Tag Archives: Coalition for Smarter Growth

Chevy Chase Library Redevelopment. If It’s a Good Idea, No Need to Mislead.

In a recent email appeal on the proposed Chevy Chase Library redevelopment, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) wrote:

This is an opportunity to model the smart growth future of Montgomery County by mixing affordable housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. . . . With your support, we can win more housing and more affordable housing in a community that has been kept out of reach for too many for too long.

The CSG email gave the strong impression that this is a unique affordable housing opportunity. But there is currently no guarantee that the project on this site would consist of more than the minimum required moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) . Most units would be market rate housing, which in this area likely means million-dollar condos or high-end rentals. In other words, you could apply this same language to Lionsgate in Bethesda or any development.

The sign-on letter to the county exaggerates the case even more:

We believe this is an opportunity to model the future of Montgomery County by mixing housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. This project is key to meeting the county’s goals to achieve racial equity and social justice, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

This is an area that was kept out of reach for people of color through redlining, restrictive covenants, and other public and private policies. The government must take intentional steps to reverse this history. . . . Montgomery County needs more projects like this to break down its racial and socioeconomic east-west divide and achieve housing justice.

Language like this is almost included routinely in progressive advocacy documents. In many ways, it is more a statement of faith, like reciting the catechism, than anything else. At the same time, million-dollar condos or pricey rentals in this one project just aren’t the “key” to “racial equity and social justice” or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a lot for one modest building project to carry. Even the MPDUs are moderate, not low-income, housing.

The funny thing is that, on balance, I think this project is probably a good idea. Notwithstanding its exclusion from the recently adopted Master Plan, it is near the Purple Line stop and other areas around it that are being built up. Hundreds of units are currently being delivered right up the avenue at Chevy Chase Lake, and hundreds more are proposed. But it’s not necessary to so massively oversell this as a social justice, affordable housing project to make that case.

Making the Project Work

The site currently consists of a large area of surface parking. Is there a better use for that land? Probably yes. Must parking still be a consideration? Yes. To make the project truly successful, the redeveloped library will need onsite parking.

CSG opposes parking but most people in the surrounding suburban neighborhoods cannot walk to this or any other library. You can’t rebuild it and make it impossible for most of the community to access it. Many elderly and disabled patrons who can no longer park next to the redeveloped Silver Spring Library now use this library, and it’d be a shame to displace them again. The parking lots across the street in Silver Spring are too far for those with serious mobility issues.

Getting Our Money’s Worth

Finally, the county needs to come to the table with a more knowledgeable approach so it can leverage its assets and advocate properly for its citizens. Councilmember Will Jawando has repeatedly made this excellent point. We rely far too much on analyses produced by the developer in our own assessments:

The voting on tax abatements for projects at Metro stations revealed this all too clearly. At the committee level, Jawando’s proposal to require deeper levels of affordability was voted down flat as economically unfeasible by Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Andrew Friedson. When voted on at the full council, the same amendment was adopted unanimously. As if “miraculously”, the previously impossible became possible.

If we are better informed, we can negotiate hard and get better value out of these deals, including a higher share of affordable housing. It’s not just the right thing to do. The government neglects its fiduciary responsibility if it doesn’t get maximal value for people of the county when negotiating these projects.

Conclusion

The redevelopment of Chevy Chase Library with housing is potentially a very good project and the county should work to make sure that we, the citizens of Montgomery County, get the most public value. As the idea moves forward, it should continue to pursue a vision that serves the whole community, and adds more affordable units.

There’s no need for CSG to engage in over-the-top hype as the county moves forward with exploring what was, after all, the county government’s own idea. This redevelopment project may well prove worthwhile even if it doesn’t solve all social and racial inequities, and stop climate change.

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Thriving Together

The Tweeters have been active since the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) condemned me. I’ve been threatened with physical violence and another prominent smart growth blogger says I “must be stopped.” Twitter suspended the account of the person who threatened me.

While not pleasant, a friend with good sense reminded me to “ignore the trolls” and that the “Twitter echo chamber is not representative of the real world.” The bile seemed to go far beyond anger at my criticizing a lobbyist for not filing required reports.

What I rapidly learned is that my series of posts about problematic ethics at the Planning Board and lobbying raised the ire of advocates for Thrive 2050 —the county’s general plan that the County Council is set to consider. Apparently, similar treatment has been meted out to others deemed to be critics, though I have literally not written a word on Thrive prior to today.

