Archives November 2009

Did the Schools Issue Affect the WF Community Coalition?

Rumors are leaking about a big fight in the White Flint Community Coalition.  www.whiteflintcommunity.org. The Coalition is a group of seven or eight neighborhoods, mostly from the south of the White Flint Sector, which wants changes in the current White Flint Sector Plan.

The Coalition has made great efforts recently to get White Flint residents to oppose the current draft of the Plan, asking them to write to the County Council and attend public meetings asking for changes in the Plan. Usually that’s easy in a place like Montgomery County, where people love to oppose development. But, surprisingly, on White Flint, these efforts to stir opposition have failed. For example, of 676 letters to the County Council on the White Flint Plan, 491 supported the Plan. (Another 83 complained about the Plan not designating a site for a new elementary school inside the Sector boundaries; that’s the “school site” issue.) And at a recent Council Town Hall in White Flint, only two questions were on White Flint (and one was by a Boy Scout who asked: “why is it taking so long?”), even though Council President Phil Andrews invited Plan comments at the beginning. The Coalition’s motto is “Representing the Wishes of the People of White Flint,” but that apparently means only some of the “People.”

But apparently that wasn’t the cause of the recent internal turmoil in the Coalition. Rumor has it that the school siting issue has come back to haunt the Coalition. The Coalition includes people from White Flint Park-Garrett Park Estates communities, just south of White Flint Mall. Some Coalition members latched onto the school siting issue as a means to politically pressure Councilmembers against the Plan. This meant teaming with the local PTAs, whose sole issue in White Flint is to avoid redistricting their kids out of the local high school, into more diverse (read lower-income and less-English-speaking) schools. So the mantra was: put the new elementary school within the White Flint Sector.

The school siting issue, however, is really out of the hands of the Planning Board and the Council; as a Council staffmember pointed out to me, County law sets up the School Board to make these decisions independently as a way to deflect political complaints from the Council. In other words, the Council doesn’t want to make those decisions because they are huge political headaches, so they foist it off on the schools bureaucracy. Which acts quite independently, because that’s its job.

So the School Board said: “we want to put the new school at White Flint Park.” Right smack in the midst of the new green “buffer” the local neighborhoods had just negotiated with the White Flint Mall. Long and tough negotiations, which seemed to have settled pretty much all the major issues the nearby neighborhoods had with the Mall. But now the new school site has upset that apple cart. The new school they were advocating for is taking away the new park they also wanted. Not only would they lose the new park, but that was the biggest new community amenity in the south of the Sector, which is what these neighborhoods care most about. Most of the rest of the new amenities are concentrated in the “core” of the Sector, around the Metro station. Unintended consequences of tweaking the MCPS’s tail.

And I gotta say it: people warned them about this strategy a long time ago, back at the Advisory Group discussion stage. The schools issue is tough. It doesn’t really belong in a master plan like the White Flint Plan. If you make it a big deal, you have no idea where the chips will fly. And apparently they have flown.

Perhaps this is an example of the old adage: “be careful what you wish for?”

Of course, I could be all wrong on this, both the Coalition and my fears about the effect of the White Flint Park school site. If someone has more information on this, I’d like to hear it. bzall@bzall.com Or just comment here.

[Update: a knowledgeable Coalition member, who is also a member of Friends of White Flint, wrote me to say that much of what I had written was wrong, explaining:

The Coalition is made up of 7 community associations.  Garrett Park Estates-White Flint Park Citizens Association is just one of these – although we were a founding member along with Luxmanor.   We do not control it or run it.  It is a collaboration.  

The coalition does not oppose development but supports it.  There are statements made on behalf of the coalition (agreed to) but individual associations can make statements on their own on issues important to them.   Obviously there are elements to the plan that not everyone likes.

I invite anyone to comment here, as Natalie did below, or send me other points of view, as the other member of the Coalition did.  I don’t censor or edit comments (except for profanity and other points which violate the FLOG terms). I especially would like to hear about the school siting issue, though, and nobody’s actually commented or told me anything about that.]

