Friday, February 24, 2017

Vehicle burglarized at YMCA, assault on Wisconsin Ave. + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on February 21, according to crime data:

Theft. 8300 block Woodmont Avenue.

Vehicle burglary. 7200 block Glenbrook Road.

Drug arrest. Rockville Pike at Wilson Drive.

Vehicle burglary. YMCA.

Vehicle burglary. 9900 block Mayfield Drive.

Assault. 6900 block Wisconsin Avenue.

Theft from vehicle. 9400 block Old Georgetown Road.

Assault. 7100 block Westlake Terrace.

MoCo Planning Board backs developer over community on cemetery, and it's not a good look

Westbard Sketch Plan Hearing Part I: "Enough is Enough"

The Montgomery County Planning Board voted unanimously to approve Equity One's sketch plan yesterday, after a marathon session and emotional testimony that fell on seemingly deaf (and politically tone-deaf) ears. While the section of Equity One's property containing an African-American cemetery was hatched out of the sketch plan, and will have to be approved separately after a cemetery study is completed, the action disregarded concerns of the Macedonia Baptist Church and community. Planning Department claims of concern for the cemetery were undermined severely by the department's failure to execute anything in writing, to ensure a fully-transparent and respectful survey of the cemetery site takes place.

In a last-minute and jumbled modification of the sketch plan conditions, the Board added a two-month deadline that seems to either laughably endorse the idea that this complex and massive cemetery study can be completed in eight weeks, merely demand a contract and scope of work report, or serve as a loophole for Equity One to gain more immediate development rights on at least some parts of the Westwood Tower site via a condition modification, rather than having to go through a sketch plan amendment process.

Even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that the plan approval will protect the cemetery throughout this development process, the optics and subtext of the decision was another public relations disaster for 8787 Georgia Avenue.

The most moving testimony of the marathon 5-hour session, came from the final speaker, Ronald Cunningham. His family was among those who lived in the historic black community in the Westbard area of River Road that lasted for a century after Maryland Emancipation in the 1860s. "This is very emotional for me," Cunningham told the board, his voice cracking several times during his remarks.

"My family was born on River Road," Cunningham said. "That graveyard is there. It's not a spot you can say it's in limbo. It's not in limbo. It's a spot right here on Earth that we walk on. The spirit of my ancestors that were there before me. Equity One should give us that piece of land. They took that from me a long time ago. I want it back. We want it back. Equity One, I got to say to you all, don't do that. We are not animals. Give us that land, so my spirit, the holy spirit of my family, can live in peace."

The fact that this sacred ground is all that is left of the black community, besides the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road - and the subtext of wealthy whites gaining control of the fate of African-Americans in death, and their sacred land where they rest - seemed to escape the board, but not those testifying.

"This land belongs to other people by a higher law," said a representative of the Washington Peace Center, an anti-racism grassroots organization in the District. She asked the board to consider "what is being stolen from black people to benefit white people in this room today."

The Rev. Charlie Davis of the Macedonia Baptist Church decried the "stalling tactics" that have caused the cemetery investigation to fall many months behind schedule, conveniently allowing the development approval process to speed past it on the calendar. "Justice delayed is justice denied," Davis said. "This hearing has a cloud of contempt, and not of good faith." A veteran of the Vietnam era, Davis noted that even today, newly-discovered remains of American soldiers in faraway lands are airlifted home, and given respectful ceremonial burials. "If they go to that length," Davis said, "that suggests there is something sacred about the remains of the dead."

Harvey Matthews, another former resident of River Road whose family home was located where Whole Foods is now, said, "I sit here with a heavy heart this afternoon." He noted that "the tulips that come up every spring [at the Whole Foods property] were planted by my mother." An attendee of the River Road Colored School, Somerset Elementary, Western Jr. High and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Matthews wishes there was a physical place that his descendants could learn about their heritage and history in the River Road community.

Matthews and several others from the Macedonia Baptist Church community advocated for the creation of a museum on land or in space donated by Equity One to the county. "Create a space that honors our ancestors," Matthews suggested.

While the Planning Department has issued press release after press release touting its cooperation with all stakeholders in the cemetery controversy, church leaders tell a different story. "We have not met them even once," MBC interim pastor Rev. Segun Adebayo said of the Planning Department and Equity One. "There has been no meaningful progress, contrary to what has been propagated in the media. We have no confidence in Equity One."

In fact, the Planning Department still has no contract with the independent anthropologist and archaeologist who are supposed to oversee Equity One's cemetery search contractor, to ensure a transparent process. Adebayo said the church would be more comfortable if the county were hiring the search firm, instead of the developer. "He who pays the piper, calls the tune," he said.

