Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lavande Patisserie posts Coming Soon signage in Rockville (Photos)

Coming Soon signage has been posted in the window of the future Lavande Patisserie, located in the new JBG retail/restaurant center at 275 N. Washington Street in Rockville. Marketed as a "farm-to-table café," the eatery is scheduled to open this fall.

Locally-owned by Julie Yi and Andrew Liang of Gaithersburg, Lavande will serve breakfast, lunch and French pastries with an Asian twist. It is one of four Asian-owned businesses at the JBG property, and one of many in the vicinity, which is becoming known as the DC area's new Chinatown.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fact-checking MoCo councilman's grandstanding on liquor "changes"

Riemer still mum on
whether he knew of
illegal activity in
County liquor dept.
prior to Election Day

There he goes again. Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer, out of the news all summer and desperate for some press coverage, is grandstanding about his self-promoting campaign to change the County's role in controlling liquor sales and distribution.

Except...his equally-self-promoting "Ad Hoc Committee on Liquor Control" has left the county government squarely in control of liquor. Oops.

How do you like them hard apple ciders?

Remember, according to News4 (and we'll be getting back to the topic of News4 in a few moments):

"Council member Hans Riemer created the committee because he says the government should get out of the beer and wine business. 'We’re the only county in Maryland, and I believe we're the only local government in America, that has a monopoly on wholesale.'"

Well, much like Riemer's failed Nighttime Economy Initiative, the liquor committee has utterly failed to execute that stated mission.

All they've been able to do is pass a resolution that will set up legislation in Annapolis to allow the county to privatize special orders. Even with this so-called "significant change," the County Department of Liquor Control would retain the power to designate a "special order" item as a general stock item, putting that product back under total government distribution control again. To quote directly from the resolution, "The classification of special order items will be the final responsibility of the County Department of Liquor Control."

Are Maker's Mark and Grey Goose "special order" items? They're the Budweiser and Miller Lite of spirits. They were also unavailable for weeks at a time from the DLC, according to Hans Olson of Clyde's Tower Oaks Lodge. Depending on how those common spirits are categorized under the new system, nothing could change at all for products bartenders depend on.

Will you now, as a grown adult, be able to buy Bud Light at CVS or Giant in Bethesda? Will you be able to grab a $9 bottle of white wine to go with that prepared salad you've picked up at Safeway?

Nope (and before a troll commenter says, "But that's because of state law!", so is Riemer's special order change, that requires exactly the same sort of change at the state level to be enacted. So why wouldn't the Ad Hoc Committee have passed a resolution regarding grocery and drug store sales as well?).

Will special order products be cheaper for restaurants and stores to order if the legislation is passed in Annapolis?

Nope. The County will have to charge a fee (a.k.a. tax) on private special-order liquor wholesalers to make up for the lost revenue. The special order resolution clearly states that the fee shall "Be set and charged by Montgomery County."

If, unlike many of our elected officials, you understand how taxes on businesses work, they are passed on directly to the consumer. So prices can only remain the same, or rise. The private liquor distributors will still profit, but you as the consumer or private retailer could end up losing money in this deal.

With all of this in mind, you might be a bit shocked to find The Washington Post touting "Major changes may be in store for Montgomery County's liquor distribution policy."

Say what?

Turning to page C4 of Sunday's Metro section, you find a self-promoting op-ed by Councilmember Riemer offering no such "major changes" whatsoever. But he does spend many paragraphs promoting himself, and an apparent alternate history in an alternate dimension, where he has apparently been an effective councilmember. Why would the Post aid him with such a friendly headline? Only they know the answer to that question. But we do know that the Post's editorial page staff withdrew their endorsement of Riemer in the 2014 election, declaring his thin record of "accomplishment" insufficient to warrant reelection by the voters.

You wouldn't know that from Riemer's piece, though. When it's not touting himself, it's making false claims that would earn him a Four Pinocchio/Pants on Fire rating from fact checkers.

