Showing posts with label school capacity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label school capacity. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Mayor & Council approve school test waiver for B.F. Saul's Wegmans-anchored Twinbrook Quarter project

Feinberg opposes;
Farmland parents turn
out in force

Rockville's Mayor and Council voted 3-1 to approve a school test waiver for developer B.F. Saul's Wegmans-anchored Twinbrook Quarter project last night, after delaying the controversial decision for nearly two months. Councilmember Beryl Feinberg was the sole dissenter casting a "No" vote. The waiver concept won support from Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who had opposed Councilmember Mark Pierzchala's original proposal, which would have amended the city's Adequate Public Facilities Standards to allow schools in targeted areas of Rockville to have student populations at 150% of capacity.

The meeting's regularly-scheduled Community Forum became another public hearing on the question, with the vast majority of residents again opposing loosening student overcrowding standards. A large number of parents of students attending Farmland Elementary School turned out, as that already-overcrowded school is currently slated to receive a portion of the students who would be generated by the Twinbrook Quarter project, and others in that area.

Many parents became emotional as they described existing conditions at the jampacked school. "We are in a crisis mode at Farmland," one said with tears in her eyes. A father who brought his Farmland first grader to the meeting told the Mayor and Council of a "heartbreaking" conversation he had with his son just before the meeting started. He asked his son what his school environment was like, and his son "just looked at the ground and said, 'It's so crowded.'" The father noted that the boy's large class size prevents him from getting the extra help he needs with reading.

Among those favoring loosening standards were a millennial seeking more housing, and representatives of the Twinbrook neighborhood, which B.F. Saul has worked with for several years as the project moved forward.

In the end, there would be no across-the-board 150% standard, as a new waiver alternative was developed over the last week. But the full impact of the waiver and the new precedent on school overcrowding were not immediately clear. Newton and Feinberg complained that important elements of the proposal were left out of the documents given to the Mayor and Council Monday by staff, such as the stipulation that any additional units proposed for the project in future amendments would have the school test applied to them.

Newton announced at the outset of the discussion that the city would be forming a committee or work group to avoid a rushed process like this in the future. She said that among her goals were to avoid increasing the overcrowding standard above the current 120% of capacity, to seek boundary changes that would direct new students generated at Twinbrook Quarter to the Rockville High School cluster, and to remove the Town Center as a zone where weaker school capacity standards might apply.

Feinberg was not placated by this, and the meeting featured a rare disagreement between her and the Mayor that became mildly pointed at times. Noting that the waiver didn't require anything additional beyond what B.F. Saul was already required to provide for a "Champion Project," Feinberg said, "They are not doing anything extra." She disputed Newton's citation of a potential $70 million in revenue from Twinbrook Quarter to city coffers, arguing that "we have never received any documentation validating those numbers. Ever. " B.F. Saul's Todd Pearson said the documentation was submitted to the Mayor and Council, but Feinberg said it was never forwarded to her.

Lowering the boom on the deal when it was apparent it would pass, Feinberg blasted it on several fronts. Approving the waiver "sends the message that Rockville prioritizes development over our children's education," she said. Feinberg noted that Richard Montgomery High School has run out of extra classrooms it can convert to science labs, which will hurt science learning among the 1100 new students that could be added to the school in the coming years, if development could avoid moratorium.

Turning back to the issue that residents were getting nothing extra in exchange for the waiver, Feinberg asked, "What are we getting for this?" She then asked Pearson if B.F. Saul would provide 20,000 SF of public space as a condition for the waiver, but he was unable to make such a commitment last night.

Feinberg also raised potential legal issues. "This is clearly a carve-out for a developer, and one developer only," she said, adding that the city was now giving B.F. Saul "most-favored developer status." Now other developers will seek similar "gimmees" in the future, she predicted, and sue if they don't get them.

A potential candidate for mayor this November, Feinberg made clear she would vote no on the waiver, closing her speech by declaring, "Not with my vote, not on my watch."

Seeking to correct the record on a few points as the question was called, Feinberg was cut off by Newton, leading to another testy exchange as officials faced arguably the most unpleasant vote of this term. "I don't appreciate being cut off," Feinberg said. "You cut off all of us last Monday," Newton replied, "so I resent that comment."

