Thursday, June 9, 2016

Planning commission approves new Rockville shopping center (Photos)

A plan for a new shopping center at 1401 Research Boulevard got the green light from the Rockville Planning Commission last night. The unanimous vote by commissioners means the Rockshire neighborhood will once again have retail options within walking distance of their homes. And via their bikes, as one of the most-discussed issues was the question of just how great the demand would be for bike parking at this property.

The new shopping center is currently branded as Research Row. It will include a 40,000 square foot fitness center, with swimming pool and full-size basketball court facilities; a drive-thru fast food restaurant close to the Route 28 side of the property; an in-line retail building (the latest term for "strip mall") with office space; and a smaller-than-usual 28560 SF grocery store building (grocery stores can be 60-70,000 SF, or even bigger in the case of Wegmans). Getting a grocery store tenant could be critical to the success of this retail center, with Rockshire having lost its Giant store.

Commissioner David Hill asked the applicant, FP Research Boulevard, LLC, if their fitness center was viable. The city is experiencing "a saturation of fitness facilities," Hill noted.

Adam Davis, a Vice President at Foulger-Pratt, said that the gym structure will be "a pretty generic 40000 square foot box" that could easily be converted to other retail uses, if necessary.

Other concerns included how traffic exiting Hurley Avenue from the site onto inbound W. Montgomery Avenue would affect already-congested rush hour traffic trying to reach I-270, and the dangers of cars trying to turn left onto Research Boulevard from the curb cuts on that side of the property. Signals and striping will be modified for both roads, representatives for the applicant said.
Planning Commission
Chair Charles Littlefield
While not the fault of the applicant, the downsides of a Countywide push by political leaders to replace office parks with residential, and to a lesser extent, retail, surfaced during the nearly-four-hour discussion. The prospect of losing high-wage office and research jobs (one structure removed for this project was a laboratory) did not sit well with commission chair Charles Littlefield. Replacing those high-wage jobs with retail and restaurant positions is "just not good for people's economic well-being," Littlefield said, although he was supportive of the project in general.

A second problem of the conversion - the rest of the office/research facilities (there's a reason the road has its name, after all) are still there. One of them, a biomanufacturing facility that manufactures vaccines, is directly adjacent to the future shopping center.

The site manager for the biomanufacturing facility said unidentified cars and trucks are always a security concern for them as it is. With truck traffic now increasing with the shopping center, that could present a problem. The site manager said their federal contracts depend on having tight security for their facility. It takes four keycard swipes just to get from his car to his office, he said.

Trucks are examined closely for fear that they may contain explosives, and be used in a terrorist attack on their facility, which handles dangerous diseases its vaccines cure or treat. They not only are concerned about the standard terror threats from abroad, he said, but also from the Animal Liberation Front. While their facility has no animals on-site, he said, the ALF could mistakenly believe there were.

Hill said he was "concerned" about the security issues raised by the site manager, who said he was not aware of any facility like his in the region that was this close to a retail center.

I'm hoping that drive-thru restaurant will bring a new fast food brand not currently in Rockville, or at least return one that left town in recent years. "Two menu boards that taper down to one lane at the pickup window" sounds a lot like a common layout at newer McDonald's locations. It would be nice to get a Hardee's, Jack in the Box or White Castle in terms of new ones, or bring back KFC or A&W.

Hill called Research Row "a great addition to this area of the city."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Donate used bikes this weekend in Twinbrook, enjoy a block party

The Rockville Bike Hub is hosting a block party and bicycle drive this Saturday, June 11, outside Revolution Cycles at 5750 Fishers Lane near the Twinbrook Metro station, from 3:00-6:00 PM. They are especially seeking bikes for kids in 1st through 5th grade. Kids get the bikes as a reward for completing a small service project, as part of a project co-sponsored by the City of Rockville.

Adult bikes are also welcome, and will be distributed for training purposes, or for distribution by Bikes for the World.