Barnaby Zall

The Real House-Lobbyists of White Flint

So, how scary was it to open your Washington Post this morning to see Evan Goldman hard at work? Actually, I love the guy, and I’m glad he got an excellent piece in the paper today. The article, by Miranda Spivack, looks at the developers’ efforts to promote the White Flint Sector Plan, and discusses how they are using some “high-tech” tools. You can read the article at:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/28/AR2009112802319.html?hpid=newswell

There’s also an interesting video interview of Evan discussing how they use “social media” (Facebook, Twitter) to update people and to get people to invite them for face-to-face meetings, what Evan calls the “most effective” form of communication. That’s just a hint about the real hard work of the White Flint Sector Plan discussions: between public and private organizations, both pro- and against the Plan, there have been hundreds of face-to-face meetings with thousands of County residents to discuss the White Flint Plan. Evan and I counted them up the other day, and we estimated more than 200 meetings in just the last twelve months or so.

But what’s really interesting about the Post article and its focus on Evan is what it doesn’t say — in fact, some things people may not know about Evan:

  • he’s not a professional lobbyist, or even a community organizer. He actually has a job other than White Flint; he’s an architect and planner, and a very accomplished one. The article makes it sound like community organizing is something he does every day, and he does. Now. But this is his first time trying something like this. He’s always asking: “Do you think this will work? Should we do this?” The fact that he’s so good at it is because he really is a natural socializer, and he is sincere in what he’s promoting. And that leads to the second hidden fact:
  • he’s a believer. He really believes in New Urbanism. He takes Metro to work. He doesn’t use a briefcase; he uses a backpack. If you look back at his postings on the FLOG, he used to chart the number of times each week that he drove a car, and it was low. When we plan meetings, we have to keep in mind that Evan’s not driving, and that’s a useful device to keep walkability in mind. Keeps us mindful of what we’re really trying to do here. As Spivack’s article says, Evan is planning not just for others, but for people who are just like him. And he actually tries very hard to find out what they’re like, which leads to another hidden fact about Evan:
  • he spends a lot of time giving back to his community, including with a program to bring principles of urban planning to high school and college kids. He got me involved, and I worked with people from Fairfax, D.C. and elsewhere on programs for high school kids to show them what it’s like to look at a community from an urban planner’s viewpoint. The program, Urban Plan, uses giant Lego blocks to represent various types of buildings, and the kids have to prepare not only a redesign for a community, but balance budgets, community interests, and transportation issues. They have to present their plan, and defend it, to a group of equally-involved participants. It makes the participants think through all their choices. And that’s the same sort of things that the Post article highlighted as some of Evan’s “modern” communications tools. Spivack says that this is what developers need to do, but for Evan, it’s just how he is anyway. And finally,
  • he gets challenged by opponents of the Plan. A LOT. People say nasty stuff about him on-line and sometimes to his face. Just because he’s one of the “evil developers.” He rarely gets mad about it. He tries to explain. Evan will say during a discussion: “I know I’m a developer, but leaving that aside, this is good for the community because. . .” And he’ll go very far to accommodate and work with people who differ with him. In fact, I often tell him that he’s too optimistic and positive. But, I have to tell you, some of the things that people say about him do hurt. Probably because he expects people to see and understand what he’s saying, not see in him a reflection of some nameless evil.

Anyway, I could go on, but the fact is that Evan Goldman is not only likeable and a good salesman for White Flint, he knows what he’s talking about. I met him the first day I began working on the White Flint Advisory Group for the Planning Board; he was in my “neighborhood” discussion group (along with hard-core opponent Paula Bienenfeld, also quoted in the Post story). I came into the process wanting to get from one end of the Pike to the other as fast as possible. I wanted to sink the Pike into a tunnel so it wouldn’t be bothered with all that mess in White Flint. It was Evan, and the late Bea Chester and the late Marion Clark, more than any other people, who showed me that what I thought was a parking lot-covered, overhead-wire-festooned, sea of asphalt actually had potential; it could be a walkable, green community. We didn’t always agree (still don’t, and we’ve had some very public “discussions”). But by the end of the night, when I reported back to the whole Advisory Group on our “neighborhood” discussion, I was already saying, “we need to slow down the Pike.” Natalie Goldberg, another opponent of the current Plan draft, exclaimed “slow it down? We need to move that traffic!” And I looked at Evan, back at Natalie, and said: “I think we know how to move that traffic. And do a lot more too.”

