Mayor and Council to Review Latest Concepts for Rockville Metro Station

Rockville’s Amtrak platform, which is shared with MARC and part of the Metro Station, is a grim experience. Will the new concepts for the Rockville Metro Station simply put lipstick on this pig?

At its Monday, December 5, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the latest concepts for redesigning the Rockville Metro Station and allowing self-storage warehouses in an MXE zone. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are a CDBG grant application and agreements with local performing arts organizations, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on procurements for FY 2022 and an outreach program for minority, female, disabled, or veteran-owned businesses.

The Rockville Metro Station serves WMATA, MARC, and Amtrak, as well as Metrobus, making it a major transportation hub for the state—although it’s incredibly understated. A year ago, the City Council reviewed five preliminary concepts and wanted to explore four further (seems they had a hard time prioritizing). At this meeting, the consultant team is returning with their findings and recommendations on these four concepts:

  • Concept 1: Iconic Train Hall with High Rise
  • Concept 2: Town Center Station with High Rise
  • Concept 3a: MD 355 Tunnel with Local Surface Lanes
  • Concept 3b: MD 355 Tunnel with Surface-Level Open Space
Concept 1: Iconic Train Hall with High Rise.

The consultant team evaluated each of these concepts according to their ability to provide convenient connections to transit and safe access for pedestrian and bicycle users; create an attractive station environment that encourages ridership; improve wayfinding and integration of the site with surrounding areas; accommodate a mix of uses and amenities; and support economic development. Concept 1 scored the highest due to attractiveness, site integration, and economic development and might be similar to The Avenue in Baltimore or the planned station in New Carrollton. Concepts 3a and 3b scored the lowest due to the very high project cost (did the City Council actually think that placing one mile of a six-lane highway underground through downtown Rockville was going to be remotely feasible? What a waste of consultant fees!). After this meeting, the consultant team will hold two workshops with the community to review the concepts and the final report is expected in spring 2023.

U-Haul‘s request to convert an office building into a self-storage warehouse at 1355 Piccard Drive has become a dumpster fire and consumed more than 400 pages of the agenda packet. Seems they failed to obtain building and occupancy permits for their existing use, and have been parking trucks and equipment outside of a designated location. Recent complaints are supported by LOTS of photos documenting violations and noted that maintenance of the building has deteriorated so badly that tenants have left. Looks like U-Haul is a bad business and yet wants a special favor from the City. A surprising twist: the building is owned by the Montgomery County Board of Realtors (you’d assume they’d know how to manage a multi-million-dollar property). How did it get this bad? The Council’s efforts to reduce expenses in 2016-2018 left the City with only one Senior Zoning Inspector, which prevented pro-active zoning enforcement. Another example of “penny wise, pound foolish.”

Did you know that the Rockville Little Theatre, Rockville Musical Theatre, and Victorian Lyric Opera Company are considered RESCOs (resident community performing arts organizations). They receive reduced rental rates at the Fitzgerald Theatre in exchange for mounting a minimum number of productions annually and paying the City $1.50-$3.00 per ticket sold.

More details in the 743-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_12052022-6758.

Pandemic Resulted in High Subsidies for Recreation and Parks in 2021

At its Monday, November 21, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss financial management policies, annexing 1201 Seven Locks Road, and the new Comprehensive Plan. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are employment agreements for the Deputy City Manager and Assistant City Manager for Project Management, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on staff vacancies and hiring.

How much should the city subsidize Recreation and Parks programs, such as summer camps, skate park, or childcare, that are used by a small segment of residents? How should it manage donations it receives annually for the Holiday Drive and Senior Assistance Fund? At the upcoming meeting, the Council will discuss these and other financial management policies.

Excerpt of the Cost Recovery Summary for Parks and Recreation programs. Most Tier 2 programs required higher subsidies than expected due to the pandemic (red), but Facilities Maintenance and Arts fared much better (green). For more details, see agenda packet page 34.

