Schools and the Mall Dominate the last 2009 PHED Committee worksession

Schools and the Mall Dominate the last 2009 PHED Committee worksession

Live blogging from the afternoon session of the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee of the Montgomery County Council. Morning session dealt with transportation issues; the afternoon will be spent on “land use” including zoning, particular project proposals and the “districts” the Planning Board created within the White Flint Sector.

Marlene Michaelson, the Committee staff member for this portion of the meeting, prepared a memorandum on December 4 which served as the focus of discussion the last time the Committee considered land use issues. The memo is available here: www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/council/pdf/agenda/cm/2009/091207/20091207_PHED1.pdf

First, though, the Committee reviewed the feedback from public facilities review by agencies: it had requested in its earlier meetings. Committee staffer Marlene Michaelson discussed “co-locating” the proposed library with the Civic Green. Councilmember Marc Elrich returned to an issue raised at an earlier meeting: the Library Department determines the need for a library based on distance from existing libraries. Elrich asked whether the need could be based on population or demand, rather than geography. Michaelson said she would talk to the Library Department.

Michaelson then said that the county Recreation Department decided yesterday that the area would need a new Recreation Center. Committee Chair Mike Knapp said, “We’ve been working on this for three years and they just decided yesterday?” The Committee also discussed the Fire Station location and said that would be the subject of a report due in January. Assuming the January report is positive, the fire station would likely be put on the Maple Avenue site.

And then the Committee took up the relatively-noncontroversial topic of school siting. Just kidding: the schools issue is one of the most explosive in the Plan. In November, the Committee supported the White Flint North location at White Flint Park.  the Board of Education met on Tuesday to discuss the school siting issue. Joe Lavorgna from MCPS reported on the Board meeting. The Board looked at six sites and is recommending the White Flint Mall South site, with three backup sites: Lutrell water tower, White Flint Mall north, and Maple Avenue/SHA property site. The White Flint Mall south site is the existing parking lot behind the medical buildings at the very south part of the Mall. Initial estimate for Lutrell site cost were $60 million. Michaelson recommended the White Flint Mall south site first, and then Lutrell. a report on the Maple Ave site will be due in January.

Robbie Breuer, speaking for White Flint Mall, pointed out that the Mall site would cost some $11 million, where the Maple Avenue site would be much less expensive. In addition, Breuer pointed out that the Mall was working with the neighborhood nearby and had agreed on a “perfect complement” for the site. Because the school wouldn’t be needed for decades, Breuer predicted that there would be a surface parking lot on the site instead. He asked the Committee to keep its options open.

Greg Trimmer, Treasurer of Friends of White Flint but speaking on behalf of JBG Companies, pointed out that this would be the third taking from the Lutrell family (Wall Park and the water tower). JBG has a ground lease for the space, and would have to be compensated as well. Any taking would also need 473 parking spaces to be replaced, and the replacement would likely be expensive and would take space from the school.

Natalie Goldberg, speaking for White Flint Park/Garrett Park Estates, said we ddn’t have time to react. We need time to comment. Put a school in the center of the Sector. Not at the fringe. Council President Nancy Floreen: we’re taking out that language on redistricting the schools. Michaelson: absolutely.

The Committee then turned to the Maple Avenue District. Much of the discussion was over heights and zoning, with some saying the language was ambiguous. Paula Harris on behalf of Washington Realty Investment Trust, said it was fairly clear to someone who had to plan a development. Michaelson said it wouldn’t be clear to those who have to review the permits. 

There was an extended discussion of the WMATA bus lot. Councilmember Roger Berliner said he was distressed that this was the lowest possible use of valuable space near the Metro station and wondered if there had been discussions about a possible land swap with WMATA. There had been some discussions, but WMATA was very defensive about the only bus facility in Montgomery County. Berliner: there’s the possibility of a win-win here, since the land is so valuable. This is a conversation we ought to be encouraging.

The “pinks” problem which bedevilled the Committee on Monday reared its ugly head again during the discussion of the White Flint Mall District. Some residents from neighboring communities had interpreted some of the zoning maps as permitting 150′ high buildings at the southern edge of the Sector, but Michaelson and Piera Weiss from the Planning staff pointed out that the height limits were actually 70′ and 50′ in that area. Michaelson: “it’s kind a pale yellow and I feel sorry for anyone who’s colorblind.”

Council President Floreen asked about when they would deal with some of the issues which affect the Randolph Hills community. Councilmember Roger Berliner seconded the question, reacting to the suggestion that an upcoming “White Flint Two” planning process would handle those issues. The Committee decided not to make a decision on the Nicholson Court area, with the expectation that it would be re-examined in White Flint Two.

The Committee ended its consideration of the White Flint Sector Plan, except for the “few items” to be reconsidered in January, at this point. Unfortunately, some of those “few” items are quite contentious and significant, such as the proposed financing mechanism (i.e., who will pay for all this) and phasing and staging (i.e., when will each important part happen). But this is the last hearing in 2009, and anything remaining will happen in 2010. The Committee wished the dozens of regular attendees  “happy holidays.”

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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