Get your bike checked or minor repairs when you visit, or try out an E-bike. VisArts will offer bike-themed crafts, and there will be games and activities for the whole family. For the adults, there will also be beer from 7 Locks Brewery. For everyone, there will be food from local restaurants, and live music by modern/classic rock band Shirkaday.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

MoCo planning staff recommends disapproval of 1000 Westmore Ave. as bus depot site

A second Rockville site targeted by Montgomery County as a potential school bus depot, 1000 Westmore Avenue, failed to gain approval from staff at the County Planning Department yesterday. The staff report recommends the County Planning Board disapprove the County's request to acquire the site, a proposal to be taken up by the Board at its June 16 meeting.

In the report, staff indicates that they conclude the proposed acquisition of the site by the County for parking school buses there is inconsistent with the County's master plan and the existing zoning of the property. They say the County has failed to provide sufficient information regarding all of the potential impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhood. In absence of that information, staff says they have independently concluded that the noise impact could be far higher with buses than under other light industrial uses in that zone. Other impacts identified by staff include traffic, safety and environmental issues.

Indicative of the rush to acquire any usable site for buses, the result of County elected officials' failure to do so prior to the deadline for turning over the existing Shady Grove bus depot to developers, the County did not submit a Site Selection Study or analysis. Without such a study, staff wrote, they cannot support the acquisition of this - or any other - site by the County for a bus depot or parking lot.

The IM 2.5-H-50 zoning of the Westmore site does not allow industrial uses with excessive noise, dust or other disruptive impacts, and does not require the sort of transportation links that a fleet of buses would need to get in and out of the neighborhood.

In another indication that the County Council did not do its homework, the County Department of General Services Deputy Director Greg Ossont wrote to planners that DGS is using money allocated to it by the Council last summer to buy the Westmore site. All nine councilmembers voted in February to approve funding for design and construction of a bus depot at the other controversial Rockville site, the Carver Educational Services Center. Several councilmembers have now attempted to distance themselves from that vote, claiming they had not read the resolution they voted for.

Were it not for those two actions by the Council (among others), we would not be in this situation today, an embarrassment the Council understandably wants to downplay. Never has "the dog ate my homework" caused so much trouble for so many communities.

Planning staff heard loud and clear from Rockville's Mayor and Council, and residents, that Westmore - like Carver - was completely unacceptable for a depot. The Legacy at Lincoln Park Homeowners Association, the Lincoln Park Civic Association, Rockville Housing Enterprises, and the East Rockville Civic Association were among the formal organizations weighing in against the bus plan for Westmore.

Several letters noted that the bus plan is in conflict with the Lincoln Park neighborhood plan residents collaborated with the City to pass in 2007, which included the intent to phase out industrial uses around the community.

The final decision now rests with the Planning Board.

Should the Board follow the recommendation, and with the Carver proposal on life support, the County will be in full panic mode shortly in its effort to find a site. Ossont has recently indicated the Gude landfill is off the table due to environmental issues. Where to next? Derwood? Avery Road? Darnestown? The plot thickens.

The question now is, which MoCo community is going to be left without a chair when the music stops in this fiasco, unless the Council simply blows up the whole "Smart Growth Initiative" project, allowing the depot to remain at Shady Grove. It is unclear whether they would face legal action from the developer if they were to do so.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Montgomery County has "open data" - until you ask for it

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer has used the concept of open data ostensibly to promote transparency in government - but more often has used it to promote himself in the local media. Rockville residents seeking answers about why their quiet residential neighborhoods have been selected to receive Montgomery County Public School bus depots are now finding government isn't quite as open as Mr. Riemer boasted.

In December 2014, Riemer touted the County's "new policy of sharing valuable data openly with the public. The new law is a foundation for a new digital strategy for Montgomery County, which I have helped formulate with County Executive Ike Leggett and his superb team."

Was government information open to the public in May 2016? Only if you have $4892 burning a hole in your pocket.

Land-use attorney Michele Rosenfeld made Maryland Public Information Act requests of MCPS and the Montgomery County Department of General Services for all public records relating to the designation of the Carver Educational Services Center parking lot as a bus depot.

