Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sherwin-Williams property sold in downtown Bethesda (Photos)

Big real estate news in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle neighborhood: The Sherwin-Williams paint store property at 4809 Auburn Avenue has been sold. The buyer? An LLC affiliated with the Donohoe Companies, Inc.
The building is directly across
Auburn Avenue from another
Donohoe property, the
Gallery Bethesda apartments (R)
What's intriguing about that is Donohoe has already built the Gallery Bethesda apartment tower across Auburn Avenue from the paint store site, and is now beginning construction on its companion tower, The Rugby. Its "Woodmont Central" development could now add a fourth building (a third building was already in their plans for the Sunoco site at Wisconsin Avenue and Battery Lane) directly adjacent to the first two. The only limitations I can think of are the triangular shape of the property, and its dimensions, 6297 SF.
View from Rugby Avenue
According to real estate records, the sale closed on January 25, and "4809 Auburn Avenue, LLC" paid $12,000,000 for the property. If they were to put up a luxury condo building with $1 million+ prices per unit, that could indeed be a very profitable acquisition for them.

In the draft Bethesda Downtown Plan, the site has a 110' height where the actual building is, and then a step-down to 90' on the parking lot area of the property. So if one of our resident real estate experts can do the math, to figure out how many luxury condo-size units they could get on this site: 6297 SF, 90-110' height = ???

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Third Bethesda cemetery protest Sunday at 1:30 PM + fact-checking racist Westbard propaganda

Get ready to march again to ensure a full and dignified investigation is carried out at the site of the desecrated African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda. Gather in front of the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road at 1:30 PM tomorrow, Sunday, February 19, 2017.

As the movement to demand the church and those who were buried in the cemetery receive the same respect from Montgomery County as the developer who now owns the land grows, a half-baked disinformation campaign has been launched in some of the darker corners of the local internet. It's time for a fact check.

Here are the facts:

The concerns about the cemetery are not a new, 2017 issue. Period. While the church congregation, former residents and their descendants were well aware a black community had existed in the Westbard area of River Road from the 1860s to 1960s, this historic community was never acknowledged by Montgomery County. In fact, the county assisted in its erasure. Therefore, few residents who arrived here after that time - including myself - had any way to know this history.

While researching the history of the Loughborough plantation (which was located from roughly today's Little Falls Parkway to Nebraska Avenue in the District) in 2011, I learned that its former slaves established a community in what is now the industrial area of River Road in the 1860s, after Maryland Emancipation.

As a history major, it was clear to me that such a community, with a church, would have likely had a cemetery. When the Montgomery County Planning Department was eager to give approval to the Little Falls Place project on the Hoyt/Betco plant property in 2011, I testified about the black community before the Planning Board, and the National Capital Planning Commission (which had to sign off on LFP because Little Falls Stream Valley Park was originally set aside as a highway facility by the federal government, and a part of the park was being turned over to the developer).

My testimony - surprise, surprise - was disregarded and ignored by both bodies. The Planning Board's historical preservation advisor giggled, and told the commissioners that he rarely comes before them to say this, but that there is absolutely nothing historic about the industrial area where the Betco property was located. Of course, today, he looks like a complete fool.

My concern was that, with no deep excavation ever having been done on the Betco site, it was one of many possible cemetery sites. In any case, via my testimony, the Planning Department was now well aware of the historic black community, and the potential to find a graveyard in an area where only a few high-rises have required major excavation (one of which actually struck the cemetery, it would turn out).

Fast-forward to November 2014, when I attended the Sunrise Session for business owners of the Westbard sector plan area. A man from one of the businesses said he knew where the cemetery was, and had an eyewitness account of it having been desecrated by construction workers building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. In this account, not only were more than 12 gravesites disturbed, but remains were then allegedly - and illegally - relocated to an adjacent area of the site. The remainder of the cemetery was paved over for the building's side and rear parking facilities.

It's my understanding that he shared his account with the Planning Department that same day. Further details were gathered by planners in generating a new historical background for the plan. The Macedonia Baptist Church was informed of this, and a church leader testified at one of the Planning Board Westbard worksessions.

By late 2015, the cemetery - and a reference to the need to survey it before anything was built in that location - was now in the plan. Although the past disrespect by the county left me wary, it appeared the issue was going to be handled properly.

In 2016, two problems emerged. Early in the year, the County Council completely ignored and disregarded the cemetery issue in the plan, and declined to strengthen the language or make its discovery and protection a priority.

Second, Equity One's initial sketch plan submission that included the site did not adequately acknowledge even the relatively weak language about the cemetery in the sector plan. Planners acknowledged receiving many emails and letters regarding this matter at a Development Review Committee meeting in August 2016. In very mild language, planners pressed Equity One to revise their plan.

