Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Massive pothole, utility work present obstacles on St. Elmo Ave. (Photos)

Watch out for the massive pothole in the "hot right" turn lane from St. Elmo Avenue to Woodmont Avenue. It's a tire-size sinkhole, filled with rainwater. No word if there are any alligators down there.

Easier to avoid, but a problem if you wanted to use street parking on the north side of the next block of St. Elmo by Tapp'd Bethesda, was the utility work going on there.

Euphrasie to open at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda (Photos)

Euphrasie is the new tenant in the former Smart Toys space at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda. The dress shop is currently loading in inventory. I cannot find any social media or website for Euphrasie, but there is a Euphrasie Fashion Design store in Silver Spring, operated by a local fashion designer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Peter's Carryout to take annual summer break in early August

The home of "Bethesda's best cheese steak" is getting ready for its annual summer vacation. Peter's Carryout will temporarily close on August 4, 2017 at 4:00 PM. It will reopen on Monday, August 14. The neighborhood restaurant has won over everyone from residents around the corner to Bethesda-averse Washington Post dining critics.

Historic Wilson Store to be moved August 19

UPDATE: Following the publication of my report, Montgomery County mysteriously announced the move will now tentatively take place on August 19 or later. Two County government departments had stated August 5, and I have retained a HARD COPY document from one to prove it; hard copies cannot be deleted like online announcements. It appears the County was caught trying to move the store before the August 8 court hearing, and is now backtracking.

Downtown Bethesda's oldest building, the historic Wilson Store at 7250 Wisconsin Avenue, will be moved to its new location on Middleton Lane the evening of August 19. The relocation will occur between 9:00 PM and 6:00 AM the next morning, and is expected to take 4-6 hours to complete.

Workers will insert beams under the store, lift it, and place it onto a motorized dolly system. The store is being relocated to facilitate redevelopment of the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Avenue by Carr Properties.

Intriguingly, the move had previously been scheduled to take place 72 hours before a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge is to hear an appeal of the Board of Appeals decision to permit the relocation. That hearing, requested by several nearby residents, is scheduled for August 8. The County has now pushed the move back to August 19 or later.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Montgomery County blackout on crime data enters Day 5

Montgomery County continues to violate its own Open Data law for a fifth day, providing no crime incident data. Not only is new crime incident data not being uploaded to the site each day, but all of the historical data has been removed. Thus there are two violations of the law. County Councilmember Hans Riemer previously violated the law by removing lists of email addresses that had been supplied in response to public information requests. He has not yet been charged with violating the law in that incident.

As I reported over the weekend, you can search Google for "Montgomery County Open Data." In the top result, you should see a sub-result labeled "Crime." Click "Crime," and instead of the usual database of 911 calls (not to be confused with other, smaller datasets on arrests and traffic tickets), you get a screen demanding you sign in. Even if you sign in, it still refuses to give you access to the crime data.

There is no "webmaster" email given, or form to report glitches on the site. Even a 1990s website had the former.

Either there is a glitch, or the County has made a political decision to remove crime incident data from the site, possibly due to the spike in gang violence or...?

Bethesda Avenue resurfacing begins...but cars get in the way (Photos)

Flagman directs traffic,
as a police officer discusses
what to do with ownerless
Zipcars left on the street
Resurfacing of Bethesda Avenue between Arlington Road and Woodmont Avenue got started a week late last night, and it was a rough start indeed. A crew arrived expecting to get started, only to find expensive Porsches and Mercedes Benzes parked along the street despite parking meter covers warning of nighttime road work.
Zipcars posed a dilemma for
road workers needing to clear
the street
An additional problem was posed by ownerless Zipcars parked in front of Barnes and Noble. A worker conferred for some time with a Montgomery County police officer about how to handle the situation. Not willing to wait all night, men began to cut at the road with a massive saw.


