Planning Director Gwen Wright warned the committee that "if we do no rezoning, we have to be realistic that there will be no change on River Road." Only two properties there were recommended for upzoning by the committee: a sizable redevelopment of the land currently occupied by American Plant, Roof Center and Talbert's; and the Kenwood Professional Building, a non-conforming 90' office tower that would be made conforming by passage of this plan. The committee recommended retaining the existing zoning on all other properties along River Road, and shifted McDonald's from a floating 75' zone back to its existing zoning.
After a heated discussion about affordable housing, the committee adopted a 15% across-the-board affordable housing requirement, which means (just as I predicted) that heights and density bonuses will add stories to several of these buildings. But with that new expense factored in, and the burden falling most heavily on developer Equity One, the proposal to naturalize Willett Branch appears to be in limbo.
Councilmember George Leventhal said the plan as drafted by the Planning Board is "collapsing under the weight of the multiplicity of objectives." Leventhal and Councilmember Hans Riemer expressed a clear preference that affordable housing be the clear stated priority in the Westbard plan, not the Willett Branch. They ultimately voted for the 15% affordable housing rate to apply to all properties. Council President and committee chair Nancy Floreen abstained from the vote, which was 2-0-1, saying she was concerned that other amenities would be lost.
What is the bottom line on the changes made yesterday?
First, there is a fairly-sizable short-term (major emphasis on short-term) victory for Kenwood, in that the Whole Foods/Sunoco/self-storage sites will not be able to redevelop immediately. They, and several gas stations, another self-storage business, the bank, McDonald's and the 7-Eleven would have to wait for a Minor Master Plan Amendment. Highly-controversial, that approach has been taken twice in recent years by the Council. It could happen within the next decade, next year or next week, under the powers they have with those precedents.
But some major conveniences will be preserved for at least a few years longer, and I am pleased about that and commend the Council for that decision.
Second, Kenwood is not out of the woods yet regarding the Washington Episcopal School property. The portion approved for a 97' senior housing tower could still go forward. Council staff member Marlene Michaelson designed a dual zoning plan that would supposedly make it unattractive for the current developer to drop its age-restricted plan by reducing the Floor Area Ratio of a building not limited to senior housing. Likewise, the rest of the WES site would be zoned to encourage its retention as a school site either for WES, or another public or private school. Still, the site's zoning could allow a clever developer to build a sizable commercial building, should WES sell their land.
Councilmember Marc Elrich criticized allowing any significant height for the tower should it not end up as senior housing, as that was the whole rationale for giving it the unusual height. Not only did the committee reject that concern, but ended up giving the building a height boost to 100'! That's a loss for Kenwood.
Third, while the public will get few-to-none of the amenities promised for River Road in the near-term, the American Plant project will allow a 75' building with 350 residential units.
Fourth, the big losers Monday were the communities of Springfield, Westwood/Westbard Mews and Sumner. Congratulations, you are getting the brunt of the development, the tall buildings towering over single-family homes, and all the construction you can handle. The heights are what was approved last Monday, but now with bonus height, due to the 15% low-income housing requirement.
Fifth, the third through lane at River and Little Falls Parkway remains vaguely on the table. Councilmember Roger Berliner said his constituents were taken by surprise, and yet another modified proposal was put forward yesterday, to make a right turn lane that would begin west of Greystone Street. Berliner said he "would prefer to hear from my constituents" before taking final action on it. Other concerns Berliner raised regarding the Floor Area Ratio of 1.0 for the Westwood Shopping Center, and the 55' townhome height on the Manor Care property, were disregarded by Floreen altogether. Berliner said he would bring them up at the full Council worksession. And there will be no mention of affordable housing at the Little Falls Library site in the plan.
Sixth, this was a huge setback for stream advocates. Berliner protested, but was overridden by Leventhal and Riemer, who made clear that the Willett Branch project was not a priority. Wright again warned the committee that raising costs for Equity One would likely hurt other priorities like the Willett Branch. "We have to remember," Wright said, "we're going to the well many times" with Equity One, which is expected to contribute "tens of millions of dollars and open space" as it stands now. "Something is going to have to give," she said.
Before I get into the details of the affordable housing debate, here's the bottom line analysis of what I think is happening with the plan.
The Council has clearly heard the overwhelming opposition of the community to this plan. They are not entirely convinced that they will be voted out of office if they pass it, as evidenced by all that they have thumbed their nose at residents about on the Equity One and Capital Properties sites. But to the minimal extent that they fear retribution at the ballot box in 2018, they need to put forward a message that they downsized the plan.
Equity One and Capital Properties are ready to go. Despite their declarations otherwise, the committee has basically given both of those developers everything they really wanted within reason. American Plant is ready to go, but in a few years after Equity One. So they're getting approval via the floating zone.
