This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 28, 2019, to add comments from County Executive Marc Elrich.
The Montgomery County Council will consider giving nearly $2 million to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to purchase land for a future urban park in Wheaton.
But at a public hearing on Tuesday, County Executive Marc Elrich, through an emissary, raised concerns over a portion of the plan that could lead to the development of a new affordable housing complex. His reservations troubled some council members, who worried they were a sign of future clashes over the county’s affordable housing goals.
“I was surprised,” said Council Member Hans Riemer, chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) committee, which will discuss the funding in December.
“To fundamentally criticize a proposed affordable housing development seemed very strange to me,” Riemer continued in a phone interview after the hearing. “This is a really interesting and exciting deal, and I sure hope the county executive doesn’t try to get in the way of it.”
At issue is a proposal by the commission to purchase a vacant lot in Wheaton from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The nearly four-acre parcel, which faces Georgia Avenue and sits blocks from the Wheaton Library, could be the potential site of a new urban park — an important amenity for a developing part of the county, said Brenda Sandberg, a real estate manager for the Montgomery County Parks Department.
Part of the request includes a proposed land exchange with the Montgomery Housing Partnership (MHP). The nonprofit developer owns Amherst Square Apartments, an affordable housing complex on Blueridge Avenue adjacent to the WMATA parcel on Georgia Avenue.
But while the Georgia Avenue lot fronts a busy main road, the Blueridge Avenue site is bound by three residential streets, a location that would give greater access and visibility to the new park, Sandberg said.
When the commission began considering the purchase, it contacted other agencies and learned that MHP was considering renovating or even rebuilding the Amherst Square Apartments — currently “near the end of their useful life,” according to MHP President Robert Goldman.
“We thought, ‘Oh, maybe we could get a better park and better affordable housing,’” Sandberg said.
The commission proposed purchasing the WMATA parcel and swapping it with MHP to use for a new development. The nonprofit would gain a centrally located site within walking distance of major amenities, including the Wheaton Metro station. The proposal would allow MHP to build a new apartment building and relocate tenants before demolishing the complex on Blueridge Avenue, Sandberg said.
In exchange, the commission would be able to build an urban park “nested” between existing apartments in a growing high-density community, she added.
The majority of the roughly $8.7 million purchase would be financed through an acquisition fund set aside for parks and recreation. But the balance can’t fully cover the cost of the new property, so the commission also requested a $1.96 million special appropriation from the county government, said Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board.
Elrich sent Budget Director Rich Madaleno to explain his concerns at Tuesday’s County Council public hearing.
The supplemental appropriation was one of his complaints. Elrich was “very concerned” about giving out more than $1.5 million midway through fiscal 2020, Madaleno said, and would consider removing the money from the commission’s budget in fiscal 2021.
In a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon, Elrich explained that he would prefer to allocate the funding after the county received its tax revenue returns from the state, which would allow him to determine whether new expenditures would be realistic.
The land exchange was a concern because neither he nor his staff had seen a detailed proposal for the new development from the Montgomery Housing Partnership, Elrich added.
In written testimony submitted to the County Council, he said it would be “premature” for him to support the proposal now — largely because he needed to weigh the plan against other proposals for affordable housing.
“We gotta see how much it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay,” Madaleno said at the meeting on Tuesday. A substantial portion of MHP’s capital comes from the Housing Initiative Fund, a reserve set aside in the county’s budget for affordable housing projects.
In fiscal 2020, the county invested $41.3 million in the fund.
Elrich said Wednesday that the Housing Initiative Fund was used to subsidize a variety of affordable housing projects across the county. Because the fund is limited, he said, he would prefer to see a detailed blueprint for a new development on the Georgia Avenue parcel before supporting the land exchange.
His administration is working on increasing the number of units for some of the county’s lowest-income residents, he said, especially those making 30% or less of the area’s median income.
Recently, his administration put out a request for affordable housing proposals on a tract of county-owned land on Bushey Drive, Elrich added. He’s considering and refining several of those proposals, which would need to be weighed against any new development on the Georgia Avenue property.
“We’re waiting to see what comes in,” he said. “And when they come in, they’ll get evaluated to see what’s the most sensible use of the money. Without seeing all this stuff, it’s hard to say yes.”
Goldman emphasized in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon that plans for the land exchange were still preliminary. MHP has a “definite interest” in the proposal, he said, but the Georgia Avenue property would still be used for a park even if the swap isn’t approved.
Either way, MHP is facing a major expense in revitalizing Amherst Square Apartments, Goldman added.
The company hasn’t done a cost analysis on whether it would be more expensive to majorly renovate the property or build a new complex from scratch. But it’s implementing a 15-year development plan to rebuild all of its affordable units in Wheaton.
“All those scenarios are going to cost a lot of money,” he said. “And I couldn’t tell you whether one scenario would be substantially more expensive than the other.”
Riemer said he wasn’t surprised by concerns over the supplemental appropriation, which were “somewhat routine” for a new allocation midway through the fiscal year. But the council has been quietly troubled by Elrich’s well-publicized disavowal of new affordable housing targets set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments this year.
The council has adopted and prioritized the targets, which call for roughly 41,000 affordable new units in Montgomery County by 2030. But it’s possible for Elrich to block affordable housing proposals endorsed by the county.
The commission’s proposal for the WMATA property acquisition is intended to streamline the land exchange, allowing Elrich to issue an executive order less than two months after the council’s initial recommendation. But Elrich could block the disposition, Riemer said, stalling the affordable housing portion of the project.
Elrich said in the interview that he wasn’t thinking about blocking the parkland acquisition or the land swap, adding that MHP wouldn’t make the exchange unless the company had a way of financing the new development.
But the Montgomery County Planning Board asked legislators to approve the exchange as part of the parkland acquisition.
In an Oct. 22 letter to Elrich and Council President Nancy Navarro, Anderson, the Planning Board chair, asked the council to support both proposals when approving the budget allocation.
“To ensure that this acquisition and subsequent land exchange move forward in an expedited fashion, I request that the County Council clearly indicate their approval in the CIP Amendment Resolution,” the letter reads, “stating that the proposed Disposition of the WMATA Parcel to MHP as part of the Land Exchange is approved as part of the Park Acquisition: Non-Local CIP project.”
In July, Elrich refused another disposition, blocking the transfer of a county-owned parcel in Rockville near the Twinbrook Metro station. Developers promised the site would be used to expand the Halpine View apartment complex into a mixed-use development with a set number of moderately priced dwelling units.
But Elrich argued that the redevelopment would displace existing tenants who couldn’t afford the new units. At the time, he said he planned to maximize the number of apartments accessible to a broad range of incomes.
On Wednesday, he said he was still negotiating the transfer with the owners of the apartment complex.
“The county executive says it’s not good enough. But I think it’s NIMBYism, basically,” Riemer said of the proposed Halpine View transfer, referring to the acronym for “Not In My Backyard.”
It remains unclear whether Elrich will support the land exchange in Wheaton. The PHED committee is scheduled to discuss the proposal in a meeting on Monday, when stakeholders can share their concerns.