Mercedes Benz - look at the condition
of that road: terrible for such a
high-end shopping district

Westbard lawsuit adds MoCo Housing Opportunities Commission as defendant

Plaintiffs suing Montgomery County over the validity and impacts of the Westbard sector plan have amended their complaint to add the County Housing Opportunities Commission as a defendant. The amended complaint alleges that both defendants conspired behind the scenes to ensure that property-specific heights and densities would be provided for in the plan (contract zoning, which is illegal), environmental standards related to the Willett Branch stream buffers would be modified, and that an African-American cemetery on the Westwood Tower site would remain concealed from the public. Both defendants and developer Regency Centers/Equity One stand to benefit from a transaction they are party to, the Westwood Tower property and its redevelopment.

These 3 "benefits," only applicable to the Westwood Tower site, were given to HOC in exchange for HOC providing a specific number of affordable housing units above the amount required by County law. They also would ensure that the mutually-beneficial Westwood Tower deal would be achieved. Importantly, the negotiations on this deal were conducted outside of the public process.

The amended complaint gives a detailed history of the dealings on Equity One's planned redevelopment and the Westwood Tower issue, beginning with County Councilmember Roger Berliner (D - District 1) being contacted by Equity One's zoning attorney in February 2012, regarding getting the then-postponed Westbard sector plan rewrite back on track. In September 2012, the County Department of Housing and Community Affairs secretly approved a "Certificate of Compliance" and an "Agreement Not to Convert," both necessary to facilitate the purchase of Westwood Tower by Equity One. 

The public announcement of Equity One's purchase of the tower and several other Westbard properties did not come until October 2012. For that transaction to occur, Montgomery County, Equity One and the HOC had to have negotiated behind the scenes prior to the sale, the suit notes. Mysteriously, the same day the plan to purchase the properties was announced, the Montgomery County Planning Board declared the Westbard sector plan was being reopened for amendment.

As part of its purchase of the so-called "Westwood Complex" from then-owner Capital Properties (who bought it from the Tauber family), Equity One paid $25 million for Westwood Tower in June 2013. Currently, the HOC is poised to buy Westwood Tower from Equity One for only $20 million, $5 million less than Equity One paid for it four years ago.

The amended complaint also provides new details regarding the cemetery cover-up. Planning staff ruled internal communications regarding the cemetery as "Confidential" in September 2015. As I previously reported, planning staff agreed to remain silent on the existence of the cemetery during a September 17, 2015 Planning Board tour of "Westbard."

Pointing to notes taken by Park & Planning staff during conversations with the son of the architect of Westwood Tower, the lawsuit refers to his account of remains being encountered when the cemetery was desecrated during construction of the building during the late 1960s. Dr. Lazlo Tauber, the original developer of Westwood Tower, is implicated in those recollections as having told the architect to leave bodies there and pave over them.

Another new detail about the cemetery is that the architect had to "fix the drainage at that corner of the building because they were worried that if water didn't drain, it would cause erosion, and bodies would come up." While evidence has pointed to some remains being pushed into a pit downward from the rear of the building, and a few being taken by the architect to Howard Chapel Cemetery for secret unmarked reburial, the recollections of his son in the notes clearly underline that most bodies remain on the site. Dr. Tauber "thought that leaving them there, paving over them was probably the best thing to do - leave in place."

This not only further suggests remains are still on the site, but is the first evidence that Tauber was part of the cover-up of the cemetery desecration. Another piece of evidence not referred to in the lawsuit, is the fact that the architect knew the remains were of African-Americans, as evident by his selection of Howard Chapel for reburial. How did he know that, unless someone such as Tauber informed him that there was an African-American cemetery on the site. We still don't know if it was Tauber, or someone else prior, who bulldozed or removed the gravestones in the 1950s.

With all of this in mind, the lawsuit alleges, the defendants and Equity One conspired to keep the cemetery information from the public, to prevent greater public opposition. Documents related to the construction of Westwood Tower, which the lawsuit alleges were in the possession of Equity One, conveniently got shredded in 2015.

