itself. A Council ZTA to allow 5G antennas to be placed in locations that were off-limits to such equipment at the time was later found to be in violation of the County's own laws. If even the five-year head of a Council committee couldn't understand the zoning laws, Meyer suggested, it indicates the need for just such a knowledgeable land-use attorney as the People's Counsel. In fact, one of the People's Counsel's duties and powers is the ability to point out when a developer or the County itself is in violation of the law during adminstrative proceedings.

Elizabeth Joyce of the 
Montgomery County Civic Federation

Elizabeth Joyce and Alan Bowser of the Montgomery County Civic Federation both recalled that several of the sitting councilmembers had promised their organization that they would restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel during candidate interviews the federation held last June. Joyce said money is not the issue, because the funds Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has earmarked for the office in his proposed FY-2024 budget amount to only .0004% of the total budget.

Given the recent scandals that ended with the resignation of the entire Planning Board, Bowser questioned why Friedson would suggest eliminating a tool of equity and transparency like the Office of the People's Counsel. "Why in this moment of broad distrust, why would any of you want to exacerbate this situation" by proposing to eliminate the OPC? Bowser asked. Comparing Friedson's OPC-killing bill to a similar one that failed to pass seven years ago, Bowser concluded, "This was a bad bill in 2016; it's a terrible bill in 2023."

Resident Susan Labin pointed out that Friedson had ironically recently complained that a state bill that would have increased the County Executive's authority over planning and zoning was "a power grab," while Friedson is now attempting to grab power away from residents by killing the Office of the People's Counsel. "It seems like at every turn the real power grab is by the special interests," Labin said.

Nicole Williams

"I'm speaking from painful experience," Potomac resident Peggy Dennis said at the beginning of her testimony against Friedson's bill, and in favor the Office of the People's Counsel. She spoke of the many hours residents in her community spent fighting a gigantic assisted-living development that was in violation of the area's sector plan and County law, which was proposed by "a well-heeled developer." Had the OPC been in operation at that time, Dennis argued, "all of that time would have been saved...That person could have introduced evidence in a hearing, called witnesses, pointed out" illegal violations. 

Such time investment is beyond the means and availability of most residents, Nicole Williams said. "We shouldn't have to" spend time trying to interpret zoning and land-use laws while developers have the advantage of expensive attorneys. After 13 years of failing to fund the People's Counsel, Williams said, it's "time to stop giving residents the runaround."

The reality, as Bronstein noted during his testimony, is that there are hardly any land-use attorneys who will represent residents, even when wealthier neighborhoods have the money to pay them. This is absolutely true. For years, Norman Knopf would take such resident and civic association cases. After he retired, his partner David Brown continued in that role. But Brown refused to represent the Westbard residents who sued Montgomery County over illegal actions during the approval of the Westbard sector plan. Michele Rosenfeld took the residents' case. With her victory on Kensington residents' behalf in the Costco gas station case, and partial victory in downsizing the density of the Westbard Square development, Rosenfeld is now the preeminent land-use attorney representing residents and civic associations in court and in administrative proceedings. 

But that can only help if you can afford to hire an attorney. With the large number of newer residents in the County either being low-to-moderate in income, and many not speaking English as their first language - as Present noted in her testimony, a public resource and representative like the Office of the People's Counsel becomes more vital every day. And with the Planning Board and County Council increasingly ruling against majority sentiment and ignoring resident and civic association testimony, it can be argued that - if anything - the role and power of the People's Counsel should be expanded and made more muscular.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Why Montgomery County needs an Office of the People's Counsel more than ever


The great irony of the attempt by some on the Montgomery County Council to permanently kill the long-dormant Office of the People's Counsel, is that the position is needed even more today than when the Council defunded it in 2010. Developers seized majority control on the Council in 2002 through their well-funded "End Gridlock slate" of candidates, and by 2010, controlled 8 out of the 9 seats. Yet there was still at least a cosmetic veneer of an idea that growth and land use issues were up for some debate. For initiatives or major master plans that were a heavy lift, County planners had to gin up elaborate presentations and supporting ideas like "smart growth," and "transit-oriented development," and even falsely state that rail transit lines, new highways and "vibrant town centers" would be part of "smart growth" communities like Clarksburg and Watkins Mill.

