Friday, January 19, 2018

Stonehall Bethesda retail space to be filled by bank

The suspense is over. Wells Fargo Bank will be the retail tenant in the ground floor of the Stonehall Bethesda condos, at 8302 Woodmont Avenue.

A past Montgomery County Planning Board had stipulated the space be filled by a "quality restaurant," which was notable for proving that the County does indeed have the authority to require a type of business tenant. However, developer Duball, LLC requested that stipulation be amended, citing a lack of market demand for a restaurant at that location. The change was granted by the County.

Ralph Lauren closes in Chevy Chase, as the ultra-rich flee MoCo (Photos)

MoCo's Rodeo Drive
looking more like
Skid Row

Yet another store has closed on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, the stretch many once referred to as "Montgomery County's Rodeo Drive," leaving a barren strip of shuttered storefronts and smashed out bus shelters. The closures have directly corresponded to the exit of many of the County's wealthiest residents, who have sought refuge in lower tax jurisdictions around us. Studies have shown many of them have resettled in Loudoun, Fairfax, Frederick, and Howard counties.

Ralph Lauren has closed its doors at the Collection at Chevy Chase, where high-end retailers have fled along with their fabulously wealthy clients. Such clients usually sustain these posh boutiques through economic bubbles and recessions alike, so their downfall has been solid evidence that those clients are largely seeking greener pastures - and pastures that let them keep more of their green.

The grand windows of Ralph Lauren are now papered over. Letters announcing the store's name above the stately entrance have been pried off, leaving worn shadows behind.

Next to go will be DePandi at 5518 Wisconsin, which is currently holding a closing sale. The front windows of the shop are plastered with the GOING OUT OF BUSINESS and EVERYTHING MUST GO! signs so ubiquitous around Montgomery County these days. The high-end suit shop was opened five years ago by famed master tailor Eduardo DePandi.

Montgomery County is in real trouble, as the County's $120,000,000 budget shortfall - and structural budget deficit - prove. We haven't attracted a single major corporate headquarters in two decades. MCPS has been in a steep decline since 2010. Thirteen nightspots have closed in downtown Bethesda since County Council President Hans Riemer's "nighttime economy" initiative instead tanked the nighttime economy. The County has lost over 2000 retail jobs since the turn of the century, according to the Maryland Retailers Association. Even Riemer's former chief-of-staff and the Washington Post have taken to calling our private sector economy "stagnant" and "moribund."

Montgomery has fallen well out of the Forbes "Top Ten Richest Counties in America" list. We can see that on Montgomery County's "Rodeo Drive" these days.

Smashed-out bus shelter on
Wisconsin Avenue. Stay classy,
Chevy Chase!

MoCo Council asking Annapolis for eminent domain-on-steroids land grab power

For the third time in this term of office, the Montgomery County Council is trying to quietly ram a major change in the law through behind closed doors in Annapolis. In 2015, they tried to establish an Independent Transit Authority with unlimited taxation and debt power, and in 2017, they attempted a backdoor runaround the term limits voters had approved only months prior. This morning, they are exhorting the Montgomery County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to expand and increase their eminent domain authority.

The bill, like the others, is being filed at the eleventh hour, and with no fanfare. Bill MC 27-18, "Eminent Domain - Expansion of 'Quick Take' Authority," would streamline the property seizure process related to highway and transit projects. For example, it would eliminate the ability to compare a property to similar pieces of land for the purpose of determining fair market value. The Council would also be able to force residents out of homes, and businesspeople out of commercial properties immediately, as long as they make an immediate payment of that potentially less-than-actual market value to the landowner.

Purple Line opponents suspect the law may be used in short order for eminent domain seizures related to that light rail project. That would fit the "heckuva rush" manner in which it is being put forward in Annapolis.

But looking ahead, this law would be equally handy in the quick demolition of more than 150 homes and businesses along Georgia Avenue between Olney and Wheaton, for the planned BRT route there. We know that from a state analysis, but we don't have similar numbers yet for which properties would end up being seized for BRT along MD 355 and Route 29. How might this also be used in the Veirs Mill Corridor sector plan, which is about to begin the process of approval before the Montgomery County Planning Board? Land seizures along Veirs Mill have been strongly hinted at by planners.

The late-filed bill will be introduced at the 9:30 AM session of the Montgomery County Delegation this morning. If the bill receives the necessary votes to advance, a public hearing will be scheduled. One question will be: will that hearing be held in Rockville, or Annapolis?

It's no wonder they held this bill from you, despite planning it for months, and are now attempting to file it quietly at the last minute!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Public meeting scheduled for ZOM Bethesda apartment project

A public meeting regarding the proposed ZOM Bethesda luxury apartments project in the 7500 block of Arlington Road will be held on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 at 7:00 PM in the All-Purpose room at Bethesda Elementary School. The school is diagonally across from the site of the project, which will demolish several homes to make way for the new building.

