Saturday, February 29, 2020

Kohler Signature Store by GROF USA sets opening date in Bethesda

The new Kohler Signature Store by GROF USA is filling the space at 7626 Old Georgetown Road, in the ground floor of the Metropolitan apartment building. You may recall a bike shop was the previous tenant at this prominent corner in downtown Bethesda. The kitchen and bath showroom has set an opening date of March 12, 2020. 
Signage has been installed on the building's facade. Kohler is an American company with a long history since it was founded in 1873 by Austrian-American industrialist John Michael Kohler. Based in Wisconsin, the Kohler family is practically royalty in the state, with John's son Walter and grandson Walter Jr. even having served as Wisconsin governor. They inherited the political genes of John, who himself served as mayor of Sheboygan. Walter Sr. founded the company town today known as Kohler Village in Sheboygan County, current population 2068, still today the company's world headquarters.
GROF USA is a major interior design and fixture supplier for projects large and small, offering design and procurement services. They have offices in some of my favorite cities in the world, including Washington, D.C., New York, Miami, and Caracas, Venezuela. GROF's Bethesda venture is the first Kohler Signature Store to open in the D.C. region.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Strong-arm robbery on Woodglen Road in White Flint

A victim reported a strong-arm robbery on Woodglen Drive around 8:30 PM Wednesday night to Montgomery County police, crime data indicates. The victim was in a car at the time of the robbery, records state.

SHA road diet would reduce capacity of already-jammed Old Georgetown Rd. by 33%

One of Bethesda's most-congested commuter routes will soon achieve carmageddon. The Maryland State Highway Administration has proposed reducing Old Georgetown Road from three lanes in each direction to two lanes each way between Cedar Lane and the Capital Beltway, slashing the road's vehicle capacity by 33%. In place of the lost lane, a separated bike lane with a five-foot buffer from auto traffic will be created, according to Delegate Marc Korman, who represents Bethesda.

Considering that the Beltway and I-270 are where a great number of drivers are coming from in the morning, and trying to reach in the evening, this is going to create an incredible bottleneck. Anyone who drives the road during rush hours is aware of just how bad the traffic jams are now. Often a person can walk faster than the cars, a phenomenon also found on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda.

Incredibly, the SHA is claiming you can currently drive from Cedar Lane to the Beltway in 3.7 minutes during peak evening rush hour. Under the road diet, they claim it will now take 4.9 minutes. I've repeatedly sat in traffic there for longer than 4.9 minutes as it is now, although I've largely given up and try to avoid using Old Georgetown at all costs during rush hour in the affected directions.

There's no doubt we have a bicycle safety problem. But that problem is not the fault of the beleaguered citizens trying to get to and from work each day in their cars. Remember, this is a route that went from bad to worse with the expansions at NIH and Walter Reed over the last decade. This is simply not the right solution for this road.

If the concern for bicycle safety is so genuine and sincere, why aren't the SHA and County making the heavy lift of widening the road and narrowing the median to add a separated bike lane without punishing drivers who pay their salaries? If the concern is honest, why in politicians' and SHA's view, do cyclists only deserve protection between Cedar Lane and the Beltway? Of course, this is just the beginning, as pending plans for lane elimination on Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard show.

Sometimes real solutions are expensive, not cheap. Delivering a world-class road system that is as safe as possible for all modes of transportation using it is never going to be cheap.

Rendering by Maryland Department of Transportation

WMAL radio towers demolition preparations underway in Bethesda

The landmark WMAL radio towers at 7115 Greentree Road aren't likely to be there too much longer. Workers have been active at the site over the last week, erecting demolition fencing, and going over the site with ride-on lawn mowers. The popular unofficial dog park and outdoor activity center for the neighborhood will be much-missed by residents, but is set to be replaced with a new Toll Brothers housing development. Few residents in the golden age of radio would have imagined that such a powerful and highly-rated station would no longer need its Bethesda transmitters.
Toll Brothers has officially requested demolition permits from the County, and their applications were officially accepted on February 21. County records indicate that the permits have not yet been issued by the Department of Permitting Services.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

B.F. Saul promises another "landmark building" for Bethesda at 8001 Wisconsin Avenue