Church officials and descendants of the black community and of those buried in the cemetery see history repeating itself in 2017. Despite the entrepreneurial initiative and hard work that created a thriving black community, "they could not fight off greedy developers." Now it's happening again. "Where is our humanity," Adebayo asked. "Enough is enough! Let our dead rest in peace." He said the church will do everything in its power to "extract the honor and dignity of our dead. The remains of our ancestors do not belong to anyone. They are not subject to negotiations."

Dealing with the Planning Department on the cemetery issue "has left me wondering if I live in Montgomery County, or Montgomery, Alabama," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, head of the church's social justice ministry.

For their part, the Planning Board didn't seem concerned about the comparison. "I think what staff did here is reasonable," Chair Casey Anderson declared during board discussion after the public hearing. "I'm OK with what staff did," in allowing Equity One to get sketch plan approval before the cemetery survey is completed. As four white representatives of Equity One were repeatedly given the floor by Anderson during the discussion, he shushed church officials who should legally have had a seat at the table, as the highest priority stakeholders in the matter at hand.

As Planning Director Gwen Wright characterized the ongoing efforts to secure a contract to begin the cemetery study optimistically, Coleman-Adebayo interjected, "But she's saying things that aren't true." "I can't hear from you now," Anderson scolded. "Maybe later." But by the end of the hearing and vote, no church representative had been called on by the chair.

Meanwhile, the board and department's racially-insensitive handling of the cemetery issue and protests surrounding it appear to have emboldened racist attitudes that were latent in Montgomery County, showing the danger of the media normalizing this "we don't have time to be politically correct anymore" style of planning. Racist comments about the cemetery and church community have been popping up in comment sections on the Washington Post and elsewhere. So far, no one on the Montgomery County Council has condemned the Planning Department and Planning Board's approach to this incredibly sensitive issue, and no councilmember has marched with the community in the cemetery fight. Planning Board commissioners are hand-picked by the County Council.

Most telling about Montgomery County's out-of-control planning process? The only testimony in favor of sketch plan at yesterday's hearing was from...Equity One. Yet, the sketch plan passed despite universal public testimony calling for a delay. In a representative democracy, how does that happen?

Email/call delegates NOW after unusual tactic keeps MoCo Council term limit-sabotage bill alive in Annapolis

Thanks to your calls and emails, and members of a committee who recognized the voting landscape has changed in Montgomery County, House Bill 348 (which would hand the Montgomery County Council a suite of tools to subvert the term limits passed by 70% of voters last November) was temporarily dead yesterday. But in an unusual move, the full delegation failed to respect the vote of their colleagues on the Economic Development Committee, and have kept HB 348 on their voting agenda for today.

Light up their phones and inboxes, and ask them to respect the will of the voters, and KILL BILL 348 by voting NO. The meeting starts at 10:00 AM, so the time to act is NOW.

Use this list of phone numbers and emails, or the email list below (just CC everybody on one message to get the job done):

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sweetgreen to go cashless at Bethesda Row

Sweetgreen will go cashless at Bethesda Row on March 8. All transactions will be made via their iPhone app or credit card, and cash will no longer be accepted.

The salad chain says that the move will save employees an average of 2 hours in cash counting time, speed up service, reduce armored car emissions and paper waste (as well as the risk of being robbed), and help the restaurant to provide custom offerings via their app. They say less than 10% of their customers use cash to make purchases.

Sweetgreen is located at 4831 Bethesda Avenue.

Source: Marriott wants to buy Tastee Diner in Bethesda

According to a source, Marriott Corporation has made an offer to buy the landmark Tastee Diner at 7731 Woodmont Avenue in downtown Bethesda. The Bethesda-based hospitality giant is preparing to build a new headquarters and hotel just down the street, where the vacant Tako Grill, Bethesda Court Hotel and Connor Building property are. In an apparent acknowledgement of the constrained size of that site, it appears the company is exploring the potential of buying up the rest of the north end of the block.
Aerial view of
Tastee Diner; the tall
building next to it
reflecting the neon light
is the Blackwell Building;
to the diner's right is the
Woodmont Grill

Reportedly, Marriott's current offer to the owners of Tastee Diner is $5 million. Of course, they would need to also buy up one of the most popular restaurants in Bethesda to connect to the Tastee Diner property, Woodmont Grill. There is also the Blackwell Building at the corner of Wisconsin and Norfolk Avenues.

The Marriott project is about 5 years off from completion, and the Connor Building was just recently demolished.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Contact delegates TODAY to stop MoCo Council's attempt to undermine term limits

As I reported last week, a bill that would give the Montgomery County Council several tools to undermine the term limits on their time in office is under consideration in Annapolis. HB 348 would the first step toward allowing the Council to stagger its terms, with some County Council seat elections moving to presidential years. Term limits passed overwhelmingly last November with nearly 70% of voters approving them. The County Council should not disrespect the voters' wishes for new leaders, and for a four-year cooling-off period for long-stagnant members who will finally be forced out.