On May 23, the DGS informed Rosenfeld that her request would cost $2332 to process. The same day, MCPS told her their charge would be $2560. Even the Mayor and Council of Rockville have been stonewalled by the County and MCPS in seeking information about the bus depot fiasco. In fact, representatives from both declined to show up at a Mayor and Council meeting where the topic was discussed.

How many County government officials does it take to screw in a lightbulb - or, in this case, comply with an MPIA request? At least 8, with at least four apiece from DGS and MCPS, according to the letters.

The result?

County officials either have to grant a public interest waiver - entirely justified under the circumstances, or someone has to come up with $4892 to find out what secret process led to the Montgomery County Council voting in February to fund design and construction of a school bus depot at Carver. Of course, the Council now claims with a straight face that they did not read the resolution before voting for it (the only other alternative being that they did read it, and are lying to their consituents - neither answer is a good one, folks).

On his campaign website, Hans Riemer says, "Montgomery County’s government is YOUR government. You live here. You pay our taxes. You pay the salaries of each and every public employee, including me. You have a right to know what your government is doing. And I have made protecting that right a central part of my work."

In reality? Not so much. Should you have to pay again, to buy the "right to know what your government is doing?"

Friday, June 3, 2016

Should developers get tax cuts as County faces "perfect storm" of development, school overcrowding?

The first public discussion of two proposed massive tax cuts for developers took place before the Montgomery County Planning Board last night, but we won't have a sense of where this scheme is heading until we hear what the commissioners themselves have to say about it. That discussion will take place at a worksession next Thursday, June 9.

But to hear from parents and PTA officials at last night's public hearing, the school facility needs are great. And according to County Executive Ike Leggett, the County Council's disastrous FY-2017 tax-and-spend-and-tax-again budget means there will be no extra money next year.

The thought of cutting even a dime of taxes for developers - as taxes were just hiked to record levels on residents last week - should not even be under consideration by any credible public servant. We should be talking about an equal tax hike for developers, not a tax cut.

"The idea that growth and density are the solution to all problems" is the problem, suggested resident Max Bronstein. A representative of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster called the massive pending redevelopment in downtown Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, Westbard and Lyttonsville "the perfect storm," which will have great impacts on individual schools. He and Bronstein both noted that those single-school impacts often can be hidden from attention by the County's policy of measuring capacity by cluster averaging, rather than by each school's capacity.

Edward Johnson, a public school parent who lives in Bethesda, said the proposed reductions in what developers will pay related to school capacity "stands out as a loss to the County. We already don't have adequate funding" as it is. If anything, Johnson suggested, fees paid by developers should be going up, not down. "The developers are building the houses," said a representative of the Springbrook cluster, and should be contributing toward the cost of the students they are generating.

"We are many, many years behind constructing elementary school capacity" in the County, said Melissa McKenna, the Chair of the Capital Improvement Program committee of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. "Please keep in mind that 2500 students are enough to fill three-and-a-half elementary schools," she said.

One mechanism being used to deliver the massive tax cuts to developers is to only count student generation from developments built in the last 10 years, rather including homes built before then. McKenna asked the board to "reconsider using all-year rates" instead, which the planning staff's own report shows would generate as much as 60% more revenue for school construction - and even that isn't enough, as that's the tax level we're at right now for developers. As it stands, McKenna observed, developer school payments "strike me as under-received."

Clearly the County Council and planning staff are aiming to shift the cost burden of school construction from developers to residents, as the new FY-2017 budget proves. A massive tax hike for you, while giving a massive tax cut for developers, is simply immoral. If we are in as bad of a shape with infrastructure as we are told, what sane person would proposed reducing the burden of developers? What is the argument? To encourage more development with even less revenue to cover costs? Nuts.

A separate issue in the Subdivision Staging Plan that contains the developer tax cut proposals is whether or not to extend the tax exemptions for developers currently allowed via an Enterprise Zone in downtown Silver Spring.

One resident noted that it has cost the Silver Spring community severely in lost adequate facilities revenue, citing the "unintended consequences of the enterprise zone." Twenty years of exemption from school payments and taxes has had "consequences for our schools."