However, as the process went forward, it turned out that the cemetery was not going to receive the same respect and urgency as the developer's sketch plan, still due to be reviewed by the Planning Board on February 23.

The church and the community (notably the Little Falls Watershed Alliance) began to mobilize more formally in the fall of 2016. Attempts to contract an acceptable firm to conduct the search and delineation of the cemetery repeatedly faltered into winter, and the church feels misled by the promises that were made and broken by the planning department.

There still is no signed contract, and for mindboggling reasons, the Planning Department has yet to approve the ability of two independent anthropologists to oversee the cemetery work, nor a mechanism for the church and community to get all of the same information the developer and county will simultaneously. This unnecessarily raises suspicions of what are they going to try to hide? Why would they not have the most open process possible?

Thus, the protests of the last week. There is nothing new about the issue of the black community, or a "missing" cemetery. This has been brought to the Planning Board and Planning Department's attention since 2011, not just in the last week. So the claims that this is just a new effort to oppose development at Westbard are simply complete hogwash.

Here's what's troubling beyond just the lack of respect for the cemetery in the process right now: that a consistent talking point across both the anonymous commenter propaganda and the official statements from the Planning Department RIGHT NOW, in the last week, is that "graves can be moved."

In other words, the side pushing for development is - Freudian slip or not - showing their hand, and maybe floating this as a political trial balloon, the idea of relocating graves if they can be found.

Now, if the descendants of those buried there, and the church were supportive of that idea, and have some alternative resting place in mind, that would be their decision to make. However, I don't believe they've made any such official statement regarding that yet, so it is highly inappropriate and disrespectful for planners -and internet trolls with suspiciously-uniform talking points - to be talking about moving graves at this juncture.  Trust me, there is no "average citizen" of Bethesda who would respond in such a callous way, in such an enlightened and educated community as 20816. These commenters clearly have some personal interest in sweeping the cemetery issue under the rug. I would hope no county official would endorse their dark, racist rage in cyberspace.

If the developer failed to fully investigate land records related to the property they were purchasing, that oversight should not result in yet another disrespectful treatment of the church - or the relatives of those buried in the cemetery - such as we witnessed at the Planning Board Thursday, and in these "anonymous" racist online comments.

Def Leppard's Rick Allen to return to Bethesda today at noon

Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen will bring his newest art exhibit to Bethesda today, February 18. Allen's show will be at the Wentworth Gallery in Westfield Montgomery Mall today from noon until 3:00 PM.

The 2017 exhibit features pieces from his Drums for Peace and Art to Wear jewelry collections. Purchase something for a chance to meet a rock legend. Entry is free. Wentworth Gallery is located on Level 2 of the mall, right outside of Nordstrom.

To attend, RSVP by calling (301) 365-3270.

7101 Democracy Boulevard
Westfield Montgomery Mall

Friday, February 17, 2017

Bethesda crime update - Valentine's Day edition

Criminals are apparently in high demand as romantic partners, as crime was lower than usual on Valentine's Day. Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on February 14, according to crime data:

Theft. 5400 block Wisconsin Avenue.

Theft from vehicle. 7100 block Democracy Boulevard.

Assault. 5400 block Randolph Road.

How many armed guards does MoCo planning chair need to speak to a representative of a black church? (Photos)

You will be able to judge your local elected officials by the degree to which they condemn the Montgomery County Planning Department's over-the-top reaction to peaceful protesters at their headquarters yesterday in Silver Spring. The protesters were asking the board to delay consideration of developer Equity One's sketch plan, until an African-American cemetery buried under part of the property can be fully investigated. Not only does the plan propose to construct a new building and garage atop the cemetery, but witnesses have reported the graveyard was desecrated by construction crews in the late 1960s, who reportedly illegally moved remains they encountered while excavating for Westwood Tower.

The optics of board chair Casey Anderson calling in armed police officers to surround him Secret Service-style, while speaking to a representative of a historic black church, created a public relations disaster that had even the County's Deputy Planning Director grimacing. But the more you analyze yesterday's debacle, the worse it looks. Forget about "How many County Council members does it take to screw in a light bulb?" It's time to consider, "How many armed guards does Casey Anderson need to speak to a representative of a black church?"

Isn't something fundamentally wrong with the direction our county is currently headed, that - for the first time I can recall - Planning Board meetings in 2015 and 2016 would end with residents shouting at the commissioners? Residents increasingly find their so-called public servants are actually at war with them, trying to force major changes developers are seeking, that are opposed by the vast majority of the community. In the past, mass uprising against a government proposal would cause it to be tabled. Now our officials ignore the boos, lower their shoulders, and power into the end zone - sometimes even sharing a touchdown dance with the developers who have scored the win.