So I guess, I too was sold on White Flint by Evan Goldman.

[Update: LOL! Check out the on-line comments to the Post article as well. The claim is that White Flint Mall has been taken over by “thugs and illegals.” Hmm, haven’t actually seen that, and I go there a lot (My office is across the street).]

Barnaby Zall

Happy Thanksgiving!

The fog swirled through White Flint this morning, thick and low on the ground, muting the sparkle of the raindrops left by the last few days’ storms. Few people were out, and those who were, shuffled through the muffling carpet of fallen leaves, no longer crisp with all the rain.

It’s a quiet day, until the bustle of Black Friday shopping crashes in.

Time enough to reflect on a very busy year, which has seen the White Flint Sector Plan grow from a dream, to an idea, to a series of drawings and projects, to an inches-thick draft. Debated by thousands of County residents, with heartfelt fears and hopes on both sides, the Plan now waits final massages from the County Council, which has plunged in head-first.

Thanks to all for their participation in the development of this Plan and this community.

Barnaby Zall

New Schedule for PHED Hearings on White Flint Plan; CR Zone under fire

The schedule for the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council is ever-changing. The PHED Committee is considering the White Flint Sector Plan, with a schedule which envisions a report back to the full Council on the Plan by mid-December. That schedule may have slipped just a little.

The PHED Committee will be holding a hearing on Monday, November 23, on the new “Commercial-Residential Zoning” or CR Zone). The CR Zone is the Planning Board’s proposal to encourage more residential construction in areas now dominated by commercial buildings (or in White Flint’s case, by parking lots). The County hopes for a nearly equal ratio of jobs to housing in an area, which is consistent with New Urbanism thinking, since people who live close to their jobs tend not to drive as much. The current ratio in White Flint is about 9 jobs to 1 housing unit.

The CR Zone has run into unexpected turbulence from an unlikely source. The CR Zone is a new type of zoning pattern for Montgomery County. Instead of simply requiring certain “amenities” in exchange for a building permit, the CR Zone adds incentives for providing those amenities. For example, a development which includes a day care center will be allowed slightly greater density to make up for the added cost.

One complaint, however, is that developers will have a choice between the new CR Zone and older, non-incentive-based zoning, and a choice between whether providing the new amenities or not (choice is, after all, the difference between a mandate and an incentive). So projects in areas where projects are likely to be successful will use the incentives to provide many amenities, while those in marginal areas, where success is not assured, will not. So, the theory goes, projects in wealthy, desireable areas will be amenity-rich, while those in less-attractive areas will be amenity-poor. Some County officials don’t want to be seen as encouraging any disparity between different parts of the County.

Of course, the problem with that complaint is that the CR Zone is designed to encourage amenities which otherwise wouldn’t be provided in either wealthy or less-well-off areas. Incentives to provide those amenities won’t be effective if the market won’t support them; projects simply won’t be built. So to avoid having more amenities in wealthy areas, the critics would prevent amenities from being provided anywhere.

Plus, it is the amenities in successful areas which drive the added revenues which allow the County to provide additional services to improve less-attractive areas. For example, in Arlington County, which has provided incentives for its very successful “smart growth” redevelopments near transit opportunities, the redeveloped areas provide half the County’s tax revenues from about one-tenth of the County’s land. That’s why Arlington County has one of the lowest tax rates in the Washington Metropolitan area.

The controversy over the CR Zone, however, has pushed back the ambitious schedule for the White Flint Sector Plan. The Plan depends on the CR Zone, which was developed specifically for White Flint, but is now being contemplated for other areas of the County. One possible resolution is for the CR Zone, as envisioned, to be used in White Flint, but not in other parts of the County where government mandates might be imposed for fairness reasons.

