Monday, January 7, 2019

here are 13 reasons why Montgomery County has to make budget cuts this year

Montgomery County will soon start working on its budget for next year, and officials already expect that they'll need to make big cuts. While the county's population is growing, its tax base has been shrinking, which means that we're trying to pay for more services with less money. How did this happen? Here are several reasons.

1) 6116 Executive Boulevard

6116 Executive Boulevard
This Montgomery County office building has been totally vacant for five years. All photos by the author unless noted. 

This eight-story building, built in 1989, has been totally vacant since the National Institutes of Health left in 2013. As a result, its value has fallen 64% over the past decade and the building went into foreclosure in 2014 because the owners weren't collecting rent. It's one of 19 office buildings in Montgomery County that are either fully vacant or will be soon, all of which are outside the Beltway.

2) One Discovery Place
Discovery Communications' soon-to-be-former headquarters.

Twenty years ago, Discovery Communications moved from Bethesda to Silver Spring and helped usher in downtown's revitalization with a huge new headquarters that consumed four blocks and employed 2,500 people. However, they've slowly been shedding workers, and will move from Montgomery County to Tennessee and New York next year, with about 200 people remaining in Silver Spring. While the building has a new owner, no new tenants are on the horizon.

3) White Flint Mall

This was Montgomery County's fanciest mall, and it was slated to become a fancy open-air town center until department store Lord & Taylor sued the Lerners, which own the mall, for knocking it down–and they won. More recently, the county offered the 45-acre property for Amazon's new headquarters, and we know how that went. Today it's a big pile of dirt, though Lord & Taylor is still there.

4) This abandoned office park

Abandoned Office Park in Montgomery Village
An abandoned office building in Montgomery Village.

Montgomery Village is a 1960s-era planned community north of Gaithersburg whose commercial district has struggled in recent years. While Montgomery County recently passed a plan to redevelop its central shopping center by adding a new plaza and homes, the adjacent office park remains empty. It's unlikely that it has a future as offices because it's in a relatively isolated area, far from most of the county's population.

5) Burtonsville Crossing

Sad Times at Burtonsville Crossing (June 2016) (9)
Burtonsville Crossing has been hemorraging tenants for over a decade, and is now almost completely empty.

This shopping center in Burtonsville, in the northeastern part of Montgomery County, started emptying out after a highway bypass was built in 2006. Developer EDENS (best known for high-end shopping areas like Mosaic District in Fairfax County and Union Market in DC) has been sitting on Burtonsville Crossing for years as tenants fled. In 2015, they signed an agreement with Montgomery County to redevelop the property and adjacent park-and-ride lot, and nothing much has happened since, though local residents are organizing to change that.

6) Lakeforest Mall

Lakeforest Mall, Chinese New Year celebration
Lakeforest hosts MoCo's Chinese New Year celebration, but is still in financial trouble.

Like White Flint Mall, Lakeforest was a popular shopping destination that fell on hard times; the Gaithersburg mall sold at auction this year for a fraction of its former value. The mall has become a hub for the region's immigrant communities, but still has a number of vacancies. The 1970s-era mall sits on 103 acres, over four times the area of The Wharf, though its future (and whether it will even stay a mall) is unclear.

7) Canyon Ranch

Canyon Ranch
This big hole was supposed to be a luxury hotel and spa.
Developers across the DC area once said that this 53-acre field near Montgomery Mall in Bethesda was one of the most enviable properties in the region. But in 2006, as the housing boom hit its peak, plans fell through to put a hotel and resort, shopping, and over 400 luxury condos there. Today it's a big hole.

8) Tower Oaks

Tower Oaks
A sign advertising office space at Tower Oaks Park in Rockville.

Named for its big trees, this 84-acre office park along I-270 was never completed, meaning a lot of the towering oaks are still there. The City of Rockville says that the parts of Tower Oaks that have been built were nearly 30% vacant in 2016, which is actually less than another nearby office park, King Farm.

