Tuesday, October 18, 2016

East Bethesda residents tell County Council they want "joint effort" as Bethesda Downtown Plan looms (Photos)

A night before the Montgomery County Council begins public hearings on the Bethesda Downtown sector plan draft, an overflow crowd told 3 of its members they want a more collaborative process than the Planning Board allowed. "We feel residents were not listened to at the Planning Board level," a community leader who did not wish to be identified told Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D-District 1), and At-large members Marc Elrich (D) and George Leventhal (D) as the meeting began at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Many letters were sent to the Planning Board, she said, but those citizen concerns were never addressed.

The community is therefore seeking "more of a joint effort going forward." Good luck. All three councilmembers and all of their colleagues just voted to approve the Westbard sector plan, which jacked up allowed density and heights to urban levels in a single-family home, squarely suburban area. If they would do that there, what might they do for a similar, established neighborhood that is actually walking distance to Metro?

"Residents were not
listened to at the
Planning Board"

Resident frustrations were clear at the meeting, which was organized by the East Bethesda Citizens Association. But there were zingers directed from the front of the room, as well. Leventhal's perplexing insistence on turning the forum into an early County Executive candidate debate backfired, and he was rebuked by residents.

After listening to speeches of varying lengths by the elected officials, residents began to wonder when they would get the floor - that was the original point of the meeting, right? For Leventhal, the night seemed to be about scoring early points against his presumed rival in the 2018 County Executive race, Elrich.

Elrich, who received the most votes of any councilmember in the last election, was the only of the three to declare his support for the wish list the EBCA approved on September 28. That list asks the Council to:

  • Ensure data used to justify the plan is accurate (the data in the Draft Plan currently is not)
  • Authorize creation of a Citizens Advisory Committee, which used to be a required step in the sector plan process
  • Reduce building heights near the edges of East Bethesda down to those given in the 1994 Bethesda Downtown plan, utilizing a "tent" concept stepping down from the highest heights around Metro
  • Support a proposed Eastern Greenway, which would turn parking lots the County built between Wisconsin Avenue and East Bethesda homes into parks, and not in exchange for greater building heights near East Bethesda
  • Restore a $25.81 Park Impact Payment tax that was originally proposed by planning staff
  • Correct errors in the plan's borders, which have mistakenly drawn some residents' homes into the urban plan area
  • Require delivery lanes/zones on the property at downtown Bethesda high-rises; some residents complained about trucks blocking traffic on Woodmont Avenue outside the Harris Teeter
  • Add more green and open space to the plan
"I support all the stuff that you asked for," Elrich responded after a presentation to outline the proposals. He suggested sending the plan back to the Planning Board for major revisions, and creation of the Citizens Advisory Committee. "I find the whole [planning] process deeply troubling," Elrich said. There have been "too many controversial plans, too much anger," he added. "If you're generating this much anger, you need to examine the process."

Elrich pointed to Fairfax County's management of the new development in Tysons as a model. Fairfax has built in annual stops to the development process, he said, to ensure infrastructure is keeping up with the growth. "There's no linkage" of the two in Montgomery County, he said.

"My obligation is to the people who live here," Elrich concluded. Leventhal turned and began to attack Elrich at that point. "It's a great applause line," Leventhal said of Elrich's statement. Leventhal declared that the master plan process requires a long-range plan taking into account future growth. "We don't have any choice."

"I resent your continual mischaracterization of what I say," Elrich retorted. "You do this to me all the time." As Leventhal began to respond to Elrich, the room began to grumble. "My time is limited, and I worked hard to get here," a resident shouted from the back of the room. "It would be great if others could talk."

Realizing the bad optics, Leventhal broke off the bickering, and citizens were allowed to speak at last.

"You don't
listen to us"

Resident Kristin Mossbeck said she had noticed the Toll Brothers City Living Hampden Row condo project at Arlington Road and Hampden Lane, and noted how it stepped down low toward Edgemoor and was only a mid-rise building. "I thought, 'Wow, this is really nice.' How can they make money," she asked the councilmembers, while others say they need 290' to profit?"

