Friday, February 05, 2016
Westbard sector plan public hearing 2: Lies, astroturf and "Monopoly at its worst"
here). We learned quite a bit in the process, including that Montgomery County Public Schools and other County officials haven't been honest about the percentage of students generated by multifamily housing, some of the few speakers who favor the plan are reading from scripts (a phenomenon known as "Astroturf"), and that Ace Ventura may need to be hired to protect the Westwood Pet Center and other small businesses at Westbard from "Monopoly at its worst."
More Westbard coverage:
A Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School parent, who hadn't originally planned to testify but was welcomed up after several no-shows opened space on the list, told councilmembers that he was intrigued by developers' assertions that multifamily housing would not generate many students in the already overcrowded BCC and Walt Whitman clusters. He then studied the BCC HS student directory, tabulating the number of student addresses containing suite or unit numbers. His final calculation was stunning - a full half of BCC students live in multifamily housing, he said.
This is embarrassing for several reasons. At an infrastructure summit held last year (enjoy my fact-checking takedown of the pro-developer propaganda generated by the event), which did not disclose that one "educational" presentation was delivered by an architect from the firm hired by Westbard developer Equity One (Oops), MCPS' long range planning guru Bruce Crispell's data touted only 69 high school students at BCC come from apartment buildings in downtown Bethesda. According to MCPS, there are currently 1989 students enrolled at BCC! Whoops! It sounds like they've been lying to us, folks.
Second, you then add the fact that Crispell acknowledged the percentage of students generated from multifamily housing in the Whitman cluster is much higher than average, and of course higher than in the BCC cluster. In fact, Crispell said he uses a special formula when he makes projections in the Whitman cluster for that reason, which he then demonstrated.
Speaking of misleading... A handful of people testified in favor of the plan last night as advocates of affordable housing. I noticed that several of them not only made the same points, but even used the exact same phrase: "a mix of senior housing, workforce housing and deeply-affordable units." Not only is it rare for different speakers to repeat an exact sentence during a public hearing, but I've never heard the phrase, "deeply-affordable", used in regard to housing in all my years of public activism. Clearly, a script was being used. This is called Astroturf, ladies and gentlemen, deployed when there are no actual grassroots to support something as unpopular as the current Westbard sector plan.
Even the race card was deployed once again. The term "racial segregation" was bandied about at one point. This kind of talk is completely absurd. First of all, Westbard today has a greater relative percentage of affordable housing than downtown Bethesda when you adjust for population. None of the buildings approved in the last decade in downtown Bethesda have the same percentage of affordable units as the buildings on Westbard Avenue.
While affordable housing talk is employed to apparently shame and guilt-trip people into supporting the destruction of their own neighborhood, it also makes no sense and completely distorts the historical record.
The very Council these affordable housing advocates were addressing last night is the same one that sabotaged the designation of the Arlington Road corridor in downtown Bethesda for affordable housing. Ruling MoCo primarily thanks to millions of dollars in developer contributions to their political campaigns, the Council allowed those same developers to get out of building that housing.
Right across Woodmont Avenue from the Bethesda Metro station, the proposed affordable housing zone was designed to place low-income residents within walking distance of County services and facilities, and public transit. Instead, the same Arlington Road corridor today is home to literally the most expensive housing units in downtown Bethesda!
Now, one person testified, the transit and public service Saharan Desert known as Westbard is suddenly "the last chance for affordable housing." Ralph Bennett of Silver Spring concurred, lecturing residents of a neighborhood he doesn't live in that Westbard is the "last obvious opportunity for growth." Huh?
In other words, current and recent past Councils personally profited by doing the wrong thing on affordable housing in downtown Bethesda, and now they want to dump a city's worth of affordable housing into a 2-block area in a suburban residential community?
Much like Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson's out-of-touch comments on roads and schools, the facts don't back up the claims. You wouldn't know it from the testimony and propaganda, but black people do live in the Westbard area! If you were walking around the area regularly, you would know that. If you were voting here on Election Day, you would know that. You kind of had to live in a precinct to vote there, at least up until now.
Now if you're talking about income levels and affordable housing: First, hold your Council representatives accountable for their history with the aforementioned Arlington Road plan, their failure to require higher-than-12.5% affordable units in the rest of downtown Bethesda, and for their efforts demolishing (and rezoning for demolition) existing affordable housing in downtown Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Long Branch, and Glenmont. Own your disaster, own your Councilmembers you supported before you start lecturing other people.
There's nothing in the Constitution, by the way, that guarantees a Potomac mansion to minimum wage employees. That's not what providing affordable housing means. Welcome to the world. Playing the race card to help private development firms have a multimillion payday is about as low as it gets.
