Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Monday, June 29, 2015
Montgomery County is redeveloping the lower portion of the parking lot as the new headquarters of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and a town square.
Amenities in the residential building will include bicycle parking (and potentially a bicycle repair shop, if planners have their way), a Club Room, an L-shaped 5th floor courtyard terrace area, and a 3-story above-ground parking garage with 173 residential spaces. Garage access will be from a new private driveway at the northernmost end of the site. A rooftop garden and kitchen are planned, and a yoga studio is on planners' wish lists. There will also be a large County use space on the ground floor, which will also feature retail space on the west side of the building.
There are drawbacks. The project plan refers to a controversial extension of Ennalls Avenue to Georgia Avenue, as proposed in the Wheaton CBD sector plan. And extended absence of the existing Parking Lot 13 will also be a tremendous hardship to the businesses that surround it in the Wheaton Triangle.
Despite a Wheaton Sector Plan that was highly-favorable to developers, there has been little interest by the private sector in redeveloping Wheaton since it passed in 2011. The Wheaton Triangle public-private project has been touted by county officials as a potential catalyst for private sector action. Supporting longtime local businesses who depend on Lot 13 while developing it will be the critical challenge for the county.
The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the Sketch Plan for the project at its July 9 meeting. Planning staff is recommending approval of the plan, with conditions.
Images via Montgomery County Planning Department
Friday, June 26, 2015
No further details on their condition were provided.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has approved the Purple Line light rail project. It will connect Bethesda and New Carrollton via Silver Spring.
The state funding will be less than anticipated, however. Hogan says Maryland will contribute only $168 million, not the $700+ million originally forecast. That will increase the time of travel, and put a greater burden on Montgomery and Prince George's Counties to make up the difference.
Eventually the room the haze was emitting from was located, and fire officials were investigating the source at last report, according to Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesperson Pete Piringer.
One student took to Twitter to report his take on the incident during the evacuation:
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Every 2nd and 4th Friday this month in the Wheaton Triangle, you can enjoy a free concert and outdoor movie. And they're actually showing some popular, recent releases like Guardians of the Galaxy.
This Friday, June 26, HariKaraoke will perform live at 7:00 PM. Stay afterward for the movie "How to Train Your Dragon 2".
Bring a chair or blanket, and head to 2424 Reedie Drive this Friday night.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
A new step system will offer increases of 1.25% within a grade. Employees designated as "distinguished" via evaluation will be eligible for an additional step each year they are rated as such.
The fiscal impact of the new plan to the city will be $1.2 million over three years.
Photo courtesy City of Takoma Park
Monday, June 22, 2015
- Montgomery County's office vacancy rate has increased in the last year
- 11 county office buildings are nearly or totally vacant
- GSA could vacate 1.1 million square feet of office space in the county over the next 5 years, a devastating blow on the horizon
- Montgomery County's share of the total jobs in the region has steadily declined over the last 10 years, during which time no major corporation relocated to the county
Some of the report's analysis and suggestions are off base. For example, one approach PES suggests is simply giving up on office space and converting it to residential. While developers and planners have already been taking that approach from Bethesda to Wheaton to Clarksburg, to continue on that path will generate a transportation disaster. Roads and Metrorail already overwhelmed by the current volume of commuters cannot handle a county where all the jobs are in DC and Virginia. Smart growth demands jobs be created, not vacated, across Montgomery County to reduce commuting distance. Instead, according to the report's data, MoCo planners and councilmembers have allowed 558,000 SF of planned office space to be canceled or converted to residential. And notes only a handful of the many planned projects and existing office spaces being converted to residential or canceled. We're literally becoming the DC area's ultimate bedroom community.
Secondly, the impact of telecommuting and shrinking office sizes are grossly overstated. The report attempts to partially blame those trends for vacant office buildings. But the same report acknowledges that the vast majority of jobs created in recent years are in retail and restaurants. You can't fold jeans or make a frappucino over the internet. There were no great numbers of private sector, high-wage jobs added in Montgomery County over the last decade. So you can't say telecommuting is the new normal when few of the new jobs can be done from home.
