Wednesday, October 19, 2016
"A lot of unhappy people" at Bethesda Downtown sector plan public hearing
Infrastructure - traffic and school capacity in particular - remains the top concern for residents, especially those in the single-family home neighborhoods that border the plan area. Resident and public school teacher Sandra Arestra seemed to hit a particularly raw nerve with some of the most pro-density members of the Council with her very effective testimony.
Arestra confirmed what another Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School parent had previously determined - 50% of that school's students live in apartment buildings. That severely undercuts the argument that apartments don't generate many students. In fact, Bethesda Elementary School parent Melissa Groman testified that 37% of the bus stops on routes serving that school are in front of apartment or condo buildings. While new apartment development Flats 8300 is only 50% occupied, Groman said, there are already 10 children who live there attending Bethesda ES.
Several people mentioned the notoriously inaccurate forecasting of student generation at schools in Bethesda and countywide. Councilmember Roger Berliner told the audience that he had just had a 90 minute meeting with all kinds of officials from Montgomery County Public Schools earlier in the day. But guess what? He said that during the Westbard sector plan, and those discussions generated no new schools to serve that area.
Testifying in his capacity as a member of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board, Donohoe Development Senior Vice President Jad Donohoe spoke to those concerns. Donohoe's testimony echoed what had been said the night before by residents of East Bethesda - that school overcrowding is so severe in the plan area, we have reached the point where land must be acquired. Specifically, Donohoe suggested, land contiguous to BCC HS should be purchased, as that school has run out of room to add any additional classrooms or athletic fields.
A PTA representative asked the Council to reject and rewrite the draft plan, and pointed out that when a delayed portable is finally delivered to overcrowded Bethesda ES, it will replace the kindergarten playground there.
Arestra said she is always told that MCPS, the Planning Board and the County Council work together to address school overcrowding issues. But, she said, she has now concluded, "I think it's fiction." Instead, she said, each entity wants to "blame one group, blame the other." In fact, just last night, councilmembers were saying it was the fault of MCPS, not theirs. Arestra suggested a moratorium on new development until school overcrowding is addressed, and updating the formula for school payments collected from developers. "It takes 14 years to educate a child," she said, "not a one-time payment."
Traffic was the other hot topic. Representatives of the Montgomery County political cartel who criticize my support for a new Potomac River crossing to provide direct access to Dulles Airport should talk to Paul Weidow, a resident and owner of Bethesda cybersecurity firm Plex Solutions. Weidow testified that he would like to lease a larger office space in downtown Bethesda, and hire 50 new employees.
But traffic congestion is threatening Weidow's business model and plans. His firm has high-level public and private clients. Weidow explained that his teams have black bags already packed, and need to be able to deploy immediately during a cyber attack on a client, for example. They have to get to places like the Pentagon, military bases, and to airports, to reach clients in a rapid fashion.
Weidow said it will also be hard to attract employees due to the traffic congestion, crowded schools (which are declining academically since 2010, I should point out), and lack of parks. The Capital Crescent Trail will no longer be a lunchtime escape to nature for his workers, he said, once Purple Line trains are running alongside it.
Francis Pitlick said the plan doesn't leave any room to add new lanes to Wisconsin Avenue, even as it will expand the number of cars using that major commuter route. Longtime Chevy Chase resident Martha Mohler concurred with her neighbor, noting that the State highway is relied on by commuters in the distant upcounty area and beyond. "The traffic situation is ridiculous," Mohler testified. "We are in a dangerous situation." Of the plans for growth east of Wisconsin Avenue, Mohler said, Bethesda is "freezing up" just from the growth already allowed by the 1994 sector plan. "What you're putting there at what you call 'the fringe' is absolutely absurd."
Mohler slammed the plan's incentives designed to tempt St. John's Church to demolish its building, and redevelop its land. "This is inappropriate," she said.
Chevy Chase West resident Maya Larson said she was struck by a car walking home from that church, despite having the right of way as a pedestrian. Her son was also struck by a car, she told the Council. Larson advised the Council to ensure the plan requires any new Fire Station 6 design to retain direct egress to Wisconsin Avenue, so that fire and rescue vehicles don't have to pass through traffic jams at the light on Bradley Boulevard.
44-year resident David Belkin repeated his challenge to the Council - try to drive north on Wisconsin Avenue out of Bethesda during the evening rush hour. "It is very horrible to go north on the Pike."
Chevy Chase Town Councilman Barney Rush, testifying as an individual, called it "astonishing" that the plan does not include turning County land like Parking Lot 24 into parks. Chris Leinberger, a professor who studies metropolitan areas, said Bethesda currently has the 2nd-least amount of parkland of the comparable towns he's examined. Donohoe urged the Council to set a timeframe for construction of new parks.
Property owners and their attorneys also weighed in on the document.
Attorney Steve Robins spoke on behalf of his client, Peel Properties. Robins asked the Council to give their property at 7220 Wisconsin Avenue the same density as the neighboring Apex Building site will have, because both are right at the future Purple Line station. He also sought a minimum 140' height for 4905 Del Ray Avenue, and 200' for 4520 East-West Highway.
Speaking on behalf of a second client, PNC Bank, Robins suggested the plan stipulate a 175' height for their 7530 Wisconsin (Benihana) property, on the condition that the adjacent properties on Wisconsin are assembled into one development.
Donohoe said his company would like 175' height instead of the recommended 145' for its 8280 Wisconsin Avenue gas station property at Battery Lane. That would be more compatible with the existing 8200 apartment tower next door, he said.
Promark Real Estate Services Director of Development Peter McLaughlin, whose firm has been a downtown Bethesda fixture since 1923, argued for his vision of the "Pearl District." Centered along Pearl Street, such a redevelopment would create "a third node of walkable retail" in Bethesda. The plan's current recommendations for height "are uncharacteristically low" for a site that is a short walk from Metro, McLaughlin said. That will require property owners to buy much more density in transfers from other properties, threatening the economic viability of the Pearl District plan, he said.
Doug Firstenberg of StonebridgeCarras pleaded for predictability in the rules, whatever they end up being. "The certainty of what we can do is critical" to economic development, Firstenberg said. His firm was one of the partners in the successful public-private redevelopment of Lot 31 near Bethesda Row.
Two properties whose owners were unable to participate in the sector plan process had advocates last night. The Donohoe Companies just acquired the 11-story office building at 4800 Montgomery Lane a mere 12 weeks ago, Donohoe reported. The previous owner, Donohoe told the Council, did not actively engage the Planning Department or Planning Board during the plan process. In light of its proximity to Metro and the future Purple Line, he said 225' would be a more-appropriate height for the property.
And Jimmy Traettino of the venerable Positano Ristorante Italiano, one of the longest-operating restaurants in downtown Bethesda, spoke on behalf of his mother, who owns the properties the restaurant sits on. She was unable to participate in the planning process due to her husband's death, he said. Traettino said the land's proximity to Metro, and other high-rises, warrants more height than the plan currently shows for the two plots.
Closing out the night, appropriately, was an East Bethesda resident who jokingly referred to her neighborhood as "Edgeless," in comparison to the politically-powerful Edgemoor community on the west side of town. "There are a lot of unhappy people here," she said. "There are thousands of people in Bethesda who are unhappy, and are thinking of leaving for the first time."