Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paramount apartments give residents front row seat on Performers Park in Gaithersburg (Photos)

The Paramount apartments, now leasing at the new Spectrum development in Watkins Mill Town Center, have a lot of amenities - a library complete with fireplace, Club Room, gourmet coffee service, dog wash salon, and even a salt water lap pool.

But the one that may be hardest to miss is right adjacent to the building. Performers Park is a gathering place and event spot that also boasts green space. Surrounded by restaurants and retail, the park will be used for concerts, community events and shows. It also features a central splash pad, which is a water feature geared toward kids.

The Spectrum is located on Watkins Mill Road at MD 355 in Gaithersburg.
Retail space at Paramount
More future retail
View from the stage at
Performers Park
The splash pad water feature;
water will shoot up from these
Facing the stage/pavilion
From this view, you can
see the restaurants and
retail that have already
opened at the Paramount

Monday, June 29, 2015

Hogan to fund long-awaited Watkins Mill/I-270 interchange in Gaithersburg (Photo)

The transportation funding announcement last Thursday by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) got a lot of attention for its support of the Purple Line light rail project. But it contained many highway projects equally or more important, such as the long-postponed I-270 interchange at Watkins Mill Road.

Hogan is providing $150 million for the construction of the interchange. The project is critical for several reasons.

First, it will provide some congestion relief for drivers clogging current east-west routes that cross the I-270 corridor. Just from a practical standpoint, things you currently try to reach on MD 355 by exiting at Montgomery Village Avenue - only to drive and drive on 355 once you exit - will now be more accessible from the Interstate.

Second, it will finally bring the Watkins Mill Town Center development to fruition, as that mixed-use development straddles the interstate but has not yet been joined as a whole. Watkins Mill Road will do just that, as planned, with this interchange.

The biggest congestion relief component of this project will be when the Midcounty Highway Extended (M-83) is constructed in the upcounty between Montgomery Village Avenue and Clarksburg. This interchange will function as the off-ramp to that new highway, diverting traffic headed upcounty from the interstate. That will free up capacity on the interstate at some of its worst chokepoints.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gaithersburg construction update: The Majestic apartments (Photos)

Donohoe is constructing The Majestic, a 243-unit apartment building with 9300 SF of ground floor retail, for developer BPTC Sixteen in Gaithersburg. The Majestic is the largest residential project in the Spectrum development at Watkins Mill Town Center.

Studio PCA is the architecture firm for the 4-story project on a 2-story concrete podium. Amenities at The Majestic will include a terrace pool, club lounge room, theater room, business center, dog wash room, and fitness center.

Delivery of the Majestic is expected in the third quarter of 2016.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fire at Hyatt House in Gaithersburg

Firefighters responded to a report of a "strong odor" Wednesday at the Hyatt House, an extended-stay hotel off Sam Eig Highway (I-370) in Gaithersburg along MD 355, according to MCFRS spokesperson Pete Piringer. Once they arrived, they located a fire in one unit's kitchen.

The 3-story hotel's sprinkler system kept the fire under control, Piringer said. Guests were evacuated during the incident. No injuries were reported.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Storm causes fatal accident in Poolesville

A 79-year-old man was killed last night in Poolesville, when his vehicle struck a tree felled by a violent storm. The victim's identity is being withheld by Montgomery County Police until his family can be notified.

Around 8:30 PM last night, the man was driving his 2008 Chevrolet S-10 pickup east on Darnestown Road when he struck a downed tree. Earlier reports from police and fire departments suggested power lines had also been knocked down, with the wires trapping the driver inside.

The collision occurred at the intersection of Darnestown Road and Cattail Road, where the driver was pronounced dead.

Last evening's storm caused many scattered power outages in Germantown and Gaithersburg, as well.