Potential abuses the current text of the bill would allow include extension of term-limited councilmembers' terms for an additional two years, cutting short terms of new councilmembers they'd like to get rid of by two years, allowing those forced out by term limits in 2022 to run again in 2024 before the new Council has even four years to change the county's direction, and moving seats not as favorable to the county political cartel (District 2) to presidential years, when voters are paying less attention to county-level issues.

The Montgomery County delegation's Economic Development Committee will take up, and vote on, the bill tomorrow, Thursday, February 23.

and tell them to respect the voters' clear decision on term limits, and allow the reforms voters wanted to happen play out. The voters have not asked for this bill, some on the Council have.
Ask them to vote "no" and 

Ariana Kelly, Chair - Democrat, Legislative District 16; Phone: 301-858-3642 / 410-841-3642;

Maricé Morales, Vice-Chair - Democrat, Legislative District 19; Phone: 301-858-3528 / 410-841-3528

Sheila Hixson - Democrat - Legislative District 20; Phone: 301-858-3469/410-841-3469

Anne Kaiser - Democrat Legislative District 14; Phone: 301-858-3469/410-841-3469

Kirill Reznik - Democrat, Legislative District 39; Phone: 301-858-3039 /410-841-3039

Jeff Waldstreicher - Democrat, Legislative District 18; Phone: 301-858-3130 / 410-841-3130

Then the whole delegation will take up the bill on Friday.

(carbon-copy every Montgomery County delegate if you can) 
Tell them to VOTE NO on HB 348

for their 
contact information

Bistro Sensations closes in Bethesda (Photos)

Are you ready for yet another closure in the Dining Terrace at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda? Bistro Sensations is the latest victim. My spider-sense was tingling over the weekend when Bistro's spot was dark and empty on an otherwise-busy day in the food court. Sure enough, as of yesterday, their space is now walled off. 

For fans of Bistro Sensations, enjoy a few photos from the final hours before the wall went up:

Ourisman Honda begins tearing down part of wall at controversial addition; new problem identified with right-of-way

Ourisman Honda turned many heads - and not just of cyclists - in downtown Bethesda, after the dealership put up a garage addition and wall smack up against the Capital Crescent Trail off Bethesda Avenue. This set off a "he-said, she-said" squabble between Ourisman and the Montgomery County, as to whether or not the addition was legal, or an illegal intrusion into the trail right-of-way, and if the latter, who was to blame - Ourisman, or the county's Department of Permitting Services?

Over the last few days, workers have suddenly begun dismantling part of the wall at the rear near the fountain. When asked if it was related to the right-of-way dispute, they said it was, but could provide no further details. At the time I went by, there was no evidence yet of the actual garage structure being dismantled, however.

In the meantime, another potential violation has come to light. The Ourisman addition could be standing within a 20-foot area that would be needed if fire vehicles responded to either Ourisman or the Flats at Bethesda Avenue apartments next door. There is a fire hydrant and sprinkler connection at the rear of the Flats, that is meant to be accessed by vehicles that would use the trail to reach it. A source who is knowledgeable about fire equipment tells me a 20' space was needed for a ladder truck to rescue residents, or an aerial fire platform truck, to be able to extend their stabilizing outriggers.

Apparently, this new issue was not on the original complaint against Ourisman. A nearby resident tells me a fire inspector came out, and confirmed there was not enough room for such trucks to navigate the space. However, that finding required the complaint to be amended to include the fire equipment issue.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Assault on East-West Highway, theft on Boxwood Rd. + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on February 18, according to crime data:

Disorderly conduct. 4900 block Cordell Avenue.

Theft. Verizon store.

Drug arrest. Old Georgetown Road at McKinley Street.

Assault. 3600 block East-West Highway.

Collision/property damage. 5100 block Allan Road.

Theft. 4400 block Boxwood Road (Westmoreland Hills).

Theft. 7100 block Democracy Boulevard.

Theft. 11300 block Rockville Pike.

Theft. Unit block of Paseo Drive.

Theft. 5900 block Hubbard Drive.

Collision/property damage. 4800 block Boiling Brook Parkway.

Pieology posts Coming Soon signage at Bethesda Row (Photo)

Future pizzeria Pieology has posted some Coming Soon signs at its 4922 Elm Street location. Promising 78 billon flavor combinations, Pieology has been named the fastest-growing pizza chain by Business Insider. They have an existing location in Gaithersburg.

First National Bank grand opening today in Bethesda (Photos)

If you thought there weren't enough banks in downtown Bethesda already, today we get one more. First National Bank will open this morning for the first time in the Bethesda Crescent Building. This space at 7475 Wisconsin Avenue previously belonged to Monument Bank.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sneak peek: Georgetown Branch Trail detour sign in downtown Bethesda (Photos)

There's controversy over what route the detour of the Georgetown Branch Trail will take during the years of construction of the Purple Line along the trail's current route. But a sign has appeared with a cover over it, and underneath is a Georgetown Branch Trail detour sign. The sign is at Woodmont Avenue and Hampden Lane in downtown Bethesda.