Once the Office of the People's Counsel - held by an attorney who could provide zoning and land-use advice to the public, and represent residents' interests at administrative hearings - was defunded, the public role in land-use decisions was rapidly phased out. An incredible series of events began to unfold. The Columbia Country Club - which had successfully held off construction of the Purple Line for decades - was defeated in that struggle by the county political cartel in 2013. That same year, the Planning Board stifled a potential Maryland Attorney General Investigation of the criminal Farm Road scandal, by appointing an investigator who had donated thousands of dollars to the Attorney General. 

In 2014, the County Council approved a new zoning code that essentially rezoned everything except single-family home residential neighborhoods as mixed-use. 2016 witnessed unanimous Council passage of the controversial Westbard sector plan, despite overwhelming resident opposition. From 2017 to the present, the Council, Planning Board, and Housing Opportunities Commission would continue to stymie and suppress all efforts to conduct archaeological studies on the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. And last fall, the Council passed the controversial Thrive 2050 over countywide resident opposition, a plan that will end single-family home zoning across most of Montgomery County.

Had there been an Office of the People's Counsel over these thirteen years, it's likely that none of these events would have transpired in the way they did, if at all. The People's Counsel would surely have tangled with County officials on the complex zoning matters at stake. Instead, we've seen a Planning Board and Council that completely ignore public input from individual residents and civic associations, and steamroll ahead with whatever developers want to do.

If anything, the Council needs to scrap Bill 18-23, and get about the business of restoring funding for the Office of the People's Counsel. You won't be surprised to know that the author of Bill 18-23, Councilmember Andrew Friedson, isn't just the recipient of developer campaign donations - - developers even host fundraisers for him.

What's needed is not just the return of the People's Counsel, but a beefed-up version of the office, with expanded authority. Sector plan updates should once again require a committee to be formed with representatives of all stakeholders, including residents, not the sham charrette process that replaced it. 

It's also time that a new layer of protection that District of Columbia residents enjoy is added to Montgomery County: Publicly-elected, non-partisan Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. As stated on the D.C. Board of Elections website, "Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners advise the District government on matters of public policy including decisions regarding planning, streets, recreation, social services programs, health, safety, and sanitation in their respective neighborhood commission areas. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners are elected to two year terms every election year."

In an era where development interests are supercharged, it's time that residents also get a power boost from a People's Counsel, sector plan committees, and the establishment of ANCs.

The Council will hold a public hearing on Bill 18-23 tomorrow, April 18, 2023 at 1:30 PM. If the Council presses ahead with a vote on the bill before it adjourns for the summer, voters will want to watch closely. There haven't been enough votes on land use issues by this new Council to determine how many of the 11 seats are now controlled by developers. Any member who votes to kill the Office of the People's Counsel will have made crystal clear who controls their seat.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Marc Elrich explains veto of Montgomery County Planning Board member


Most residents became aware of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich's veto of the appointment of Rockville resident James Hedrick to the County Planning Board not through a formal announcement by Elrich's office, but through the reaction of Hedrick's supporters after the County Council was informed of the executive decision. The first press release would come from Council President Evan Glass, who was displeased by Elrich's rejection of the Council's choice of Hedrick. It's unclear if Elrich did not anticipate that Glass would go public with the issue over the weekend, as the executive did not lay out his thinking in the public realm on Friday. But whatever the reason, Elrich did respond Saturday by posting his Friday letter to Glass online.

"I met with Mr. Hedrick for almost two hours on Friday, March 10," Elrich wrote, "and have reviewed his participation in land use issues in Montgomery County, his comments on social media, and other work. After this review, I have decided to disapprove his appointment to the Planning Board." Elrich noted that the recent replacement of the entire Planning Board due to a series of scandals, none of which have been investigated by the County Council or Maryland attorney general to date, made restoration of confidence and public participation in land use decisions essential to establishing a functional board.

"In the nuanced work of planning, there is a need to recognize the opinions and lived experiences of others and to come to the table ready to work together," Elrich wrote. "During my interview with Mr. Hedrick, he made it clear that he has no interest in doing this difficult work. Instead, his comments to me, as well as on social media, demonstrate an ideological close-mindedness as well as a disdain for those whose views do not comport with his."