The City of Rockville has an extensive set of financial management policies that affect eight major areas: achieving and maintaining a structurally balanced budget, fund balance and reserve policies, capital planning policies, investment policies for both retirement plans and City funds, revenue control and management policies, economic development policies, and debt compliance and data analysis policies. For Recreation and Parks programs, the City uses a “five-tier cost-recovery pyramid” ranging from Tier 1 for parks, trails, landscapes, playgrounds, and general-use facilities with a 0% cost recovery to a Tier 5 for private rentals and private lessons with a 100% or more cost recovery. Fees and charges are reviewed and adjusted annually, but the pandemic lowered cost recovery significantly. In Tier 2, for example, the Lincoln Park Community Center is expected to recover 20% of its costs in 2022 (a subsidy of 80%) but in 2021 it actually recovered 3% (a subsidy of 97%). There are a couple of bright spots: Facilities Maintenance and Arts recovered more than expected (in other words, required less of a subsidy), most likely as well due to the reduced use of facilities and arts programs during the pandemic. A summary is available on Packet Page 34.

The Financial Advisory Board recently recommended that the City create a formal donations policy. The City receives less than one percent of its revenues from donations each year, which are accepted by check, made through the City’s website, the recreation registration system, and through the round-up feature with online utility bill payments. During FY 2022, the City received approximately $130,000 in donations from over 1,800 donors, averaging $12 for the Recreation Fund and $300 for the Holiday Drive. It also received two donations over $5,000: one $25,000 donation for the Holiday Drive and one $20,000 donation for the Eat Fresh program. Strangely, when the City explored this topic further, it discovered that a donations policy is not a common practice in municipal governments in Maryland. Geez, this suggests an obvious opportunity for embezzlement in government and I’m glad to see the City is thinking ahead. It’s a common practice in nonprofit organizations.

The big kahuna for the meeting (if not the year), however, is the progress on the Rockville 2040 Comprehensive Plan—the city’s “to do” list for the next twenty years. At this meeting, the City Council will review the progress on tasks that are to be completed in the next 1-3 years. This is an enormous undertaking not only to complete, but also to manage. These tasks include a zoning ordinance rewrite, updating the Town Center Master Plan, adopting a Pedestrian Master Plan, assessing speed limits on Wootton Parkway, redeveloping King Farm Farmstead, installing back-up power generation for critical facilities, promoting backyard composting, preparing a Flood Resiliency Plan, and constructing senior housing. Since the Plan’s adoption in August 2021, 228 actions are currently in the near-term completion timeframe, but are not yet completed or in progress; 43 actions are currently in the “in progress” status; and 19 actions have been completed. If you want details on what’s happening in the City or your neighborhood, start on Packet Page 89. Getting everyone on board and focused is a continual challenge, and residents and businesses (and Council members) always have new ideas—but time and staff are limited so establishing priorities is essential.

It’s also enlightening to see which neighborhoods are most engaged in the community. In October, the City distributed surveys about community needs and interests. Among the highest response rates were College Gardens (156 responses) and Twinbrook (52 responses). Among the lowest were Tower Oaks (1 response) and Lincoln Park (0 responses). I wonder if this correlates with voter turnout?

More details in the 152-page agenda packet are available at https://rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_11212022-6754.

Will Mayor and Council allow Self-Storage Warehouses near Schools and Adult Day Care Centers?

At its Monday, November 14, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss financial management policies, state legislative priorities, and a zoning change to allow self-storage warehouses in the MXE Zone.

The zoning change is prompted by U-Haul Inc., which owns a four-story office building at 1355 Piccard Drive, an industrial/office area between I-270 and King Farm, north of West Gude Drive. This is in a MXE Zone, which was created to generate more jobs by allowing retail, institutional, and residential uses that were not permitted in the former I-3 (Industrial) Zone. City staff calculated that, “with about 153,000 square feet of floor area, the applicant’s building could accommodate about 600 employees at 250 square feet per person. With only the retail and rental shop and self-storage, there would likely be only five or six employees on-site”—which fails to meet the intent of the MXE Zone. Secondly, Ann Mitchell, CEO of Montgomery Hospice, a tenant in the building, stated that the self-storage warehouse was not compatible with existing adjacent uses, including a private school (The Children in the Shoe) and a senior adult day care center.

