Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Elrich: Westbard plan is a "naked real estate ploy" for developer benefit

When the vast majority of residents are vehemently opposed to the proposed Westbard sector plan, and the chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board describes that as "consensus" in support of it(!!), you know you've either entered the Twilight Zone, or are witnessing the MoCo political cartel at work. Casey Anderson was just getting started, though. Referring to the same Whitman cluster where kids take gym class in hallways, and a cart on wheels becomes the rolling "music room," and where River Road is already jammed during rush hour, Anderson proclaimed, "Schools and roads can accommodate this plan."

"This plan" would add about 5000 people to a two-block area, and about the same number of cars. "Is this the place" for growth, Anderson asked rhetorically.

"[School] Boundary changes 
used to be a third rail"

Anderson again definitively walked away from the smart growth principles the County machine has claimed it was using as the foundation for all future growth for the last decade. With Westbard nowhere near a Metro station, Anderson was left to grasp at straws to explain why it indeed would be "the place...to accommodate the growth the region is going to experience."
 "People lose sight that 
somehow you attending 
Whitman is better 
than attending Gaithersburg 
or Northwest."
Well, because it is near the District, Anderson argued. Wait a minute. That's not smart growth, which is broadly accepted as high-density housing between one-quarter and one-half of a mile from a rail transit station. At least until the Westbard plan, apparently.

So someone explain how Spring Valley and the Palisades, which are even closer to the downtown D.C. core than Westbard, are not facing this type of urbanization. Of course, it's because their elected officials have protected them for the last 50 years, over which time, both of those District neighborhoods have remained unchanged in their low-density, suburban residential character.

Will the County Council provide the same protection for its constituents around the rapid transit desert known as Westbard? Based on the fact that the most conservative alternative offered by the Council so far only reduces the plan by less than 50%, retains many urban heights and densities and high-percentage of affordable housing far from Metro or services for low-income people, and recommends no project to add vehicle capacity to River Road, while adding about 2000 new vehicles to it, we can certainly say the early answer is, "No."

Because protecting Westbard to the degree of Spring Valley and the Palisades would mean not allowing any significant growth at all. But at a minimum, the growth could be limited to that which the current zoning allows. That's not in the cards, either, based on discussions so far.

"Our objective is 
not to speed traffic"
-Nancy Floreen

A County Council staff report, which was the basis of Monday's worksession on the plan, tries its darnedest to allow developers and their friends on the Council to skip their vegetables and go right to the chocolate cake. And, hold on, don't we pay these folks' salaries, and they're supposed to defend our neighborhoods?

Marc Elrich was the only councilmember to vigorously contest the plan and the rationale behind it being put forward by Anderson and Council staff. Elrich pointed out that projections they are making are based on the existing zoning, not what the upzoned numbers would actually be. He said that the current plans in the County already in transit zones would already meet projected demand by 2040 when built out. "If existing plans are built," he said, "you would already meet those housing needs, and they are more transit-served than Westbard."

Elrich also noted that the plan as written would gut Westbard of about 1000 jobs, between commercial and industrial jobs that would be lost through redevelopment.

He said the thin rationale behind the plan, and distance from Metro, makes it "a very odd duck." Elrich added that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments does not endorse the type of development the Planning Board is proposing at Westbard. "They're not doing this at COG. [Westbard] is not an activity center," the term used for ideal growth centers.

In his frank critique, Elrich declared the Westbard plan "a naked real estate ploy for somebody who's got land, and wants to get more money out of that land," rather than being in the best interests of the County and existing residents. "Selling this as something we have to do to accommodate future growth doesn't stand up to your own data."
"I moved to the 
Whitman cluster, 
and therefore I 
must go to 
Whitman High School!"
County Council Deputy Administrator Glenn Orlin then began a presentation of his school capacity analysis, which I dissected last Friday. But it got worse since then. Sumner resident Dennis Collins found that two of Orlin's figures for Wood Acres ES were incorrect, throwing off his final numbers and, therefore, his arguments. But much like Anderson, Orlin forged on anyway. He was again dismissive of the Whitman cluster PTSA analysis (which is actually more accurate than his), with a bit of a sneer in his voice, which is totally unnecessary.

But forge on, forge on. Orlin then preceded to spend several minutes describing the students forecast vs. students actually enrolled chart I showed you last Friday. But he spent that entire explanation describing the forecasts as having been too high, and claiming enrollment was below the projections. Huh? Then, at the end, he stated he misspoke, and that - correctly - enrollment was always higher than what MCPS had predicted.

What was that all about?

It was downhill from there. The high-rise student generation rate on Westbard Avenue, even in Orlin's data, is clearly double or more than double the rate of other high-rises in the greater southwest area of the County. So what does Orlin do? He instead uses the garden-style Kenwood Place condos as the model, and even claims that the buildings planned for Westbard are going to be of that height. Huh?