The PHED Committee now plans to look at the White Flint Plan’s transportation elements on Monday, November 30, with follow-up hearings on land use on December 7 and 10. The land use hearings will review specific projects proposed for White Flint, just as the Planning Board did. Friends of White Flint has examples of the project proposals on its web site, www.whiteflint.org, on the White Flint Sector Plan – Specific Projects page.

Barnaby Zall

Council Endures Tough Town Hall Meeting

So, remember all the Town Hall meetings this summer? Screaming and near-riots, and people carrying guns? We’ve now had two Town Hall meetings on the White Flint Sector Plan — one in September by Friends of White Flint, and one last night by the Montgomery County Council.

Now, some people don’t like the White Flint Plan. The other night on WRC-TV, Paula Bienenfeld, an outspoken opponent of the Plan, led a reporter along Tilden Lane pointing out the traffic caused by school busses from Luxmanor Elementary and Cabin John Middle School, and predicting worse if White Flint becomes a transit-oriented community. (I made a brief appearance noting public opinion polls showing 82% support for changing White Flint.) You can see the video here: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local-beat/Walking_along_White_Flint_Washington_DC.html. So maybe it was in anticipation of another media-moment that reporters and TV cameras flocked to Tilden Middle School last night for the Council’s Town Hall.

And it was a full house last night. Young and old, eager and curious. Lots of hand-outs. The Council handed out cookies, which seemed to go down easier than the Transportation Policy brochures they also handed out. The White Flint Community Coalition handed out flyers with fairly-milquetoast positions, apparently trying to walk-back from some of their supporters’ more extreme public statements. The White Flint Partnership had some people handing out “Support” buttons. A couple of police officers stood idly, in crisp-pressed black uniforms, chatting along the side of the entrance hall.

But, sorry conflict junkies. 

No guns appeared at either Town Hall. No shouting, pushing and shoving, or sign-waving. And, really, no great hue and cry either. Even the anticipated “showdown” between supporters and opponents of the Plan fizzled, as about half the audience wore “Support” buttons and only two or three people wore yellow opponent T-shirts. Once again, more people wore green Randolph Hills “volunteer” T-shirts.

Seven of the nine Councilmembers were present, and all spoke at great length. In fact, only two questions were asked in the first half-hour of the program, and less than a dozen throughout the hour-long session. That was because the answers took a while. They weren’t bad answers, but there were a lot of them, and they were your typical discussions of issues, not really sound bites. This is, after all, Montgomery County, where long disquisitions are welcome, not political suicide.

The questioners were uniformly knowledgeable and courteous. Even the “crazy” questions were pretty sophisticated: “We can’t grow forever. When will you know when we have reached the limits on growth?” (Answer: varied by which Councilmember spoke. Marc Elrich said we’ll know when we get asked to open the Agricultural Reserve to development. Note: the County’s Ag Reserve is a program which has blocked development on the northern half of the County, preserving land and winning numerous awards. George Leventhal: I will never vote to open the Ag Reserve; it should remain safe FOREVER!! [Thunderous Applause])

The best question of the night was also the most obvious; asked by a Boy Scout working on a merit badge (who knew they give merit badges for attending community meetings these days?), who wanted to know why the White Flint Plan would take so long. (Answer: it’s a big plan and takes a long time.)

The Council opened up with an invitation to talk about the White Flint Plan, assuming there would be lots of controversy, but there were only two questions directly on the White Flint Plan: the “why so long” question, and Plan opponent Liz King’s question about school siting. (Answer: the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is dealing with that. Duchy Trachtenburg: we WILL put a school in the Sector.) Note: the PHED Committee agreed on Tuesday to designate the area by White Flint Park for a school, which seems counterproductive to the whole “school in the Sector” movement, which is spearheaded by people from that area in the south of the Sector, who now say they want a school in the Sector, but not in their backyards. A bit of a backfire, which Friends of White Flint is now working to fix, since we don’t think the school should go there, and we don’t want to lose the new park space we were promised.  