A Council and Board at war with their own constituents probably explains why a grand total of 7 police vehicles (each one presumably representing at least one officer to drive it) were ultimately deployed against protesters by the Planning Department yesterday. I counted 6 Park Police vehicles, and 1 County police cruiser. I personally have never seen more than one armed police officer at the board, and only when a contentious public hearing is scheduled. Part of ignoring constituent anger, is hiding behind armed guards so you can continue to thumb your nose at residents, and advance your agenda.

When you consider this is Black History Month, you'd think the planning department and board in a liberal county like this would be bending over backwards to be sensitive to the concerns of the Macedonia Baptist Church, rather than appeasing the fiscal timeline of an out-of-state developer. Yet black, white, and Asian protesters were denied their First Amendment rights to carry signs into the public board meeting yesterday right off the bat. Even our corrupt County Council has never enforced such a rule.

Protesters silently waited at the back of the room until the meeting recessed, and then a representative of the church, Marcia Coleman-Adebayo, approached Anderson to deliver a community petition. Anderson refused to accept it. He was technically correct that he should not speak to any side in a matter pending before the board, but he has been quick to ignore that rule when a developer wants to speak with him, as detailed in my report yesterday. But did Anderson need three armed police officers surrounding him to have a civil conversation? And could he simply have accepted the petition and handed it to a staff member?

The racial and gender subtexts of the encounter made it all the more troubling - and surprising - in a county many have assumed was progressive and politically-correct to a fault. Concerns of the church have always taken a back seat to the concerns of Equity One at the board, as the agenda for February 23 shows. Perhaps the Montgomery County political cartel, under pressure from its developer overlords, "doesn't have time to be politically correct anymore." Let's take a look:
Coleman-Adebayo (R) attempts
to hand Anderson (L) the petition;
he refuses to accept it

Now, let's zoom out and
examine the "threat matrix"
here - two women speaking
to Anderson (center),
two children and
Rev. Nancy McDonald-Ladd
(second from right) of the River Road
Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Does this conversation appear in
need of police intervention to you?
Here comes Officer 1 to
Anderson's side

A second officer hurries over, and
they form a phalanx around
Anderson. A third officer
is standing to my left. 

Zoom out again -
all I see here are
women and children
having a civil discussion,
or listening quietly
Seemingly sensing how bad
the optics of this are,
Deputy Planning Director Rose Krasnow
appears to intervene. She
places her hand on the shoulder of one
of the officers, saying something to him
and to Anderson. Anderson shortly
thereafter exited the room
On video of the episode, Krasnow
can be seen grimacing twice at the
events transpiring. As an experienced
mayor and official from a time of
kindler, gentler Montgomery County
politics, my hunch is Krasnow would
not have wasted 7 officers' time pulling
them off the street for a non-event

like this, if she were
in charge

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Macedonia Baptist Church still wants Planning Board vote delayed over cemetery controversy (Video/Photos)

Planning Department deploys
large police presence to greet
protesters at HQ

Macedonia Baptist Church and their supporters are not accepting the latest proposal from the Montgomery County Planning Department in a dispute over a desecrated African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda. On Tuesday, the department said it would temporarily remove the Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Tower site - where the cemetery is located, according to land records and eyewitness accounts - from developer Equity One's sketch plan. The Planning Board would then review and vote on the plan, and the excluded site would be reviewed as a later amendment, after the cemetery investigation is complete.

That proposal is "insufficient," church representative Marsha Coleman-Adebayo said in an interview this afternoon. The church still wants the Equity One sketch plan removed from the Board's February 23 agenda, and postponed until the cemetery review is complete.

Equity One is "driving the process," Coleman-Adebayo said. Church leaders and members, whose ancestors are among those buried in the cemetery, are concerned about the Board's "rush to judgement," she said. She added that it would be inappropriate to give the developer approval to put up buildings all around the borders of the cemetery, should the land around it move through the sketch and site plan process before the HOC/Westwood Tower site is investigated.

"We would like to see a museum there," Coleman-Adebayo said of the cemetery site, currently hidden under a parking lot and the Westwood Tower high-rise.

to watch
Planning Board Chair
Refuses to Accept
Church Petition

Coleman-Adebayo also accused the Planning Department of attempting to place a "gag order" on the independent anthropologist and archaeologist the church wants to monitor the cemetery investigation. She said they would be unable to report anything they saw or learned to the church or the community. Speakers at last Sunday's protest explicitly said they wanted a process in which the church and other community stakeholders would have equal and immediate access to all of the findings by the developer and its cemetery investigation contractor.

The church has repeatedly tried to schedule a meeting with Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, Coleman-Adebayo said, but "he has refused to meet with us." She said they believe he has met privately with Equity One. "He's made a distinction between" the church and Equity One, she added, noting that the latter is a multi-billion dollar corporation on the New York Stock Exchange.