Detectives continue to investigate this collision. Anyone who witnessed this collision is asked to contact the Collision Reconstruction Unit at 240-773-6620.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lotus Nails, California Tortilla open at The Spectrum in Watkins Mill Town Center (Photos)

Lotus Nails, a salon and spa, and California Tortilla are now open at The Spectrum development in Watkins Mill Town Center in Gaithersburg. The development is located at the intersection of MD Route 355 and Watkins Mill Road.
California Tortilla
Lotus Nails is taking advantage of a new state law that allows alcoholic beverages to be served in salons. They have applied for a Montgomery County liquor license to do so.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill coming to Gaithersburg (Photos)

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, named one of 2014's "breakout brands" by Nation's Restaurant News, is expanding to Montgomery County. The upscale American restaurant is due to open in 2016 at the Spectrum development in Gaithersburg, according to the developer.

Spectrum at Watkins Mill Town Center is one part of a major urban-style development that will eventually straddle Interstate 270 along Watkins Mill Road. The new segment of Watkins Mill Road has already been constructed between I-270 and MD 355, but its interchange with I-270 has yet to begin construction.

Firebirds will be in a prime location at Watkins Mill and MD Route 355. Their menu includes steaks, seafood, and sides like tater tots and Green Chile Mac & Cheese. There will also be a Firebar with a patio, with signature martinis and margaritas, and Bar Bites like Pretzels and Samuel Adams Beer Cheese. Their signature, best-selling concoction is the Double Black Diamond Martini.

They use only Midwestern corn-fed beef, and hard woods for their wood-fired grill. Oak is the primary wood used, although they also use locally-sourced hardwoods like hickory depending on the location. All woods used must be able to sustain a cooking temperature of 700 degrees.

The Charlotte, NC-based chain currently has locations in several states, some of which are relatively close in Leesburg, Woodbridge and Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Stay tuned as we take an in-depth look at Watkins Mill Town Center's future this week, right here on Sam Eig.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Montgomery County Council holds hearing on bill that would boost renters' power

Last night, the Montgomery County Council held a public hearing on Council Bill 19-15, which would boost the power of renters in several ways. As currently drafted, the bill would require annual inspections of rental properties unless they have an exemplary inspection record, require use of a standard uniform lease document, require more data - including on rent increases - to be made public and posted online, give the county Commission on Landlord-Tenant affairs greater ability to intervene in certain disputes, and give renters more options - with less penalty - when their leases are up for renewal. These include being able to go month-to-month without penalty of additional fees. However, some changes to Chapter 29 regarding leases would not be applicable in certain municipalities, including Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park.

The bill was introduced by Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-At-large), who was thanked by several speakers for his work on the legislation and with the community on these matters. It is co-sponsored by Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-District 4).

One prominent supporter of the bill is Maryland Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), who is also running for Chris Van Hollen's seat in the 8th Congressional District. A member of the 2010 county Tenant Work Group, Raskin said the bill would avoid the most controversial proposals of that group while establishing "some semblance of fairness" to those receiving excessive rent increases. He predicted that despite the new regulations proposed, the "rental market will continue to operate and thrive" if the bill passes.

Jill Ortman-Fouse, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, also testified in favor of the bill. She said her experience as an education activist, and interaction with students from low-income families, has convinced her of the importance of stable, well-maintained housing. "Decent stable housing contributes to academic outcomes," she argued. Recalling a visit to a student's apartment, she said that despite deplorable maintenance conditions and vermin, the child's perfect attendance awards were proudly taped up on the wall. Ortman-Fouse said that with passage of the bill, "parents can reasonably budget for rent without surprises."

Another local official, UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne, said "we all deserve to know accurate information from licensed landlords." Renne decried "ridiculous rent increases of 10. 20, 30% over the standard," voluntary rate of increase. In supporting the bill, he also noted that the county is "losing affordable housing units by the hundreds each year." Renters shouldn't be treated as "second-class citizens" versus the "landlord lobby," Renne said.

Clarence Snuggs, representing County Executive Ike Leggett, wasn't quite as enthusiastic. While Leggett "supports the legislation generally," Snuggs suggested the cost to the County of inspecting every rental property annually would exceed "current and future budget levels." He said Leggett recommends allowing the flexibility of "landlords and tenants to draft their own addenda" to leases. Snuggs also thought the allowance for 2 months of continued occupancy after the end of a lease was contrary to state law.

Meredith Weisel, a VP at the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors concurred that portions of the bill conflict with existing law, and argued that much of the legislation would be "overly burdensome" for landlords. She said making rent increase data available online would "publicly shame landlords." Weisel said those increases are "made to look excessive", but are actually driven by market forces.