The rest of the questions were all over the map, including:

  • two on whether the County would consider an overall growth policy and direction for the County (various answers, and finally Council President Phil Andrews said the County has had for decades a basic idea of how it wanted to grow and would maintain its basic policy of protecting the Agricultural Reserve, designating protected “wedges” and growth “corridors” and controlling growth);
  • one complaining about bus service “I’d like a show of hands from the audience of how many got here tonight by bus. None.” (Answer: we’ll talk to Ride-on.)
  • one on a rumor that Roger Berliner would not be elected Council President on Dec. 1, since it had been the tradition “for 44 years” for the sitting V-P to become the President the next year (answer by Andrews: we’re going to vote on December 1);
  • one on cutting a hole in a fence to give more access to Grosvenor Metro for walkers (answer: we’ll talk to you later);
  • one on connecting two trails in Bethesda (answer: we’ll talk to the planners);
  • one on whether the Council would support the Weast proposal for the budget (answer: we’ll decide later);
  • one on whether each Councilmember would individually pledge to disclose all campaign contributions monthly on the web (answer: wait, what? Oh, campaign finance is a state responsibility).

The program is supposed to be broadcast on the County Access Channel on various cable systems, but I don’t know when.

Overall, an interesting evening. The Council seems to have no fear of venturing into potentially-hostile territory, and apparently with good reason. The White Flint community doesn’t seem upset over the White Flint Plan. If anything, people want the Council to move FASTER.

Barnaby Zall

Yet Another Montrose Parkway Maze

Beginning tomorrow, you can’t get there from here. At least you can’t get from east-bound Montrose Road directly to Randolph Road in White Flint. That’s when the last section of the newly-constructed Montrose Parkway opens to traffic.

 The Montrose Parkway is probably the last major road project undertaken in this part of Montgomery County for many years; it took decades to iron out the route and construction details. And “iron out” is probably too strong a description.

The resulting intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike is looking more like a tangle of wires behind somebody’s home computer. To go south on Rockville Pike from Montrose Parkway, you’ll have to turn north, then make a quick U-turn around the new surface parking lot which graces the northeastern tip of the White Flint Sector just above Montrose Blvd at the Pike, and then you can go south. At Tuesday’s Council committee discussion of the White Flint Sector Plan, County Fire and Rescue officials opposed a new fire-EMS station on that triangle of land because they wouldn’t be able to go north without going south, then east to reach the Pike.

And now, to go east on the old Montrose Road, you will first have to turn onto “Old” Old Georgetown Road (that little stub of a street that runs behind Mid-Pike Plaza), turn onto the Montrose Parkway, and then continue on to Randolph.

Was that clear? Hmm. Think of it this way: Montrose Parkway is supposed to carry the east-west traffic that used to go on the old Montrose Road, so the Parkway becomes the only way to go directly east-west across the Pike.

Here’s an article from today’s Gazette which “explains” this:

http://www.gazette.net/stories/11182009/rocknew212533_32525.shtml

Barnaby Zall

Council “Town Hall” Meeting Tonight, PHED Committee Monday

Just a reminder that the Montgomery County Council will hold one of its periodic open public meetings tonight, this time in White Flint, at the Tilden Middle School, 11211 Old Georgetown Rd., beginning at 7:30PM. Opponents of the White Flint Sector Plan have asked their supporters to attend the meeting to demonstrate that they do not want “inappropriate development” and “poor air quality.”

In the meantime, the Council review of the White Flint Plan continues, with another hearing in the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (“PHED”) Committee scheduled for Monday, Nov. 23, in the Council Office Building in Rockville. The topic will be transportation issues in White Flint.

Barnaby Zall

Letter on School Site

Today the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council will meet to begin its consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan. The Committee staff made public its recommendations last Friday. One of the first items discussed was where to put a possible new elementary school in White Flint; Montgomery County Public Schools projections show that a new school might be needed as White Flint develops, but not for many years. The Montgomery County Board of Education will make any final decision on school siting. The White Flint Sector Plan, however, could reserve land for a school, and the issue was discussed many times during the planning process.