Leventhal said he did not wish to respond to residents' questions, arguing it would extend the meeting too late. Elrich offered an answer, saying, "There's no evidence that [the zoning] in place has been an impediment to development here."

"You don't listen to us," one resident said. He challenged the councilmen to drive north on MD 355 during the evening rush hour. "I would like you guys to do it at 5:30 in the afternoon," he said to applause from the crowd. Resident Jean Weiss said she has "a diminished sense of confidence in my local government." Weiss said she had been relieved by the outcome of the 1994 plan process, which set more modest heights and preferable boundaries near East Bethesda. "Suddenly, the boundaries changed," she said of the new plan.

"I have a
diminished sense
of confidence in
my local

Weiss listed some broken down amenities at downtown buildings, such as busted clocks and fountains that never turn on anymore. When inquiring with the property owners, she said, they told her it would be too difficult or costly to make the necessary repairs. "I don't understand that attitude," Weiss told the councilmen. In light of these broken promises to residents, she said, "no wonder you don't have [the public's] confidence."

Another resident asked Leventhal, essentially, what is the rush regarding this plan? Leventhal acknowledged, "I don't think there's a deadline."

"No wonder
you don't have
the public's

One resident lamented that traffic on 355 has hemmed East Bethesda residents into their homes during the evening rush hour. "Gymnastics is not an option for my daughter," she said, because the activity is held on Nicholson Lane. "We can't get there. The infrastructure has failed."

You'll be told student generation rates at Bethesda Elementary School will decline in future years, she said. "There's no way" that will be the case, she added. "Hear! Hear!," shouted a man from the back of the room, as the crowd broke into applause.

Pants on

Leventhal asserted that existing single-family homes were to blame for school overcrowding. That earned him a razz and a low and sustained, "Nooooooooo," from the audience. It also earns him a Four Pinocchio/Pants on Fire rating from our Fact Check. In fact, it has been new development and an explosion of undocumented immigrant students which have driven school overcrowding countywide.

In the current age, with family sizes significantly smaller, it is absurd to claim that new families are somehow bringing more kids than ever before. Apartments and condos do generate students. 130 live in apartments feeding into Bethesda Elementary, which became overcrowded only 9 months after an addition was constructed (!!). 

has failed"

"I can absolutely tell you that they are" generating students, one Bethesda ES parent said of multifamily buildings. "The level of growth that we've seen has been tremendous," she said. Recounting how the school's TV studio, special needs room, and even closets have been turned into emergency classrooms, she said, "To see your child smushed into a classroom that was literally a closet - we're at the breaking point right now."

One BCC parent said that high school will be within about 100 students of the allowed maximum under County rules by 2020, despite an addition currently under construction. She said there has been discussion about having the County acquire two office buildings adjacent to BCC at East-West Highway and Pearl Street, to redevelop them as new athletic fields to be shared by BCC and Our Lady of Lourdes school.

"The Planning Board
stabbed us in the

The lack of green space in the draft plan also drew criticism. "The developers have jumped on the smart growth bandwagon because it allows density," resident Tori Hall said. "We're building Manhattan without Central Park."

Another resident said she likes the scale of Bethesda Row, but doesn't like the draft plan's heights. She said downtown Bethesda will never have the upside of Manhattan, instead becoming "horrible."

"The Planning Board sort of stabbed us in the back," she said. "We are seriously on the wrong track. Since 2005, thing have gotten a lot worse." Interesting observation, since that's around the same time the bulk of today's council seized power. 

That appeared to jolt Leventhal into making more fantastical claims about growth, including one that he often deploys around election time.