Speaking of accountability, resident Robert Lipman made a sensible demand of the County Council and Planning Board - show us the scale model. Lipman said, correctly, that the public has never been shown an accurate scale depiction of what a full-build-out of the proposed plan would look like (now, of course, we know why not, given the shock value of what an accurate model would depict). He recounted a typically-disastrous Metro and bus commute from earlier in the day.
Then he pulled out a Monopoly game board and propped it up on the hearing table. Turning around to congratulate "Mike" (presumably Equity One's Mike Berfield), Lipman said "Mike" had money for the land purchase, as he waved a bag full of Monopoly money in the air. He then picked up a second moneybag, stating Mike also had money for the PR firm hired to shift public opinion. And he raised a third bag to represent the funds spent on lobbyists. As another speaker noted, the Planning Department mysteriously left Westbard untouched since 1982, but suddenly sprung into action when Equity One bought the Westwood Complex.
Don't expect free parking from the Monopoly guy, though. First, there's the language in the plan that could eventuallly lead to metered parking at Westbard.
But back to Bennett for a moment, who was outright trolling Westbard residents last night. I often testify on development in parts of the County I don't live in. The difference - I'm usually testifying on behalf of the position the majority of residents have, who are trying to fight the latest egregious, corrupt action of the Montgomery County political cartel. I'm not trying to destroy somebody else's neighborhood.
Bennett wasn't just advocating for high-density urban growth in a quiet suburban community, but even threw in the kitchen sink, boasting that Westbard would one day be a stop between Bethesda and Tysons on the Purple Line. Of course, this is the secret plan of the MoCo political machine, but one that few dare admit publicly. One has to wonder - are the vague plans, "connector road" right-of-way, and land acquisitions the plan calls for in the industrial zone near the Capital Crescent Trail really for parks? Or are they a placeholder Trojan horse for a Purple Line station, rail yard, transformer and maintenance facility? Shh......quiet.
Resident Margaret Ott said, "the Planning Board sold us down the river, and we don't want to be up Willetts creek without a paddle," referring to the popular but currently pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by proposal to naturalize the Willett Branch stream.
Thomas Hearn had an idea that's plenty popular in the square mile around the Westwood Shopping Center at the moment - "Defund the Planning Board." Some have inquired how Anderson could be removed as Planning Board Chair. Hearn's idea? All homeowners should ask for a reassessment of their (overinflated for tax purposes) home values to cut revenue that would fund the board.
Eduard Bos found it "appalling" that the Planning Board thinks the investments of out-of-state development firms are more important than the investments actual residents made in purchasing their homes here. "We thought we were moving to a suburban residential area," Bos said.
Could public school students being injured in overcrowded hallways between classes become a legal liability for MCPS? That's an intriguing possibility brought up by resident Sandra Arresta. Let's hope MCPS doesn't kick the reporter out of the courtroom again when it happens. Does the MoCo political cartel have an overinflated sense of entitlement, or what? Psychiatric help might be a solution, but term limits would probably be cheaper. Throw the bums out!
One speaker rightly commended Wood Acres PTA President Jason Sartori for his very effective testimony Tuesday night, for which neither the Planning Board nor Council have generated any response to yet.
What I thought was quite effective last night, were a number of speakers who made the case for what a great community exists now around the Westbard area. Both Malcolm Burke and Mary Morrissey said that Westbard as it is today was the selling point for them in choosing the community.
Burke said he moved here because of the small, family-run shops in the Westwood Shopping Center, the great library a short walking distance away, and the small-scale residential neighborhood character. Passing the plan as is, Burke predicted, would be an "unmitigated disaster."
Morrissey recounted that "what attracted me to Westbard were the very things this plan would destroy."
Resident Fred Graefe countered far-fetched claims that patrons of the extremely-busy Westwood Shopping Center are about to take their business to cookie cutter "town centers" elsewhere in the County (good luck finding the right rabbit food, shoe repair or new muffler at Rockville Town Square or Downtown Crown, though...). Graefe accurately noted how full the parking lot there is, and it's not because of the liquor store, he added. "But I would imagine sales went up after this plan was released," he speculated, drawing hearty laughter from the crowd.
I'll leave it to resident Frank Vita to close it out. He described the Westbard area as an active functioning community, that would suffer "permanent and irreparable damage" should this plan be approved by the Council.
Vita said jurisdictions would ordinarily propose a plan like this "where there's something lacking. Well, there's nothing lacking in our neighborhood."