The article starts by declaring that "Significant changes are in store," which - if you've just read the previous paragraphs, should warrant a chuckle at best.

Then he argues "we cannot afford to continue undermining the basic business operations and investment climate for our restaurants," despite having repeatedly done just that through multiple votes he has cast on the Council since 2011.

How about this sentence: "Many residents express an intense frustration with retail access to beer and wine. Statewide restrictions prevent grocery stores and other retailers from selling alcohol." Now that's worth much more than a chuckle. When you're finished rolling around on the floor laughing, you'll remember that, as I wrote above, the committee could be asking legislators in Annapolis to change those very "statewide restrictions" right now, if it hadn't been a failure.

Will stores like Bradley Food and Beverage and Talbert's continue to compete with the County DLC's monopoly, which enjoys multiple cost advantages over mom-and-pop shops while - unlike those shops - paying no taxes? You betcha.

But let's not burst Mr. Riemer's bubble of alternate universe whimsy: "My goal was to create a stronger local economy while making the county a more vibrant place to live. These reforms will help achieve that vision."

Is this the same "local economy" that hasn't attracted a single major corporate headquarters in over a decade? The same local economy that has been whipped in job creation every single year by Northern Virginia counties and the District?

Perhaps the biggest laugher in the piece is when Riemer states that "Montgomery County is now 'the best place in the region' to open a brewery, according to leading craft entrepreneurs." Is that why D.C. and Virginia have been killing us in the number of breweries opening for so many years?

All we are doing is slowly catching up to what competing jurisdictions are already doing. We are absolutely not the best by any means. Riemer's boast is like bragging that your small town is going to allow to businesses to open on Sundays. Golly gee willikers! Wow! Amazing! That's cutting edge! "It's amazing, because a couple of political supporters of mine who are beer aficionados said it's amazing." Sounds like a solid, objective source to me.

Leading craft entrepreneurs apparently also tell us that we didn't need the Northrop headquarters, a completed Master Plan highway system, or even food trucks, in Montgomery County.

Yes, folks, when Councilmember Hans Riemer starts acting on an issue, you'd better pray it's not the industry you're working in. There's usually nothing left but debris by the time he's finished.

Remember when Riemer got his political operative and campaign contributor a $150,000-a-year job in County Government - that you pay for? And then put him in charge of food truck policy?

And then 96% of food trucks went out of business, or ceased coming into Montgomery County? That's making MoCo "a more vibrant place to live," right? Especially since new urbanists are over the moon about how food trucks make cities a more vibrant place, and attract young professionals. Which MoCo currently isn't doing so well at, according to statistics.

Meanwhile, at lunchtime you'll find those same food trucks parked a few yards over the county line by Mazza Gallerie in the District. Whoops.

Or, how about his failed "Nighttime Economy" initiative? And how there are now actually less nightclubs in downtown Bethesda since Riemer took office and did all this "wonderful" work? And Barnes and Noble closes earlier at Bethesda Row?

It's funny to hear Riemer now talk about allowing food trucks to operate at night. They already were operating at night, until he and his operative led an effort that got rid of food trucks. In 2011, trucks like Tastefully Toasted could be found serving the crowds leaving bars (many of which are now closed) in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle.

While friendly local media outlets continue to praise Riemer through propaganda articles, this media outlet is going to continue to ask the tough questions every time the councilmember tries to use the liquor fiasco to promote himself.

His piece did not provide any answers on what he knew about illegal activity in the County DLC, and when he knew it.

Less than 48 hours after the polls closed on Election Day 2014, the News4 I-Team aired a report alleging illegal activity was taking place inside the County DLC. The investigation was conducted over several weeks prior to Election Day, in News4's own words.

Councilmember Riemer appeared in the November 6 report, in a formal, sit-down interview, to feign outrage at this supposedly-"new" information. This wasn't a hasty press ambush, but an interview that had obviously been arranged in advance.