The buildings planned for almost every site in the proposed Westbard plan are all high-rises, and perhaps will step down on the side where they meet existing homes. None are of the number of stories of Kenwood Place. And even at that, the number given for Kenwood Place doesn't match the anecdotal number of students waiting for the school bus from Kenwood Place in the morning. Kenwood Place has traditionally always had students due to its ample unit size and multiple bedrooms.

But nothing proposed in the Westbard plan will be like Kenwood Place! You have to use the high-rise rate to be accurate. With accuracy second to helping private developers make the most money possible, of course the Council staff would use the inaccurate garden apartment numbers.

Comparing his data to the PTSA's, Orlin termed his analysis as an "objective look." Speaking of a cluster with an elementary school with 6 portables outside, and no more room for expansion after the present addition now under construction, Orlin said he finds "no problem" at the elementary school level for adding students in the Whitman cluster. That met with sounds of disbelief from the residents in attendance. Middle school? "A closer call." High school? Orlin predicts excess capacity at the high school level.

Orlin said resident and PTA requests for more specificity regarding concrete actions on school capacity in the plan should be ignored. Such specifics don't "belong in a land use plan at all," Orlin said.

Council President Nancy Floreen asked why information that MCPS had provided for the plan was not included in the plan. She noted the recent Montgomery Village plan had such information. Anderson said he got it late in the process.

What Orlin outlined as providing all of this school capacity depended on, first, his inaccurate lowball numbers; second, a belief that there will be fabulous economic boom years non-stop between now and 2040(!!); and third, that the County and state will spend, spend, spend.

Councilmember Hans Riemer asked Orlin if his projections were "reflecting a [presumed] surge of capital spending?" "Yes," Orlin replied.

Along those lines, Elrich took on the oft-repeated claim that MCPS can simply reopen closed schools. You could open those schools, Elrich said, but "opening a bunch of stuff costs a lot of money." And, in fact, MCPS has been loathe to reopen old schools or build new ones for that reason. Each school building requires its own staff, and a whole new set of ongoing expenditures. That's a lot more expensive than the scary alternative Orlin seemed fine with suggesting - mammoth high schools with over 3000 students in one building.

Elrich said it wouldn't be right to shortchange other communities just to facilitate development at Westbard. "We are in a mess today. We do have a school overcrowding problem," he said.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who has proposed a "Berliner alternative" that would allow slightly more than 50% of the units proposed by the Planning Board, said he felt "more of a cushion is necessary" for school capacity.

Then Orlin reached out for the third rail of Montgomery County politics - school boundary changes, suggesting that would be a realistic solution. "That's not my experience," Berliner replied, noting that such proposals have been very unpopular in communities. "This is one of those third rail conversations where people get very nervous," Berliner said. He added that he finds the Planning Board's recommendations "a bit ambitious and aggressive."

Floreen predicted the maximum build-out of the plan wasn't anything to worry about. "We all know that's not going to happen," she said. Really? Every site on this plan's map - all of Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road, all of Capital Properties' Park Bethesda site, the Whole Foods/storage potential site, American Plant/Roof Center, the Ballroom and parts of the Washington Episcopal School all have plans in mind. Why would they not redevelop? Is there a depression ahead that is printed inside the envelope held by The Magnificent Carnac?

Then things got a little bit out of hand, by 20816 standards.

Councilmember Craig Rice countered Berliner's claim that boundary changes were a non-starter. "Boundary changes used to be a third rail," Rice declared. "These are the new realities we are going to have to deal with." Blaming Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for reduced funding, Rice said, "therefore, we can only do what we can."

Raising his voice, Rice said, "People lose sight that somehow you attending Whitman is better than attending Gaithersburg or Northwest."

Uh oh.

"That should not be the case," Rice continued. "It should not be about what your zip code is."

Raising his voice slightly again, Rice argued that parents in the Whitman cluster were not entitled to a Whitman education.

Uh oh.

Rice concluded by warning Whitman cluster parents not to feel such entitlement, mocking them in the voice of a hypothetical parent, who might declare, "I moved to the Whitman cluster, and therefore I must go to Whitman High School!"

Several of his colleagues looked as if they'd seen a ghost. "Let's be clear," Floreen assured the audience, "we're not talking about boundary changes right now."


"This plan is as much of a dilemma as any that's come before me," Councilmember George Leventhal said. He then said something I've personally never heard George Leventhal acknowledge before. He said that while redeveloping land with mixed-use projects increases the revenue the County can collect, "it also increases the demands on the public sector" for services. And it sounded like he acknowledged that those additional revenues don't cover the full cost of those addtional services.