Then you've got all these River Road properties where people are thinking longer term. Whole Foods isn't ready to close right now. So why inflict a lot of political damage on yourself for little reason on River Road?
And there's one more thing, which I touched on last week. The Purple Line.
Just connect the dots here. Most of River Road not ready to go in the next few years. The Council committee making the Kenwood Professional Building and Westwood Tower conforming so that they can be redeveloped. Think about that for a minute. You wouldn't do that unless you imagined them being torn down, right? And you wouldn't tear down a 90' or 140' builiding to put up a 75' building, right?
So the KPB and Westwood Tower are now envisioned as being even taller, under a...guess what, Minor Master Plan Amendment for the Purple Line. With that coming through, the 110' non-transit precedent set by this plan at non-Metro Westbard indicates that heights allowed with a Purple Line would be equivalent to downtown Bethesda. Remember, Chevy Chase Lake with Purple Line is supposed to be capped at 12 stories.
Now you've got all of that River Road property with transit-oriented density with a Purple Line, and the "Urban Active Recreational Park" the County is eager to acquire land for by the Capital Crescent Trail becomes the Purple Line station and rail yard/maintenance facility.
The urbanization and overpopulation of Westbard Avenue, meanwhile, will be used and cited as a major reason "we need the Purple Line to extend to Westbard."
So on the face of it, the Council has scaled most of River Road back. I certainly won't complain about that. But it's one Minor Master Plan Amendment away from not only being restored, but supersized. And again, cutting back on River Road may for now reduce some of the pressure on schools, but does nothing to help neighborhoods up around Westbard Avenue that are still getting urbanized.
It does nothing to help reduce the amount of low-income housing that will be dumped there, 392 units. That's around 800 low-income residents in one block, far from Metro and supportive services, and with no recreation center planned. Nuts. And that's before you add in the one-percenters in all the market rate units.
Berliner argued that there was already a significant amount of affordable housing in the plan. He noted the estimated cost of 15% affordable housing for Equity One would be about $5.7 million, "coming at the expense of what?" Wright predicted "one or two [public amenities, including Willett Branch] won't happen. Some of them will not happen. As Councilmember Leventhal said, that may be your preference" that affordable housing come at the cost of the stream project.
Apparently believing that businesses eat costs, rather than passing them on to the consumer (not surprising for a Council that has failed to attract a single major corporate headquarters in over a decade), Leventhal assured everyone that the additional burden wouldn't raise housing prices at their developments.
Riemer picked up the Maoist argument for massive dumps of low-income housing in wealthy areas, saying he wants such housing in "parts of the County that have great school districts and wealthy neighborhoods." He didn't say how soon he would start working on a similar proposal for Potomac or Burning Tree (perhaps because those are where many of his weathy developer donors live - including development attorney Bill Kominers, who got invited up to the table for more time to talk; no residents were given that option Monday).
But here's the real rub on Riemer's John Oliver-reading-Mao's-Little-Red-Book-on-downers ideology - Riemer has a solid record of taking this do-nothing approach to Montgomery County's declining schools, in which the achievement gap has grown since he took office in 2010. Back when the report came out, Riemer's immediate response during a Council meeting was, "this is why we need to pass the White Oak sector plan."
What Riemer and those aligned with him want is this: they have no intention of bringing schools in the eastern part of the County up to Whitman standards. They believe in the developer-fueled idea that black and Latino students can only succeed if they are in a classroom with rich, white students (just ask Jaime Escalante about that theory, which he totally disredited back in the 1980s). In short, they don't believe in having excellent schools in every neighborhood. Their M.O. is to disparage and mock the "Whitman parents", and then try to drag down the successful neighborhoods by overcrowding the schools and destroying the character and functionality that made them successful.
Based on 82% of students failing Algebra I final exams, 62% failing Geometry I final exams and 57% failing Algebra II final exams...their strategy seems to be working.
Speaking of schools, Elrich shot a so-called "economic impact statement" full of holes earlier in the meeting. It actually turned out to be one of the more farcical moments of the worksession.
A man, identified as "Hagedorn", and a woman who never identified herself for the record, came forward at the behest of Council staff member Glenn Orlin. "Hagedorn" referred everyone to "Page 9". Page 9, in what? The public was never allowed to read or get a copy of this report. So you had two unidentified people presenting a report no one in the audience has a copy of, and which isn't even displayed on the screens around the room. We can't read it, and we certainly can't comment.
"Hagedorn" then declared that the sector plan as written would generate 867 jobs (flipping burgers, folding jeans in boutiques, etc.). But he failed to also mention that the plan as written would eliminate about 1000 of the existing industrial and commercial jobs, leaving the area with a net loss in employment.