Protesters from the church, and their supporters in the community, gathered on Georgia Avenue outside the Planning Department headquarters in Silver Spring at 2:00 PM today. After displaying signs and chanting for a few minutes, they were approached by a police officer who told them they needed to move to the courtyard at the back of the building. Coleman-Adebayo responded that the protesters were allowed to be on the public sidewalk, and declined to move. After further polite discussion, the officer left.

A short time later, protesters walked around the building to enter the rear door. They were seeking to deliver a petition, signed by hundreds asking the Board to postpone their February 23 vote on the sketch plan, to Board Chair Casey Anderson.

Three Park Police vehicles were parked near the building, and the group was approached by three Park Police officers. In all, the Planning Department called in six Park Police cruisers and one Montgomery County police officer against the protesters, the largest deployment I've seen against residents at the Planning headquarters. Usually there is one police officer present, and only when a public hearing is expected to be contentious.

Protesters continued into the building, with the officers following. At some point, church leaders were told they could not bring their banner into the Planning Board meeting room. Protesters lined up at the back of the room quietly. One carrying a small sign was approached by a Park Police officer. "That sign doesn't meet the requirements," he told her. "You'll have to go outside." The Planning Department headquarters is a public building, and its meetings are public. Protesters were silent indoors, and did not disrupt the business of the board at any time during today's protest.
Planning Board Chair
Casey Anderson refuses
to accept petition from
Macedonia Baptist Church
Planning Board Chair Anderson suddenly recessed the meeting. As he walked from the dais toward the exit, Coleman-Adebayo attempted to hand him the petition. "I want to give you our petition," she said, extending the papers to Anderson. He refused to take it. "Did you talk to Equity One," Coleman-Adebayo asked. "No, I can't talk to anybody," Anderson replied.

Technically, Anderson is correct. In practice, however, he has been selective in avoiding ex parte communication since he was named chair of the board. According to an internal Planning Department email, Anderson scheduled a private meeting with Equity One on September 11, 2015. He did not report this ex parte communication at the start of the next Planning Board meeting as required by law. No action was taken against him by any oversight body.

Anderson also spoke privately with Equity One partners minutes after the Westbard sector plan was passed by the County Council on May 3, 2016. He has also, inappropriately, attended charrettes on the Westbard and Rock Spring sector plans. Anderson himself stated he had spoken to attendees at the Westbard charrette, again in violation of ex parte rules, claiming later they told him they were too scared to speak in favor of a draft plan widely opposed by the community. At the Rock Spring meeting, he not only spoke with individuals, but at one point seized control of the meeting to deliver a verbal beatdown to residents who dared to criticize the early framework of the plan.

Anderson's annual taxpayer-funded salary is $200,000. The church's petition was eventually accepted today by Planning Department Deputy Director Rose Krasnow.

Protesters plan to gather at Macedonia Baptist Church again this Sunday, February 19, at 1:30 PM.

Domestic violence on Wisconsin Ave., pedestrian struck on Parklawn Terrace + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on February 13, according to crime data:

Domestic violence assault. 5400 block Wisconsin Avenue.

Theft. 6100 block Plainview Road.

Collision/property damage. 5900 block Bradley Boulevard.

Theft from vehicle. 9000 block Old Georgetown Road.

Theft. 5400 block Grosvenor Lane.

Theft. 11300 block Rockville Pike.

Theft. 11400 block Rockville Pike.

Domestic violence assault. 5100 block Parklawn Terrace.

Pedestrian struck. 11700 block Parklawn Terrace.

MoCo Council got an average of $2469 in free gas last year - - from you

How would you like $2469 in free fill-ups at your local gas station (assuming it isn't being torn down by the Montgomery County Council and Planning Board)? You'll have to run for the County Council to get it.

According to Arelis Hernandez of the Washington Post, Montgomery County Councilmembers averaged $2469 each in free gas in 2016, paid for by you, the taxpayer. Nice.

This is the same Council whose members, thanks to a 17.5% raise they gave themselves at your expense a few years ago, will each be paid an astonishing $136,258 this year. By you.

Free gas is just par for the course, for our corrupt County Council, who - by the way - are running a structural deficit every year, and raised your taxes to historic heights last May. It seems they're only good at numbers when they're figuring out how much money they can get out of you.

The Bell, California City Council did this, too. They're in the slammer right now. Montgomery County's Council? Still on the street, and still on the take.