At its September 6 meeting, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 to deny a zoning change to allow self-storage warehouses in the MXE Zone. Commissioner Sam Pearson, however, supported the change because self-storage warehouses “brought value to the community” and would not “generate traffic issues nor was it unsightly to the surrounding area.” This issue reminds me of the lawsuit by ezStorage that put Mayor Bridget Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg right in the middle of a legal storm. I wonder how they’ll respond to U-Haul when it comes before the City Council.

More details in the 224-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_11142022-6746.

Board of Supervisors of Elections Recommends Lowering Voting Age to 16

A 47-space parking lot will soon be constructed at King Farm Farmstead.

At its Monday, October 24, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss creating RHE Scarborough Square (no staff report was available when the agenda was posted). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) is a license to KBSG to construct a 47-space parking lot at King Farm Farmstead Park, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports from the Board of Supervisors of Elections and the Traffic and Transportation Commission.

The Board of Supervisors of Elections is recommending a “series of amendments to the City Charter and to Chapter 8 of the City Code,” including lowering the voting age to 16 years; increasing the deadline for submitting nominations for candidates to city council from 60 to 90 days prior to the election; prohibit campaigning within 50 feet of a ballot drop box; requiring electronic filing of all campaign finance reports; and limiting campaign committees (“slates”) to one election cycle. Some of these changes will be controversial.

The Traffic and Transportation Commission is requesting its scope of responsibilities be updated from its creation in the 1970s, including two ex-officio, non-voting seats from the Bicycle Advisory Committee and Pedestrian Advocacy Committee; meetings be held quarterly; advise on “opportunities to advance a transportation and mobility network that is safe, equitable, convenient, fiscally resilient, and environmentally sustainable;” “approve the official names of newly constructed or reconstructed bridges” (but why not streets, turnpikes, highways, intersections, bus shelters, and parking lots?); and changing its name to the Transportation and Mobility Commission. So let me get this straight: there are three city commissions responsible for “transportation and mobility” in the city (Traffic and Transportation, Bicycle, and Pedestrian)? Seems like a lot more bureaucracy than needed for such a small city. Can’t they be combined with a balanced representation of all three interests? That might result in better solutions and more efficiency.

More details in the 109-page agenda packet (21 pages of which are devoted to proclamations) are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_10242022-6728.

Mayor and Council to Adopt Plan for Red Gate Park

At its Monday, October 17, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the FY2024 budget and adoption of a master plan for Red Gate Park. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are agreements with the Rockville Football League and the Road Runners Club, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive a report from the Financial Advisory Board.

The Financial Advisory Board‘s report found no issues with City finances under its scope of work, however, it also revealed several significant differences between them and the City Council and staff. The Board believes that all recreation and parks programs should recover their full costs in fees, however, the Council wants some programs to be subsidized for specific residents to be affordable. Secondly, the Board disagrees with the staff on the handling of donations. It’s unclear what the staff position is, but the Board seems to be recommending that a written policy be adopted. Finally, there seems to be a disconnect between Council priorities and city department goals. No examples are provided, but the city has hired Raftelis to review performance management practices.

Continue reading →

Mayor and Council to Discuss Priorities for Federal Actions and Funding

Among Rockville’s top three priorities for the US Congress are improving the American Legion Bridge.