Thirdly, it also oversells the success of office space in high density urban areas within Montgomery County. While downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring indeed are desirable locations for employers, neither have attracted a major corporate headquarters in over a decade any more than the suburban areas of the county did. Wheaton is right on the Red Line as well, but is also a dead zone for office space.
If transit was the sole determining factor, Wheaton would be doing well. In fact, the report concedes this point on Page 40. It also notes that Wheaton and Glenmont are not convenient to I-270 and I-495, but fails to point out that two planned freeways (Rockville Freeway and Northern Parkway) that would have given both immediate access to the freeway system were canceled by the county decades ago. Whoops.
The report states - contrary to the current County Council's stated "transit-only" future, and its own final recommendations: "Subareas that can offer Metro and good roadway access within a walkable mixed-use environment will be the markets that recover most quickly."
Meanwhile, the Pike District of North Bethesda has been designed in the New Urbanism model for smart growth and walkable communities, and is on the Red Line as well. Yet it, too, has failed to attract a major corporate tenant. The only significant addition was a reshuffling of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch from Tower Oaks to Pike & Rose, which is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Strangely, the report claims a severe drop in the "White Flint" vacancy rate, without providing any data on what specific real estate and leasing moves account for their claim. Highly suspect.
If new urbanism and transit are so hot for employers, why is the Pike District utterly tanking for new corporate office space? Why are a gleaming new Class A office building at 4500 East-West Highway, and a revamped one at 7550 Wisconsin Avenue - both walking distance to the Bethesda Metro station, restaurants and nightlife - mostly vacant?
Finally, the report closes with a waving-the-pom-poms endorsement of the current County talking points for vibrant, walkable urban developments with transit, and infill development. That's great. But if you strip the corporate, government and government contractor jobs out of DC and Northern Virginia, guess what? They would both become ghost towns like the report claims single-use, auto-dependent suburban office parks are now in Montgomery County. All the window dressing and vibrancy in the world doesn't make a difference if you don't have any jobs or affordable housing for young professionals.
Yet the report suggest abandoning current and planned office space in places like Glenmont and the northern I-270 corridor. That suggestion is contrary to smart growth.
I'm not saying it isn't good to have great urban areas. We have them, and they are working well in many respects. But to claim that urbanizing the rest of the county is the magic solution to attracting jobs is disingenuous.
We have to look elsewhere to find the answers. The authors of the report have partially conceded this in briefly referring to road access. They've noted that more successful jurisdictions are offering better incentive packages. It costs too much to operate a company in Montgomery County and the state of Maryland. Gridlocked roads drive up the costs of labor and shipping, among other expenses. There's a reason you get charged your shipping rate by zip code - you pay more when you live in an area with congested roads.
And we need to target industries like defense and aerospace that are never going away. They happen to need the kind of larger square footage that the I-270 corridor and upcounty can provide - research labs and testing and manufacturing facilities won't fit in tiny urban footprints. The report does not even consider those types of employers, much less Fortune 500 companies, and buys into what our local elected officials and Wall Street crooks keep trying to sell the American people on - that the future is only in the "knowledge economy" and small companies. Wall Street outsourcers, Warren Buffett and China certainly are hoping you'll believe them.
Many parts of the report sound as if the writers had been briefed by County officials and politicians, rather than taking a completely detached and independent look at the situation. They should not be referring to the failed Nighttime Economy Task Force at all, much less praising its utter failure. Those apparent communications have tainted the objectivity of the report.
And nowhere does it mention one of the County's major traffic and economic development liabilities - the lack of direct access to Dulles International Airport. It's impossible to take seriously a report that doesn't talk about that at all. You know about the Nighttime Economy Task Force, but say nothing about the competitive disadvantage of lacking access to the preferred airport of international businesspeople and corporations?
Again, this suggests the research process was poisoned by political interference. "Don't you dare talk about Dulles Airport or new Potomac River bridges in this report, do you understand?"
