Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Residents offended by housing opposition

Neighbors against the plan for Beall's Grant say 109 more units would add to overcrowding and crime

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Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette
Signs posted along North Van Buren Street in Rockville's West End show opposition to the proposed Beall's Grant II housing project.

As West End residents who oppose the Beall's Grant II affordable housing expansion are posting signs in their front yards that read "Stop Beall's Grant II" and circulating a petition against the project, Beall's Grant residents say they are offended.

"When I saw those signs, I was really upset," said three-year Beall's Grant resident Christine Balcharan.

Balcharan, a single mother, said that going to Beall's Grant was a last-ditch effort to find a place she could live with her three children that was affordable.

Making $10 an hour working at the Exxon gas station two blocks from her apartment on North Washington Street, Balcharan still struggles to make rent, but said moving into Beall's Grant has been great for her and her family.

The petition drive and signs began after the city Planning Commission approved the project last month despite a last-minute push by neighboring residents who oppose it. Nearly 40 people attended the July 23 meeting and a large majority of speakers testified against the project during a heated public hearing, saying the proposed 109-unit building would be too large, would increase traffic congestion and crime, and crowd schools.

"The petition drive and accompanying yard signs are our way of letting our elected city officials know that the community opposes the project as it is currently designed," West End resident Vicki McMullen said in an e-mail to The Gazette.

"No one in the neighborhood has ever objected to Beall's Grant I or disparaged its residents," she said in her e-mail. "Voicing legitimate concerns about the proposed development should not be misrepresented as doing so. Moving forward with positive development of affordable housing like we have in Lincoln Park, that embraces lower densities and opportunities for ownership would benefit everyone in the community, including the residents of Beall's Grant I."

The majority of planning commissioners supported the project, saying that Rockville needs more affordable housing for those who work in the city, such as those who work in the shops in Town Square.

But what struck nerves with people who live at Beall's Grant was the assertion that more affordable housing means more crime in a neighborhood with a history of drug problems nearby.

"Beall's Grant is as safe as you can get," Balcharan said, adding others "come over and they corrupt the area, not the residents of Beall's Grant."

Thomas Painter, 47, said he has only seen the police respond to his building for minor calls in the 13 years he has lived there.

"Little things like anybody living in a home would do, [such as] a loud neighbor who has a loud party, then someone would call the police to have the music turned down," said Painter, a customer service representative for Safeway in Bethesda.

According to Rockville City Police, the current Beall's Grant apartment complex has had few crime problems.

Audrey Alfaro, 29, said she has lived in Beall's Grant for almost two months and is excited for the construction of the new building, into which current residents will be given the option to move.

"I don't see why [they] are so opposed when people here are like anybody else," said Alfaro, who moved into Beall's Grant from Virginia to be closer to her job at the Rockville Library in Town Square.

Montgomery Housing Partnership, a nonprofit organization that builds and manages affordable housing projects throughout Montgomery County, wants to renovate and expand the current 60-unit Beall's Grant apartments.

Beall's Grant II will offer mixed-income housing, including some subsidized, some Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs) and some market-priced units.

"We are finding that as residents learn of the huge size of the planned 109-unit building, with the accompanying loss of Kinship Park, inevitable traffic problems and school overcrowding, they are shocked and appalled," McMullen said. "Many residents were under the impression that the scope of the project was limited to the renovation of the currently vacant 14-unit building."

Many residents also argued that their neighborhood is "saturated" with affordable housing when the city's master plan recommends scattering affordable housing throughout the city.

Montgomery Housing Partnership was not awarded the state funding it applied for in the spring that would pay for part of the Beall's Grant II construction project, but is still aiming to begin construction within a year. It will reapply for the December round, according to Steve Sprecher, MHP's director of real estate and neighborhood development.

Mayor Susan R. Hoffmann said the City Council plans to write another letter in support of the project.

"I support the concept of making affordable housing available in Rockville. People are constantly talking about how it's too expensive to live here," Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann said the city has received "a goodly number" of e-mails from residents in support of the project.

As for the opposing neighbors, Hoffmann said she is "very saddened" by the assertions that the additional affordable housing would bring more crime to the neighborhood.

"That's just patently untrue," Hoffmann said. "It's very uncharacteristic of West End as a whole. They do not represent the mainstream of the community."

While the project has already been approved by the city, an appeal can be filed within 30 days of the Planning Commission's decision.

"Regarding an appeal of the Planning Commission decision, all options are on the table," McMullen said.