Here's the question the Washington Post and other local media outlets haven't asked Riemer yet:

When did he know about this illegal activity in the DLC, and did he keep it quiet until after Election Day to ensure he would be reelected? Riemer, and the other 8 councilmembers, have oversight authority over the DLC. All 9 could have been hurt politically by the scandal.

The time for propaganda and grandstanding to be replaced with real answers has long passed.

Friday, September 11, 2015

MoCo slouches away from solving MCPS achievement gap

Score another one for "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in Montgomery County. The achievement gap between white students and their African-American and Latino classmates has only gotten worse over the last five years, according to the County's own study of its public schools:

"Since 2010, the economic, racial, and ethnic stratification of students among MCPS high schools has increased."

And since 2010, the County Council and MCPS have spent much money, but have failed to take any substantive action - and most certainly have failed to achieve results.

Now we have the latest example of how the impotent Montgomery County political machine "tackles" the tough challenge of the achievement gap - it runs away from it.

Three out of four students can't pass the Algebra I Final Exam? Just get rid of the exam!

That's right. No new strategies, no hard analysis of what's going wrong. Just get rid of final exams, and replace them with those nifty "extra credit" projects, and other age-old tricks used to push struggling kids through the system for decades, cheating them out of a quality education.

Anybody can do a project. Only a student who has learned can solve the math equations on an exam at the end of the semester.

Try handing your college professor or office supervisor that nifty math-themed collage, instead of your final exam or the economic analysis project you were assigned. The results won't be quite as whimsical as they appear to be in the "leadership" realm of our racially and geographically-unequal school system.

A rudderless system prepared to identify a new superintendent "when they get around to it," MCPS is eerily similar in leadership, money-down-the-drain-spending, and results to the ever-popular WMATA (which can't find a leader, either).

The previous superintendent, Joshua Starr, started his MoCo career with a gaudy champagne toast at the Potomac estate of Mitch Rales, a pioneer of outsourcing American jobs to China; spent much of his time hosting an Oprah-style book club TV program at taxpayer and cable customer expense; and was unceremoniously run out of town as a finisher. "Heckuva job, Brownie."

So they have this idea to get rid of final exams that ensure you actually learned what was taught (assuming parents and education advocates stand by and allow the policy change to go unchallenged). What else do they have in their "toolbox"?

A paltry, pitiful $250,000 Children's Opportunity Fund, with no clear mandate or specific uses for that taxpayer money. A fund led by one of the very school board members who presided over the growing achievement gap, by the way. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Consider that New York City is now ponying up $400,000,000 a year to provide universal Pre-K, widely-accepted to be one of the most obvious and promising ways to reduce the achievement gap, and the contrast couldn't be more clear.

And MoCo's political machine couldn't look worse.

Kids can't pass exams? Get rid of the exam.

Don't like the increasingly-ghastly traffic congestion numbers that might make it impossible to keep approving new development without finally completing the County's unfinished highway system? Just stop counting the cars accurately.

Getting killed by Northern Virginia and DC in job creation? Just use taxpayer money to buy a fake report from EMSI, with fake job numbers that magically show you ahead of NOVA and DC.

Unable to attract a single major corporate headquarters in over a decade? Just use taxpayer money to buy another fake report declaring suburban office parks dead, even while top companies like Google and Facebook are currently booming in suburban office park headquarters.

Farmer's markets and microbreweries; mixing lattes and folding jeans - these are what you imagine your child doing for the rest of his or her life, right? Well, that's what your elected officials imagine them doing, as those are the only private-sector jobs they've created over the last decade. Then they ask, "Why aren't we able to attract young professionals to Montgomery County?"

This isn't leadership. It's slouching. And continuing to deny an equal education to many children in the county isn't just bad politics; it's immoral.

