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A bold new vision for Bethesda

For decades, suburban communities like Montgomery County reaped the gains from choices made by executives to locate their companies outside of cities. But times have changed. Now, many entrepreneurs and workers want access to an urban lifestyle. Communities that cannot provide it are losing ground.

The good news: Montgomery County can compete in this new environment. Our beautiful neighborhoods and great schools and parks are still powerful assets. But we need to boost our urban areas for this new economy.

With this purpose in mind, I set to work on the Bethesda Downtown Plan, which we just completed. Here are some of the highlights:

New people, new life in Bethesda. The plan adds 4 million square feet of new development in the downtown area and raises heights for most buildings by 20%, reaching as high as 290 feet in certain locations. More people living in the downtown will mean better restaurants, retail and entertainment options for everyone — and the vibrancy that we enjoy will attract workers and companies to locate here.

A higher standard for affordable housing. Montgomery County continues to lead on affordable housing as the Bethesda Plan raises the requirement for new development to set aside 15% of all units for the county’s affordable housing program. Formerly the standard was 12.5% of units; I made the motion to raise that to 15% in Westbard and made sure it continued forward in Bethesda, another community that lacks affordable housing. With 4 million more square feet of development at a 15% MPDU mandate, the plan is aggressive on affordable housing.

Walkability and bikeability. New standards to promote walkability will mean more investment in safe crossings and bigger sidewalks. Continuing my efforts to champion bike lanes that are protected from traffic, the new Bethesda plan has a comprehensive new vision for biking. Thanks to a new development mitigation policy that requires developer payments for all modes of transportation including biking, we will have more resources to build this infrastructure.

Turning parking lots into parks. To be great, a downtown must have great parks and civic gathering spaces. Recognizing that Bethesda lacks them, I worked with the community and colleagues to champion a vision to turn existing surface parking lots into energetic urban parks. Where parking is still needed, we will have to put it underground. That’s expensive, but with a new park impact payment for new development, we also will have some of the resources needed to build them.

Transportation management. The Plan calls for aggressive use of another policy I have worked hard to advance: Transportation Demand Management. For a location like Bethesda, expanding auto capacity is not realistic or desirable, but growth in traffic can be reduced if we work aggressively with employers to promote public transportation, carpooling, walking and biking. The plan calls for the county to moving 50% of all trips to Bethesda to non-auto modes. We will soon get a concrete plan to achieve that.

Building community consensus. Thanks to careful attention to building heights and school capacity, the plan passed by the County Council had substantial community support while promoting strong policy goals. While surely not everyone is pleased, by working closely and inclusively with residents we achieved more than we could have otherwise.

Energy efficiency and great architecture. The new plan includes a groundbreaking requirement for energy efficiency in new buildings — one of the most important steps a local government can take to combat climate change. It also includes a new approach to sparking better architecture, something that has been lacking in the county generally.

I have no doubt that our progress on a new Bethesda is why Marriott’s leaders decided to move their company to one of Montgomery County’s urban centers, rather than DC or NoVA. And while there is good news to share, we have a lot of work ahead of us to build on our momentum.

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Gang activity is a growing concern

Recently, I responded to a constituent who wrote to me about the rise in gang activity. Following is my response.

Public safety is a top priority of local government. The increase in gang-related activity in the district is of great concern.

The County has a multi-departmental approach to gangs, which includes prevention, intervention, and suppression. Last week, the Public Safety Committee held a worksession focused on law enforcement’s role, which is primarily suppression. You can read additional information about the Committee worksession and suppression strategies in the committee packet.

In addition to Police, HHS, MCPS, and Recreation, among others, work more on the prevention and intervention side of the issue. These efforts include more positive programming that give kids healthier and safe alternatives to gang involvement, as well as programs, like the Street Outreach Network, that help individuals leave gangs.

I’m also including the packet for the last Joint Education/HHS/Public Safety Committee update held last summer, that touches on all these initiatives.

Finally, here’s a recent interview with Captain Paul Liquorie who is leading the centralized street gang unit. He discusses the role of law enforcement, collaboration with different county departments, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other federal agencies to successfully prosecute criminal offenders.

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Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Express Bus Service on US 29

I support faster, more reliable transit service on US 29, because it will provide more and better transportation options to all residents and further the County’s environmental and smart growth goals. Under that framework, I joined my Council colleagues to support $7.5 million to study and design BRT service on US 29 and to support express, limited-stop RideOn service beginning in 2018 on US 29.