The 60' tall building will house 235 units, a lobby cafe, a fitness center, landscaped terraces, and an underground parking garage. Florida-based ZOM has promised to offer 15% affordable units, which is higher than Montgomery County's required 12.5%.
Renderings courtesy ZOM

Regency Centers to hold public meeting to unveil revised Westbard plans

Developer Regency Centers has announced it will hold a public meeting on January 31, 2018 at 7:30 PM at Westland Middle School, where it will unveil a revised plan for the redevelopment of its Westbard properties. After the presentation, questions will be taken from the audience. Regency owns more than 20 acres of land along Westbard Avenue and Ridgefield Road.

Rumors have been floating around since late October that Regency was meeting with selected community groups, and that a revised plan was in the works for January. A legal decision is still pending in a case between residents and Montgomery County regarding the Westbard sector plan, which determines what can actually be built by any of the landowners in that area.

Some of the biggest questions in a revised plan: Will density and height - the two biggest community complaints - be reduced? Will Regency give up extra height and density previous property owner Equity One received in a trade for more-than-the required amount of affordable housing? Will the company still agree to a new alignment of Westbard Avenue sought by the Springfield Civic Association? Will Regency agree to bury power lines in the area, something Equity One refused to do, annoying community members? Will Regency proactively try to resolve the controversy over the Moses African Cemetery on the Westwood Tower site it owns? Will staging and leasing issues be addressed to allow current businesses in the retail spaces there now to survive and return in the new development?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Chris Bruch named new CEO of The Donohoe Companies

Chris Bruch is the new CEO
of The Donohoe Companies
Bob Donohoe, Sr. has stepped down as CEO of The Donohoe Companies, the Bethesda-based real estate and construction firm. He will remain as Chairman of the Board of Directors at Donohoe. Taking his place will be Chris Bruch, who has been with the company for 30 years, and is only the second non-Donohoe family member to be named its CEO.

In a statement, Bob Donohoe called Bruch "a proven, dedicated leader." Bruch has also taken a prominent leadership role in Empower Montgomery, a non-profit that seeks to increase voter participation in Montgomery County.

Photo courtesy The Donohoe Companies, Inc.

Apex Building demolition shifts locations, allowing additional traffic lane to reopen in Bethesda

Workers demolishing the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Avenue have moved to a different section of the structure. This allowed a second traffic lane to reopen on southbound Wisconsin Avenue in front of the building yesterday. The right southbound lane and sidewalk remain closed.

Toll Brothers seeks extension for WMAL tower site project in Bethesda

Developer Toll Brothers is asking the Montgomery County Planning Board to postpone review of its site plan for the WMAL radio transmitter site at 7115 Greentree Road in Bethesda. The company has proposed building 330 homes on the grassy site, which WMAL Radio's ownership has determined it no longer needs for signal transmission purposes.

Although a public hearing on the site plan must legally be held within 120 days of Toll Brothers' submission of the plan to the County on October 25, 2017, the company says there were too many issues raised by the County Development Review Commission. They cannot address all of these by the previously-scheduled hearing date of February 22, 2018. they said in a letter to planning staff.

Therefore, Toll is seeking a three-month extension, which would postpone the public hearing until May. Planning staff is recommending approval of the extension. The Board will take up the extension request at its January 25 meeting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Apex Building demolition has SB Wisconsin Ave. down to one lane in Bethesda (Video+Photos)

Demolition of the Apex Building at 7272 Wisconsin Avenue has picked up speed, with about half of the structure having been knocked down at this point. Now that demolition is taking down the front portion of the building, traffic on southbound Wisconsin Avenue has been reduced to one lane.
This new view from Wisconsin Avenue
stopped me in my tracks for a moment - this
is what it used to look like up until the late 1980s

Old Georgetown Rd. Safeway to close in downtown Bethesda (Photos)

The Safeway store at 7625 Old Georgetown Road in downtown Bethesda will close in about two months, according to a store employee. Signs are posted around the store announcing a Closing Sale, with savings of 30% on many products at the moment. Safeway has two other locations in Bethesda, at 5000 Bradley Boulevard and at the Shops at Sumner Place at 4701 Sangamore Road.
This is a major blow to the Bethesda Place apartments, as well as to residents of the Lionsgate and Christopher condos, and nearby Element 28 and Metropolitan Apartments. Safeway was the closest grocery store to all of those buildings, in terms of walking distance. Hopefully a new grocery store or Walmart Market can be brought in to fill the vacuum.

Online reviews of this Safeway have been harsh, and like the Sangamore location, this store apparently hasn't discovered self-checkout machines exist yet. I'm still puzzled as to why Giant and Safeway leave all these empty checkout aisles that are never manned, instead of removing them for more inventory floor space.

Montgomery County has lost more than 2000 retail jobs since the year 2000, according to the Maryland Retailers Association.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Paladar closes in North Bethesda

Paladar has closed in the North Bethesda Market building, according to an email from the restaurant. Their Tysons and Gaithersburg locations remain open. They said the structure and layout of their space, and "building issues" in recent months, were to blame at the North Bethesda location.