 Today, four members of the Board of Friends of White Flint sent a letter to the PHED Committee discussing the school siting recommendation. Here is the letter:

Dear Councilmember Knapp:Today the PHED Committee will begin consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan. One of the first items is a site for a possible elementary school within the Sector. The Board of Education has recommended a site next to White Flint Park in the southern portion of the Sector; the PHED Committee Staff recommendation is to adopt the BoE position.

The school siting issue has been a part of the White Flint Plan discussions for many years. We attach a brief summary of these discussions, including comments from the White Flint Advisory Group.

There was insufficient time after the Staff recommendation was made public for Friends of White Flint to use its regular policy development process, which includes publication and public discussion. Nevertheless, the Committee should recognize that the White Flint Park site has been rejected by the Advisory Group (which is the basis for most Friends of White Flint positions), has no local support, and has significant local community opposition. The proposed school site could also interfere with the extension of Executive Boulevard, one of the new streets making up the “robust street network” which is essential to provide both walkability and mobility.

There are acceptable alternative sites available, including two or more in the northern part of the Sector and, as proposed by the Advisory Group, others outside, but near the Sector and within the Walter Johnson Cluster.

It is our personal belief that the Board of Education deliberative process was not sufficiently thorough and did not include sufficient public participation to be given the blanket endorsement suggested by Committee staff. The school site selection process is important enough that public participation should be maximized, not minimized or ignored. 

As you know, one of the principal purposes of Friends of White Flint is to foster discussion of this type of issue in order to seek consensus on solutions. This was done at the Planning Board level, but not by BoE or MCPS. We believe that, if asked, the Friends of White Flint policy adoption process would result in a recommendation that the Council reject the White Flint Park school site in favor of one of the alternatives.

Thank you for your support of the White Flint Sector Plan.

Barnaby Zall
Co-Chair

Friends of White Flint

301-231-6943 (direct dial)

David Freishtat

Director

Friends of White Flint

Michael Smith

Director

Friends of White Flint

Michael Springer

Director

Friends of White Flint

cc: Councilmembers Floreen, Elrich and Berliner

The attachment can be found here: White Flint School Site

Barnaby Zall

PHED Committee Staff Proposals Available On-Line

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council will begin holding hearings on the White Flint Sector Plan next Monday, Nov. 16, at 2PM. Other hearings are scheduled for coming weeks.

The Committee staff has now released its “Committee Packet” for the Nov. 16 hearing. The packet includes reprints of the County Executive’s 41-page letter and attachments (including the County Department of Transportation’s “Rockville Pike is a through highway from Bethesda” attack on the mobility portion of the White Flint Plan), and comments and recommendations from the Planning Board.

The first seven pages of the packet are the PHED Committee staff’s own comments and proposals on several areas of controversy. For example, PHED Committee staff recommends that an arts and entertainment district not be established in White Flint until market studies demonstrate that an audience is available to support a viable theater or similar facilities. On school siting (a controversial topic), “Staff completely disagrees with the decision of the Planning Board to ignore the School Board’s opinion on this issue and believes strongly that the Sector Plan should identify at least one site for a new school.” The Committee Staff recommends the White Flint Park school site adopted by the Board of Education. And the Staff quoted the Department of Libraries to reject some residents’ suggestion that the proposed library in White Flint be “full-service” library, noting that the Department wanted only an “express” library as part of its planned facilities.

The staff packet can be found at:

http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2009/091116/20091116_PHED1.pdf

Barnaby Zall

PHED up.

The Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee of the Montgomery County Council is the first to get a crack at the White Flint Sector Plan during this phase of the planning process. The PHED Committee has been tied up with the Annual Growth Policy process until Monday, but is expected to begin its work on the White Flint Plan then. The original schedule had the PHED Committee considering White Flint on the 23rd, but that schedule was pushed forward a week.

Barnaby Zall