There is a lot of valuable data in this report, but its final recommendations are too tailored to what the Montgomery County political machine and its developer patrons want to hear. A report that tells us to keep going the way we are currently going is not going to bring about change.
Friday, June 19, 2015
The bill was introduced by Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At-large), who was thanked by several speakers for his work on the legislation and with the community on these matters. It is co-sponsored by Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-District 4).
One prominent supporter of the bill is Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), who is also running for Chris Van Hollen's seat in the 8th Congressional District. A member of the 2010 county Tenant Work Group, Raskin said the bill would avoid the most controversial proposals of that group while establishing "some semblance of fairness" to those receiving excessive rent increases. He predicted that despite the new regulations proposed, the "rental market will continue to operate and thrive" if the bill passes.
Jill Ortman-Fouse, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, also testified in favor of the bill. She said her experience as an education activist, and interaction with students from low-income families, has convinced her of the importance of stable, well-maintained housing. "Decent stable housing contributes to academic outcomes," she argued. Recalling a visit to a student's apartment, she said that despite deplorable maintenance conditions and vermin, the child's perfect attendance awards were proudly taped up on the wall. Ortman-Fouse said that with passage of the bill, "parents can reasonably budget for rent without surprises."
Another local official, UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne, said "we all deserve to know accurate information from licensed landlords." Renne decried "ridiculous rent increases of 10. 20, 30% over the standard," voluntary rate of increase. In supporting the bill, he also noted that the county is "losing affordable housing units by the hundreds each year." Renters shouldn't be treated as "second-class citizens" versus the "landlord lobby," Renne said.
Clarence Snuggs, representing County Executive Ike Leggett, wasn't quite as enthusiastic. While Leggett "supports the legislation generally," Snuggs suggested the cost to the County of inspecting every rental property annually would exceed "current and future budget levels." He said Leggett recommends allowing the flexibility of "landlords and tenants to draft their own addenda" to leases. Snuggs also thought the allowance for 2 months of continued occupancy after the end of a lease was contrary to state law.
Meredith Weisel, a VP at the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors concurred that portions of the bill conflict with existing law, and argued that much of the legislation would be "overly burdensome" for landlords. She said making rent increase data available online would "publicly shame landlords." Weisel said those increases are "made to look excessive", but are actually driven by market forces.
Also on the critical side - while not outright opposing the bill - was Robert Goldman of Montgomery County Housing Partnership, who said "some of the details of the bill go beyond consensus" on landlord-tenant reforms. "We must make the guidelines reasonable," he proposed. Goldman suggested tightening the language about what specific infractions, or lack thereof, would differentiate the need for an annual inspection versus 3-year inspections. It would be helpful to specify a "severity test for code infractions," he said. What if a tenant removes the battery from a smoke detector, Goldman asked rhetorically. Would that trigger an annual inspection even if the landlord was not at fault?
The most emotional testimony came from renters themselves, who told of whopping rent increases, unhealthy living environments, landlord retaliation, and the stress and struggle of being a renter when income is moderate or fixed.
"My wife and I are feeling like Luke Skywalker trapped in the trash masher, with the walls closing in," said James Perry, a renter in Silver Spring. Perry said his rent has increased by 3% since last year, and that he and his wife are spending "slightly over half of what we bring in monthly" on rent. Some of his neighbors down the hall have been hit with rent increases of 5-10%, he said. Passage of the bill "would take a load off my shoulders," Perry said, and give him data he could use to comparison shop for another apartment.
Jheanelle Wilkins, another Silver Spring renter who is a member of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, said many tenants are initially fooled by temporary low rents when they sign a new lease. Wilkins said she herself has received the "dreaded letter" from management advising to renew the lease or face surcharges going month to month. She also said annual inspections are important.
Janet Lipman, 72, had an affordable rent to start, but it increased several percentage points over the county's recommended voluntary amount annually. Recently, she said, it was a 6% increase when the county advised 2.8%. Her parking also went up to $90 a month, requiring her to take on a part-time job even though she had retired. The alternative, she said, was paying a 22.6% increase on a month-to-month extension.
