Montgomery County Council Members unanimously approved nearly $2 million in mid-year funding for a land purchase in Wheaton.
The vote on Tuesday was accompanied by a statement from Council Member Hans Riemer, who emphasized that the approval of the site purchase was also an approval of a planned land swap with the Montgomery Housing Partnership.
“I just want to continue to reiterate that the purchase of this park — the purchase of this property, really — is intended for the swap,” Riemer said. It was a direct response to earlier comments from County Executive Marc Elrich, who says he supports a park but has reservations over whether the land should be traded with MHP.
The nearly four-acre parcel on Georgia Avenue has become the subject of a running disagreement over the future of affordable housing on the site. When the county’s Parks Department approached the council with its funding request, it outlined a plan to purchase the property and quickly make a trade with MHP, which owns an aging affordable housing development adjacent to the site.
Advocates of the plan, including Riemer, describe it as an innovative way to produce more affordable housing while providing a new urban park in the middle of a densely populated community. Under the proposal, MHP would replace its aging apartments with a brand-new complex on the Georgia Avenue site. After the housing was constructed and tenants relocated, the old buildings on Blueridge Avenue would be demolished and replaced with a park.
“We want the housing to be on this site and we want the park to be on the interior of the community,” Riemer said Tuesday, “rather than have the park on the edge, on Georgia Avenue.”
But County Executive Marc Elrich has said it would be premature to support a swap without seeing a fully developed proposal for new development on the Georgia Avenue site. The county’s funding for affordable housing subsidies has limits, Elrich has argued, and he wants to weigh the proposal against others throughout the county.
Riemer said Tuesday that the land swap should proceed before conversations about financing the project. MHP representatives have said that a final plan for the project — including funding sources and any potential subsidization by the county — could take years to develop, especially if they pursue assistance from the state.
“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 last week. “So, if you do the [land] disposition the usual way, you’re looking at a decade of no housing. This just brings us closer to our goal of groundbreaking.”
But the Parks Department timeline, which outlines a procedure to approve the exchange within 45 days of the purchase, requires collaboration with the county executive.
The council took the first step on Tuesday by approving funding for the purchase. The Parks Department expects to finalize the transaction sometime this winter, according to real estate supervisor Brenda Sandberg, though Elrich has previously suggested waiting until the start of the next budget cycle in July.
The council can independently approve additional funding for a purchase, but Elrich would be responsible for directing and approving a land exchange with MHP. After Tuesday’s meeting, Riemer said he planned to meet with Elrich to discuss a timeline in the next few weeks. Elrich told the Bethesda Beat that he still planned to consider the most fiscally responsible path while considering the proposal.
“I talked to MHP, and since they indicated there was no urgency in doing this tomorrow, we’ll make sure we make a prudent decision about how we go forward,” he said.