Thursday, June 25, 2009

on community meetings

A more detailed write-up about last night's meeting on the new Third District police station will come later this week.

The language at last night's meeting about the new Third District police station in White Oak was toxic. It's not just that residents of the surrounding neighborhoods are uncomfortable with the housing also proposed for the site, to say the least. It's the way that some who spoke confused "affordable housing" with "public housing," or insisted that, in some way shape or form, they were being screwed over.

Rick Nelson from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs explained that the housing on the site - whether townhouses or apartments - would be a mix of market-rate and "workforce" units, for families making as much as 120 percent of the county's median income. That could be as much as $120,000 a year for a family of four, he said.

But people just didn't listen to him. One gentleman said that a street of townhouses in his neighborhood had turned into an "open-air drug market." Another insisted that they wanted a "better quality of people" coming into their community. Still others called the proposal a "walled ghetto." The phrase "established residential neighborhood" came up many, many times, as in "when you bring THIS into our established residential neighborhood."

The subdivision behind the new police station is called Sherbrooke. It was completed maybe seven or eight years ago, and I had friends growing up who wandered around the place when it still was a forest. "Residential," maybe, but "established" only in that it came first.

One couple insisted that the county was keeping secrets from them. They probably took up a half an hour complaining about secrets, and traffic, and established residential neighborhoods. Why don't you put the affordable housing on the other side of Route 29, the husband says, suggesting they go in a new subdivision on Stewart Lane that must have stalled in the recession because he hasn't seen any new homes built there.

That subdivision is called Whitehall Square. It's being built by NVHomes, the same people who did Sherbrooke. I visited it two years ago, when the sales associates were touting its proximity to Metro and the FDA, all for the then-bargain price of $440,000 - what the Sherbrooke houses were selling for in 2000. And I've been back many, many times since, to watch the land get cleared and for the houses to slowly rise. The website says there are only ten homes left for sale of the 106 homes originally approved.

So, after quite a while of listening to these people shoot their mouths off, I couldn't bite my tongue any longer. "Have you ever been over there?" I said to the man, just loud enough so the whole room could hear. "Have you actually gone there and asked the builder if the development has stalled? Because you've been saying a lot of things this evening, and it doesn't sound to me like you . . ." my voice trailed off before I could say "know what you're talking about," because I realized I was in a room with many other people and now I, too, was hijacking the meeting.

"No I haven't," the man boomed, "but I saw that they haven't been building houses! Have you gone there?"

I say yes. He throws his hands up and addresses the room. "Then tell me! See this? They're keeping secrets!"

"Have you considered that the houses have already been sold and haven't been finished yet?" I ask. "There are eight thousand jobs coming into the FDA, and you're telling me the market is stalled?"

"Who are you and where are you from?" The man yells. I hand his wife a card. "I live at 29 and Musgrove," I say, "for ten years. For the past three years, I've written this blog."

"We live in Sherbrooke," the woman replies, as if to make a point. She takes the card and shows it to her husband. "Look," she says, pointing to my address. "Hawkshead. He doesn't live here."

This stuff surprises me every time. I don't understand how people can turn a regional issue, like a police station or the cost of housing, into one that only seems to affect their street. I don't understand how someone who demands a "better quality of people" in their neighborhood can't see the prejudice in that statement. The people who can afford to take three hours to attend a community meeting ARE NOT the ones who really are being screwed over. East County has a problem, and it's not "affordable housing." It's talking about affordable housing and crime and schools and the kind of people we don't want in our "established residential neighborhoods."

That's the town hall meeting I want to have: "Why do we think we're better than them, and what are we going to do about it?"


Lockwood_650 said...

I represent the real people in white Oak (the people living in affordable housing), on lockwood, grew up there my whole me, the last thing we want is to see is a police station n rich whit people moving around the way flashing their fancy clothes and expensive cars on our WE say no to the police staion in white oak, keep it in downtown, we get harassed by the police daily, we dont need them around the way, and for the poeple working in the FDA...their are new homes bung built in wheaton and other nice areas, and they need to stay away from white oak.

Carrespondent said...

Well put, Dan. Too many people -- let's be honest here: well-off white folks -- always want to shut the door behind them. As a newspaper reporter, I saw too many examples of this behavior at suburban town meeting after suburban town meeting. Details and facts are lost in the mad rush of fearmongering and latent racism.

Is every plan that includes workforce/affordable housing a good one? Certainly not. Nor is every plan that includes McMansions and luxury condos. But these issues should be discussed and debated based on their facts and merits, not mere NIMBYism.

Dan Reed said...

The stereotype is that it's always "rich white people" who carry on like this, but last night it was clear that money talks no matter what race you are. The room I was in was very diverse ethnically. And in fact, the couple who argued with me was black.