Another Young Democrat, William Roberts, said he was priced out of downtown Silver Spring. Roberts said the bill would better inform tenants of their rights, and add transparency.
Joyce Hymes, a retired GSA employee who has been a renter for 50 years, said landlords "deserve a fair return on their investment," but that renters also have a right to affordable and well-maintained housing. She said more than half of her monthly income goes to her rent, and that her electric bill was recently broken out from the monthly rent as well. Hymes said her landlord retaliated against her by threatening eviction after she reported code violations to the fire marshall. She said she only avoided her eviction after the Montgomery County Renters Alliance intervened. "Thank you, Marc Elrich, for caring," she said, suggesting the bill would create "a more level playing field" for renters and landlords.
Also renting in Silver Spring was Jessica Simon, who said she was offered a 4.7% rent increase, or a 64.5% increase with a month-to-month lease. When she asked her landlord for the county's suggested rate, he told her there is no negotiating. She asked the Council to pass the bill "to demonstrate you want renters to stay and thrive in the County."
Zorayda Moreira is used to helping others through her work with CASA. But as a renter, she herself has "had to challenge them so many times [even] with my background." She said the bill "incentivizes good behavior" by landlords, and added that she hopes "this is the beginning of the conversation, and not the end."
Laurie Chin, also a member of the Young Democrats, said "this legislation matters." She said posting rent increase data would discourage excessive hikes. "Not everyone [in Montgomery County] lives in a $1 million house in Bethesda," she noted.
Latasha Harris told of living with no air conditioning at Kensington House, where she is VP of the newly-formed tenant association. Harris said there is mold on walls, ceilings and air conditioning units in the apartments. There is also an uncertified elevator, she said, and cited an 84.3% rent increase in the last 5 years.
In response to Harris' testimony, Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At-large) asked Snuggs - the County Executive's representative - to have Leggett investigate complaints about the building.
The legislation will now be discussed in a worksession.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
While many Bus Rapid Transit advocates feel the ITA would be the best hope of paying for a BRT plan that would not qualify for federal funding, taxpayers are not so enthusiastic about the idea.
Then again, some on the Transit Task Force, which hosted the public hearing, weren't so enthusiastic about hearing from taxpayers, either. When task force member Jim Zepp tried to ask a follow-up question of a speaker early on, Chair Mark Winston objected. "We can't ask questions?" Zepp asked. "Questions are not in order," Winston replied. "I'm not going to argue with you about it." Eventually, task force members Richard Parsons and Casey Anderson intervened to offer a compromise on the number of questions that could be asked, which Winston found acceptable. However, Anderson grew testy when Zepp later attempted to ask a second question of a panel, shutting that inquiry down abruptly.
Speaking of compromises, there haven't been any by the county yet, despite the overwhelming community opposition. One wonders why they are going forward in the face of some of the loudest resident rage in recent history (Or why the ITA hearings always start at 6:00, rather than the standard 7:30 PM start for most county public hearings).
That controversy isn't based on the misfired rollout of the legislation last winter, South Four Corners Citzens Association Vice President Larry Dickter testified. "Rather, it was and remains the very concept of an unelected, unaccountable entity, with powers of eminent domain and the authority to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, without being required to submit its capital or operating budget to the County for approval that makes the proposed [ITA] a non-starter.
Dickter and other speakers also criticized the tone ITA proponents have taken in responding to citizen and organized labor objections, and their the use of pejorative terms like anti-transit, NIMBY, and "howling unionists". He also noted that under a recent National Labor Relations Board decision, "the ITA could well qualify as a private employer subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB, and bound by federal labor law, not County statute." Dickter argued that a much less expensive alternative to the ITA would be to create a division within MCDOT similar to the Maryland Transit Administration.
Union representatives sought to ensure there would be no privatization of transit services in the county, and that projects overseen by the ITA would require Project Labor Agreements. UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne said he also had oversight and transparency concerns, and thought homeowners should not pay more taxes to the ITA than developers. Echoing Dickter's question of the need for an authority independent of MCDOT, Renne asked, "is another bureaucracy truly necessary?"
