2019 | Government

Council Committee Supports Funding for Parkland Acquisition

Elrich still concerned about plan to exchange land for new housing development

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WMATA parcel

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission plans on purchasing an empty lot on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton for a new urban park.

Photo via Google Maps

This story and headline were updated at 8:45 p.m. Dec. 3, 2019, to clarify that the committee supported funding, rather than approved it.

A County Council committee on Monday backed mid-year funding for land that could be used for a new urban park in Wheaton.

What’s still unclear is whether the parkland purchase will lead to a land exchange with the Montgomery Housing Partnership, which owns an aging apartment complex adjacent to the site.

Multiple advocates for the deal, including Council Member Hans Riemer and Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, hope the acquisition of a nearly four-acre parcel on Georgia Avenue can be tied to a land exchange with MHP, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. MHP is currently working on a 15-year plan to rebuild all of its existing housing in Wheaton.

But County Executive Marc Elrich has emphasized that it would be premature to approve a land exchange without seeing a fully fleshed-out proposal for new development on the Georgia Avenue site. Those objections could delay or block the exchange if he does not approve it.

The council can independently approve additional funding for a purchase, but Elrich would be responsible for directing and approving an exchange with MHP.

“Everybody should be waiting until we have all the information before making a decision on this,” he said in a phone interview on Monday afternoon. “This is rushing something to a point that we’re not ready to consider, but will be ready to consider in a few months.”

His concerns are rooted in a preliminary proposal to swap the locations of a future park and refurbished housing complex.

MHP’s sites in Wheaton include Amherst Square Apartments, an affordable development on Blueridge Avenue. For about a year, the company and the planning commission have been discussing the prospect of a land exchange as the commission looks to acquire the parcel on Georgia Avenue.

“We thought, ‘Oh, maybe we could get a better park and better affordable housing,’” Brenda Sandberg, a real estate manager for the Montgomery County Parks Department, said in an interview last week.

The planning commission was planning for about a year and a half to purchase the WMATA-owned parcel on Georgia Avenue, hoping to develop the land into a new urban park, she added.

But when the planning staff heard that MHP wanted to renovate or demolish Amherst Square Apartments to update the development, both agencies discussed swapping the sites.

Under the plan, MHP could build a new development on the Georgia Avenue property and relocate its current tenants from Amherst Square Apartments. The company could then demolish the old apartment complex to make room for a park on the Blueridge Avenue site.

“The benefits to putting housing on the WMATA-owned property is better walkability for residents to the Metro and slightly better urban design,” Sandberg said. “And then you’d have a park nested within a growing high-density community, bounded by roads on two of the three sides to make it more open and inviting.”

Only the county executive can authorize the exchange, which would include deeding the newly acquired Georgia Avenue site over to MHP. But members of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee met Monday to discuss a final step in acquiring the land: approving additional funding to complete the purchase.

The majority of the roughly $8.7 million site would be financed through an acquisition fund for parks and recreation. But the balance can’t fully cover the cost of the new property, so the commission requested a $1.96 million special appropriation from the county government.

Committee members supported the budget request, which will likely go for a vote before the full council next week, said Riemer, chair of the PHED committee. The council has final say over the county’s budget, so the appropriation would not require final approval from Elrich.

The county executive said he would prefer for the purchase to wait until the summer — when the next fiscal year begins and the planning commission would have a newly funded budget — rather than doing it in the middle of the year.

Elrich said he’s waiting to see the county’s mid-year revenue projections, including tax returns from the state, to make sure it’s possible to allocate the money halfway through the current budget cycle.

“I’m assuming we’re going to have it,” he said on Monday. “But if I go ahead and do it, I expect that it would come out of the money we’d be giving [the commission] next year. You’re not supposed to, in the middle of the budget, spend money you didn’t already plan on spending.”

While the council can independently approve a budget amendment, Elrich’s collaboration is needed to initiate the land swap and approve an expedited process for the disposition. In a letter to Elrich and Council President Nancy Navarro, Anderson laid out a process that would allow the exchange to take place within a month and a half.

One important step would be foregoing the typical preliminary reuse review, in which the Georgia Avenue parcel would be offered to other county departments and agencies — as well as non-county departments, including Montgomery County Public Schools — before giving away the land.

Those reviews can take more than a year, Riemer said. But some stakeholders hope the exchange would happen more quickly. In a July memo, the Parks Department anticipated that the land exchange could be initiated a month after the council approved the budget amendment.

“If you think about it, finalizing any development could take two to four years,” Praj Kasbekar, a senior project manager for MHP, said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “So if you do the disposition the [normal] way, you’re looking at a decade of no housing. This just brings us closer to our goal of groundbreaking.”

Elrich said he supports the acquisition of the Georgia Avenue property and the opportunity for a new park in Wheaton. But given that a new housing development would likely require county subsidies, he said he would rather make a final decision in July, at the start of the new fiscal year, when the county puts new money into its Housing Initiative Fund.

“We don’t have any money left this year,” he said. “There is no reason to prematurely pull the trigger on a deal that is not ready to be evaluated.”

He also wants to see a detailed blueprint of the new development so he can weigh it against other affordable housing bids, including at least five proposals for a new complex on Bushey Drive near Twinbrook. MHP is also bidding on that property, Elrich said, and he wants to have a clear understanding of how the county can best spend its limited funding for affordable housing development.

Riemer, though, has said the exchange would expedite new housing that the county was already likely to fund.

In an interview last week, MHP President Robert Goldman said the Amherst Square Apartments were “near the end of their useful life” and slated for a major renovation or demolition.

“I want to say, when I support this, I’m supporting it because it is tied to a land swap,” Riemer said during Monday’s meeting. “I think it would be a real mistake to not do the land swap. I think a park on Georgia Avenue will not get as much use as one that’s nestled inside a very dense community.”