You can read details of the BRT plan here (pdf), but following are some key features of the proposal:

  • BRT service will begin in 2020
  • Buses will run on the shoulder in the northern section of the corridor (from Burtonsville to Industrial Parkway) and in mixed traffic south to Silver Spring
  • Buses will run every 7.5 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes outside of rush hour
  • The BRT system will have off-board fare collection, transit signal priority (TSP), specially branded vehicles, and elevated stations
  • Numerous pedestrian and bicycle improvements will be constructed simultaneously

While the overall plan is a meaningful step forward and achieves impressive travel time savings, the game changer for the corridor is securing dedicated lanes where congestion is the worst, south of Industrial Parkway. At that point, riding the bus becomes a much better service for those who do not have the opportunity to own a car as well as a real alternative for people who have a car. But if the bus is stuck in traffic, many people will prefer to just drive. This is why I advocated, successfully, for a study of an exciting and potentially effective concept for dedicated lanes in the median of US 29 south of Industrial Parkway. The key to this proposal, which was initiated by county residents and transit activists, particularly Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot, is shrinking the regular travel lanes from 12 to 10 feet. This makes enough room to add a dedicated lane for buses without taking a lane away from cars, a potential win-win situation. This summer County and State transportation officials will prepare cost estimates for this study, and the Council plans to introduce a special appropriation this fall to fund the effort.

In order to facilitate public discussion about this option, the Council required that the County Executive submit a subsequent appropriation request, subject to public hearing, to fund right-of-way acquisition and construction. This will give residents and the CACs plenty of opportunity review and comment on many salient features of system, such as station locations and the right-of-way requirements.

Finally, I have long argued that the County should be making incremental bus reforms now while we plan for high-quality BRT service in the future. To that end, the Council added money to the FY18 budget to begin express, limited-stop RideOn bus service on US 29 in early 2018. The new bus service will run from Burtonsville to Silver Spring during the morning and evening rush hours. The Council also approved $1 million to begin express, limited-stop RideOn bus service on MD 355, from Lakeforest Mall to Medical Center Metro Station. I believe these efforts will provide much needed service quickly while we continue planning and designing a high quality BRT system.

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Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan

The County Council recently approved a dynamic new master plan for the Bethesda Downtown – one that clearly defines goals for the future and seeks to create options for accomplishing those goals. This vision for the future was the result of a two year planning process, including a major community outreach effort led by the Planning Department at MNCPPC, then continued through the Council public hearings, bus and walking tours, meetings with property owners, residents and advocacy groups, lengthy PHED Committee worksessions, Council deliberations and, finally, County Council approval.

This was no simple debate about building heights and architectural styles, as some news accounts may have implied. The complexities of planning for a future one cannot accurately predict but hopes to influence anyway are enormous. Our work is not yet done. The plan relies on the completion and approval of other fairly sophisticated legislative and policy elements such as:

  • The Bethesda Overlay Zone which will, among other things, define the point system available to developers who must earn their way to the maximum zoning height by providing priority elements such as affordable housing, dedicated parkland or monetary contributions for public benefits;
  • Development of a Unified Transportation Mobility Plan for Downtown Bethesda (to replace the Local Area Traffic Review) which identifies all costs associated with transportation facilities (including roads, sidewalks, bikeways, transit) needed to support the development potential prescribed in the master plan; and, to formulate a pro rata share to be charged each developer at time of development; and,
  • Development and adoption of a Countywide Transportation Demand Management Ordinance to replace the individual Transportation Management Agreements DOT currently negotiates for any development plan that cannot meet APFO standards without using measures to reduce traffic generated by their use.

These supportive components are being developed by DOT and County Council staff and will be brought to the County Council within the year. They are the linchpins on which the Downtown Plan hinges; and, these will be in place by the time any new development plans based on the new Downtown Master Plan are reviewed and approved.

I am proud to have worked diligently with the community, the planners and all others involved in this effort to find and fix potential challenges to implementing the Plan; and, I have great confidence that the ambitious goals defined in the Bethesda Downtown Master Plan will be completely achievable.

Here are the goals:

  • Preserve, create and expand housing opportunities to meet a growing population of diverse ages, household size, income level, and unit types;
  • Transform the urban district to provide safe bike routes and a better pedestrian environment
  • Change the transportation policy focus to include all modes, like walking, biking, and public transportation, that reflect the healthier, smarter, more environmentally sensitive preferences of our community; over time this will be our best approach to reducing the growth of traffic
  • Transform county-owned surface parking lots into urban parks and recreation spaces. Exchange concrete for plants and fresh air by converting surface parking lots into parks and concentrating parking under and in buildings in appropriate locations to meet the essential needs of both residents and businesses.
  • Improve collaboration and cooperation between MCPS and the County agencies involved in planning and development to ensure schools that are adequate and efficient and meet our standards of excellence in education for ALL students.
  • Identify, create or generate new ways to finance those elements of the master plan without dedicated sources of funding to ensure implementation of the priority goals defined in the plan. This point is particularly important for our plan to turn parking lots into parks; without a new source of funding, existing county budgets can provide only a small fraction of the money that is needed to bring the ambitious and transformative vision to reality.

Thank you for participating in this process. I am pleased that we got a much better Bethesda Downtown Plan as a result of the community’s effective engagement.