But representatives of downtown Silver Spring projects already in the works say it would be unfair to change the rules now. Attorney Bob Dalrymple, representing Washington Property Company, said his client's profit margin is already "razor-thin" on its Ripley public-private partnership project that includes a new Progress Place facility. "The real issue is the economic viability [of the project] and general fairness here," Dalrymple testified. He suggested the Board grandfather the WPC project to retain the enterprise zone tax terms.

Attorney Pat Harris, not testifying for a particular client, agreed that grandfathering would be a solution. Getting rid of the enterprise zone in the middle of the development process "creates an incredible burden" for existing projects.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Samovar opens at Rockville Town Square

Samovar has finally opened at 201 N. Washington Street in Rockville Town Square. They are celebrating tonight starting at 8:00 PM with an appearance by belly dancer Nimeera, who can be seen wielding a scimitar in the dining room in videos on their new Facebook page. I've been searching Facebook for Samovar for about a year, so it was a bit surreal to actually get a result last night.

Samovar features Russian and Central Asian cuisine. You can check out the menu online. The owner won several National USSR awards for his cooking in the former Soviet Union - it doesn't get any more legit than that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

After approving historic tax hike, County Council now wants new Metro tax

"It's not just, 'no,'
it's 'hell no.'"

Will the massively-inconvenient Metro "safety project" scheduled to begin this weekend actually produce results? That is hardly clear. What is clear, is that the inconvenience is in part designed for a goal beyond safety - softening up you, the taxpayer, for a major tax increase.

We've already dealt with one "urgent" Metro crusade to fix long-delayed mechanical and safety issues throughout the system, leaving many weekend riders standing for hours in stations or taking shuttle buses instead. The results of that were zero, squat, zilch, as the current safety crisis proves.

But the big talk we've been hearing about the need for extreme measures like shutting down whole lines for months just happens to be coming from some of the biggest proponents of new taxes to fund Metro, including D.C. Councilman Jack Evans and Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner.

Funding increased Metro capacity - expanding to 8-car trains, in particular, and increasing capacity on the Red Line north of Grosvenor - was something many transportation advocates have supported. The idea of simply pouring a whole lot of additional money into the bastion of incompetency known as WMATA, however, is a completely different prospect. It is very similar, coincidentally, to the Montgomery County Council's irresponsible decision to massively raise taxes on residents, and bust the bank by going $90 million over the required funding level for Montgomery County Public Schools - without a dramatically-different strategy to tackle the achievement gap than the failed one being utilized now by MCPS. Money down a toilet, in other words.

It's no surprise, then, that some of the loudest voices calling for a massive new tax for Metro are on the Council.

“We hope to have a plan ready to present by the end of September,” Councilmember Roger Berliner told The Washington Post. “Between now and then, we’re going to work with our jurisdictions to see if we can come up with unanimity with respect to a mechanism — a sales tax, a gas tax." 

Are you kidding me?

WMATA has shown zero results, and zero evidence to prove it is changing its ways. The agency is probably in need of a federal takeover, but even the feds don't want to touch this mess.

You'll also note that, once again, no proposal under consideration involves taxing developers, just the residents.

While many local leaders and media types are almost giddy about the pain you are going to feel using public transit starting this weekend, I have a more sobering prediction.

This really, really bad PR campaign designed to make you believe we really need to pour more money into the coffers of an entity ranking somewhere between Barwood Cab and the County liquor monopoly in terms of public popularity, is actually going to deal already-declining Metro a mortal blow. A grand strategy to get more cash is actually going to end up costing WMATA cash.

Because, starting this weekend, folks are going to be getting into their cars, not out of them. They're going to be buying cheap used cars. To a lesser extent, they're going to be biking or using Zipcar or Uber (don't tell the County Council). 

And many, many months from now, they're going to consider the calls for new taxes for a Metro slush fund. And they're going to consider the latest fare increases being proposed for the same service that ain't worth it at half the price.

And you know what they're going to say?

Their reaction will be exactly what Del. David Albo of Fairfax County's was: 

“It’s not just no, it’s ‘hell no,’ ”