"Mr. Hedrick’s view is that we need greater housing densities everywhere, that he has 'heard the same arguments' from those who oppose his view, and that he 'doesn’t have a lot of patience with those people,'" Elrich continued. "He seemed unaware that over the past 16 years, master plans have been used to substantially increase housing densities. He also seemed unaware of the fact that the forecasts for population growth in the county are based on the densities adopted in these master plans. This demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the county’s master plan process, one of the most important elements of the Planning Board’s responsibilities and one that requires balancing sometimes competing policies – what rezoning is needed to encourage buildout; what steps must be taken to promote racial equity and social justice issues such as displacement and gentrification; what consideration must be given to the environmental consequences of increased land coverage."

Elrich has long pointed out that Montgomery County has already approved sufficient new housing units to meet the forecasted need by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments by 2030. He has also sought to highlight a number of projects that would either preserve or create new affordable housing that his office has orchestrated since 2022. And many note that developers haven't even begun to fully build out all of the available "smart growth" areas near Metro stations in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring alone - nor the numerous "dumb growth"areas not within walking distance from Metro that the Council has deemed "activity centers," such as Westbard. In this context, Elrich and other slow growth advocates are perplexed as to why developers are now seeking to rezone existing single-family-home neighborhoods for multifamily housing, before even cashing in on the many land-use victories they've already won since 2002.

The controversial Thrive 2050 plan approved by the Council and previous, scandal-ridden Planning Board will provide only more luxury housing at market rates, despite claims that the plan was designed to increase housing opportunities for those who can't currently afford to live in the county. Even the Council's own consultants warned councilmembers that they had failed to adequately solicit and obtain feedback from people of color on racial and equity issues surrounding Thrive 2050. While proponents said Thrive 2050 would increase options, it in fact reduces options, by eliminating the single-family-home neighborhoods that are the main draw for homebuyers who choose the suburbs. Home prices in the few cities that have eliminated single-family-home zoning have not fallen as proponents have promised, but only continued to increase. The ultimate winners have been developers, not homebuyers or the poor.

However, Hedrick was not the only Council appointee to support Thrive 2050. Elrich wound down his letter to Glass by emphasizing the need to reduce the "toxic atmosphere" of the previous Planning Board, arguing that the appointment of Hedrick would not contribute to that effort. The boards of the last decade have been seen by many residents as only responding to the desires of developers and their paid lobbyists, very few of whom have registered as such with the state. Resident concerns were typically ignored, or even belittled, by planning commissioners. 

"The appointment of a new Planning Board is an opportunity for a fresh start, removed from the toxic atmosphere that permeated the defunct Planning Board at all levels, including social media," Elrich wrote. "Unfortunately, Mr. Hedrick perpetuates, rather than alleviates, that atmosphere. He has made insulting and dismissive statements about those with opposing viewpoints. When asked about this, he disappointingly expressed no regrets."

"Such rigid views are anathema to restoring the reputation of the Planning Board and the public’s confidence in its decisions. Land use planning in Montgomery County is at an inflection point that will determine how we move forward in addressing housing and community building mindful of the important role land use decisions play in ameliorating the increasingly apparent effects of climate-driven storm events on our homes, businesses, and transportation systems. We need Planning Board members with good judgment who are open-minded, constructive, and, above all, interested in hearing from all sides in a fair and transparent process before they have reached a decision. Mr. Hedrick does not meet those standards."

Elrich concluded his letter with an almost-Trumpian touch of all-caps, declaring "the appointment of James Hedrick to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is DISAPPROVED." It was not immediately clear if the meeting between Elrich and Hedrick was recorded in any fashion, so that Elrich's characterizations of Hedrick's responses could be verified. Elrich's sizeable constituent base among homeowners countywide appeared to be satisfied by the decision, based on social media reaction. The move by Elrich was exactly the sort of action his voters put him in office to take, and puts the Hedrick holdouts from the February 28th Council approval vote on the spot this coming Tuesday, when Glass promised the Council would discuss Elrich's veto.