As Bethesda cemetery protests continue, church asking for museum on site (Video + Photos)

Protesters gathered again in front of the Macedonia Baptist Church yesterday, as the Montgomery County Planning Board continues to press ahead with a review and vote on Equity One's Westbard sketch plan before even beginning an investigation into a desecrated cemetery on their property, much less completing it. Church leaders, members and their supporters in the community vowed to keep fighting at the scheduled hearing this Thursday, February 23, at 12:45 PM at planning headquarters, located at 8787 Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

Video from
Macedonia Baptist Church
Cemetery Protest #3

"What a beautiful day to fight for justice," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo in greeting the crowd, as bright sun and 70-degree temperatures made for ideal march conditions. She said the cemetery has become a "battlefield," as the church fights "for our integrity, and our dignity. The lives of the people buried across the street have meaning...We were not born yesterday, and we understand corporate power."

One theme addressed by several speakers at the rally was that "black lives matter, in life and in death." Three mothers whose young sons had been killed in recent years, and who did not find justice in the legal system, compared their efforts to speak for their sons today with the struggle to find justice for the deceased buried in the cemetery here.

The Planning Department has released several statements with aspirational language about hiring independent professors to monitor the cemetery search. Church leaders say that is not true. "Despite [Planning Director] Gwen Wright's assurances and her statement, that they've hired the anthropologist, that they've hired the archaeologist, it's all lies," Coleman-Adebayo said. "They haven't hired a single person."

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation scoffed at planners' skepticism of a cemetery former residents of the historic black community vividly recall. "It does not 'appear,' it is so," she said. "It is the lived experience of this community. It is the lived experience of this church. It is the lived experience of people of color standing here to proclaim that black lives matter, in life and in death. Every single life under that 60 feet of fill under that parking lot was a human life, with a human story worth celebrating, worth loving, and worth mourning."

MBC's interim pastor Segun Adebayo said he would not be deterred even if a search finds no remains. "We know that there are bodies there...We know that that is a sacred ground, and there are bodies lying there beneath the ground." He and other church officials say they want the cemetery land to be given to the public to create a museum and monument to those buried in the graveyard, and to teach visitors about the vanished black community that once thrived along River Road. They envision school buses bringing classes to visit the museum, and a quiet space on the cemetery site where people can relax and enjoy the view of the future naturalized Willett Branch stream.

"We know that God is on our side, and we know that victory is assured us," Adebayo said.

The need for such a museum was illustrated by the next speaker, Laurel Hoa, of Showing Up for Racial Justice Montgomery County. "I was raised in Montgomery County, and went to Montgomery County Public Schools. But I was never taught that River Road was the home of a community of formerly-enslaved persons who saved money, bought land, built homes, churches and a cemetery," Hoa recalled. "The people who are buried in that ground deserve respect, especially if they were denied it in life. People would never accept a parking garage being built on Arlington National Cemetery, because it is accepted that those dead bodies deserve respect."

"The fact that these plans keep moving forward despite vigorous objections from the community," Hoa said, "it's clearly indicative of the fact that at an institutional level in this country, even in a very liberal county like our own, black lives don't matter as much as other lives. This is unacceptable. We must demand that this change. Because black lives do matter, in life and in death. And black history matters, because it is our history. We cannot be a great nation if we continue to deny the humanity of some of our people, and continue to disregard history that many would rather not contemplate...We demand that the County do the right thing, and build a museum to teach about our local history, not a parking garage."

"There was never any record that [the remains] were moved somewhere else in the county," said Harvey Matthews, who used to play in the cemetery when he grew up in the original black community. "As far as I'm concerned, they're still over there in that clay hill, over by the high-rise, down under about 70 to 80 feet of fill dirt."

Once again, protesters marched down River Road, behind the McDonald's, and to the site of the cemetery at Westwood Tower. The names of some of those known to be buried there were read, along with the ritual pouring libation, before marching along Westbard Avenue and River Road back to the church.

"We've got a planning [board] basically fighting us every step of the way," Coleman-Adebayo told the crowd at the cemetery site. "So at some point people need to understand they have to have a moral core. They have to do the right thing. And we're going to teach them, if they don't know how, we will teach them how to do the right thing."

To join the effort this Thursday, February 23, the plan as of right now is to arrive at noon; the "Westwood Shopping Center" agenda item will be taken up sometime in the afternoon session after 12:45. Sign up online to testify on that agenda item.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

Luci Murphy

Three mothers whose sons
were killed, representing the
Coalition of Concerned Mothers

At the cemetery
site at Westwood Tower