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Rockville nixes building heights

ROCKVILLE – The mayor and City Council removed limits on minimum and maximum building heights in certain parts of the Rockville’s Pike Neighborhood Plan while also voting for a compromise regarding the width of the Pike.

The compromise would allow the construction of access lanes along the Pike but would also allow developers whose projects meet certain criteria to negotiate with the mayor and council for more development space in lieu of the access lanes.

“I think it’ll be hugely effective and primarily because it allows both the mayor and council to be much more flexible in what they go forth with and give more space on the ground to build more housing or to have more open space,” said Pierzchala. “In terms of smart growth, it’s hugely advantageous for the city.”

During the Monday night meeting, the mayor and council unanimously backed a motion to eliminate part of the Pike Plan in which Planning Commissions recommended a minimum building height of two stories in most of the plan area and three stories in the South Pike Core.

Planning Commission also recommended a maximum height allowance of seven stories for residential buildings and 10 stories for commercial buildings. The city’s zoning ordinance allows for a 14-story maximum.

The Pike Plan area stretches along Rockville Pike from just north of the Twinbrook Metro station in the south to Dodge Street in the north.

The council debated a draft proposal from Council member Mark Pierzchala that would designate some developments as Rockville Champion Projects, which are sites at least five acres in size that “advance key City goals near transit centers” in the South Pike area.
Those goals, as approved by the council, include:

  • increased multi-family housing near Metro;
  • requiring at least 15 percent of a project be designated for publically available open space; and
  • building new streets, a pedestrian-bicycle route possibly and/or providing “Vision Zero” infrastructure to eliminate pedestrian deaths.

The council voted to allow 252 feet of space from building front to building front for road and mass transit construction.

However, they’re also allowing the developers of Rockville Champion Projects in the South Pike area to negotiate with council to eliminate access lanes from in front of their properties, according to Pierzchala.

“I think one of the biggest things to come out of it was Rockville saying, ‘What’s in it for Rockville?’ If we had just eliminated the access lanes, then the developers would come in and negotiations would still happen but there wouldn’t be much leverage” for the city, said Pierzchala.

The Planning Commission’s draft Pike Plan includes access lanes, which provide one-way traffic lanes on both sides of the Pike along with parallel street parking. Eliminating those access lanes would reduce the Pike Plan width from 252 feet to 216 feet.

Newton said she still supports the idea of a narrower Pike, specifically a consistent plan with the same road width along the Pike at 216 feet.

However, she said she didn’t have the votes for that so she said she was willing to compromise with a plan that “could be a potential game-changer for the city.”

“I’m willing to compromise and go for that in the Twinbrook Metro area. Let’s see if it works,” she said. “I do not think it will work to have some areas of the Pike narrower than others. It needs to be the same way up and down but that’s my opinion.”

Newton said she wanted to secure residential quality of life, general safety, green space, affordable housing and a variety of building heights along the Pike, and the Rockville Champion Projects approved by council potentially includes each of those facets.

She also noted the plan approved Monday keeps right-of-way space available for a mass transit system.

While city and County officials have discussed bringing Bus Rapid Transit along MD-355, Newton said she would like to see a circulator or a trolley instead so there is not a “rapid” transit system competing with Metro.

A local commuter transit system, however, she said would supplement the Metro.

“I think Rockville’s got to start thinking out of the box,” said Newton, adding that she would like to see “a dedicated fund” developers pay into to support a circulator bus or a trolley.

Council member Virginia Onley said the amended version of Pierzchala’s plan will “foster smart growth and that really is what we’re trying to do.

“We want smart growth so we don’t have to raise taxes or raise the price of fees for the citizens of Rockville,” she said.

While the city’s property tax rate is set to remain unchanged from Fiscal Year 2016 to Fiscal Year 2017, some fees for services are increasing throughout the city.

Council members debated several amendments to Pierzchala’s Rockville Champion Projects motion.

Feinberg opposed an amendment to require developers to set aside at least 15 percent open space, instead of up to 20 percent. She said she wanted at least 20 percent but lost a 4-1 vote.

Later, Feinberg and Palakovich Carr lost a 3-2 vote that would require developers to meet at least two out of three city goals in order to be considered a Rockville Champion Project. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton joined Pierzchala and Onley in the majority.

The council voted for the overall concept of the Rockville Champion Projects plan with amendments by a 5-0 margin, the same margin later used to pass the building heights requirement with little discussion.

Pierzchala moved to remove specific references to building heights in the plan, seconded by Feinberg.

Onley cited business complaints at the Town Center property for allowing more building heights.

“If we didn’t learn anything else from Town Center, we learned because we didn’t have the density of the heights, it’s slow to the success that we really want at Town Center,” she said. “So by removing the building heights, we‘re going to get the density that we need and we need this density so that businesses thrive. That’s what happened with Town Center.

“I think if we had more height, there would be more density and businesses would have done better. I also think when you remove that height, you get a better structure,” she added.

Some of the most consistent opposition to the building heights came from representatives of the development company B.F. Saul, who said the limitations would affect its “Reimagine Twinbrook” mixed-use project near the Twinbrook Metro station.

Onley said that while council members did consider B.F. Saul’s request, the final decision affects the entire Pike, not just that company’s property.

“Yes, they’re in the planning stages so we definitely want them here. We definitely want development at the Twinbrook Metro. But I think for future planning,” she said, “it’s for future smart growth in Rockville.”

According to Pierzchala, the South Pike area is “much bigger area than just the B.F. Saul project.

“The B.F. Saul project as described seems to fit in with that criteria because they have been promising or they can give up to 19 or 20 percent open space,” said Pierzchala, also noting the project plans for providing more housing units and more safe street infrastructure.

“But now we have a way of more formally ensuring whatever they come forward with does fit our goals.”

@pwcdanica

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