Then Berliner asked, "where are the impact taxes in this analysis?" "Hagedorn" said they were not included. "Can you explain why not," Berliner asked incredulously. "There was a reason, but we can get that for you," the unidentified woman interjected.
"I think it's sort of important to have the overall fiscal picture," Berliner continued. "When I look at fiscal impacts, I look at impact taxes."
May I suggest that the reason for not showing the impact taxes, is that it would show they are insufficient to cover the costs of redevelopment to the taxpayers? Even with the lowball fiscal impact projections, they would not cover it.
"You don't have a cost of bonding in these calculations," Elrich observed. He then proceeded to demolish the data shown for cost of "educational operating expenses." The statement showed those annual operating costs as $5000, for 525 new students generated by Westbard redeveloping.
Elrich pointed out that Montgomery County Public Schools actually says the amount would be $14,000 a year, not $5000. "This number more than doubles," Elrich said, "and [the County] goes from making money to losing money. That's significant. That's hugely significant."
At this point, Kominers returned to the table for yet another turn to speak. Number of citizens who were able to speak? Zero. Kominers declared the HOC doesn't want a road through their property that would connect River Road at the Whole Foods intersection to Westbard Avenue. Planning Chair Casey Anderson proposed a compromise, saying that "to the extent that that [350-unit apartment building] can be accommodated, approve a road as specified in the plan."
"Is everybody OK with that," Floreen asked. No one spoke, and Anderson's idea passed without objection.
But Leventhal later strongly objected to Elrich's general suggestion that the Council and Planning Board have "cursed suburban communities."
Leventhal denied he had ever said such a thing, and demanded to know when that occurred.
I can answer that. It occurred on July 3, 2013, to be exact. During a Council session that day, Leventhal declared "the suburbs" were "a mistake." He criticized those who thought they could escape the noise and dirt of the city and industry, and drive along "tree-lined parkways," in his words.
This rant went on for several minutes. Go ahead. Look it up.
But Leventhal has forgotten, and unfortunately, so have his colleagues, so no one could call him on it.
"I have never cursed suburban communities, ever," Leventhal insisted. Now, in terms of that precise word, "cursed," he is absolutely correct. But the general accusation was correct, as the July 3, 2013 monologue confirms.
The worksession ended on an unprecedented note - a reprimand of Westbard-area residents for their supposedly-rude and "hysteric and incivil" communications toward councilmembers, Council staff and the Planning Board and Planning Department, to use Leventhal's term from earlier in the meeting.
After receiving a round of applause from residents in the hearing room for his futile efforts to preserve the Willett Branch naturalization and other "amenities important to our community" from being overridden by affordable housing, Berliner then picked up on Leventhal's comment and launched into a reprimand I believe was inappropriate.
Berliner invoked the name of Donald Trump to characterize the manner of these unnamed residents. Does it make any sense to compare an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood to Donald Trump? Then why bring the name up? What is "Donald Trump" code for?
He stated things were said in these communications that were "simply not okay."
First of all, I have a great deal of respect for Councilmember Berliner. Most residents, even if they disagreed with his alternative plan, I think appreciated his active engagement in the process at the appropriate point (unlike Mr. Anderson, who appears at meetings early in planning projects to harangue and propagandize for an already-determined end goal, which is completely out of order for a Planning Board chair). He did come up with an alternative plan to start the conversation, and the end result, while unsatisfactory, is objectively better than what we started with a couple of months ago.
I certainly never engaged in any language or communications of the type Mr. Berliner described. I've seen quite a bit of the email communications among community members, and between community members and the Council and Planning Board/Department. I have never seen anything like what Councilmembers Berliner and Leventhal described among those, either.
If one or two individuals did speak that way to them in a private email, I agree with them, that would be inappropriate and uncalled for. But why not privately reprimand them offline?
By making these statements, and this may not have been their intention at all, but they essentially smeared the whole community. And that was inappropriate, and I think Mr. Berliner and Mr. Leventhal owe the greater community an apology for that.
Combined with some of the loaded rhetoric used to describe the neighborhood - "very exclusive and not diverse" (Leventhal) - and telling residents they were "lucky" or "fortunate" to be able to live there, as if no one went to college, worked and saved money to get where they were, the characterization was not becoming of the Council. It's attempting to suggest that a bunch of spoiled rich brats are trying to stop a noble plan, which is actually just a plan designed to deliver high profits to developers (Maoist components aside). And which, even the Council admits, won't deliver even the pittance of amenities that were supposed to make all of this worthwhile.
There's something rich - pun intended - about councilmembers whose taxpayer-funded salaries ($136,258 annually in 2017) basically put them in the one-percent, speaking in condescending and scolding terms about "wealthy neighborhoods."