Category Archives: Bethesda

Leventhal Blasts the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time

By Adam Pagnucco.

On the evening of October 20, a representative of Clark Enterprises (Bob Eisenberg) appeared before the Montgomery County Council to testify on the Downtown Bethesda Master Plan.  Clark has been involved in a dispute with its next-door neighbor, fellow developer Brookfield Properties, over Brookfield’s plan to erect a new building on top of the Bethesda Metro Station.  Clark hired PR firm KOFA Public Affairs to wage a campaign to block the new building that accused Council Members of being tools of developers and criticized their salaries.  Accordingly, we labeled it “The Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time” since even dimwitted lobbyists understand that elected officials don’t respond well to attacks on their integrity.

Above is the reaction of Council Member George Leventhal to KOFA’s insult-laden campaign.  Hide the children, folks!

 

Is This the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Suppose you want to persuade an elected official to vote in a certain way.  Which of the following tactics would you choose?

  1. Prepare the best case on the merits of the issue that you can.
  1. Mobilize a large part of the public to agree with you.
  1. Insult the elected official’s integrity and criticize his or her salary.

If you picked Tactic 3, congratulations!  You could get hired by one of Maryland’s top PR firms to run the Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time!

What is this campaign, you ask?  It involves a Battle of Developers in Downtown Bethesda.  (Ring the bell, folks!)  On one side is Clark Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest real estate and construction firms that is headquartered at Bethesda Metro Center.  On the other side is Brookfield Properties, another giant real estate firm based in New York and Toronto, which bought 3 Bethesda Metro Center for $150 million in 2011.  Brookfield would like to place a new high-rise on the concrete Bethesda Metro plaza and the Planning Board agreed to it in its proposal for the area’s new master plan.  Clark, whose existing building would be right next door to Brookfield’s new building, opposes it.

The Montgomery County Council has final say over all master plans, and so Clark paid for a grass-roots lobbying campaign.  A website proclaiming a need to “Protect Bethesda Open Space” was registered in May and emails from constituents started arriving in council inboxes.  While the emails varied a bit in content, the following two sentences appeared word-for-word in a great many of them.

“The County Council has sided with the developers one too many times here in our recent history.”

“After recent raises to our taxes and to your salaries, we ask that the same priority be given to the people who live and work in downtown Bethesda.”

picard-face-palm

Your author has worked for and with elected officials for a long time.  There are many differences among them.  But one thing absolutely every single one of them HATES is to be called a tool.  The only thing worse is to get hundreds of their constituents to call them tools.  You may as well burn down their houses, vandalize their cars, loot their bank accounts and then ask them to give you a vote.  See how that works for you!

And on top of that, is it really wise for a campaign financed by a real estate company to encourage residents to criticize Council Members for siding with developers?  What will those residents say the next time Clark wants to build something?

But Clark is only the client.  They hired someone to run the campaign for them.  One clue appears in this notice listing a certain Bassam Tarbush as a contact for the website.  Tarbush is also named in the campaign’s response emails.  According to his Linkedin profile, Tarbush is employed by KOFA Public Affairs, one of Maryland’s most prominent public relations firms.  That is astounding for two reasons.

  1. KOFA’s principals, who are regarded as professional and competent in Maryland’s political circles, have lots of experience working for elected officials. They include senior aides to former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. If anyone understands how outraged elected officials can get when their integrity is impugned, these people do.
  1. The firm’s roots are deeply planted in the Democratic Party. Its principals have devoted substantial parts of their careers to helping Democrats like O’Malley and Cardin succeed. And yet, here is a group of Democratic operatives running a campaign that depicts Democratic elected officials as tools of developers.

Clark Enterprises is a well-respected real estate firm that has other priorities here in addition to what happens at Bethesda Metro Center.  Burning its bridges with the County Council through such a ham-handed lobbying campaign goes against its long-term interests.  For its own sake, Clark should go back to the drawing board, figure out a different message, hire someone else to implement it and end The Dumbest Lobbying Campaign of All Time.

Bethesda is on the Red Line But Still Another Example of Metro Blues

They’re shutting down the Bethesda Metro Station on Saturday and Sunday as part of the escalator reconstruction. But you probably wouldn’t want to ride anyway because trains will leave Shady Grove only every 20 minutes due to another project downtown. This is now par for the course for Metro weekend “service.”