It's easy to ban things. It's easy to tax things. It's easy to politically grandstand with self-promoting legislative resolutions. But leadership and solving the achievement gap are hard. They are difficult. And our current elected officials are clearly not up to the task.

Our leaders have failed their final exam. Rather than get rid of the final exam, maybe it's time the voters get rid of the "leaders".

Southlawn business owners remain wary of industrial area study in Rockville

Business owners whose enterprises are located within the Southlawn industrial area, and in other currently-industrial parts of Rockville, are wary of the motives behind the Southlawn Industrial Area Feasibility Study now underway. Those concerns were expressed by some who attended the third public meeting on the study last night, at the Lincoln Park Community Center.

The study, which was supposed to have occurred years ago, was resurrected after a dust-up over a proposed self-storage facility next to Maryvale Elementary School in East Rockville. Residents protested, and the Mayor and Council ultimately voted to ban self-storage facilities within 250' of schools citywide.

That vote was "a very dangerous precedent," Rockville Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michelle Day said at last night's meeting. The ban now has industrial businesses citywide spooked that they will be next, Day said. Along with real estate redevelopment pressures, the sense that industrial is on the way out was palpable among some business owners who attended the meeting.
A business owner (far left) comments on
the Southlawn Industrial Area Study
last night in Rockville
"Where are the industrial businesses going to go, besides Frederick," the owner of an auto repair shop not far from Southlawn asked. Before moving to Rockville, he recalled, "I had an auto repair shop by White Flint. I paid $3000 rent" per month. The repair shop that took it over when he moved is now "paying $6000. Bullying somebody out because, 'I can make more money.' I know, because that's what they have done."

Susan Swift, Planning and Zoning Director for the City of Rockville, said "nothing's being proposed yet. These are facts and findings so we can move forward. There may be that nothing in these plans change; there may be a lot that changes. But we're not trying to pit one use against another. We really are trying to benefit everybody."

Residents said they didn't want the businesses to leave, either. One who was instrumental in getting the study revived said "I'm totally fine with [industrial businesses] existing. It's part of my community. I get my car repaired there."

Another resident noted that the residential neighborhoods in Lincoln Park and East Rockville were actually there before the Southlawn industrial area. But, she added, "I don't think the purpose of this is making change. It's so we can co-exist."

Brigitta Mullican, a candidate for Rockville City Council, said "it's important to indicate to business owners that this plan is not about pushing them out."

A landowner in Southlawn said there is far more demand for the warehouse space he currently offers to his tenants than for office space.

The fate of the industrial area will indeed partly be determined by the real estate market, which was a major focus of last night's study update.

Consulting firm VHB did a more detailed study of the market since the last meeting in June. VHB's Nancy Fox noted that the vacancy rate in the Southlawn industrial area had actually increased to 16% in the second quarter this year. Southlawn industrial rents are higher than those in industrial sites in the northern part of the county and beyond. But they are lower than those in the two industrial submarkets it straddles in Rockville.

Considering what other land uses might work in Southlawn did not turn up many promising alternatives. There is already too much vacant suburban office space for this to be an appealing location to build any more, Fox said. Retail is performing better around Southlawn, however, she said. The retail vacancy rate is 5.4% within a 3 mile radius of the study area, and 6.6% along the Gude Drive corridor. By comparison, the County's moribund office market has a 15% vacancy rate.

What kind of tenants might want to redevelop or repurpose industrial sites in Southlawn? Fox said gyms, recreational space, showrooms, retail warehouse outlet stores, biotech companies and business incubators all currently find such sites appealing. Not only do they need features such as high ceilings, space, and loading facilities, but the rents are far lower than in traditional commercial space.