B.F. Saul's Chevy Chase Trust building is arguably the most-recognized modern building in downtown Bethesda, even from vantage points miles outside of town. The development firm is promising something similar with its proposed redevelopment of a two-story commercial building at 8001 Wisconsin Avenue, and adjacent properties, into a 350-unit residential building with ground floor retail. It will encompass the entire block, bordered by Wisconsin, West Virginia Avenue to the south, Tilbury Street to the east, and Highland Avenue to the north.
View from across Wisconsin Avenue,
just north of Highland Avenue
"B.F. Saul builds and holds landmark buildings indefinitely," the firm's Senior Vice-President of Construction Brian Downie told attendees at a public meeting last night. Downie sought to distinguish Saul from developers who build, then quickly sell off their projects soon after delivery.
8001 Wisconsin's site plan includes
a rare vehicle pull-off driveway for
deliveries and drop-offs
Saul also addressed some frequent concerns about downtown developments in its proposal, particularly those of residents on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue. A 70' park will be added in addition to a required rear "greenway" strip along Tilbury, and there will be a plaza driveway at the building's main entrance for pull-off of delivery and drop-off vehicles, rather than have them block curb lanes on Wisconsin or West Virginia Avenue.
Peaked gable roof faces Tilbury Street
John Torti of architecture firm Torti Gallas + Partners described the proposed building design as a series of courtyards. I was delighted to see the famous Kennedy Warren, one of the most-noted grand residential buildings in the District, as a reference point for the design. Indeed, some of the Kennedy Warren characteristics are evident in the images shown of 8001 Wisconsin.
Wider view from Tilbury Street
Renderings also showed a gable peaked roof facing the residential neighborhood of East Bethesda, a location-appropriate design touch developer Equity One steadfastly refused to provide in a similar situation on Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road. The building will be 90' tall at Wisconsin Avenue, and drop down to 70' facing Tilbury, with the 70' park between the rear of the building and Tilbury.
Cutaway view of underground parking
There will be three levels of underground parking. Retail will be on the Wisconsin side of the ground floor. A WMATA grate for the Metro Red Line tunnel will remain in place.
Public green space behind 8001 Wisconsin is shown
in context of other green space in the vicinity
Attorney Bob Dalrymple said he expects the project to break ground in early to mid-2022, if no major delays are encountered in the approval process. Last night's meeting was a required pre-submission meeting for the project's Sketch Plan and Preliminary Plan, which will be submitted to the County Planning Department next week on March 3, 2020. A public hearing on those plans before the Planning Board will likely be held in July 2020.

The required pre-submission public meeting for the project's Site Plan will be held in late summer or fall this year. Saul will then submit its Site Plan to the County following that meeting in the fall of 2020. A 2024 delivery is predicted.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Late night storm causes power outage in Bethesda

A late night storm pelted Bethesda with hail, rain and gusty winds around 11:20 PM Wednesday night. Pepco reports two power outages in Montgomery County; one is in the Cabin John area south of River Road in Bethesda. About seven customers are affected. Pepco predicts a 2:00 AM Thursday restoration time. The other outage is in the Clarksburg area. Further outages and tree damage are possible overnight, as the winds are continuing even after the storm has passed.

Montgomery County Board of Education candidate forum scheduled for March 16

A Montgomery County Board of Education candidate forum has been scheduled for Monday, March 16, 2020 at 6:30 PM at the Potomac Community Center, located at 11315 Falls Road in Potomac. Candidates vying for the three open seats on the board have been invited to participate.

Thirteen candidates are competing for the At-Large seat; the two top vote-getters in that April 28 primary race will advance to the General Election in November. The two candidates running in each of the District races are unopposed, and will face-off in the General Election. Key issues are the school system's funding and budget, the achievement gap, academic decline over the last decade, student safety and a highly-controversial redistricting study now underway that some on the current board have openly said should include the forced busing of students to schools outside of their communities.

The forum's sponsors include the Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women and its four clubs, as well as the GOP Asian-American Association and the Republican Legislative District 15 Political Action Committee.

Bethesda Row Apple Store sets Grand Reopening date after upgrades

The massive new Video Wall at the Bethesda Row Apple Store was still under wraps when I passed by Monday night, but the curtains will part before the week is over. Apple has announced the store will host a Grand Reopening to show off several weeks' worth of upgrades this Friday, February 28, 2020.