When the vote was taken, the waiver was approved 3-1, with Newton, Pierzchala and Councilmember Virginia Onley voting in favor, and Feinberg opposed. Newton said at her victory party in 2015 that she did not plan to run for mayor again. While a solid supporter of more-responsibly-managed growth, as evidenced by her appointments to the Planning Commission, Newton has long supported the Twinbrook Quarter project.

Beneath the apparent drama on the surface, last night's events made sense politically for each elected official. Newton achieved a compromise, was able to advance a project seen as an accomplishment of her tenure as mayor, and won't have to face voters angry about the impact on schools this fall. Feinberg made it abundantly clear she was the defender of students and parents in this battle, while Pierzchala and Onley retained their pro-development bonafides. This sets up another election of contrasts this fall, even as speculation swirls about who will run for Mayor and Council.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Rockville Council tables proposal to allow more school overcrowding until next week

There's still no compromise solution with majority support on the proposal to allow more overcrowding at Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville. A majority of the City Council voted to table the discussion last night, when the body had been expected to vote on the matter. Developer B.F. Saul had warned that if the city failed to loosen its Adequate Public Facility Standards to avoid a development moratorium, it is possible that their Twinbrook Quarter anchor tenant Wegmans could back out of the project.

B.F. Saul had said if the vote was postponed beyond last night, the Wegmans deal could be in jeopardy. The Mayor and Council will take up the matter again at their February 4 meeting, postponing a high-stakes, election-year "Wegmans vs. schools" vote by seven days.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Rockville public hearing on school overcrowding sets up dramatic vote next week

Rockville's Mayor and Council are no closer to a consensus on changing the city's Adequate Public Facilities Standards test for school overcrowding despite postponing the matter until after the holidays. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton expressed disappointment that the extra time was consumed with "more finger-pointing," rather than solving the dilemma. The dilemma is shaping up as a vote on Wegmans as much as about schools, which is also the way it was framed prior to the holidays.

"I don't want this to be a 'Wegmans or schools' issue," developer B.F. Saul's Todd Pearson told the Mayor and Council at a packed meeting that continued past 11:00 PM last night. But Pearson added that he had "serious concerns" as to whether or not B.F. Saul could meet the requirements of its lease with the grocery giant if elected officials punt the decision past next Monday night. In December, Pearson had warned that Wegmans might back out of the deal if their timeline for the Twinbrook Quarter development is not met. Wegmans is currently expected to be the retail anchor of that development at the northeast corner of Rockville Pike and Halpine Road.

Councilmember Virginia Onley noted that Wegmans had already ended negotiations with Lerner at their former White Flint Mall site when that property became entangled in a prolonged court battle. The news of the store's lease at Twinbrook Quarter has been the main generator of excitement about the development among the public. But based on resident and civic association testimony last night, the public also largely opposes the proposed allowance of 150% of capacity school overcrowding.

"I'm not wedded to 150%," Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said after all testimony had been heard, expressing a willingness to "go lower" to reach a deal. Pierzchala was the one who proposed the changes now on the table last year. The changes were put forward after Pierzchala realized that existing 120% overcrowding standards would trigger a development moratorium, freezing the Twinbrook Quarter project until Montgomery County Public Schools provide new capacity (although some residents have pointed out that this was known over a year ago). Resident Brigitta Mullican suggested that the city entirely drop any school test from the APFS, arguing that MCPS has total control over the matter and the city has none.

With no new compromise proposals yet emerging, a dramatic showdown is set for next Monday night at 7:00 PM, when the Mayor and Council are scheduled to vote on the matter. The drama will not only be from the potential for an elected official to be blamed for losing Wegmans or worsening school overcrowding, but also from the fact that the body is short a member. The recent resignation of Councilember Julie Palakovich Carr, who was elected to the General Assembly last November, leaves an even number of voters on the Council. Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg could counterbalance the "Team Rockville" votes of Onley and Pierzchala, resulting in deadlock.

Newton held out some hope for a mutually-beneficial compromise to be worked out in the next five days. "It's not a one-person decision. It's not a two-person decision. It's a city decision," she said.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Wegmans will "walk" if Twinbrook Quarter doesn't break ground in Q1 2020

Mayor and Council
to vote on APFS
school capacity change
January 28

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.

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.