HOC did not publicly announce its plan to build a parking garage and apartment building on top of the cemetery behind Westwood Tower until long after the County Council passed the Westbard sector plan in May 2016. But in a February 11, 2016 email to the County Council, HOC stated that "Equity One, who currently owns the [Westwood Tower] property, approached HOC almost two years ago to collaborate on development plans." The lawsuit adds that the email also referred to a "joint development agreement" between HOC and Equity One.

On April 22, 2017, Equity One stated in a letter that it would facilitate the HOC project through "significant financial contributions." The suit alleges these contributions will include "real property and construction costs in the millions of dollars." It notes that, since all parties claim no documents regarding their terms of agreement exist, the Westbard sector plan is then the only codification of the terms of agreement.

The Willett Branch stream buffers were dealt with in similar fashion, the lawsuit alleges, citing a February 2016 HOC letter that declared "the 'key obstacle' to the redevelopment of the [Westwood Tower] HOC property 'is the presence of [a] Stream Valley Buffer.'" It was made clear that only by weakening the rules regarding the width of the buffer would the HOC redevelopment be possible.

Terms of the contract zoning agreement for providing more MPDUs on the Westwood Tower HOC site resulted in a financial benefit for Equity One, the lawsuit states, as they could build more market rate units. A Council staff member advised the Council in an email not to publicly discuss that financial benefit for Equity One, saying, "I am hoping it does not come up."

By engaging in these type of agreements in illegal contract zoning, and ratifying them in the Westbard sector plan document, the lawsuit concludes, the sector plan is thereby "the de facto illegal contract in furtherance of an illegal zoning scheme," and must be rendered void.

A hearing has been scheduled for August 16, at which the judge's ruling will determine whether the case goes forward to trial or not.

Ourisman Ford redevelopment won't be mixed-use (Photos)

The Foulger-Pratt redevelopment of the vacant Ourisman Ford dealership at Motor City Drive and Westlake Terrace in Bethesda will not be mixed-use. There's no market for ground-floor retail or dining at the site, and there is a shopping center and Westfield Montgomery Mall within easy walking distance, the developer argued at a pre-submittal community meeting at the Davis Library.

Therefore, Foulger-Pratt will ask the Montgomery County Planning Board to amend the previous approval of 340 units with retail and a 12000 SF restaurant space, and permit instead a residential-only building with 348 rental apartment units. The applicant is highlighting the planned entrance plaza as the focal point for the building, with a small park area, courtyards and leisure trail among the landscape amenities. There will also be a pool for residents.
Grey area left of center is above-grade
parking garage structure
Foulger-Pratt is also asking for permission to replace the previously-approved plan for underground parking with an above-grade parking structure. Their traffic study suggests there will be 84 outgoing trips during the peak of the morning rush hour. Separated 2-way bike lanes are planned for Westlake Terrace.
Traffic circulation plan:
Green is delivery/maintenance,
purple is resident traffic
Although the zoning for the site allows a height of 75', the building is expected to be only 64'. That is intriguing, given that there are no single-family homes or townhomes immediately adjacent to the site. Yet here the Planning Board would approve only 64'. while it approved heights significantly taller than that directly across from single-family homes on Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road last year. Once again, it's amateur hour at the Planning Board.
Landscaping plan
The architectural design of the building isn't very clear or defined from the current renderings, but what's there doesn't appear very inspiring, resembling the Home Depot big box store that the building will face across Motor City Drive. Perhaps ground-level renderings with the entrance plaza and so forth will change that impression, but it's getting hard to be optimistic about architecture in Montgomery County these days. There's a legitimate concern that, when this entire area is redeveloped with "stack-and-pack" Soviet apartment blocs, this site could be a dead zone/wall between other mixed-use sites that do have ground floor retail on Westlake Terrace and the mall property.
Sketch plan

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Montgomery County blackout of crime data continues (Photos)

For the fourth day in a row, crime data is unavailable on the Montgomery County Open Data website. Users landing from Google are instead presented with a login page. Even when logged in, access to the crime data is blocked, but users have previously not been required to register - another blow to so-called "open data." This is another high-profile fiasco for Councilmember Hans Riemer, the County Council's self-proclaimed tech guru and "Lead for Digital Government."
Type "crime" in the search box at
the upper right...