Dr. Gridlock also reports that the escalator work, which has been going on for some time, will continue for another two years. This seems incredibly slow:

Replacing the three escalators at the Bethesda entrance is a major undertaking for the transit authority. The Bethesda escalators are the second-longest in the Western Hemisphere, second only to those at the Wheaton station, on the other side of the Red Line.

They must be removed and replaced one by one. That’s part of the reason this job, which began in the fall, is more complicated than the original installation of the escalator bank more than three decades ago. . .

The project could take about two more years to finish.

Dr. Gridlock communicates the idea that this is all normal because it’s a tough project. Except that other transit systems–visit the London Underground sometime–seem to manage to keep their very long escalators in better service. Yes, they have problems too but not at our scale. Even when Metro escalators are supposedly fixed, they’re often not, as the experience of users of the reopened Dupont South entrance discovered.

Part of the problem here seems increasingly to be the normalization of a level of service quality that should be accepted and always blamed on lack of funds even as we’re wondering what they did with the money already allocated.

Riders are voting with their feet and abandoning the system despite significant population increases–a real indication that all is not well despite those who minimize its problems, which have not been ongoing for years. People don’t want to ride unreliable transit systems.

At this point Metro needs an intervention to get it back on track and start tackling real problems in a way that earns trust, increases reliability. But I increasingly have little confidence that additional money would help much unless the problems are more directly addressed. Meaningful reform needs to be in place in order to merit more money–and ought to be a top transit priority.

WABA Launches Petition to Save Tunnel

From the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) blog:

Plans have fallen through for a Capital Crescent Trail tunnel underneath Wisconsin Ave in downtown Bethesda. Montgomery County attempted to facilitate a redevelopment of the Apex Building that would have allowed a large and more efficient Purple Line light rail station and trail tunnel. In a closed session several weeks ago the County Council, at the recommendation of County Executive Ike Leggett, decided not to move forward with this attempt.

WABA is disappointed that the county has abandoned these plans. The Capital Crescent Trail is one of the most traveled multi-use trails in the county, and the Purple Line transit project is a once-in-a-lifetime investment in better trail infrastructure. Redevelopment of the Apex Building would have allowed for the best possible station and trail. . . .

WABA has been working for more than two decades on the Capital Crescent Trail. The trail is a well loved community resource which provides an important recreation, fitness and transportation benefit to visitors and residents of all ages. The vision has always been a seamless trail from Georgetown to Silver Spring. While the Purple Line will complete a major gap in the trail, it leaves behind a new one.

We are disappointed by this loss of an tunnel option and hope that County officials exhausted all options before making this decision. We expect a safe, grade-separated crossing of the trail at Wisconsin Avenue to be the long-term solution.

WABA Petition

Woodmont Avenue Staying Closed

Bethesda Magazine reports that the opening–much heralded by large signs in the area–will not occur after all:

Montgomery County spokeswoman Sue Tucker said inspectors visited the site and worried about safety concerns at the construction site, which includes a new underground parking garage.

“The county has gone out there and decided it will not open until the garage opens, which is planned in January,” she said.

So the new projected timeline for opening and the ease on traffic on the area is now postponed at least six months beyond the original two-year deadline. See also the story in Bethesda Now.

I guess the question is why weren’t these problems foreseen when the County approved the plan to reopen the street while construction continued on the two buildings?

 

Woodmont Ave. Still Closed

Busy Woodmont Ave. in Bethesda closed for the construction of the new vast underground parking lot in Bethesda that straddles the street between Lots 31 and 31A. (For those unfamiliar with planning argot, that’s the big construction progress across from Barnes and Noble.)

The original closure was planned to last 20-24 months and has lasted nearly the full 24 months. So residents are naturally excited that the reopening of Woodmont Ave. was announced via large electronic construction signs stating that it will open on or around August 15th.

Well, August 20th and it is still isn’t open. Residents will welcome the reopening even though a one-lane road replaces a two-lane road and you can no longer make a left on to Leland St. It is not clear to me whether pedestrian access will be restored as well as construction continues on the buildings on both sides of the road.

Let’s hope that they can get it done this week–the latest public statement on the plans that I’ve located.

Bethesda Just Wants to Have Fun

County Executive Ike Leggett’s Nighttime Economy Task Force has made a number of recommendations to attract a more active nightlife to Montgomery. Sorry I meant to say MoCo. We’re all hipsters now here at 7S.