Demolition fence installed at Steamers property in Bethesda (Photos)

Demolition fencing was erected around the Steamers site in downtown Bethesda yesterday. The vacant restaurant is being torn down to make way for a 110' tall luxury condo building called The Claiborne. A public meeting about The Claiborne is scheduled for February 28 in Bethesda. The Steamers property is located at the corner of Norfolk and Auburn Avenues in the Woodmont Triangle.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Whole Foods apologizes for "miscommunication" of threat to arrest Westbard cemetery protesters

Protesters at the edge of
the Whole Foods shopping center
in Bethesda moments after police
informed them the store would
have them arrested if they set
 foot on the property
Protesters marching against plans Sunday to redevelop land in Bethesda where the desecration of an African-American cemetery has yet to be investigated were stunned to be informed that Whole Foods Market had threatened them with arrest if they set foot on their property. Yesterday, a representative of the organic grocery chain expressed horror at what she described as a "miscommunication."

"I am confident Store Leadership at our Bethesda store did not tell the group that 'anyone who set foot on the property would be arrested,'" Mary Ann Sack, Mid-Atlantic Executive Marketing Coordinator for Whole Foods wrote to community members in an email obtained by Robert Dyer @ Bethesda Row. "[W]e are all upset that somehow this message was communicated. We feel fortunate to be a part of the Westbard Bethesda community and value our relationships with the neighborhoods that surround the store. Whole Foods Market is genuinely invested in bringing together our community partners—so what happened on Sunday doesn’t sit right with us."

Sack said that the property owners make the ultimate decision on who can or cannot enter the property, not the store. She added that the store would consider donating food or flowers to a future Macedonia Baptist Church event, to demonstrate "we are 'kind and peaceful' neighbors."

Ancestors of the MBC congregation are among those buried in the cemetery.

Public meeting scheduled for The Claiborne luxury condo project in Bethesda

Developer Novo is about to submit the Preliminary and Site Plans for its luxury condo building project, The Claiborne. Representatives of the applicant will host a required public meeting before doing so, on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, at 7:00 PM, at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center at 4805 Edgemoor Lane.

The 11-story building will house 58 condos and 2800 SF of retail/restaurant space. 15% of the units will be moderately-priced, more than the 12.5% required by Montgomery County. With a height of 110', the building will be located at 4820 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle. That property is best known as the home of Steamers.

Planning Board to push ahead with Westbard sketch plan Feb. 23, propose to temporarily remove cemetery site from approval

Protesters marching in the streets Sunday demanded the Montgomery County Planning Board delay review of developer Equity One's sketch plan for about 22 acres in the "Westbard" area of Bethesda, until the presence of an African-American cemetery on the site can be delineated. But the Planning Department reaffirmed yesterday that it is going ahead with the review on February 23. In its first public statement since the very successful Sunday protest, the department announced Tuesday it has required Equity One to exclude the Westwood Tower property in question from its sketch plan.

The Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Tower property now appears crossed out with hashmarks on a map with the staff report for the February 23 board meeting (see map at top). Taking the department's assertions at face value, that property - including the believed boundaries of the cemetery - would have to have a separate approval at a later date for the sketch plan, via an amendment.

Is this sufficient assurance for those concerned about the cemetery? Is this a wise decision, when it appears - based on the aspirational language in yesterday's statement - there is still no firm agreement on which stakeholders and experts will have equal standing in the cemetery research process (one speaker at the protest was proposing citizen involvement, and the importance of the church and their allies having the same access to information uncovered in the discovery process as the developer)? And does still going forward with the sketch plan address a key grievance of protesters - the perception that the process seems to favor speeding the developer toward profit, before getting answers to 50-year-old questions about what happened to this cemetery during the construction of Westwood Tower?

At press time, there are still two protests scheduled: tomorrow from 2:00-4:00 PM in front of the planning department headquarters in Silver Spring, and this coming Sunday at 1:30 PM again in front of the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road. It will be up to leaders of the protests to make the call as to whether this latest revision is enough to placate their concerns.

Here's something I don't understand: The planning department Q&A just posted describes a sketch plan's parameters thusly:

"A sketch plan shows the basic concepts for development, including building massing and height, and locations of public uses and their relationship to existing and proposed properties. A sketch plan shows circulation patterns and describes the public benefits proposed and incentive densities requested, as well as the phasing of the development."

So, if you yank out the HOC/Westwood Tower portion, how can you proceed on the sketch plan? It would not contain one of the major "basic concepts for development" of the Equity One property, namely several large new structures. How can the plan be approved, if commissioners fully ignore the "locations of public uses and their relationship to existing and proposed properties?" How can we know the "relationship" of the new construction on the HOC site, if it's not being approved with the rest of the plan? 

The proposed public road through the HOC/Westwood Tower site is indeed a major part of the overall "circulation patterns" of the larger Equity One proposal, as well as a public benefit. With a very large portion of the overall affordable housing component being planned for the HOC site, how can commissioners evaluate the total "incentive densities requested?"

How will we know the "phasing" of the development when one major piece is not under consideration?

What if graves are located all around where the HOC plans to construct a new building? If the expected affordable housing there can't be delivered as a result, how will that throw off the rest of the plan and its promised benefits?