For people in the black middle class (of which my family is a part) the discussion becomes especially complicated. Should we feel responsibility for those less fortunate than us? Or should we claim the right, as all who move to the suburbs seek, to live in a place where we don't have to be around them?

Carrespondent said...

That's very interesting, Dan. I think the craziest aspect of this issue is that housing is so absurdly expensive in MoCo (still), that people earning $120,000 can be in true need of assistance in finding an affordable place to live.

chippy said...

Has anyone heard of any people or group of people who are concerned about the recent articles in the Gazette about the County choosing a private developer to redevelop Wheaton the same way that they did Silver Spring.

I am very happy with Wheaton the way that it is. I like and patronize the local businesses that are there. Many of them are run by immigrants and it is their chance to pursue the American Dream. I am very concerned that the county wants to bring in a developer and replace these business with National Chains.

If they do it the way they did in Silver Spring these developers and Chain Stores will not pay any taxes.

Is anyone concerned about this?? I know that I am.

Chip Py

WashingtonGardener said...

Chip - I'm concerned and your post is first I've heard of it. The SS Voice and SS/TP Gazette edition don't cover Wheaton and don't recall the MoCo Weekly section ofthe WaPo touching on this either.

one-star said...

Affordable housing is one thing. I live on a block that has been turned into a total ghetto by a set of HOC tenants.

I would be all in favor of law (like the development cap law for schools) that prevents the county from building any more affordable housing or moving in any more HOC tenants in East County (Silver Spring/Wheaton) until there is a similar number in West County (Bethesda/CC). I, like others, am tired of getting the trash dumped in my yard because land is cheaper and people complain less.

one-star said...

I saw the same story in the Gazette, but I was also at the mid-county CIP meeting where they admitted that there are too many different property owners to even try that in Wheaton. Apparently there are 22 owners on triangle lane alone. So we are stuck with a bunch of crappy money transfer places, lotto and beer places, and excelent ethnic food choices.

While Im all in favor of local business, I wouldnt mind if they bulldozed a good chunk of the Georgia Ave strip and started over...

Casey A said...

Dan -- I think your post is right on the mark, and I think you are right about NIMBYism cutting across racial lines. Chip -- I like a lot of the local businesses in Wheaton, but I think redevelopment would be (on balance) a good thing. Obviously, the devil is in the details (the county should not give away the store in the form of tax incentives), but I have to say that the downtown SS result is a big improvement over what the area was like 10 years ago. Wheaton Mall, in particular, appears to be in precarious shape (no anchor tenant to replace Hecht's, Circuit City gone and replaced by a crappy furniture store that was briefly in the Hecht's space, etc.) Would I like to see a better mix of chains vs. local establishments in SS? Sure, but I think the danger in Wheaton is that retail goes south across the board.

Shupe said...

Dan, I stumbled onto your site by accident. I appreciate your disclaimer about working for the Council member. After reading your position it is not surprising that it is just as dismissive as his. You got this one wrong. You fail to acknowlege valid issues brought up by residents. Council Member Leventhal was quoted as saying "When someone says, ‘What are you doing about crime?' and our answer is, ‘We're building you a new police station in your neighborhood,' and that's not good enough, I don't know what else to say." and "That parcel of land was not going to remain forested and untouched," Leventhal told the group after several protests of the parcel's development. "That's a fact." Are you kidding me? Was he not listening? This area supports the station, but it wants it built in a responsible way. Try putting a constantly busy commercial building literally in anyone's back yard and they will not be happy. A key to infill development is leaving as much buffer as possible . It can be done here. Yes the property would be developed eventually, but established residents are advocating that it be done in a compatible way and bad planning not forced on them. Buffers are a legitimate issue. I can't believe he said "thats not good enough." he sounds dismissive, unlike you would expect from a county representitive. He was also quoted as saying:"I think that meeting shows how challenging it is to provide more affordable housing in Montgomery County because when you propose affordable housing in someone's neighborhood, invariably, the neighborhood doesn't want it," he said. He got that partially right but it sounded like he was trying to paint the residents in a bad light. This community is probably the most diverse in the county. Its schools already shoulder a HUGE load of farms and ESOL students. Why would you further burden the schools (over crowded at that) with more potential students of high need? I believe the real truth is that the county overpaid for this land and is now trying to find other things to do with it. Now for my disclosure: I'm a member of the Hillandale HOA who has voted to support White Oak. Don't think it is just a crazy group of local home owners. There is a wider group of folks out there who agree with the homeowner issues. Carrespondent, had it right. Debate it on the issues with you and Leventhal are ignoring.