...and the site delivers no results

There is no "crime" tab on the left menu of the site. When you search, "crime," in the search box, no results are found. What's going on here, folks?
Never had to log in to use
the site before, and crime data
doesn't show even if you do log in
As further evidence of the blackout, other crime data sites that draw from the Montgomery County data feeds have no crime data for these last four days. Is it simply a glitch that bumbling Montgomery County can't figure out, or is there a political motivation in hiding the stats? Out of control gangs making the stats (and the County Council) look bad?

Best of all, there's not even a "Contact Webmaster" link like even a 1990s website would have, and nowhere to file a complaint or report about the outage. I guess this is what we can expect from "Helpless" Hans and a government caught still using Windows 2000 in 2014.

Xbox One X on display at Westfield Montgomery Mall (Photos)

Sure to be one of the top Christmas gifts this year, the Xbox One X won't ship until November 7, 2017. But you can see one now at the Microsoft Store at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, located on Level 2. Xbox One X will offer true 4K gaming, 6 TFLOPS of graphical processing power, "the most powerful console gaming processor ever created," and backwards compatibility with Xbox One games.

Tips to Toes moving into new Bethesda location

Tips to Toes is moving into a new location at 4715 Cordell Avenue, the former home of Bethesda Wellness Spa. The salon had to vacate its Woodmont Avenue location due to the demolition of the building for the new Marriott headquarters. Stay tuned for an opening date.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Montgomery County locks residents out of "open data" on crime

For the last 3 days, any attempt to review crime data on the Montgomery County Open Data website has resulted in a password screen popping up instead of the data. The screen demands the user log-in, which is not supposed to be required to use the "open data" site. I've noticed that other crime websites which use the data feeds from the County have not been able to display MoCo crime data from those days, either. Fail number two? A search for the term, "crime," on the site gets zero results. Another "open data" debacle for County Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Urban Country Designs expands at Bethesda Row

Urban Country Designs, as expected, has expanded into the former City Sports space next door to them at 7121 Arlington Road at Bethesda Row. The furniture retailer and interior design studio put the extra space to use this week for a pop-up warehouse sale.

The Fix posts Coming Soon message at Westfield Montgomery Mall

Device repair business The Fix has posted a Coming Soon message at its future space inside Westfield Montgomery Mall. They will be on Level 2 right near the entrance to the food court.

Friday, July 21, 2017

MoCo Council bodyslammed by regional leaders on new Potomac crossing

Regional leaders delivered a stinging rebuke to the Montgomery County Council this week, approving a new Potomac River crossing study over MoCo councilmembers' objections. The County Council had unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday opposing a new bridge, or even a study of a new bridge. On Wednesday, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) met to consider the crossing and 9 other items for study.

In addition to delivering the resolution to the board, Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich participated in the meeting, expending political capital to try and stop a bridge that would provide an economic boon to Montgomery County. The politically-suicidal move left many on the Board scratching their heads. It also again proved that the Council is impotent, even among their Democratic colleagues at the state level, and across the region. Elected officials on the TPB from the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, including Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton (who chairs the TPB) all backed studying the bridge.

Even one of the Council's war-on-cars fellow travelers, Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette, was perplexed as to why MoCo councilmembers would oppose objective study of a new bridge. Fisette said he too opposed the bridge, but thought it should be studied like the other projects. COG's own 2012 study showed that 25% of traffic on the American Legion Bridge during rush hour is traveling to, or from, the Dulles area. In addition, 27% of Virginia drivers crossing into Maryland are heading to I-270.

During discussion of the Council resolution earlier this week, Elrich had stated a new crossing was "not in the County's economic interest." This is simply not true, as many CEOs whose firms chose Virginia over Montgomery County have cited our county's lack of direct access to Dulles Airport as one of the deciding factors. Elrich said he wanted to prevent competition with BWI Airport, but BWI - like National Airport - doesn't offer the frequency and scope of international business flights that Dulles does. The largest and most-luxurious aircraft can't even land at BWI and National, but can be accommodated by runways at Dulles.