Finally, the major concerns about the cemetery and the Willett Branch stream buffer encroachment on the HOC/Westwood Tower site indeed will have tremendous impact on "the public benefits proposed," namely the park that would both protect the stream and commemorate the "lost" black community and cemetery.

I am not a land use attorney. Is there any leverage that will be lost going forward under this revised sketch plan? I am not qualified to answer that question. I can say that the more I research Maryland law regarding cemeteries in this type of situation, the more concerned I become about what may end up happening here.

There's also some fact-checking to be done on the Q&A about the cemetery released by the planning department.

1. "In 2014, Planning Department staff identified a possible cemetery located behind the Housing Opportunities Commission/Westwood Towers apartment building and near the Willett Branch stream. During the planning process for Westbard, Planning Department preservation staff researched the local history and discovered the possible presence of an historic African-American burial site within the Westbard Sector Plan area."

False. I first informed the Planning Board of the existence of an African-American community along River Road in 2011, during the hearings on the Little Falls Place development. One of the issues was the almost-certainty that there would had to have been a cemetery somewhere in the vicinity. In 2014, it was a gentleman from one of the businesses who attended the "sunrise session" for business stakeholders who identified the location of the cemetery - not "Planning Department preservation staff." He was the source who had detailed information on, according to his account, the desecration of the cemetery by construction workers building Westwood Tower in the late 1960s. Finally, the cemetery is also alongside Westwood Tower, not just behind it, and was apparently within the footprint of Westwood Tower itself.

If you go back to the 2011 hearings, you will hear the board's historical preservation expert giggle at my assertions about the black community. He then ntold the board that he rarely comes before them to say this, but that there is absolutely nothing historical whatsoever about the industrial area of River Road where the Betco property was under consideration for redevelopment as Little Falls Place. In 2014, the initial "history" released at the beginning of the sector plan process mentioned nothing about the black community at all. It was added after I criticized the omission, and other inaccuracies, on this website.

2.  "[C]urrently, there is no evidence of whether burial sites still exist in this location."

False. The oral history account clearly gives us strong evidence there were burial sites. His account of the cemetery's location mirrors that of Harvey Matthews, a resident of the "lost" black community who pointed out its location to marchers on Sunday.

The Connor Building is...gone in Bethesda (Photos)

The Connor Building has been completely razed at 7720 Wisconsin Avenue. With the retail structure's lot just a flattened pile of rubble, you can now see the historic Bethesda Theatre from Woodmont Avenue. This demolition is part of the site preparation for the future Marriott headquarters, which is moving down here from the Rock Spring office park in Bethesda.

This isn't a loss on the level of Pizza Hut (which was steps away from this building) or Hot Shoppes for me, but I was a fan of the interior "Arcade" corridor design, and the signature quarry stone exterior. Such stone facades seem to be among the most-demolished in recent years downtown.

Menchie's Frozen Yogurt opens in Bethesda (Photo)

Well, they weren't able to open in time to serve the holiday Egg Nog flavor, but Menchie's Frozen Yogurt has finally gotten up and running at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. Find them on Level 1 outside of Forever 21.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Are some MoCo Councilmembers seeking an end-run around term limits? MD House bill could do it

Four Montgomery County Councilmembers will be unable to run for reelection in 2018, thanks to voters overwhelmingly approving term limits in last November's election. Councilmembers Hans Riemer, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice can only run once more in 2018, and if they win a third term, will have to step down in 2022.

Or will they?

Montgomery County's House delegation in Annapolis has quietly introduced a bill that would stagger terms of the County Council. Some seats would be elected in gubernatorial years, and others in presidential years. Presidential year elections strongly favor incumbents and establishment candidates, which is why municipal incumbents financially-backed by developers and other special interests often press for their towns and cities to move their elections to presidential years.

Voters in presidential years are greater in number, but studies and voting results have shown they are less attuned to local politics than those who turn out in off-year elections. Those pressing for local offices to be elected in presidential years will often turn that fact on its head, and claim that invisible force fields are somehow preventing large numbers of voters from reaching the polls in off-year elections, a farcical claim. 

The fact is, people who don't care about what's going on at the county level, don't vote in off-year elections. Having more low-information voters who literally don't care about the local outcomes deciding our County elections is a terrible idea.

But put that debate aside for a moment.

This bill could be abused by a County Council and political machine still smarting from being totally repudiated by their constituents in the last election in three ways:

First, and most appallingly, the way this bill is written would leave the door open for the County Council itself to extend an American Idol-esque "save" to colleagues of their choice in 2022. Riemer, Navarro and Rice could actually vote themselves a two-year extension in office until 2024. Or would they still get the boot, and whoever runs for the seats that will be voted on in 2024 will only get a two-year term? The problem is, the bill doesn't say.