Aaron Kraut of BethesdaNow.com summarized the key proposed changes:

The Task Force will recommend the county extend the hours of operation for venues with alcohol licenses an hour, to 3 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and the Sundays before Monday federal holidays and 2 a.m. on weeknights.

That would match D.C. and Prince George’s County and prevent what Pohoryles said restaurant owners call “the mad dash,” the period when Montgomery County bar goers get in their cars and drive to D.C. for another hour of alcohol service. The rule would keep the half-hour “grace period,” in which last call would actually be half-an-hour before closing time.

Also part of the bar-friendly recommendations are changes to the county’s noise ordinance in specific urban areas.

The Task Force will recommend increasing the allowable noise levels for “qualifying arts and entertainment activities in these areas,” to 85 decibels, allowing those levels to midnight and ensuring nearby residents are informed of the law prior to moving in.

So basically more booze + noise = fun. Heck, I suspect any random group of college students could have told you that. The only problem is that downtown Bethesda’s prime demographic is not college students or recent college grads but empty nesters.

Neighborhoods near to downtown Bethesda are a combination of families and empty nesters. In six years on the Town Council of the Town of Chevy Chase, located directly east of downtown Bethesda, I have never heard anyone lament that the bars in Bethesda close too early and that they have to dash elsewhere to keep drinking.

The Task Force’s chair wants to reassure that the changes are meant to benefit everyone:

Heather Dlhopolsky, a Bethesda attorney and chair of the Task Force, made it clear the Task Force wasn’t just about catering to the 20-34 year-old crowd, citing the significant number of empty nesters moving to downtown Bethesda.

Nevertheless, the recommendations have provoked a backlash precisely from that group. Jon Weintraub provided this summary of the thoughts expressed at a meeting of over 40 condo owners from many different buildings in downtown Bethesda:

There is universal opposition to the County Executive’s Nighttime Bethesda proposal, if it means extending bar hours and changing the revenue ratio. It should not move forward! What can be done to ensure that the noise ordinance is not altered for downtown Bethesda?

Instead Weintraub wants to know:

What is the planner standard for public green space, library, and recreational facilities per 1000 units of development in the downtown?

What can the county and the planning board do to improve the quality of metro service to Bethesda given density decisions are tied to the presence of the metro?

The meeting was organized by Jon Weintraub with Jane Fairweather, a very successful local realtor who knows the Bethesda market extremely well and hardly one to object to changes if she thought they would make her market more and not less valuable.

No doubt some will deride their objections as those of anti-business older people who expect unreasonable levels of quiet and have confused the area with an assisted living facility. But my impression is that their objection is not to a vibrant nightlife but want it to fit in with the area’s existing strengths.

Bethesda is filled with restaurants and also has a large number of bars for that matter. However, the empty nesters who can afford to buy all those condos–and provide a lot of custom to these businesses–prefer it quiet before 2am.

The key to keeping Bethesda so successful is make changes that reinforce what is already attractive not just to families and empty nesters but also to many twenty and thirtysomethings. Middle of the night noise, drinking and nightclubs probably aren’t it.

The Task Force has a lot of suggestions to streamline the process of establishing a business that would probably be helpful to that end. Ironically, the one change that would please restauranteurs and bar owners the most is the one that they shied away from adopting:

Montgomery County operates as a control alcohol jurisdiction, with all alcohol purchases coming from a central DLC [Department of Liquor Control] warehouse. That has led to complaints from restaurant owners about the availability of special orders, such as craft beer, and the time it takes to fill an order.

Evan Glass, a Silver Spring activist and prospective County Council candidate, said the group should talk about how necessary the DLC is.

It’s a contentious issue, in large part because the DLC contributes $25-$30 million a year to the county’s General Fund. It also recently opened a new warehouse in Gaithersburg.

Glass suggested the DLC should at least keep a portion of that contribution to hire more employees who could help it be more responsive.

Most agreed that recommending wholesale changes, or the dissolution of the DLC, was too big a task for the Task Force. The final recommendation, when it comes out in the Task Force’s final report next week, will call for a study of the DLC’s effectiveness from the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight.

The irony here is that the Task Force attacked directly requirements that restaurants sell as much food as liquor. Yet, they’ve stayed away from a major barrier to locating restaurants here because alcohol is more expensive in MoCo and unique beers and wines are harder to obtain. The City Paper, practically the definition of urban hip, wrote about the issue back in 2007.