VHB's Paul Mayer said the team has reached a few preliminary conclusions at this point, while stressing they won't make final conclusions and proposals before running them by the public for feedback:

  • Expanding land-use types is worthy of study, but not very optimistic
  • The current industrial uses have value both for residents, and the region as a whole
  • Better dialogue is needed between industrial businesses and nearby civic associations
  • Traffic calming measures are needed
  • But there is "limited ability to change traffic patterns" on public streets
Mayer said the next meeting will be in mid-to-late October, and that VHB will have completed a traffic study by then. It couldn't be done earlier, he explained, because school was not in session and that would have generated inaccurate traffic volumes.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Planning Commission recommends Rockville accept annexation plan for Silverwood/CarMax site

A plot of land in Derwood housing a CarMax dealership is on its way to being incorporated into the City of Rockville. The 4.032 acre site at 15931 Frederick Road is across an access road from the new Bainbridge Shady Grove apartment development, which was already annexed into Rockville from Montgomery County.

Known previously as Silverwood, the site would be the future home of a 425-unit apartment building, with 500 structured parking spaces. No retail or office components have been proposed, despite the potential Mixed-Use Transit District (MXTD) zoning the site would likely be granted, once incorporated into the city.

That lack of mixed uses did not sit well with some on the Rockville Planning Commission last night. Several commissioners expressed concern that, while the site is indeed proximate to the Shady Grove Metro station, it is otherwise isolated along a busy state highway. A lack of complimentary, walkable retail and restaurant development nearby would likely put residents into their cars to drive elsewhere. Commissioner Jack Leiderman said the isolated nature of the site "sort of robs the rationale for higher density." The site is two blocks from the King Farm Village Center shopping center, along King Farm Boulevard.

Ultimately, Commissioner David Hill made a motion to recommend the Mayor and Council accept the applicant's annexation plan, with a notation of concerns and possible conditions.

Hill suggested the city examine the fiscal impact of the project, investigate environmental concerns regarding the site (including monitoring wells), and consider pedestrian safety, by reserving part of the site's public use space for a pedestrian bridge.

He also recommended the Mayor and Council consider the following potential conditions, based upon last night's discussion by the commission:

1. Capping the building's height at 7 stories. A representative of the applicant said last night that such a cap would be acceptable.

2. Requiring retail space. The applicant says its advisors did not find a viable market for retail space in their review of the site, and that such a requirement would reduce the profit margin for the developer.

A third condition, proposed by Chair Don Hadley regarding the question of whether or not MXTD was the appropriate zoning for the site, was rejected as a friendly amendment by Hill.

Commissioner John Tyner seconded Hill's motion.

Following discussion, the commission voted 4-3 to recommend the Mayor and Council accept the annexation plan. Hill, Tyner, and Commissioners Anne Goodman and Gail Sherman voted in favor; Hadley and Commissioners Leiderman and Charles Littlefield were opposed.

A public hearing on the annexation before the Mayor and Council is expected to take place on November 16, 2015.

Commissioners also voted 5-1-1 to give 300 N. Washington Street's 35% parking waiver request a deferral until the September 30 meeting, with Leiderman dissenting and Littlefield abstaining.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Prepare for an Xtreme Halloween in Rockville (Photos)

If there weren't any ghosts lurking in the shadows at the former Pier 1 Imports space at 1590 Rockville Pike, there are now. Xtreme Halloween is getting ready to open their pop-up Halloween costume, accessory and decoration store there. The store was still getting unpacked in the 11,345 SF space when I stopped by, but expect the scares to begin soon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Rockville 2040 public listening session in King Farm tonight

The Rockville 2040 listening sessions being held citywide continue tonight in King Farm. Residents, and business and property owners, are invited to the King Farm Clubhouse tonight at 7 PM, at 300 Saddle Ridge Circle.

These sessions are one source of public input on the Rockville Planning Commission's major task of updating the city's Master Plan. Commissioners and city planning staff want to know what you think Rockville should look like in the year 2040, both citywide and in your neighborhood.

If you can't attend, you can find more information on the Rockville 2040 website. There will also be future opportunities to address the Planning Commission directly, as the process goes forward.