"We are 
seriously on
the wrong

"The reason we have traffic is that people want to live here," Leventhal asserted. FACT CHECK: False. The reason we have traffic, is that Mr. Leventhal and his colleagues have approved unlimited development with no infrastructure to support it, from Westbard to Clarksburg, and from Damascus to Science City. Multiple freeways and parkways were intentionally left unbuilt, and in many cases, deliberately removed from master plans.

One reason we sit in traffic so long heading north on 355 out of downtown Bethesda, is because the planned Northwest Freeway that would have run in a trench behind businesses on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue out to I-495 - with an interchange between Pooks Hill and Connecticut Avenue (look at the green strip around Elmhirst Parkway that leads to the Beltway) - was canceled decades ago. Now that traffic is funneled through city streets instead.

By the way, the bank-busting "BRAC" road improvements related to Walter Reed FAILED BIG TIME. Jones Bridge Road is backed up for blocks at Connecticut in the afternoon. One of the biggest boondoggles and wastes of taxpayer money in history, which could have been entirely avoided by digging out the buried off-ramp that leads directly into the Walter Reed/Naval Hospital site.

Leventhal's claim earns him another Four Pinocchios/Pants on Fire rating.

Then, Leventhal absolved himself and his colleagues of their responsibility for the mess we're in today with traffic and schools by claiming, "We're not developers. We don't build buildings." We just set the zoning code. That elicited a crying-foul "oooooooooooh" from the crowd, and a pained, "Ugh," exclamation.

"I feel

Berliner decided to try the false statement game then, claiming his recent update of the sidewalk closure law - which requires signs to be posted so citizens can theoretically report sidewalk closures - has solved the problem mentioned by one attendee, sidewalks closed during construction of buildings downtown. "Who the hell gave them permission to close off my sidewalk," asked the resident, who had experience in city management. FACT CHECK: Berliner's statement is false. There are several sidewalks closed for construction downtown at the moment, and they will remain closed for months or years. Claims that sidewalks can't close can be easily debunked by a simple walk around downtown (which the Council never does, having to be bused around like tourists during sector plan updates to learn about the County they get paid 6-figures to rule). Berliner's claim also earns a Four Pinocchio, Pants on Fire rating.

"Who the
hell gave them

Leventhal had put aside his feud with Elrich long enough at this point, following up Elrich's report on Fairfax County limiting its smart growth walkshed to a half-mile from Metro for new residential. Leventhal erupted, complaining that he had had to listen to Elrich "wax rhapsodic all afternoon on Tysons."

"I feel betrayed by the process," a resident said, trying to switch back from County Executive Debate 2018 to the topic at hand. He cited the lack of delivery lanes for trucks at Flats 8300/Harris Teeter, and the lack of green space at The Lauren. And he said he cannot bring his children to "the park behind CVS. It's gross. Go to that park, and you'll see why I don't want to bring my children there. I feel betrayed."

"What we
experience on
a daily basis
does not give
us any trust
in you"

Berliner blamed the Planning Board, saying it "lost control." But wait a minute - Berliner and his colleagues hand-picked and approved every single commissioner on that Planning Board. They've made no move to recall or replace them, and even boosted the salary and tenure of its Chair, Casey Anderson. How do you blame your own people for "losing control?" That means the Council has lost control, and is feckless and impotent to take control of just about anything but your life choices and tax bill at this point. They're good at telling you what you can eat, or what your Chinese take-out box can be made of. Economic development, schools, traffic congestion and planning? Not so much.

"We're at the
breaking point 

But don't try to convince the Council of that reality. "We are the ultimate planning authority," Berliner boasted. "You will be heard. You will be respected," he promised. Which should prompt hysterical laughter from anyone who just went through the Westbard sector plan process, in which residents were not only ignored entirely by the Council, but deprived of their legal process to such an extent that the plan is now in the courts to be hashed out. Another success for our uber-skilled Council!

"What we experience on a daily basis does not give us any trust in you," a resident told the councilmen in an appropriate close to the meeting.
Sign that's popping up
all over neighborhoods
bordering downtown


Anonymous said...

Robert Dyer knows what the citizens of East Bethesda really want - a freeway right through the middle of their community.

Anonymous said...

Love those "Communities over Canyons" signs. I notice they mostly are in the front yards of McMansions that tower over the original homes of their neighbors. Bunch of f'ing hypocrites.

Anonymous said...

As the cliche goes, people get the government they deserve. The majority of Montgomery County residents voted these guys into office and then kept re-electing them. Now they are mystified as to why the politicians they elected make decisions they don't like. That's what happens when you don't have a competitive election process. But they'll keep pulling the same lever in the voting booth because it allows them to signal their virtue. After all, aren't these the good guys and the other party the bad guys? Arent' these the guys who care about the people, not the corporations and the profit? Get a clue, people.

Anonymous said...

Not anymore. We've been shocked into action. Look out for a new PAC and new candidates. Last night was an abomination. Thank you Councilmembers Berliner and Elrich. Leventhal - OMG, what is wrong with him????

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"The Northwest Freeway that would have run in a trench behind businesses on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue"

I love Dyer's implication that this 6-8 lane freeway would have as much impact on the neighborhood as an alley.

Anonymous said...

2 people that should quit public servers right away as all the offer is a dis-service are George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen. very disconnected from what people want and people put them in their jobs. First rate Ass-Clowns

Anonymous said...

Wow why would anyone want to live in Bethesda anyway. It is the pit of the country. Worst than Detroit.

Robert Dyer said...

6:10/6:55: Below-grade freeways can be decked over and parks built on top. That's what many jurisdictions have done around the world. Even Rockville is discussing burying 355 where it passes the town center to create a central park on top.

Having said that, the Northwest Freeway is dead due to its right-of-way being blocked in numerous areas since its cancellation. I wouldn't waste a lot of time arguing about it, and focus more on the roads that do have rights-of-way like the Montrose Parkway and M-83 upcounty.

Anonymous said...

Montgomery needs to build new suburban neighborhoods out in the country not continue to make things denser.

Anonymous said...

Um, no to suburban sprawl. Yes to good government that allows density to be built in balance with its infrastructure. Boo to Leventhal. Does he coke up before these events? Someone told me we're all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own acts.

Anonymous said...

Marriott staying in "moribund" Montgomery County!


Anonymous said...

Facts, not acts. :)

Anonymous said...

Very few MCPS students live in any of the newer high rise apartments in downtown Bethesda anyone claiming otherwise is speaking without any facts to back them up. I challenge anyone how is convinced this is the root of the problem to stand out in front of the buildings during school bus pick up and witness the 1 or 2 students that get on the bus.

An argument could be made that the new buildings are contributing to student growth indirectly with empty nesters moving out of the East Bethesda neighborhood and into the new apartments while selling their homes to families with MCPS aged children but that would be difficult to quantify.

Anonymous said...

8:23 AM If you make a building with just studios and 1 brs, then I agree, not many students.
But I see lots of students gathered with parents at other highrises, such as in friendship heights and in tysons and elsewhere, waiting for the bus.

Anonymous said...

Anyone hear about Marriott? Check the news.

rabbit said...

Have you even been here? The signs are everywhere.

Robert Dyer said...

8:35: Yeah, read my report about Marriott staying in Bethesda right here on this site.

Robert Dyer said...

One BCC parent said his review of the school directory showed around 50% of students there live in apartment buildings. Remember, BCC draws from more than downtown Bethesda.

rabbit said...

Not at all what he says! Please read more carefully and not obscure the real content.

Anonymous said...

No doubt there are many students that come to B-CC from the older Silver Spring apartments but you can't translate those numbers to determine the impact that new high rise apartment buildings in Bethesda will have on local schools. It's an apples to oranges comparison, totally different demographic and price point.

Anonymous said...

Suburbs now, suburbs tomorrow, suburbs forever.

Anonymous said...

Urburbs. The way of the future?