At its Monday, October 3, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss priorities for federal funding; a $7.5 M renovation for 6 Taft Court (a new facility for Public Works and Recreation and Parks departments); a Town Center “Road Diet” project (narrowing lanes on Washington Street and Middle Lane); FY 2024 budget; and an amendment to the Twinbrook Commons development on Chapman Avenue (adding parking spaces for electric vehicles). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are approval of easements for King Buick and King Farm Farmstead Parking Lot; authorizing the City Manager to begin electricity supply agreements; awarding a $1.4 M contract for Storm Water Management (SWM) Facilities improvements; closing of an unnamed road adjacent to Twinbrook Quarter, and approving a charter for the zoning ordinance rewrite, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on performance measurement, make appointments to boards and commissions, and declare October 10 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day to recognize the “conquest, enslavement, displacement, and disease” which decimated the native people in the area.

Continue reading →

Planning Commission to Approve Subdivision near King Farm

At its Wednesday, September 28, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Planning Commission is set to approve EYA Development’s subdivision of a 20-acre site to develop up to 252 townhouses and 118 condominiums, of which 58 will be moderately priced, on the site of a car dealership adjacent to King Farm. It is difficult to understand what exactly is being proposed because the site has been broken into ten plats of 1-3 acres and there is no summary.

An unusual aspect of this project is that the streets will be named for African Americans who had a prominent role in education in the region, such as Nina Clarke, Odessa Shannon, Henson Norris, and Margaret Jones. How far the City has come from the 1960s when they demolished the African American business district for a shopping mall and a decade ago, nearly changed Middle Lane—the only element that survived—to Choice Hotels Lane (a business that has already announced its departure from Rockville).

The Planning Commission continues to be working without a full deck—only five of the seven seats are filled.  Indeed, there are 33 vacancies among nine city commissions. Is no one interested in serving or is the City Council failing to act?

More details in the 58-page agenda packet available at https://rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_09282022-6703.

Mayor and Council to Discuss Human Rights and Rockville Town Square

Among the potential improvements being discussed in the 2023 budget are park shelters/canopies/gazebos. Which neighborhoods are well served and which are neglected?

At its Monday, April 18, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss an ordinance to establish an education commission, the management agreement with Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) for Rockville Town Square, and once again, the FY 2023 budget and what to do with the remaining ARPA funds. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are contracts for tree care ($900,000 annually) and landscape maintenance ($193,000 annually); $250,000 grant agreement for Lincoln Park Community Center improvements; and six proclamations. The Mayor and Council will also receive a report from the Human Rights Commission.

Continue reading →

Mayor and Council to Explore Financial Assistance to City Employees and ALICE Residents

The average cost of a typical house in Rockville is $585,000, a 6% increase compared to last year. Source: Zillow.com.

At its Monday, March 21, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will hold a public hearing on the FY2023 Budget and discussion employer-assisted housing; a proposed Bank on Rockville program; and use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. A surprise for the upcoming budget discussion is a half-dozen requests at the last public hearing to increase city staff to support specific services. While there was one request for staff devoted to public safety (i.e., police), it was matched by requests for the arts, human services, bike and pedestrian safety, and environmental sustainability—significantly different results from the community survey, which had police and crime prevention as a top priority. These diverse opinions suggest the challenges that City Council members face when making decisions for the community. My advice: think long-term and focus on your purpose and vision.

Continue reading →

Mayor and Council to Discuss Big and Dull Changes in Twinbrook

Proposed plan for Twinbrook Commons, a 440-unit, 120-foot-tall multi-family residential building wrapped around a parking structure and surrounded by a bus loop. North is to the left, not the top.

At its Monday, March 7, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss Twinbrook Commons, Tropical Storm Ida, and the proposed FY2023 budget. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are multiple construction contracts for stormwater maintenance and repair for a total not to exceed $9 million over four years. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports from Human Services Advisory Commission and on a 37-question survey (good heavens, that’s too long) conducted by the Human Rights Commission on the impact of the pandemic and the community’s perception of discrimination and inclusion following the murder of George Floyd (the results seem unreliable: 24% of the respondents were from Fallsmead and 14% from Twinbrook—why do cities insist on conducting surveys??).

Continue reading →