Well, they got me much more interested. I have not followed the Thrive debate closely. Like many, I’ve been focused on my job and getting through the pandemic, so I stopped blogging completely. Over the weekend, I’ve started to gain a quick education.

The key takeaway so far is that new County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Vice President Evan Glass have their work cut out for them. The intense divisions and acrimony around Thrive mirror the ugly mood and tenor of debate in the country. Confidence isn’t increased by the Planning Board’s failure to register lobbyists, violations of the open meetings law and abuse of the consent calendar to constrain public input on other matters.

The good news is that I cannot think of two people more suited to address it. While I sometimes disagree with them strongly, you won’t find two more fundamentally even-keeled public officials than Councilmembers Albornoz and Glass. As a result, I remain optimistic that they can lead the county to a document that brings people together. Put another way, I hope they can move the process forward to a conclusion but in a way that makes residents feel included and heard.

That doesn’t mean “paralysis by analysis”—the county’s unfortunate moniker for its tendency to study matters into eternity—but it does mean heading towards the end in the right way. How can that be accomplished?

It’s an unfortunate truth of public policy that many people only start to pay greater attention once matters come to a head. (Consider me Exhibit A in this case.) This is especially true because the key parts of the process took place during the pandemic and the 2020 election. So many people still have a lot of questions they would like answered, and many would like to know how the comments they have already provided will be incorporated.

Thrive proponents may be technically correct that the document itself changes nothing with respect to zoning, but it is strongly linked to potential major zoning changes (zoning text amendments) that have also been proposed and are already under discussion. So saying it has no impact on zoning comes across, intentionally or not, as too clever and insincere.

It’s especially important because the Planning Board, led by Casey Anderson, removed certain references to the importance of the Master Planning process. The document is now written to pre-determine outcomes, while simultaneously claiming not to have decided anything. Put another way, we are now being told that it is too early to know its impact on zoning but, once Thrive is passed, it will be too late because “Thrive says . . .”

People want to know what Thrive means for them—how will it affect their home and their neighborhood? What about nearby areas? People care a lot about how changes impact their family and their largest investment or their rent. Using plain language and including specific metrics would go a long way to help residents better understand outcomes Thrive expects to realistically achieve,

In my time as mayor and other leadership positions, I’ve found that listening is far more important than talking. I’m not saying it’s easy or my natural strength, but I work on it. People like to be heard. They also justifiably loathe performative “consultations” where leaders claim to want input, but the outcome has been pre-determined. Councilmembers must incorporate comments from the very broad range of opinion thoughtfully with an open mind.

Which brings me to why this effort is needed to get the process back on track. Many in the community believe that the process has been highly structured to produce a particular outcome supported by a nexus between the Planning Board Chair, activist/business groups like CSG, and certain councilmembers.

The Planning Board staff presented a draft that was amended “in a very surgical way” at the behest of Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson according to insiders. While avowedly done in response to community comment, for example, it’s hard to imagine that this very pro-environment county demanded the excision of Thrive’s specific environmental chapter. Did anyone actually request this? The changes reflect exactly what one would imagine Casey Anderson preferred.

The Thrive appendix outlining planned outreach states:

Blog and vlog: To get involvement from and perspectives of different people in the community — residents, community leaders, business leaders, county officials — we’ll ask different people to be involved in writing or being interviewed for Thrive Montgomery stories to share on the blog.

But the blog is uniformly supportive of Thrive and the concepts behind it. If you do a search for “Thrive” in the blog, almost all of the posts are written by Casey Anderson or other people at the Planning Board. This is what an orchestrated campaign looks like–not an effort to involve diverse voices and different perspectives.

The three-member Council Committee which then reviewed Thrive for the Council is chaired by Hans Riemer, a very good friend and close ally of Casey Anderson. People happier with the original staff document, such as the Civic Federation, understandably see the consultation process as set up to emphasize supporters and limit input from people who might have a contrasting vision.

Former Council President and powerful PHED Committee Chair Riemer’s statement that CSG, a regional organization fiscally sponsored by an out-of-state group with substantial contributions by developers, has been “chairing the conversation” confirms their fears.

Anderson, Riemer and CSG are understandably happy with a document which utterly mirrors their views. That doesn’t make it a bad document in terms of public policy per se, or any of their policy preferences “wrong,” and it certainly doesn’t make any of them remotely bad people. It’s a fine example of structuring a political process to achieve one’s preferred outcome. But it doesn’t provide for an open, transparent, and inclusive process that achieves buy-in from the community.