Also on the critical side - while not outright opposing the bill - was Robert Goldman of Montgomery County Housing Partnership, who said "some of the details of the bill go beyond consensus" on landlord-tenant reforms. "We must make the guidelines reasonable," he proposed. Goldman suggested tightening the language about what specific infractions, or lack thereof, would differentiate the need for an annual inspection versus 3-year inspections. It would be helpful to specify a "severity test for code infractions," he said. What if a tenant removes the battery from a smoke detector, Goldman asked rhetorically. Would that trigger an annual inspection even if the landlord was not at fault?

The most emotional testimony came from renters themselves, who told of whopping rent increases, unhealthy living environments, landlord retaliation, and the stress and struggle of being a renter when income is moderate or fixed.

"My wife and I are feeling like Luke Skywalker trapped in the trash masher, with the walls closing in," said James Perry, a renter in Silver Spring. Perry said his rent has increased by 3% since last year, and that he and his wife are spending "slightly over half of what we bring in monthly" on rent. Some of his neighbors down the hall have been hit with rent increases of 5-10%, he said. Passage of the bill "would take a load off my shoulders," Perry said, and give him data he could use to comparison shop for another apartment.

Jheanelle Wilkins, another Silver Spring renter who is a member of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, said many tenants are initially fooled by temporary low rents when they sign a new lease. Wilkins said she herself has received the "dreaded letter" from management advising to renew the lease or face surcharges going month to month. She also said annual inspections are important.

Janet Lipman, 72, had an affordable rent to start, but it increased several percentage points over the county's recommended voluntary amount annually. Recently, she said, it was a 6% increase when the county advised 2.8%. Her parking also went up to $90 a month, requiring her to take on a part-time job even though she had retired. The alternative, she said, was paying a 22.6% increase on a month-to-month extension.

Another Young Democrat, William Roberts, said he was priced out of downtown Silver Spring. Roberts said the bill would better inform tenants of their rights, and add transparency.

Joyce Hymes, a retired GSA employee who has been a renter for 50 years, said landlords "deserve a fair return on their investment," but that renters also have a right to affordable and well-maintained housing. She said more than half of her monthly income goes to her rent, and that her electric bill was recently broken out from the monthly rent as well. Hymes said her landlord retaliated against her by threatening eviction after she reported code violations to the fire marshall. She said she only avoided her eviction after the Montgomery County Renters Alliance intervened. "Thank you, Marc Elrich, for caring," she said, suggesting the bill would create "a more level playing field" for renters and landlords.

Also renting in Silver Spring was Jessica Simon, who said she was offered a 4.7% rent increase, or a 64.5% increase with a month-to-month lease. When she asked her landlord for the county's suggested rate, he told her there is no negotiating. She asked the Council to pass the bill "to demonstrate you want renters to stay and thrive in the County."

Zorayda Moreira is used to helping others through her work with CASA. But as a renter, she herself has "had to challenge them so many times [even] with my background." She said the bill "incentivizes good behavior" by landlords, and added that she hopes "this is the beginning of the conversation, and not the end."

Laurie Chin, also a member of the Young Democrats, said "this legislation matters." She said posting rent increase data would discourage excessive hikes. "Not everyone [in Montgomery County] lives in a $1 million house in Bethesda," she noted.

Latasha Harris told of living with no air conditioning at Kensington House, where she is VP of the newly-formed tenant association. Harris said there is mold on walls, ceilings and air conditioning units in the apartments. There is also an uncertified elevator, she said, and cited an 84.3% rent increase in the last 5 years.

In response to Harris' testimony, Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-At-large) asked Snuggs - the County Executive's representative - to have Leggett investigate complaints about the building.

The legislation will now be discussed in a worksession.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Citizens slam Montgomery County independent transit authority (ITA) proposal (Photo)

The same proposal for a Montgomery County Independent Transit Authority was put on the table again last night, and residents didn't like it any more than they did last January. About 50 people turned out to argue for or against the ITA legislation, which - if passed by the Maryland General Assembly - would empower the county to create its own transit agency. That unelected, 5-member ITA, as described in the bill, would have unlimited power of taxation and eminent domain, as well as the authority to issue bonds and carry unlimited debt.