This is a breakthrough, folks. This is the same Councilman who showed a building replacing a single family home on a TV program years ago, and touted the resulting revenues as reason enough to allow such a change. Of course, anyone following our ongoing structural deficit realized years ago that the new revenue and developer fees don't even come close to paying for the schools, transportation, stormwater and police and fire costs to taxpayers.

Then Orlin turned to transportation. If you are a regular reader, you already know that this plan doesn't include a single project to increase capacity on River Road, despite adding thousands of new vehicles to the road. But Orlin found an odd little project for River Road at Little Falls Parkway that everyone had apparently forgotten was in the Friendship Heights sector plan.

Here's what it is: A through lane that would start one block east of Little Falls Parkway on River Road, and end about one block west of the parkway. Huh?

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of transportation engineering would recognize that this lane collapsing back into the ongoing two westbound lanes would cause a traffic jam. Only Elrich spoke up about this. Adding the lane would also eliminate a two-way cycle track proposed for the north side of River Road, and change it to a 10' "hiker-biker trail."

Here's my best guess - adding this tiny through lane gave X amount of additional capacity in the abstract sense to River Road, thereby allowing that Friendship Heights developer to add X amount more density to their project, even if it never got built.

A third lane all the way from Ridgefield into the District up to Wisconsin Avenue, perhaps reversible depending upon the time of day, might actually work. A short through segment? Not so much. Might as well have the full bike facility at that rate.

Addressing more dubious projections, Elrich said, "Tell me how there are fewer [car] trips when you're adding this many units?" Orlin said the elimination of commerical and industrial businesses would reduce truck traffic significantly through the plan area.

"Oh, killing jobs," Elrich replied sarcastically. "So if you kill enough jobs," you can reduce trips.

Orlin repeated Anderson's previous, and much ridiculed, claim that trips are down in recent years on River Road. "Nonsense!" a resident said in the audience. "Ridiculous." "It's ridiculous," another resident muttered. "They made it up." That's the understatement of the year!

"The transportation planner who worked on this has taken a new job," Orlin said awkwardly, to some chuckles around the room.

"Our objective is not to speed traffic," Floreen said, which surely ranks just behind Whitman boundary changes in the most popular remarks of the day. "You're hitting it right on the head," seconded Anderson.

Again, have these people ever driven River Road during rush hour. One does not "speed" through that block of River Road during rush hour. Ever. Period.

Now, remember how we've been hearing for a couple of years now that if we all take the nasty medicine of redevelopment, we're going to get wonderful new infrastructure that is...Walkable! Bikable! And super-safe for French bread loaf-toting hipsters crossing the street. Hold onto your loaf, because you ain't gettin' it.

Apparently, a concern was received by the Council staff in the "last couple days from Equity One," Orlin said. It turns out that providing a safe concrete median for pedestrians will require widening the road, and costly utility pole relocations. Now wait, I thought we were getting the new infrastructure.

"We recommend at least a painted median for pedestrian safety," Westbard plan project manager John Marcolin said. Now, imagine standing in a tight space with cars whisking past inches away at 25 miles an hour. Does that sound safe to you?

Now here comes the development company representative. And here comes the attorney. Up to the table for addtional time to speak. Did residents get a chance to speak Monday? Nope. Developers: unlimited time to talk on an ongoing basis. Residents (or even leaders of civic associations): Three minutes at a one-shot public hearing (and then the planning board rips up that plan, and writes a new one the public never testified on!).

Michael Berfield of Equity One told the Council there are "conflicting goals" for the design of the future Westbard Avenue. It is now likely there will be no median for pedestrian refuge along at least one stretch of the road, yet the road remains four lanes to cross. This is still going to be an unpleasant pedestrian experience.

But, again, we were promised first class pedestrian infrastructure. Theoretically, the density giveaways in the plan are supposed to facilitate these expenditures by the developers.

Orlin again endorsed closing the first block of Westbard Avenue at River Road, but didn't appear to have an airtight solution to doing that while still allowing necessary fire and police access from River. He acknowledged a civilian SUV could probably mount a curb designed to only let emergency vehicles in. Leventhal said Orlin was coming up with these solutions "in a kind of seat-of-the-pants way."

For Kenwood's wish of angling the future Westbard Avenue realignment to River Road away from Brookside Drive, Orlin declared "The cure is worse than the cause."

For the final surreal moment of the day, all of the highly-paid elected officials and staff were stumped by a basic question.

In discussing whether River Road should have a 30 MPH speed limit, or 25 MPH, Riemer said, "I do want to say 25, but it would be helpful to visualize what that might mean." Were there any examples of a road similar to River with a 25 MPH limit, Riemer asked.

No one on the dais could answer it. Orlin couldn't. Anderson couldn't. The planners couldn't.