Finally, as the Council goes through the document, they should go through section by section with both the PHED version and the original Planning Staff version on hand. That will allow the Council to better discuss whether they agree with the changes. Again, they need to discuss how the feedback they’ve received that differs from recommendations is considered and incorporated. This sort of deliberative work session process, conducted in public, will allow for an open process that permits a variety of issues and concerns to be discussed and considered.

There shouldn’t be a complete restart. We need to answer questions, to consult meaningfully, and then the Council can make the decisions we elected them to do. Not everyone will be happy with their decisions, but they’ll likely feel much more included and respected if they are genuinely heard and the document reflects the diverse views in the county.

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CSG Snaps Back

The Coalition for Smarter Growth seems to think I was wrong to expose their and Jane Lyons’s ethical violations and put out a statement to that effect.

Before they get to attacking me for exposing their dirty laundry, the executive director says he takes “full responsibility” and says that they “have implemented an improved tracking system to ensure such an oversight does not happen again.” It’s great that he takes full responsibility, though it’s unclear that this has resulted in any consequences for him or Jane Lyons.

Nonetheless, they quickly move from taking “full responsibility” to attacking the messenger:

Mr. Lublin’s two posts impugn the reputation of a young and extremely accomplished person — a 2019 graduate of the University of Maryland who has demonstrated utmost integrity in advocating for policies which she and the Coalition for Smarter Growth believe to be important for our collective future.

We believe Mr. Lublin’s attack on Ms. Lyons is driven primarily by his policy disagreements with CSG. Of greatest concern to us is that Mr. Lublin has ignited a round of online harassment and intimidation on Twitter, Facebook, and NextDoor that is is all too common today, as he must certainly be aware.

I don’t see how not registering as a lobbyist in a timely manner demonstrates “utmost integrity” in lobbying. I mentioned Ms. Lyons’s credentials and accomplishments in my post yesterday. It doesn’t explain why she didn’t register or why CSG failed to make sure she did. College educations make people better able to navigate bureaucracy. One reason education is the demographic that best predicts voting is that it gives you the skills to navigate the barriers to getting on the rolls.

In terms of my views, I agree with CSG on some issues and disagree on others. If you summed up my perspective, it would probably be that I agree with the broad thrust of where they want to go but think they are sometimes are overzealous. In any case, it’s a strange and new notion that people can only point out failings on the part on people with whom they agree all of the time.

It’s certainly not an approach that CSG and their allies have taken in their own attacks and would seemingly have prevented them from issuing their own “personal attack” to discredit me. Recently, CSG attacked both an individual homeowner as a hypocrite and anti-Thrive 2050 protestors generally in a press release. And they and their friends haven’t shied away from attacking the ethics of their opponents.

One area I do very much agree with CSG is the lamentable state of social media. That’s why (unlike CSG) I stopped putting out blog posts on Twitter and Facebook. (I’m sufficiently a philistine that I had to look up NextDoor after reading their statement.) While some people manage the rare feat of holding thoughtful discussions, social media promotes incredible negativity and piling on.

Again, I have never seen CSG object when their supporters engage in this behavior and attack people who disagree with them. Today, in fact, CSG Executive Director Stewart Schwartz liked a tweet by former Councilmember George Leventhal (a guy not exactly known for being unwilling to attack people) suggesting that I’m a misogynist. I haven’t seen the harassment of Lyons mentioned here but I hope it is no worse than served to me on occasion. “Politics ain’t beanbag” so I’m not surprised people are unhappy with me on occasion even if, like CSG and Lyons, I might wish they were kinder about it.

I received a polite email from a friend of Lyons telling me that they have found her an ethical and thoughtful person. I don’t know Lyons but I am not surprised that people find her this way. Effective advocates usually are personable and, while CSG and Lyons have their perspective on the issues, they are certainly informed and knowledgeable–as are their opponents. But she and CSG should have been on top of these problems. I’m glad they’ve taken the time to address them.

CSG is an influential, effective organization with tight links over at the Planning Board and the County Council as well with business interests. Indeed, Councilmember Hans Riemer complimented Jane Lyons for “chairing” the discussion on Thrive 2050. Clearly, I’ve stepped on some powerful and influential toes.

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