Guests will also be able to learn more about and experience the classes the upgrades were designed to enhance, Today at Apple sessions. Apple promises you will create fun videos, write your first line of code, and take an indoor Art Walk using the company's latest devices.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

New EV charging stations planned at Montgomery Mall

Electric vehicle charger at a
Montgomery County Safeway store
Westfield Montgomery Mall is already a popular stop for Tesla owners, who can charge their electric vehicles at the mall's Tesla Supercharger station while dining, shopping, or watching a movie. Now Westfield is adding two more charging stations for electric vehicles this year. Malls, grocery stores, retail properties and town centers have become popular locations to charge vehicles, as ownership of EVs widens.

Fidelity sets moving date in downtown Bethesda

Fidelity Investments has been planning to move from its current Bethesda Crossing (a.k.a. Air Rights Building) offices to the Chevy Chase Trust Building at 7501 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 150-W since last October. Now I have confirmed when it is relocating. Their first day in the new location will be March 9, 2020.
The sign is up at the new location
in the Chevy Chase Trust building
To prepare for the move, Fidelity's current office will close at 1:00 PM this Thursday, February 27. It will also be closed all day this Friday, February 28.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Montgomery County Council seeking authority for new property tax, income tax hikes

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) will hold a press conference this morning to endorse two bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would broadly increase the Council's ability to hike taxes on property and income. If passed in Annapolis, the new taxing powers would allow the Council to hike property taxes even further on owners of homes 5000 SF or larger, or any subclass of property not specifically excluded in the bill, and to raise the County income tax and set multiple rates based on income. The proposed tax hikes come as County taxpayers are already paying the highest tax rates in history, and as large numbers of wealthy residents continue to flee to lower-tax jurisdictions in the region, resulting in declining revenue for the County as they take their money with them.

Last year, Councilmember Evan Glass (D - At-Large) proposed a "teardown tax," also known as a "McMansion tax." It would have taxed new construction homes that replaced existing homes, and then place an excise tax on the square footage added. The proposal was blasted by homebuilders, many of whom would have been forced out of business by the new taxes. Local media did their darndest to promote Glass and his tax, but rarely told the public that he did not even have the votes on the Council to pass it.

Jawando will endorse a bill today that brings the tax back in a new form - and then some. Applying to homes 5000 SF and larger, it again primarily targets teardown projects, by going after square footage. Jawando claims that 97% of County homeowners own homes less than 5000 SF in size, and promises that they would receive a "property tax cut." However, House Bill 1276 includes no such tax cut. There is also the possibility that the automatic assessment hikes each year would handily eclipse a nominal, tiny "tax cut." In that case, the "97 percent" of homeowners would continue to pay the same high property taxes they are now - and the ongoing annual increases.

The House bill is also much more general then what Jawando's press release would suggest. It could lead to all kinds of new property tax hikes on other kinds of property.

HB 1276 actually would allow the Council to create new, higher property taxes on any subclass of property. The bill appears that it could be used to sneak in the high taxes developers have sought for golf and country clubs that would run them out of business, forcing them to sell their club properties, to open up their vast lands for real estate development. In fact, under the current language, any subclass of property not exempted by the bill could face higher taxes of any amount sought by the Council.
Attorney and activist Robin Ficker
is mobbed by fans outside the
Council Office Building in Rockville
The property tax move is the Council's latest attempt to find an end run around attorney Robin Ficker's successful property tax cap ballot initiative, which requires the Council to vote unanimously to raise property taxes beyond the charter limit. When the Council did last did that, voters responded by voting to pass Ficker's ballot question allowing 12-year term limits on the Council and County Executive.

Ironically, Jawando's press conference is scheduled to take place at 11:45 AM this morning. Fifteen minutes later, at noon, Ficker is expected to deliver 55 lbs. of signed petitions for a new ballot question preventing the Council from passing another 9% property tax hike as they did recently.

But wait, we're not done talking about new taxes!

Jawando will also endorse House Bill 1494, which he claims will allow the County to increase the tax rate on incomes over $1 million a year from 3.2% to 3.5%. The Councilman says such a tax hike on millionaires would raise $88.4 million in new revenue annually.