Second, the bill's language allows the Council to determine which seats would move to presidential year elections. You can be sure, for example, that the all-Democratic County Council would want upcounty District 2 to move to presidential years, as that district has a much higher percentage of Republicans than the others.

Third, County Councilmembers ousted by term limits in 2022 wouldn't have to cool off for four years before running again, as voters clearly said they should. Instead, they could try to get back on in two years.

All three of these abuses would be clear moves to subvert the will of the voters in 2016. Of course, those among the majority who voted against the ambulance fee probably wouldn't be shocked.

There is no mass support or demand from the people for a switch to staggered elections. No meaningful effort has been made by either the Council or the delegation to alert or educate the public that a major change like this is being proposed. It's a change clearly designed to favor incumbents and candidates of the political machine.

This bill should either be edited to give the Council less leeway to abuse the process, or be tabled. In the meantime, watch this effort carefully. A public hearing is scheduled in Annapolis before the Ways and Means Committee on the bill this Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 1:00 PM.

If, like most people, you will be unable to travel to Annapolis midday on a weekday, please use this contact information to tell our delegates and senators (and the members of the Ways and Means Committee) to table House Bill 348.

Toll Brothers sets opening date for Hampden Row in Bethesda

Big news from Toll Brothers City Living - The developer has set the Grand Opening of its Hampden Row ultra-luxury condominiums for Saturday, February 25 and Sunday, February 26, 2017, from 1:00-5:00 PM both days. Two model units will be unveiled for prospective buyers to tour during the grand opening event.

Hampden Row is located at 4915 Hampden Lane, at the corner with Arlington Road. Prices begin at $500,000.

Top: Robert Dyer
Bottom: Toll Brothers City Living

Monday, February 13, 2017

Town of Chevy Chase, Ashburton hit by auto thieves; assault at American Tap Room, Highland House West + more - Bethesda crime update

Here's a roundup of crimes reported across Bethesda on February 10, according to crime data:

Assault. American Tap Room.

Assault. Reported at 2nd District police station in Bethesda.

Theft. 7100 block Woodmont Avenue.

Drug arrest. Chase Avenue at Chelton Road.

Vehicle burglary. 7300 block Maple Avenue.

Vehicle burglary. 7000 block Maple Avenue.

Stolen car. 6900 block Maple Avenue.

Vehicle burglary. 7000 block Hillcrest Place.

Drug arrest. 6700 block Connecticut Avenue.

Assault. Highland House West.

Assault. Wisconsin Avenue at Willard Avenue.

Vehicle burglary. 9800 block Marquette Drive.

Vehicle burglary. 9700 block Stoneham Terrace.

Vehicle burglary. 9700 block Montauk Avenue.

Theft. 10600 block Montrose Avenue.

Royal Cleaners closes in downtown Bethesda (Photos)

Royal Cleaners has closed at 7028 Wisconsin Avenue, next to Golden City restaurant. The space is now for lease. Hopefully everybody had a chance to pick up their dry cleaning before it closed!

Protesters take to the streets over desecration of African-American cemetery in Bethesda (Video+Photos)

The controversy over how to address an African-American cemetery in the Westbard area of Bethesda that was desecrated and then buried in the late 1960s, boiled over into the streets yesterday. In yet another sign of how the Montgomery County Council and Planning Board seem to now be at war with their own constituents, this was only the second matter to result in citizens marching against Montgomery County officials in my lifetime (compared to the fairly common union protests). In this case, members of the Macedonia Baptist Church and their supporters are asking the Planning Board to not act on the Equity One sketch plan that envisions a 6-story building and parking garage on top of the cemetery.

Despite the request of the church to delay the sketch plan review until a cemetery delineation can be carried out, the Planning Board is going forward anyway. A youth leader at Macedonia Baptist said it was "disrespectful" to put parking over their buried ancestors.

Several community leaders, as well as nearby residents, stood and marched in solidarity with church members yesterday. "What a blessing it is to be in this righteous fight with all of you," said Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of the River Road Unitarian Universalist Church. While Town of Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin spoke, telling the crowd to "stay woke," the Montgomery County Council was nowhere to be found. Ed Amatetti, a Republican running for the Council in District 2 in 2018, was there, however.

Among the chants and musical selections employed during the march was a particularly appropriate one, "We Shall Not Be Moved." Considering that a developer can try to relocate graves under Maryland law, the title's defiance has a double meaning.

With a robust Montgomery County Police presence, marchers started off into the right westbound lane of River Road in front of the church, chanting anti-Equity One slogans. Officers did a great job of directing traffic and protesters, keeping everyone safe. At the Capital Crescent Trail bridge over River Road, officers shut down the whole state highway for several minutes to allow marchers to cross and reach what was once known as "Outlet Road." This was the route funeral processions would take from the church to the cemetery in decades past, and currently sits below the retaining wall at the rear of the McDonald's parking lot.