Councilmember Craig Rice said there was "not any benefit for the upcounty" in building a new bridge. Damascus, Clarksburg and Germantown residents who work in the Dulles area, and parts of Fairfax County, would vehemently disagree. Not to mention that offloading a quarter of the traffic on the American Legion Bridge benefits everyone using I-495 and I-270 during rush hour.

Another false impression was given by Councilmember Sid Katz, who declared, "the reality is, there's no money for this." With a private firm building the highway and bridge as a toll facility, the beauty of it is, very little taxpayer money would be needed. Since the road would most likely be an extension of the ICC/Sam Eig Highway, the private operator could also take control of the ICC, and lower tolls along the length of the route within Maryland.

Of the ten projects approved for study by the TPB, the Potomac River crossing would move the most people in the shortest time, for the least dollar amount per-person. In opposing it, the Council not only again declared war on their own constituents, but are actively trying to prevent congestion relief and job creation within Montgomery County, at the behest of their developer masters who want to use office zones for residential development. Protecting BWI, which can't compete on business flights with Dulles, at their constituents' expense? It sounds like Berliner, George Leventhal and Elrich are running for Baltimore mayor, not Montgomery County Executive.

TacoArepa to pay homage to owners' childhood in Venezuela

TacoArepa, the new fast-casual concept from restaurateurs Alonso and Alvaro Roche, will lean heavily on nostalgia from the brothers' childhood in Venezuela. Expected to open by October, the restaurant will serve a fusion of Caribbean and Latin American tacos, arepas, bowls and salads.

Alonso Roche, the chef and co-owner of the operation, will draw from memories of his Cuban grandfather, and of West Indies curry dishes, to create the flavors for the 50-seat space. An industrial interior design will also pay tribute to the kind of Caribbean street vendors who inspired the brothers' first venture, Bold Bite, and outdoor dining will be available on a 16-seat patio.

As I reported yesterday, the restaurant will also serve beer, with a list combining local and Latin choices. TacoArepa will be located at 4905 Fairmont Avenue.

Planning Board thumbs nose at residents, approves Ourisman Honda encroachment on CCT in Bethesda

The fix already appeared to be in on the question of whether or not Ourisman Honda's Bethesda Avenue dealership would be allowed to encroach on the Capital Crescent Trail right-of-way, including a new garage that is right up against the paved trail itself. Montgomery County officials had gone to bat for Ourisman's plan to trade a small new plaza at the front corner of its property for the right to keep its garage encroachment into several rights-of-way, including that of the trail. Last night, the Planning Board thumbed its collective nose at outraged residents and trail users, officially endorsing the Ourisman deal.

The board unanimously approved the Ourisman plan.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the evening was watching "bicycle advocate" Chairman Casey Anderson vote to shrink the County's premier bicycle facility, singing the praises of Ourisman Honda all the while. He said his major concern was the appearance of the garage wall, suggesting a mural be painted on it. Given the murals recently painted around Bethesda, that's hardly something to be optimistic about, unless the image is related to the Georgetown Branch Railroad that the CCT replaced.

Earlier in the meeting, planner David Anspacher stated that Planning staff will propose widening the Capital Crescent Trail to 23' this fall.This would now require moving the actual trail out of its own right-of-way, simply to accommodate a private business that broke the rules.

In a gaffe late in the discussion, commissioner Natali Fani-Gonzalez told Ourisman's attorney she wanted to "make sure they (Ourisman Honda) have the space that they need." By officially codifying Ourisman's encroachment beyond its own property lines, Fani-Gonzalez certainly ensured there will be no problem in that area. With a straight face, commissioner Marye Wells-Hartley spun booting the trail out of its own right-of-way as a chance to "enhance the trail." The Board ignored a staff recommendation that the size of the new plaza be increased, a suggestion Ourisman opposed.

Residents expressed anger on social media at the Board's decision, mulling what their options are to protest the decision at this point.