9) 4 Research Place

4 Research Place
This office building is now a self-storage facility.

Not long ago, this 1960s-era office building would have been a hot commodity because it faced I-270, meaning companies could slap their name on the outside so thousands of commuters could see it. Two years ago, it became a self-storage facility, as the owners felt it was "obsolete."

10) This office building atop a mall
Ellsworth Place Office Building
Ad for an office building on top of Ellsworth Place mall.

When Ellsworth Place (then called City Place Mall) in Silver Spring was first approved in the 1980s, the five-story mall also included an office building on top. The mall struggled soon after opening, and the office building was never built. Three years ago, the mall got a new name, an extensive renovation, and surprisingly controversial video screens, and finally seems to have hit its stride, but the offices aren't coming anytime soon.

11) Georgia Crossing
Georgia Crossing Nearing Completion
Georgia Crossing in 2008.

Neighbors in Wheaton have been trying to revitalize their downtown for 30 years. In 2006, developer Lenny Greenberg sought to build high-rise apartments and shops two blocks from the Wheaton Metro station, but 1980s-era Montgomery County zoning made it effectively impossible to build. While the county did fix that with their 2010 Wheaton Sector Plan, Greenberg was tired of waiting and built a strip mall instead. Neighbors hate it.

12) North Bethesda Center
Harris Teeter at North Bethesda Center
Much of what was supposed to be North Bethesda Center is an empty field.

Metro partnered with developer LCOR to build on this 32-acre property next to the White Flint station in 2001. It was supposed to be the second coming of Bethesda Row - in fact, the developers hired one of the architects who designed it - but two recessions later, all that got built were an office building, some apartments, and a Harris Teeter. Metro took back much of the property last year, though the rest of the development could get built one day.

13) This parking lot by the Shady Grove Metro
MCPS Shady Grove Bus Lot from Westside Roofdeck
The roofdeck of a new home by the Shady Grove Metro overlooks the school bus lot.

Montgomery County has just 13 Metro stations, and for over a decade, Montgomery County has been moving government warehouses and depots away from the Shady Grove station to make room for homes so people can live within walking distance of the train. It's been mostly successful, and a new neighborhood has arisen - except when the county tried to move a school bus parking lot, but discovered that nobody wanted the buses in their neighborhood. That means several hundred homes within walking distance of the train won't be getting built, at least for now.

Here's why this matters

What do these developments have to do with anything? On the most basic level, each of these things were opportunities for Montgomery County to collect tax revenue: property taxes from new homes and businesses, income taxes from new workers, and sales taxes from new shops. Instead, they’re each sitting fallow.

On top of that, some of these projects may never come to fruition. In the 1990s, the county’s highest office vacancies were in urban areas. Since then, there’s been a broad shift towards urban living, and county residents and businesses alike are seeking close-in, transit-rich locations like Silver Spring and Bethesda.

As a result, the county’s economy isn’t as strong as it used to be, which is why it was such a big issue in last year’s elections. We’ve created very few jobs since the recession, and household incomes are declining. Our highest office vacancies are in suburban areas: what were prestigious addresses a generation ago are nearing obsolescence, unless they adapt to changing times and demands.

Fortunately, we can already see what the solutions look like. Pike & Rose transformed a dying strip mall as a walkable neighborhood with green space. To draw people who don’t want to drive as much, isolated office parks are adding shops, housing, and new transit options. And we need to keep investing in places that already have the urban features people want, like Silver Spring and Wheaton.

But those things require leadership and vision from the county itself. Twelve years ago, former county executive Ike Leggett ran on a slow-growth platform, but as the Great Recession wreaked havoc on the county's finances, he slowly embraced bringing more investment here.

Last year, Montgomery County elected another executive who ran on a slow-growth platform, but times are very different now. Here’s hoping County Executive Marc Elrich rises to the occasion and actually embraces new people and jobs who can help pay for the things we want and need, and the kinds of communities that county residents and businesses desire.

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