Montgomery County Council faces difficulty of providing affordable housing -- Gazette.Net


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The Montgomery County Council demonstrated the difficulty of developing affordable housing as it declared that it isn’t feasible to build units atop a new police station planned for downtown Bethesda.

Nobody had any plans for such a mixed-use project, but the council on Nov. 19 went through the motions of examining the possibility for the first time since a new law took effect in May requiring the county to explore adding affordable housing to any new capital building plan.

Technically, the council voted unanimously that there is no further public need for the county-owned 2nd District Police Station at 7359 Wisconsin Ave. The property will be turned over to Bethesda-based StonebridgeCarras, which is exploring redeveloping the site for residential or commercial space. In return, the developer will build a bigger police station at 4823 Rugby Ave.

Although the station project was in the works before the affordable housing law passed, the council asked legislative and executive staff to explore the possibility of including residential space at Rugby Avenue as part of the new police station project.

The property has some advantages to building affordable housing, including that it sits about half a mile away from the Bethesda Metro and many services and amenities surround it, senior legislative analyst Linda McMillan said. But space constraints make it a prohibitively expensive choice, she added.

Greg Ossont, deputy director of the Department of General Services, agreed, noting that there is little room to accommodate both the police station and housing. He said 90-foot height limits would allow for expanding the police project from four stories to as many as eight but that the needs of the police station would not provide sufficient room for a first-floor entrance for housing.

“Once you introduce the residential stairs, the residential mailbox room, the residential elevators up to what would be the additional floors above the police station, it starts to eat up a lot of the first floor,” he said.

The bottom line is that it would cost more than $1 million to add an incomplete floor and then even more to construct the residential units, Ossont said. That would put the added cost in excess of $170 per square foot.

Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, who introduced the affordable housing study bill last year, said the county must be willing to spend money to build units.

“Our county is committed to providing more affordable housing, and we know it doesn’t come cheap,” he said.

But Rick Nelson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, noted that the county’s Housing Initiative Fund doesn’t have enough money for a police station project. He noted that an eight-story building would be a semi-high-rise, which costs far more to build than the garden apartment projects that the county prefers.

“In view of what it would cost to do maybe 10-15 units that money could be better spent elsewhere to get affordable housing,” Nelson said.

He added that the county will be making a recommendation to the council next month to proceed with plans to build personal living quarters, or PLQs, for the homeless as part of the redevelopment of Progress Place. That project will relocate to Silver Spring’s Ripley District Department of Health and Human Services’ services to low-income and homeless populations that include programs run by current contractors Shepherd’s Table and Interfaith Works.

But even the modest Progress Place project — which would provide 21 200-square-foot units — set off debate about how best to spend county funds on affordable housing.

“Good lord, there are condos you can buy in Montgomery County for less than the cost of the 200[-square]-foot PLQs that was proposed,” Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said.

The county estimates that the PLQs would cost about $3.4 million, or $161,300 per unit. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has pushed for including housing units as part of the Progress Place project, but he has scaled back the plan. He originally floated building 42 PLQs at a cost of $3.7 million, which proved to be an unrealistically low-ball estimate.

The county needs to take a broader look at cost-efficiency and start committing to larger projects that make maximum use of taxpayer money, Elrich said.

Beyond how to spend county money, the council also needs to take a closer look at where it builds affordable housing and impact on school achievement and other social cost, said council President Nancy Navarro, (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.

“There are costs associated with concentration of low-income housing,” she said. From one perspective, housing costs more in Bethesda, but from another, the county can’t keep placing low-income housing in Silver Spring, she said.

Ossont noted that the county is pursuing plans to build a mixed-use complex at White Flint that will include a new fire station and affordable housing for senior citizens.

Long Branch sector plan approved

The Montgomery County Council approved the Long Branch Sector Plan, which provides new zoning density to allow developers to take advantage of the Silver Spring neighborhood’s potential as a stop along the proposed Purple Line light rail system.

The plan was approved by a vote of 8-1 on Nov. 20; Elrich voted against it.

The plan amends the 2000 East Silver Spring Master Plan and the 2000 Takoma Park Master Plan and could set the stage for extensive redevelopment. It recommends commercial/residential/town optional method zoning, which is designed for town centers and provides density incentives for developers. The council also recommended the targeted use of tax credits and other financing tools to encourage public/private partnerships.

But the sector plan left in place current zoning on most of the existing apartment projects to protect affordable housing.

“With this plan, we hope we have created incentives for positive commercial redevelopment, while protecting the needs of existing community members,” said Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, who chairs the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

The new plan is in part a response to the Purple Line, a 16-mile system that would extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

The plan calls for historic preservation of the Flower Theatre, calling for retaining its facade and design guidelines to encourage compatible neighboring development.

The plan states that new buildings along Flower Avenue should not rise above the theater’s height.