While many Bus Rapid Transit advocates feel the ITA would be the best hope of paying for a BRT plan that would not qualify for federal funding, taxpayers are not so enthusiastic about the idea.

Then again, some on the Transit Task Force, which hosted the public hearing, weren't so enthusiastic about hearing from taxpayers, either. When task force member Jim Zepp tried to ask a follow-up question of a speaker early on, Chair Mark Winston objected. "We can't ask questions?" Zepp asked. "Questions are not in order," Winston replied. "I'm not going to argue with you about it." Eventually, task force members Richard Parsons and Casey Anderson intervened to offer a compromise on the number of questions that could be asked, which Winston found acceptable. However, Anderson grew testy when Zepp later attempted to ask a second question of a panel, shutting that inquiry down abruptly.

Speaking of compromises, there haven't been any by the county yet, despite the overwhelming community opposition. One wonders why they are going forward in the face of some of the loudest resident rage in recent history (Or why the ITA hearings always start at 6:00, rather than the standard 7:30 PM start for most county public hearings).

That controversy isn't based on the misfired rollout of the legislation last winter, South Four Corners Citzens Association Vice President Larry Dickter testified. "Rather, it was and remains the very concept of an unelected, unaccountable entity, with powers of eminent domain and the authority to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, without being required to submit its capital or operating budget to the County for approval that makes the proposed [ITA] a non-starter.

Dickter and other speakers also criticized the tone ITA proponents have taken in responding to citizen and organized labor objections, and their the use of pejorative terms like anti-transit, NIMBY, and "howling unionists". He also noted that under a recent National Labor Relations Board decision, "the ITA could well qualify as a private employer subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB, and bound by federal labor law, not County statute." Dickter argued that a much less expensive alternative to the ITA would be to create a division within MCDOT similar to the Maryland Transit Administration.

Union representatives sought to ensure there would be no privatization of transit services in the county, and that projects overseen by the ITA would require Project Labor Agreements. UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO President Gino Renne said he also had oversight and transparency concerns, and thought homeowners should not pay more taxes to the ITA than developers. Echoing Dickter's question of the need for an authority independent of MCDOT, Renne asked, "is another bureaucracy truly necessary?"

"We agree the transportation infrastructure needs new sources of revenue," Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams said. "What we don't agree on, is that to get a more reliable system, we need to privatize." Williams slammed elected officials' recent praise of Public-Private-Partnerships (often called "P3s" for short). "P3 is a branding of privatization," Williams declared. He asked the task force to examine "the failures of P3 across the world," from London to Los Angeles.

Residents and taxpayers were no more enthusiastic.

"We don't want the ITA, and we don't want the sham, scam bus rapid transit," Silver Spring resident Michael Williamson said. He said the sole purpose of the ITA was to enable BRT, which he predicted would be "a Silver Spring Transit Center on wheels", which elicited raucous laughter and applause from the audience. Williamson argued the few supporters of the ITA are "developers, professional transit lobbyists, or those looking for a job from one or the other." "If you think an ITA is such a great idea, put it on the ballot," he challenged the task force.

Howard Greif, representing the Greater Olney Civic Assocation, said the association continues to oppose the ITA, and the current BRT proposal. He said the association could only support a plan that funds BRT with existing local, state and federal funds, permits "documented citizen input," and which requires voter approval through a ballot referendum.

Richard Parsons said "I don't believe this is the only way, or even the best way" to fund transit projects. He suggested limiting any plan to the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT line initially, with a special taxing district along I-270 or countywide to fund it. Parsons also advocated a regional approach, that would connect with BRT systems in Frederick and Prince George's Counties.

Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation had a different approach, discussing alternatives to both the ITA and the BRT which they felt could be more effective and less costly.

Jerry Garson suggested offering free Ride On service in the county, which he estimated would cost taxpayers $22 million more per year.