Hint: Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda is an even higher-capacity 6-lane state highway - divided, to boot - and major commuter route. And it is 25 MPH in downtown Bethesda. Does the Council ever get to downtown Bethesda?

Oh, and then, just in case there was any remaining danger he might win a popularity contest in "Westbard," Anderson declared he wanted speed cameras up and down River Road.

Sumner resident Collins perhaps summed it up best in his email to the Council. Noting that proponents of the plan cite the County's new standard that traffic congestion only needs to be kept "tolerable," Collins took that a step further.

"If 18.1% projected overcrowding for Elementary Schools, 16.9% projected overcrowding for Middle Schools, and 17.9% projected overcrowding for High Schools is deemed TOLERABLE by the MoCo Council, then school capacity is not a reason for the Council to approve less residential density than what is proposed in the Westbard Sector Plan forwarded to the MoCo Council by the Planning Board."

"If the foregoing is the new definition of TOLERABLE, then folks may wish to consider voting in a new Council with a more citizen-friendly basis for Council decision-making."
A very blurry photo of
the future realignment of
Westbard Avenue


Anonymous said...

Great coverage. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

What a mess. Thanks for covering this.

It seems like dumb and dumber over there. Adding 5,000 residential living units will increase school enrollment. They have no plan for how to deal with that.

Reboundary? I can tell you why it's the third rail -- people bought their houses because it's in a certain school district. That's even reflected in the price of the house. Why should those people get redistricted and see their home value drop, just because a developer miles away at Westbard wants to build some apartment buildings? Utter nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Robert, you hit the nail on head by describing this fiasco as only for developer benefit. Thanks for the excellent coverage. As a resident of the Westbard neighborhood I would love a redeveloped shopping center and some new housing, but this is really nuts.

Anonymous said...

You do all realize that it only benefits the developer if there is significant demand for the product, right? If people don't want to live in densely populated areas away from mass transit they won't buy or rent and the increased people/traffic won't happen resulting in millions in losses for developers. If people do want to live there the developers make money the new residents are happy and the only people put out are the stodgy NIMBYs who fear any and all change.

Anonymous said...

We need a new Council. Please do not vote for these jerks next time.

Anonymous said...

8:43 What do mean, NIMBYs? Do you live there? New residents won't be happy if it takes them 30 minutes to get from Parc Bethesda to River Road. Commuters won't appreciate the additional few thousand cars sharing the road from Ridgefield to Western Avenue. You just seem to hate anyone standing up for common sense. I have to wonder just what your motives are...just a hater in general, perhaps? You offer nothing constructive.

Anonymous said...

@8:43 Actually the developer can sell all the units over the course of a year, and be out of there by the time all those people move in and the congestion worsens. The developer doesn't care about long-term in many cases.

Anonymous said...

When they tear down all those old crappy businesses along River Road between Ridgefield and Little Falls, there should be plenty of room to add some more traffic lanes there.

Anonymous said...

9:57 - what you perceive to be old crappy businesses are actually quite valuable to their customers. I, for one, don't want to have to drive to Gaithersburg to get my car repairs done.

Anonymous said...

Yep. If you live in the area, and drive a car, you're really happy to have the great service stations we have for a quick tire repair, oil change and general auto advice.

It's all part of a functioning neighborhood.

These guys are all gonna lose their jobs!

Anonymous said...

Supporting this insane Westbard plan should be disqualifying for anyone running for re-election to the MoCo Council.

Westbard Concerned Citizens said...

Thank you for this thorough and accurate report, Robert Dyer. I am glad that you mentioned that the developer was invited to the table to speak, too; what a farce. The County Council needs to wise-up and listen to the voters.

Anonymous said...

Please do not vote for any of the council members who vote to approve this atrocious plan. VOTE THEM OUT!

Anonymous said...

This is a litmus test for the next election.
Vote for this and you're out.

Robert Dyer said...

"Throw the bums OUT!"

Anonymous said...

This is the same council that appointed their very own personal attack dog and shield, Casey Anderson. And someone please explain to me why the term NIMBY is considered an insult?

I am not only a proud NIMBY but also NIYBY. Westbard is not the only community or sector plan to have been supersized against the wishes of the vast majority of residents. It is very enlightening to look at past sector plans and see "how they voted". Only Marc Elrich has been the voice of reason, sanity and common sense. He correctly calls it what it is, a developer profit driven free for all facilitated by CC's attack dog who has been groomed by the developer contingent for years for this very purpose.

Absolutely we must vote these people out of their lucrative cushy little jobs. We can do it.

Anonymous said...

Any word on the referendum to impose term limits on the county council? Does it have enough signatures to make it on the ballot?

Anonymous said...

You have the ability to impose term limits on any incumbent in any election.

Anonymous said...

And we see how well that works...