One must ask, if true, why did the 9% increase of the already-progressive property tax only result in ongoing budget shortfalls each fiscal year since? Revenue is declining, not increasing, under the record-high tax rates now being paid. You can only get so much blood from a stone, especially when that stone has very smart tax advisors on retainer. Some on the Council continue to ignore what their own staff - past and present - has warned them about the impact of overtaxing, and their warnings are borne out in our declining revenue today.

One must also, again, read the actual text of the bill. In fact, under the language in the bill, everyone - that includes you! - could end up paying a higher income tax rate. "But Will Jawando says we won't," someone - likely an obsequious member of the local media or political cartel - might protest. As with the desperate Council attempt to create a Transit Authority last decade, it is key to ignore what the politicians say, and read what the actual bill says.

Under HB 1494, the Council could - for example - hike the income tax of all residents to 3.4%, and of "millionaires" to 3.5%. The bill has no language protecting "non-millionaires" from a higher income tax rate. It only says wealthier residents can't pay a lower tax rate than the people in the brackets under them, and allows the Council to create those brackets.

So even if you think the property tax hike on homes bigger than 5000 SF - and the income tax hike on incomes over $1 million - are good policy, you need to lobby your legislators to actually put those specific provisions into the bill. They aren't there as of this morning.

With no amendments to the text of each bill, both proposals will allow much corrupt mischief by the Council on property taxes, certainly hit local homebuilders and remodeling firms hard financially, and absolutely set up a potential income tax hike for every Montgomery County resident.

Will the proposed tax hikes destroy the Montgomery County economy? Probably not, because the County economy has already been destroyed. The new taxes will simply put a heavier layer of concrete atop the grave of the moribund economic corpse. And will make it all the harder for a future, competent set of new leaders to restore it once we have a free and fair Montgomery County election.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Bethesda construction update: Avocet Tower (Video+Photos)

The completed underground parking garage levels of the Avocet Tower are beginning to rise closer to street level here at the corner of Montgomery Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda. This was the site of the former 2nd District Montgomery County police station. The StonebridgeCarras project includes office space and a hotel.

Marriott-related lane closures to begin Tuesday on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda

New lane and sidewalk closures will begin at 7750 Wisconsin Avenue Tuesday, February 25, 2020, in front of the Marriott International construction site in downtown Bethesda. Beginning that day, weather permitting, the west-side sidewalk and southbound right curb lane will be closed daytime and evening. Pedestrians will be forced to use the east-side sidewalk. The southbound center lane will also be closed, from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. This is expected to continue until Tuesday, March 10, 2020, the project's development partners say.

The closures are related to pile driving that will begin this week at the site. Marriott's construction partners say the drilling of sheet piles will increase noise and vibration in the area during work hours. Pepco is expected to install underground power lines for the site in the coming weeks.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Capital One branch sets closing date at Westwood Shopping Center

Bank is last obstacle to
Westbard groundbreaking

The other shoe has dropped at the wing of the Westwood Shopping Center expected to be demolished in the next twelve months. Rite Aid closed in December, and now its next-door neighbor Capital One has announced its own closing date. The bank branch will permanently close at the end of its final business day on May 20, 2020, according to a Capital One statement.

Both businesses needed to vacate before that portion beyond the Giant grocery store could be demolished. If landlord Regency Centers' staging plan remains the same, the demolition will allow construction of the new Giant building to begin, allowing the grocery store to keep operating in its current building until the new one is ready for occupancy.

Groundbreaking is already almost a year behind schedule on the 22-acre redevelopment of Regency Centers' property along Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road in southwest Bethesda. There have been rumors Regency may seek to amend their site plan further to replace a planned apartment building on the Westwood Center II site with senior housing. If true, that would be another improvement in the plan, reducing the development's impact on school overcrowding.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Bethesda construction update: The Wilson/The Elm (Video+Photos)

Carr Properties' 7272 Wisconsin Avenue development continues to attract more attention on the downtown Bethesda skyline, as the twin towers The Wilson and The Elm take more-fully-realized shape above Bethesda Row. Office building The Wilson appears to remain a bit ahead of The Elm in nearing completion.