Wednesday, June 18, 2008

City leaders uphold affordable housing

Summit Shopping Center rezoned for mixed-use; density reduced to 300 units

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Gaithersburg city leaders have approved rezoning the 6.8-acre Summit Shopping Center property at Girard Street and Goshen Road for mixed-use and denied the developers’ request for a break on the affordable housing requirement.

‘‘We should remember why this law was passed,” said Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula at a June 2 meeting of the mayor and City Council. ‘‘The point of having an ordinance was to have a set of ground rules that would apply to all the projects and be the same for all the projects.”

Zoning for the abandoned shopping center has been reviewed several times. Plans portrayed a ‘‘neighborhood-friendly” complex with retail, and city leaders balked at parking garages and density, ultimately reduced from 405 apartments or condominiums to the 300 approved.

Affordable housing emerged as a sticking point in April after developers Hearthstone Communities of Virginia and Opus East LLC of Washington, D.C. sought permission to lease 7.5 percent workforce housing units and 7.5 percent moderately priced dwelling units, instead of the 15 percent MPDU required by city ordinance.

The developers’ attorney, Barbara Sears of Linowes and Blocher LLP of Gaithersburg, argued that they spent five years revising plans to please city officials, and noted that the affordable housing ordinance was passed only 18 months ago. Moreover, the site lies at the border of Olde Towne, which is exempt from the ordinance and is an enterprise zone. Fulfilling the 15 percent mandate would create ‘‘an economic disadvantage” for the new development, she said. The neighboring Hidden Creek townhouses, which began construction in 2004, have no affordable housing.

Councilman Henry A. Marraffa agreed, but Mayor Sidney A. Katz and the other council members denied Sears’ request, voting 4 to 1. A reduction of affordable housing for one project would encourage a reduction in other projects across the city, said Councilman Ryan S. Spiegel.

A single person earning $41,580 to $51,440 is eligible for an MPDU in Gaithersburg, said Councilman Jud Ashman, emphasizing need. Many teachers, police and firefighters would qualify, noted Councilman Michael A. Sesma.

‘‘Some of the discussion has been unfortunate in terms of characterizing MPDUs and the people that live in them,” Sesma said, referring to testimony and letters from residents, who linked affordable housing to crime. ‘‘These are the same kind of people that people who testified as being against MPDUs ... would like to have in their own neighborhood.”