Once at the cemetery site, one of the two academics the church wants to represent them when Equity One's hired firm eventually begins a cemetery search, spoke. Dr. Rachel Watkins said the cemetery must be delineated "before any ground is further disturbed or touched." She also advocated having the community "embedded with the discovery process" of any delineation, as much as the developer would be.

Harvey Matthews, who lived in the black community on the site of today's Whole Foods Market, said he always took great pride in telling people he was "born in Bethesda," and "the first black kid to live in Kenwood." He had childhood friends who lived in Kenwood, which was separated from Matthews' property by the Willett Branch stream. Two sycamore trees that were planted out front when he was nine are still standing between the sidewalk and the Whole Foods parking lot.

Whole Foods sent word through the police that they would arrest any of us who entered their property during the protest. Nice.

Matthews recalled playing hide-and-seek and sledding in the cemetery, and doesn't understand why there is any skepticism by the County regarding its existence. "I don't know what game the County's playing," he said, "or how they're playing it." He said he would like there to be some physical memorial that his he, his children, and his grandchildren can visit to pay their respects.

"These Africans in the ground were somebody," said a representative of the Black is Back Coalition, a group organizing for peace, social justice and reparations. "Their presence and blood runs through all of us."

The weather cooperated greatly, with an occasional sprinkle near the end of the march. In a hopeful sign, the sun emerged as Rev. McDonald-Ladd gave a benediction at the close of the march.

Just before the end of the march, protesters paused at the site of Matthews' former home to pay their respects to his family. "I don't care what they say, Whole Foods, about arresting people," he declared. "I was here first."
 *  *  *
Commissioners are currently scheduled to take up the plan at their February 23 meeting. The Planning Department issued a statement in response to news of the plannned protest last week, in which it claimed that approval of the sketch plan would not close any aspect of delineating the cemetery. However, that legal question is not as clear-cut as the news release suggested, in regards to what authority and advantages the developer would hold with an approved sketch plan.

I was, frankly, astonished at the department's insistence that the sketch plan review would go forward. Given the department's never-FBI-investigated role in the Farm Road scandal, in which black landowners were cheated out of their property rights after the road that accessed their properties was "accidentally" deleted by the Planning Board - to the benefit of a development firm, the optics of the Board now thumbing their nose at a black church over desecration of a black cemetery are pretty horrendous. Good Lord.

But after attending yesterday's protest, I am now confident that the sketch plan review is going to be postponed. That's because leaders of the protest made clear that if the Planning Board goes ahead with the sketch plan review at its February 23 Planning Board meeting, they will "shut it down" through civil disobedience if needed. The scene of an African-American congregation shutting down a meeting, in which extremely-ambitious politicians like Casey Anderson and Natali Fani-Gonzalez would be siding with a multi-billion-dollar corporation over black constituents, would be a public relations disaster for the Montgomery County political cartel. They're not going to give us that photo op, folks.

To keep the pressure on, though, two more protests have been scheduled prior to the meeting:

1. Thursday, February 16, 2017 from 2:00-4:00 PM outside the Planning Headquarters at 8787 Georgia Avenue

2. Sunday, February 19, 2017 at 1:30 PM outside the Macedonia Baptist Church at 5119 River Road

How could this desecration, like the River Road black community itself, remain "secret" for so many decades? For some reason, Montgomery County never paid any attention, nor pursued the people responsible for this crime against humanity. As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. said in his Washington Post book review of The Blood of Emmett Till yesterday, "when African-American lives are destroyed by white people, America has historically been reluctant to bring the perpetrators to account." Should it be surprising that this lack of consideration extends to the African-American dead, as well?
Protesters gather in
front of the
Macedonia Baptist Church

Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of
the River Road
Unitarian Universalist Congregation was
among several representatives of local
organizations in attendance

A former pastor of
Macedonia Baptist Church
has said developers have
relentlessly tried to drive
the church off its land

Call and response
with an Equity One theme

The Kenwood, seen in
the background, was
constructed on land that
held some of the final
homes of the original
black community

Church trustee
Harvey Matthews (L) gets
protesters ready to march
onto River Road as
police begin to close lanes

The 850' telecommunications
tower was the site of the
River Road Colored School,
which Matthews attended

There were some emotional
moments at the site of
the cemetery

Equity One
security guards
were called in

Making the climb
to Westbard Avenue

Now on Westbard

Site of Matthews' former
home, taken by developers;
it is now a Whole Foods

Matthews recalls his
years living on this
property, standing next
to the sycamore trees (center)
his family planted when he was 9

Matthews is interviewed
after the march by
Jasmine Norwood of
DCW50 News