"We agree the transportation infrastructure needs new sources of revenue," Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams said. "What we don't agree on, is that to get a more reliable system, we need to privatize." Williams slammed elected officials' recent praise of Public-Private-Partnerships (often called "P3s" for short). "P3 is a branding of privatization," Williams declared. He asked the task force to examine "the failures of P3 across the world," from London to Los Angeles.
Residents and taxpayers were no more enthusiastic.
"We don't want the ITA, and we don't want the sham, scam bus rapid transit," Silver Spring resident Michael Williamson said. He said the sole purpose of the ITA was to enable BRT, which he predicted would be "a Silver Spring Transit Center on wheels", which elicited raucous laughter and applause from the audience. Williamson argued the few supporters of the ITA are "developers, professional transit lobbyists, or those looking for a job from one or the other." "If you think an ITA is such a great idea, put it on the ballot," he challenged the task force.
Howard Greif, representing the Greater Olney Civic Assocation, said the association continues to oppose the ITA, and the current BRT proposal. He said the association could only support a plan that funds BRT with existing local, state and federal funds, permits "documented citizen input," and which requires voter approval through a ballot referendum.
Richard Parsons said "I don't believe this is the only way, or even the best way" to fund transit projects. He suggested limiting any plan to the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT line initially, with a special taxing district along I-270 or countywide to fund it. Parsons also advocated a regional approach, that would connect with BRT systems in Frederick and Prince George's Counties.
Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation had a different approach, discussing alternatives to both the ITA and the BRT which they felt could be more effective and less costly.
Jerry Garson suggested offering free Ride On service in the county, which he estimated would cost taxpayers $22 million more per year.
MCCF President Paula Bienenfeld, while expressing the Federation's "absolute opposition" to the ITA, also endorsed the free Ride On concept. She also referred to the successful approach in Houston TX, where - without increasing taxes or creating an ITA - the city boosted transit ridership by using data to analyze existing routes and make changes. They came up with a new route system that placed more of their existing buses "where people use and need them" the most. "No one wants the BRT, and certainly no one wants the ITA," she said in her testimony. "Stick a fork in it."
Nancy Abeles of Bethesda argued that the new tax burden the ITA would place on residents and businesses would "further weaken our ability to compete in the region."
Route 29 resident Harold McDougall said he feels the ITA and tax proposals reflect a growing gap "between the citizens and the people who make decisions that affect their lives."
County Executive Ike Leggett testified and accused ITA detractors of making false statements. Leggett said he never proposed a $1.8 billion BRT plan. Silver Spring resident Harriet Quinn begged to differ, saying Leggett's plan was actually $3 billion.
Strathmore-Bel Pre Civic Association representative Max Bronstein criticized the "vague and elastic language" of the ITA legislation, and argued that self-driving cars would make public transit obsolete.
Steven Poor was more blunt, saying there was "only one way to repair this proposal - throw it away." He noted that using state legislation would, in effect, give other counties a hand in our taxation policies. Poor predicted the ITA would prove as effective and efficient as the WSSC and WMATA, to knowing chuckles from the crowd.
I thought Geri Rosenberg of Communities for Transit (which supports BRT) had a good suggestion - requiring ITA appointees to be transit riders. When the task force was asked by Bienenfeld who among them took transit to the meeting last night, only Del. Marc Korman (D-District 16) raised his hand.
Bonnie Bell of the Greater Goshen Civic Association, and also representing the Clarksburg Civic Association, said the County Council actually does have the power now to exceed the cap on property taxes if it wants. But that requires a politically-risky unanimous, 9-member vote, and "We all know that isn't going to happen," she said. "We do not support taxation without representation," Bell said, holding up a mockup of a license plate similar to the District's "Taxation without Representation" model.
Carole Ann Barth exhorted developers to finance the system if they want it. If they're not willing to do that, "you can't expect the rest of us to get on board."
"If MCDOT can't do their job," resident Cary Lamari said, "put someone in there who can do the job," not an ITA. "Give Gino the job," Lamari advised, pointing to union leader Renne. "I bet you it gets done."