SunTrust Bank in downtown Bethesda to move next month

The SunTrust Bank branch in the historic building at 7500 Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda will move next month to one of the newest buildings downtown. Its current location will close at noon on February 20, 2018. After a three-day moving process, the branch will reopen in its new home at 7535 Old Georgetown Road, in the ground floor of the Element 28 apartment tower, on February 23 at 9:00 AM.
If you need to go into a physical SunTrust branch during the closure, they are recommending the one at Chevy Chase Lake, at 8510 Connecticut Avenue. SunTrust also has a branch in the Westwood Shopping Center at 5450 Westbard Avenue, and in Chevy Chase at 4455 Willard Avenue.

Chelsea Manning to take on Ben Cardin in Maryland U.S. Senate Democratic primary

North Bethesda resident
would be first
transgender member of

What should have been a sleepy stagger over the finish line for Senator Ben Cardin (D - Maryland) has turned into a battle royale with national implications overnight. The Maryland Democratic political machine and Republicans alike melted down upon hearing Red Maryland report that Chelsea Manning has entered the race. Manning, a North Bethesda resident, is best known for her role in providing damaging information about U.S. actions and operations during the Iraq War to Wikileaks in 2010. She was serving as an Army intelligence analyst deployed to Iraq at the time.
Incumbent U.S. Senator
Ben Cardin (D-Maryland)
Cardin has essentially ignored Manning's announcement so far. He will have plenty of money, and remains very popular among Democrats, despite having no notable legislative achievements. Manning is making a clear appeal to progressives, in a state where the Democratic party's progressive wing is growing restless with the throwback leadership of their establishment. At the same time, many in both parties consider her a traitor whose actions disqualify her from office.

Manning can capitalize on national attention and money. The victory of Danica Roem in Virginia last November showed just how much national money was out there for a minor state legislative race. Manning would be the first transgender U.S. Senator, if elected. That's a strong selling point, when 2018 is expected to be another Year of the Woman in politics.

A campaign video and fundraising page have been posted by Manning's campaign in the last 24 hours.

Ourisman acquires Bethesda industrial site

An Ourisman entity, S.J. Ourisman, LLC, has acquired an industrial property off of River Road in Bethesda. 5420 Butler Road is directly across from an existing Ourisman Volkswagen service facility. The site is currently occupied by an industrial building that was converted into a sports training center about a decade ago. Ourisman paid a whopping $7,700,000 for the site, according to Maryland real estate records.

Longtime readers will recall that this property is the one through which I discovered an underground fuel spill eleven years ago, which had been covered up by Montgomery County and the State of Maryland. The previous property owner had received clearance to operate the sports facility from the Maryland Department of the Environment, under the provision that they would not disturb the soil or utilize the contaminated groundwater under the building.

Since the fuel contained MTBE, an additive that moves far and fast through soil, and has contaminated water supplies nationwide, part of my investigation involved the MDE's handling of the secret spill. MDE documents state no cleanup action being taken at 5420, but the department refused to confirm or deny that when pressed repeatedly by me in 2007 and 2008. MDE also refused to say if it had investigated any of the adjacent properties for evidence of the "free product" that soil samples at 5420 revealed. That "free product" was found to contain elevated amounts of methyl-t-butyl-ether (MTBE), diesel range total petroleum hydrocarbons, tetrachloroethene (PCE), and naphthalene. 

All very healthy stuff, right? MDE thought so, apparently, because they could provide no evidence of any further investigation on their part to find out how far this material had gone on adjoining properties.

Fast forward three years after MDE's stonewalling to 2011, when my investigation was completely vindicated during the Little Falls Place scandal. Soil tests on the Hoyt/BETCO plant property confirmed what I had warned about years earlier - MTBE had indeed leached downhill to the BETCO site. Clearly, it also wound up going into the Willett Branch and Little Falls watershed, if you know anything about how MTBE moves once it is free in soil.

The Montgomery County Council, National Capital Planning Commission, and Montgomery County Planning Board all shared MDE's nonchalant attitude about these contaminants. All voted to approve the Little Falls Place townhome development on the BETCO site, following soil remediation.

Assuming an automotive use for the 5420 Butler site after this transaction, they will probably receive a "no further requirements" determination from MDE, as the previous tenant did.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Bethesda construction update: Urban Country (Photos)

Urban Country's new showroom at 7121 Arlington Road looks like it will, understandably, have a more upscale design than former tenant City Sports. They had previously announced a January 5 opening date, but it appears construction has taken a bit longer than expected. Amazon Books will take over the current Urban Country space at 7117 Arlington this summer.

CoCo La Rue closes, K&I Salon to open at Westfield Montgomery Mall (Photos)

One salon has closed at Westfield Montgomery Mall, and a second has announced it will arrive this Spring. Hair extension salon CoCo La Rue has cleared out after a short run at the mall.
Meanwhile, K&I Salon has posted Coming Soon signage, touting a Spring 2018 opening. They will be located next to T-Mobile on Level 1. In other mall news, expected arrival Altar'd State has posted signage announcing a March 2018 target opening date.