MCCF President Paula Bienenfeld, while expressing the Federation's "absolute opposition" to the ITA, also endorsed the free Ride On concept. She also referred to the successful approach in Houston TX, where - without increasing taxes or creating an ITA - the city boosted transit ridership by using data to analyze existing routes and make changes. They came up with a new route system that placed more of their existing buses "where people use and need them" the most. "No one wants the BRT, and certainly no one wants the ITA," she said in her testimony. "Stick a fork in it."

Nancy Abeles of Bethesda argued that the new tax burden the ITA would place on residents and businesses would "further weaken our ability to compete in the region."

Route 29 resident Harold McDougall said he feels the ITA and tax proposals reflect a growing gap "between the citizens and the people who make decisions that affect their lives."

County Executive Ike Leggett testified and accused ITA detractors of making false statements. Leggett said he never proposed a $1.8 billion BRT plan. Silver Spring resident Harriet Quinn begged to differ, saying Leggett's plan was actually $3 billion.

Strathmore-Bel Pre Civic Association representative Max Bronstein criticized the "vague and elastic language" of the ITA legislation, and argued that self-driving cars would make public transit obsolete.

Steven Poor was more blunt, saying there was "only one way to repair this proposal - throw it away." He noted that using state legislation would, in effect, give other counties a hand in our taxation policies. Poor predicted the ITA would prove as effective and efficient as the WSSC and WMATA, to knowing chuckles from the crowd.

I thought Geri Rosenberg of Communities for Transit (which supports BRT) had a good suggestion - requiring ITA appointees to be transit riders. When the task force was asked by Bienenfeld who among them took transit to the meeting last night, only Del. Marc Korman (D-District 16) raised his hand.

Bonnie Bell of the Greater Goshen Civic Association, and also representing the Clarksburg Civic Association, said the County Council actually does have the power now to exceed the cap on property taxes if it wants. But that requires a politically-risky unanimous, 9-member vote, and "We all know that isn't going to happen," she said. "We do not support taxation without representation," Bell said, holding up a mockup of a license plate similar to the District's "Taxation without Representation" model.

Carole Ann Barth exhorted developers to finance the system if they want it. If they're not willing to do that, "you can't expect the rest of us to get on board."

"If MCDOT can't do their job," resident Cary Lamari said, "put someone in there who can do the job," not an ITA. "Give Gino the job," Lamari advised, pointing to union leader Renne. "I bet you it gets done."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Gaithersburg Chipotle restaurant's proposed sign must be approved by city (Photo)

A standard sign planned for installation at a Gaithersburg Chipotle restaurant ran into an interesting regulatory snag in the city's zoning code. This Chipotle is located in the Gaithersburg Square shopping center, at 564 N. Frederick Avenue.

The iconic Chipotle pepper on the sign doesn't necessarily run afoul of city laws. It's just that the code demands any sign featuring an icon "in the form of any person, animal, vegetable, fruit, product, or portion of any of the foregoing...shall require prior approval of the planning commission."

As the pepper is indeed a vegetable, it must go through this additional approval step.

All indications are that the sign will be approved, as city staff are recommending the commission do so at its meeting at 7:30 PM tonight at City Hall.

Image via Gaithersburg Planning Department

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Proposed MoCo law would require home sellers to test for radon

Montgomery County would require home sellers to test for radon, and supply those test results to the prospective buyer of the home, if a new County Council bill is passed. Bill 31-15 is sponsored by Councilmember Craig Rice (D - Upcounty), and is scheduled to be introduced during today's Council session.

The bill would also require the seller to furnish the buyer with an estimate of what it would cost to remediate any radon contamination present in the home. Homeowners would have to use a testing kit approved by the director of the County Department of Environmental Protection. That test would have to be conducted less than one year before the home's sale contract is signed.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Montgomery Village master plan community meeting July 7

The Montgomery County Planning Department will be holding its final MV Matters community meeting on Tuesday, July 7, to solicit feedback from residents on its Montgomery Village master plan staff recommendations. That working master plan draft will go before the Montgomery County Planning Board on July 23. The July 7 community meeting will begin at 7:00 PM at Montgomery Village Middle School at 19300 Watkins Mill Road.

A public hearing on the final master plan draft is tentatively scheduled for the September 10 Planning Board meeting.

To review the documents from the master plan process so far, visit the Montgomery Village Master Plan website.