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
The document opens by stating, "Montgomery County Public Schools are committed to a culture of respect and equity that embraces the diversity of our community and ensures that every student has the opportunity to succeed and thrive. Part of that commitment is making sure our students have the right to express their religious beliefs and process free from discrimination, bullying, or harassment. As a system, we are committed to making feasible and reasonable accommodations for those beliefs and practices."
A complete draft version of the document may be read here.
Mansfield Kaseman, County Executive Ike Leggett's Interfaith Community Liaison, reacted favorably to the document's release. "We are unaware of any other school system producing such a full spectrum of policies and guidelines," Kaseman said in a statement. "Thanks to our collaborative relationship, every principal, teacher, and family will have the guidelines in August."
The topic is particularly timely, as some Muslim public school students continue to press MCPS to show the same consideration of their religious holidays that other major religions have today. 170 students at Chevy Chase Elementary School recently submitted a petition to the school board asking for MCPS to close on two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) is expected to announce his decision on construction of the controversial project any day now. If Hogan's answer is "yes", Male said, residents deserve to know more about what the impact of the project may be on Takoma Park.
Photo courtesy City of Takoma Park
Monday, June 15, 2015
Perhaps like me, you remember dining at the Roy Rogers in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center on Connecticut Avenue in decades past. That location - like many former Roy's - became a McDonald's eventually.
But now Roy's is coming back about a block away, in the Northgate Plaza Shopping Center at 13884 Georgia Avenue. Roy Rogers recently returned to Rockville, as well.
If you're wondering if the food is the same as you remember, here are my reviews of the 2015 Roy Rogers fried chicken, famous Double R Bar Burger, and the legendary Holster Fries.
Friday, June 5, 2015
Other troubling details:
A May 23 memo from County Attorney Marc Hansen leaves gigantic loopholes you could drive a (rapid) bus through.
It claims, for example, that the unlimited eminent domain authority the ITA would wield is limited by Bill MC 24-15. Not true.
Hansen states that the legislation "places an indirect limitation on the Transit Authority’s power to condemn, because it requires that the Authority submit a 6-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to the County for approval."
Whoops. Check out the actual legislation posted on the TTF website. On Page 5, Item 6 of the proposed legislation, it only says that the County "may include a requirement" for submission of a 6-year CIP. "May" does not equal "requires".
It also does not require the ITA to submit any budget for review by anybody. On Page 6, section II, it clearly states this: "MAY NOT REQUIRE THE TRANSIT AUTHORITY TO SUBMIT ITS CAPITAL OR ITS OPERATING BUDGET TO THE COUNTY FOR APPROVAL" (italicized emphasis mine).
To that broader lack of accountability, later in the memo Hansen clearly admits "The legislation specifically prohibits, however, the County from requiring the Transit Authority to submit its capital and operating budgets to the County for approval."
One other controversial provision Hansen does acknowledge is the proposed power of the ITA to create unlimited debt. This provision will, in Hansen's words, "prevent debt incurred by the Transit Authority from being considered as County debt by bond rating agencies."
Do the math - unlimited debt with no fear from County Council members of losing their AAA bond rating. Unlimited power by the ITA to raise taxes on you to pay back their unlimited debts. What could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, conversely, how about if the ITA somehow went bankrupt? Who would be left holding the bag for an unlimited amount of debt? It seems that the taxpayer loses under any outcome.
The document notes that state legislation may be written to create the taxing authority as soon as early September. It states that a second public hearing will be held in September, as well.
Written statements are being encouraged by the document, which civic activists recognize are utterly useless, as the general public and media rarely examine written statements submitted at these hearings. If it isn't heard live, or reported in the media afterward, it essentially is the proverbial tree falling in the forest.
Important to note if you plan to (try to) speak at this forum - you must sign up online by noon on June 17, by calling 240-777-7165. The hearing will begin at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, June 17 in the 3rd Floor Council Hearing Room at the County Council office building, located at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville.