Saturday, May 27, 2017

Fire at Safeway in Bethesda (Photos)

Montgomery County firefighters responded to a report of a fire at the Safeway store at 7625 Old Georgetown Road tonight around 7:30 PM. Since the store is at the base of a high-rise, the incident required a significant response from multiple departments, including at least one unit from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The fire was caused by a short in a compressor, and was extinguished by Safeway employees with a dry chemical fire extinguisher, according to Montgomery County Fire and Rescue spokesperson Pete Piringer. Fire operations began winding down about 20 minutes later. No injuries have been reported.

Gusto posts coming soon signage at Westfield Montgomery Mall, bebe hits the exits (Photos)

I previously reported that Gusto is expanding to Westfield Montgomery Mall, but now there is some official Coming Soon signage at their future space in the Dining Terrace. This is where Lobster ME was during their short run at the mall.

Meanwhile, fashion retailer bebe is saying goodbye after their going-out-of-business sale. The store looks empty and deserted, except for a sad note in the window encouraging customers to continue to shop at bebe online. "We promise that we will continue to be everything you know & love," the note reads.

New consignment shop coming to downtown Bethesda (Photos)

Fine Consigns Bethesda, an upscale consignment shop, is coming to 4916 Cordell Avenue in downtown Bethesda. The store will be in the former Leahy Plumbing and Heating space. Landlord Holt Cordell Properties hired the local architecture of Steven J. Karr, AIA, Inc. to design and complete a full core and shell renovation of the structure in January 2016.

The interior of the store now needs to be built out, but the window covers were off briefly this week, and we can see here the renovated shell of the space. As of this morning, all windows were covered again. Fine Consigns will be right next to Heckman's Delicatessen.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sexual assault on Adelaide Dr., stolen auto part on Weymouth St. + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on May 22, according to crime data:

Sexual assault. 6200 block Adelaide Drive at 5:50 PM.

Mental transport. 10400 block Grosvenor Place.

Embezzlement/"confidence game." 5400 block Marinelli Road.

Forgery/counterfeit/identity theft. 11800 block Grand Park Avenue.

Mental transport. 7500 block Leesburg Place.

Stolen auto part. 10500 block Weymouth Street.

Theft from vehicle. 5000 block Smallwood Drive.

Bethesda Downtown Plan is the worst of both worlds

The Montgomery County Council passed the Bethesda Downtown Plan by a vote of 8-1 yesterday. Councilmember Marc Elrich cast the lone dissenting vote. While the plan, in relative terms, is better than the Westbard sector plan the Council passed a year ago, it offers the worst of both worlds. The growth allowed is the wrong type, and insufficient to make downtown Bethesda an appealing destination for corporate headquarters. Yet the lack of infrastructure and staging guarantees that that lackluster, mostly residential, growth will be sure to strain already-jammed roads and classrooms - and County services.

Parks won't be of the size needed, and aren't guaranteed. Even the aspirational park sites were simply the low-hanging fruit, such as the parking lots at the edge of town. While that may or may not create a small buffer for the Town of Chevy Chase, those are poor locations for parks, which should be more centrally-located. Where is the green space with trees that can give a respite to pedestrians in the concrete jungle?

There is a slightly-greater commitment to affordable housing downtown, as there should be in an urban center near services and Metro. In contrast, the Westbard sector plan places a greater proportion of affordable units in that neighborhood, where there is little transit and no social services or County facilities. Ultimately, some of the growth that should have occurred downtown near Metro has been shifted to Westbard, a complete violation of smart growth principles.

Speaking of facilities, the Bethesda Downtown Plan is lacking in those, as well. At least a recreation center is under discussion. Westbard was completely shut out, despite having gone without a recreation center for decades.

On the flip side, the heights and density allowed in the core of the Central Business District near Metro are too low for the kind of major corporate tenants we need. One can argue that the question is moot, as the demand for office space in moribund Montgomery County is so weak, that no major corporate tenants will be interested anyway. But under this plan, downtown Bethesda will not be competitive with Tysons in ten or even twenty years. One of the main reasons is that most of what density is allocated will be eaten up by mediocre residential buildings, and Marriott, by the time the 2018 or 2022 County Councils can create a more business-friendly climate (assuming voters don't elect the "new" faces from the old cartel, who will be among the candidates on the ballot). How much will be left, for example, when Federal Realty potentially redevelops part of Bethesda Row, when Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema's lease runs out later in the next decade?

Unbelievably, the increased population downtown will be "accommodated" with lower speed limits and no additional highway capacity on Wisconsin Avenue. The major commuter route is already overloaded with interstate-level traffic, thanks to the cancellation of the Northwest Freeway.

In casting his dissenting vote, Councilmember Elrich noted that, "When you put it all together, the Bethesda plan has no transportation solution, no guaranteed amenities and no binding connection between increased density and the infrastructure necessary to support it.” His vote was an important one, regardless of the overwhelming support the plan had from his developer-beholden colleagues. It sends a clear message, and ensures that the dissenting views of actual residents have to be given at least a mention in media coverage.

In fact, given that the Bethesda Downtown Plan is better than the Westbard plan, I'm honestly puzzled as to why Elrich voted "no" on the former, and "yes" on the latter, instead of no on both.

Perhaps the only thing worse about the Downtown Plan than Westbard, is the uncertainty. Westbard-area residents know they were ripped off, will be getting no amenities at all, and a couple of postage-stamp-sized "parks." They know they're going to get 3000+ people and all their cars dropped into a block-and-a-half area, transformed into a concrete canyon of Soviet-style apartment blocs. And they know there are no plans for new schools, in a cluster where some kids are currently taking gym class in hallways.

In contrast, there's no clear vision at all as to what downtown Bethesda will look like in twenty years. After a promising start between the arrival of Metro and the late 1990s, the vision for downtown went off the rails after the turn of the century. The signature developments of that early period (Newlands Building, Chevy Chase Bank Building, Bethesda Lane, to name a few) have given way to a period where form lags far behind function.

Architectural and public art mediocrity and economic development malaise combine with a lack of real parks, public space and large-scale events (St. Patrick's Day parade? Halloween? Mardi Gras?) to weaken any sense of civic identity. We couldn't even pull off Strut Your Mutt this year. Downtown Bethesda deserves better, and was promised better, decades ago.

MoCo Council passes tax hike budget, bloated with payoffs to donors and allies - and themselves

The Montgomery County Council yesterday unanimously passed another budget that will raise your tax bill for FY-2018, in order to cover their highest-in-the-region salaries, and taxpayer-funded giveaways to political allies in the non-profit and contracting fields. Buried in the Council press release is a legally-required admission that your tax bill will increase, not decrease. That's because, while the Council can technically claim they "held the line on taxes," the corrupt tax system they've put in place automatically hikes taxes based on increased real estate assessments.

Allies of the Council in the local media went even further than the Council's own press release Thursday, falsely declaring that taxes had decreased - even as the release stated otherwise. Fake news. In fact, the Council posted a required ad in local newspapers several weeks ago announcing a budget with an increase in taxes. This follows last year's all-time-high property tax increase of 9% (which many County homeowners found actually translated into tax hikes of 10% or more, based on - yep - those automatic tax hikes that happen whether the Council increases the rate or not), and a major hike in the recordation tax.

So "holding the line" in this case means we're still at the highest level of taxation in Montgomery County history. The Council didn't have to move a muscle to get all that, and a little bit more, from your wallet for this budget.

As I reported a few weeks back, the budget massively overpays for procurement purchases, and funnels money to key donors and political allies in often-duplicative non-profit social services. Some who receive salaries from those non-profits turn portions of their tax hikes into campaign donations for the very councilmembers who voted to approve the funding for their organizations. Funding for a new microlending "Bank of the County Council" can also be "paid forward" by recipients to the campaigns of councilmembers. Those involved in determining who receives the microloans are either directly appointed by the Council, or are within their direct orbits of political influence.

Whether you pay taxes in Montgomery County can also depend on who you are. As I reported this week, developer Regency Centers was found to be in arrears to the County, having not paid their tax bills on two Westbard properties. Yet their development proposals are being pushed through the approval process, at taxpayer expense. As you know, ordinary citizens like you and me can be denied various government benefits and services if we are delinquent on our taxes.

There's a lot in this budget for the beleaguered County taxpayer to review, and perhaps even more for the FBI to examine. Such an examination could turn the Council's unwarranted budget victory lap into a perp walk outside of 100 Maryland Avenue.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

MoCo HOC audited by feds: 75% of units didn't meet HUD standards, 405 code violations found (Photos)

Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission is in an aggressive expansion mode, but an audit of their existing housing by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 56 out of the 75 HOC units inspected did not meet HUD standards. 405 code violations were found, 89 of which were deemed so serious that HUD required them to be corrected in 24 hours. The audit findings were first reported by the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County.
Would you use this moldy
shower at an HOC unit
in Montgomery County?
Auditors also learned that HOC was using its own contracted inspectors to inspect its units, a violation of Section 10.8 of HUD's Housing Choice Voucher Handbook. Violations found by HUD inspectors included missing smoke detectors, moldy and mildewed showers and ceilings, exposed sewer pipes, and an improperly-vented hot water heater that could have prevented gas from being exhausted out of the building properly. Combined with a second gas-related violation that "could result in an explosion," the findings are particularly disturbing after the 2016 Flower Branch apartments explosion, which killed 7 people.
One of two gas-venting
violations found in HOC housing
auditors said "could result in an
In all, auditors determined that $44,887 in federal taxpayer money given to HOC could have been "put to better use" on housing that would comply with HUD standards, a waste of tax dollars during an affordable housing crisis. Auditors have advised HUD that it should require HOC to reimburse HUD for the wasted funds.
Exposed sewer pipe
where a toilet was removed
but never replaced
HOC is a partner with Regency Centers in the proposed redevelopment on Westbard Avenue in Bethesda. The audit report follows the revelation earlier this week that Regency Centers was in arrears to Montgomery County, having not paid taxes on two Westbard properties.

Once again, the Montgomery County Council has failed to perform its oversight role over the HOC.

Westwood Shopping Center gets Regency Centers branding (Photos)

Regency Centers has finally put their name on the venerable Westwood Shopping Center on Westbard Avenue in Bethesda. The mega-developer and owner of retail centers usually displays signs at the entrance or exits of their properties, such as the one they own nearby in Spring Valley.

This one already has a semi-trashy appearance, due to something being stuck on or damaged on the right side, not long after it was installed (unless it looked like that when they erected it). That should be fixed, to avoid a snarky "Stay classy, Regency Centers," remark from patrons.

One downtown Bethesda hair salon closes, another opens

Golden Crown Hair Design on Norfolk Avenue has closed, and the space is cleared out. A new hair salon is just getting started over at the Peripoint Building at 5001 Wilson Lane. I believe Salon Gerard has already been taking clients, but the sign was installed Tuesday evening. They finally took down the signs for Soup Up, which closed in that space quite a while back.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

BiBiBop opens today at Bethesda Row

The newest lunch spot in town opens today at Bethesda Row. BiBiBop Asian Grill is open now at 4820 Bethesda Avenue. Like them on Facebook, and get a free bowl and maybe even a free t-shirt or other swag, between now and 1:00 PM.

MoCo's epic recycling pick-up fail in Bethesda continues

The Montgomery County Council has spent much of its time on bizarre issues like teenage tanning beds, pesticides, Styrofoam, "healthy vending machines," and divesting from energy investments. But based on our jammed and pothole-ridden roads, declining schools and 911 system failures, they are utterly inept at providing the basic services citizens expect when paying their outrageously high taxes. The latest Council humiliation? The streets of Bethesda, lined with recycling bins and yard waste, week after week. That embarrassment continues this week.

On Tuesday, the recycling trucks didn't bother to show up again in Bethesda. As night fell, recycling bins in neighborhoods counted their 24th hours at the curb, where residents placed them the night before. Naturally, those residents assumed the bins and earth-saving yard trim collections would be, you know, picked up on Trash Day.


Ironically, the County had done a lot of talking about recycling pickup on Tuesday, just very little actual picking up. They apparently forgot that 80% of success in life is showing up. As they say, "you had one job."

As recycling bins cluttered the roads, the County was talking. And talking. New contractors! Effective May 30! Just for Silver Spring!

But they weren't collecting.

Their efforts were mainly an attempt to look busy. Who wrote the contract for recycling collection? Does it have no penalties for simply not bothering to provide service? How many firms bid on this work, given that there have been issues with this contractor going back several years, such as labor disputes?

Why is the Council impotent on this issue, as they are on so many other critical issues? Will residents' trash and recycling fees be partially refunded for the unacceptable service? How does this keep going on, week after week?

Recycling contractor Potomac Disposal has made campaign contributions to councilmembers Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, according to the Maryland Campaign Finance database. It's unclear if those donations also get them a free pass for frequently dropping and smashing glass bottles they were supposed to pick up, and then driving away, leaving broken glass shards to puncture taxpayers' tires.

I particularly like how the official announcement yesterday said that, if your recycling isn't picked up, "leave your material at the curb. The contractor will collect missed items as soon as possible."

Don't call us, we'll call you.

It's time for the County Council to be put out at the curb, for quick pickup on Election Day 2018.


Macedonia Baptist Church presses Berliner on cemetery at NAACP meeting

Montgomery County Council
President Roger Berliner speaks
to the MoCo NAACP general
meeting last night in Rockville
"This is awkward"

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner faced tough questioning about his role in an ongoing controversy over the African-American cemetery on the Westwood Tower property in Bethesda, at last night's county NAACP meeting. Leaders of Macedonia Baptist Church are scheduled to attend their first mediation meeting with the Planning Department and developer Regency Centers today, the beginning of a process Berliner and County Executive Ike Leggett had suggested two months ago. But the Planning Board ignored the letter and gave Regency a green light to conduct a private study of the cemetery. That plan was unacceptable to church officials, who noted that such a study would be inherently biased toward Regency, which was paying the firm conducting it.
Rev. Segun Adebayo, pastor of
Macedonia Baptist Church
Berliner, like virtually every County official who has spoken about the cemetery, has used conditional language to discuss it. That continues to upset church officials, who point out there is no evidence disputing the graveyard's existence. While even the Planning Department's historical expert for the Westbard sector plan acknowledged there is no evidence the graves were ever relocated (an admission then stricken from the final Planning Board draft of the plan, part of a Planning Department cover-up of the cemetery), Berliner and others have taken a more skeptical approach.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo,
social justice director at MBC
"There is no shred of evidence that the bodies were ever removed," MBC Pastor Rev. Segun Adebayo told Berliner last night. "Respect that ground as a sacred ground. That land must be preserved as sacred land. Build a museum on that plot of land. That's what justice looks like, and that's what justice ought to be. Anything short of that will be unacceptable."
Harvey Matthews, who was
a resident of the historic River Road
African-American community, before
it was wiped out by developers
Berliner demurred on the museum idea, focusing on the letters he had written, and promising a positive outcome to the controversy. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo disputed Berliner's version of events, saying the church's weekly protests caused a previously-scheduled cemetery agenda item to be removed from the Planning Board's June 9 agenda, and made mediation possible on better terms. "It's not letters by Mr. Berliner, or letters by somebody else. It's because people have taken to the streets." She referred to the "massive cover-up" of the cemetery, and questioned Planning Director Gwen Wright's record of interactions with African-American communities in Montgomery County and Alexandria.

While saying he disagreed with Coleman-Adebayo on Wright, Berliner did move further toward acknowledging the cemetery exists. "There is an extraordinary amount of evidence. I concede that." He also apologized to Harvey Matthews, who was a resident of the black community on River Road, until his family was forced out by developers.

Matthews also pressed Berliner on the skeptical language officials keep using, despite Matthews himself having given firsthand accounts of the cemetery to County officials. He said he told Wright that construction workers who desecrated the cemetery while building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s spoke of having dug a "trench" on the site. Using a bulldozer, he said, they plowed remains into that mass grave, an illegal act. But an act that proves the bodies are still there.

Snowden Funeral Home, with vast knowledge of African-American burials in the county, has no record of the cemetery being relocated, Matthews noted. No documents have been found to suggest a removal. He himself used to play among the graves when he was a child growing up on River Road. "This is the real deal," he said of the graveyard. Having officials continue to express skepticism about the cemetery is "very disgusting, with me being born and raised there," he said.

"To the extent to which you feel disrespected, or you feel your ancestors were disrespected, I apologize," Berliner replied.

Matthews recalled how Wright dismissed the two anthropologists the church had wanted to monitor the cemetery investigation. "Wright kicked them to the curb. Why did they kick our people to the curb," Matthews asked Berliner.

Wright remains a controversial figure at the center of the cemetery scandal. When Berliner dashed out the door before the meeting was over, some from the church followed him outside the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville. Wright "is a racist, and we all know it," Coleman-Adebayo said as Berliner walked to his car. "I don't believe that to be true," Berliner responded. "I don't believe Gwen Wright is a racist." "She wanted an all-white staff," Coleman-Adebayo countered, referring to the archaeological investigation of the cemetery. "That's the reality of it. And that's who you're supporting."

The two anthropologists dismissed by Wright were African-Americans, with extensive experience and peer acclaim in site studies of historic black cemeteries.

Berliner appeared to know he was in for a tough night early on, noting, "this is awkward." To his credit, he did not surround himself with police or security guards to have a civil conversation with his constituents, unlike Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and others. He is also literally the only person to apologize to anyone from the church so far, regarding the disastrous way County officials have handled this matter. Of course, none of that guarantees - yet - that we are going to have a full and fair investigation of this cemetery, on which Regency Centers and Montgomery County want to build a parking garage.

The Council President wasn't just feeling the pressure from the audience in front of him. From the executive officers' table behind Berliner, Montgomery County NAACP President Linda Plummer made clear the organization stands with the church on the cemetery issue. "I want everyone to know the NAACP supports Macedonia Baptist Church, and their [pursuit] of justice."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Westfield Montgomery Mall is "in bloom" with new garden attraction (Photos)

The scent of Spring is in the air in the Nordstrom wing of Westfield Montgomery Mall - literally. Montgomery In Bloom, a new "living storybook" garden attraction runs almost the entire length of the wing, from Lily Pulitzer down towards Nordstrom's coffee bar area. Hidden behind its hedges are floral arrangements, garden creatures, multiple seating areas and - if you visit at the right time - free treats like floral teas and macarons.
The exhibit will remain in place through June 26, and as a static display, can be enjoyed at all times. However, there will be special events and product demonstrations on the busier Wednesday-Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons. You might sample a saffron tea, participate in a yoga class or Wednesday Paint Night, or check out Vera Bradley luggage you need for that vacation this summer. See the full Montgomery in Bloom schedule on the mall's website.
This is the first time Westfield has experimented with this concept anywhere in the world. A successful run here could mean it will be tried elsewhere, but Westfield marketing representatives said yesterday that this display is carefully-tailored to the audience for this specific mall. Some of the plants are real, and some are artificial, with the latter employed to ensure the exhibit lasts through late June.
Tag your photos in and around the garden with the hashtag, #MontgomeryInBloom, so Westfield can see and possibly share them online. To register for the Montgomery In Bloom Paint Night events, click here.

Fashion by Lily Pulitzer

The display is accessible to
the disabled, as this
patron found while taking
a wheelchair tour

Hashtag your selfies with

Sample a floral tea
from David's Tea

...or a macaron from
Olivia Macaron