Montgomery wrestles with space in new parks and planning HQ -- Gazette.Net


When the Montgomery County Planning Board returns from celebrating the nation’s bounty on Thanksgiving, it will confront the reality of its own reduced circumstances as it considers what can fit where when its headquarters move to Wheaton.

The board is scheduled to decide Thursday how to allocate most of the space in the $66.2 million, 150,000-square-foot multi-user government complex approved by the County Council in April to house planning, parks and other agency staffers.

Under the program of requirements report recommended by the planning department, parks and planning alone would need 138,000 square feet to make room for as many as 388 workers. That assumes a 15 percent growth in staff during the next 15 to 20 years beyond the 337 public employees who would be part of the initial consolidation move from several locations in Silver Spring.

The new building is a much more modest project than the original plan to redevelop the existing planning headquarters as a transit-oriented showcase with office and commercial space attached to high-rise housing, which the board approved in 2007 but the council rejected.

“We were going to do totally smart design and we were going to have living space and we were going to have day care and we were going to show people how it’s done because we’re the agency that was talking about how to do it right,” planning Commissioner Amy Presley said during an initial hearing on the new headquarters space. “It’s going to be really sad if we pull everything away and we’re doing nothing more than getting office space somewhere else.”

How to provide space for 60 rug rats in diapers while still leaving enough room for planners wearing suits and loafers and parks field workers outfitted in uniforms and waterproof boots was a key debate when the board discussed the headquarters Nov. 15.

The original mixed-use project planned for downtown Silver Spring — dubbed SilverPlace — included 147,000 square feet to accommodate 407 parks and planning employees and the day care center.

But planning Commissioner Norman Dreyfuss suggested that the day care center recommended by the planning department should be dropped from the new building plan.

“You’d almost be better off giving every employee who has a need an allowance for day care,” he said. “I think it’s a luxury from the early 2000s.”

He recalled his own experience in the private sector, when women were encouraged to return to work with babies in tow for six months or so. Every new mother had an infant in a swing next to her desk and “everyone wanted to hold the kid while they were Xeroxing,” he said.

Commissioner Marye Wells-Harley pointed out that such a system wouldn’t pass modern child care standards, saying sarcastically, “Of course, this met all the requirements for the state and the county. It was all very legal.”

The day care center suggested in the report would need 6,000 square feet of indoor space and an additional 2,260 square feet for an outdoor playground. Dryfuss added that the center would have to go on the prized lobby level — because the playground couldn’t be put on the roof — and that would compete for space with the county information center.

Planning Commissioner Casey Anderson suggested that the day care center should be an optional use, noting that committing so much space would limit the county’s room to grow if the agency required more room for staff.

“In the future, if you wanted to grow, you could kick the day care out,” he said.

“I think that would be a political problem,” Dreyfuss replied.

Another complicating factor for a privately run day care center would be its financing under county-issued bonds, which are supposed to fund only public functions. The center could be open to legal challenge if it could not pay for itself.

In the end, the board decided to finesse the issue by having the planning department revise the day care center as an optional use of space for planning purposes.

Perhaps more problematic is the notion of throwing together so many different types of public employees in the same building.

Planning board Chairwoman Françoise Carrier questioned whether it makes sense for Wheaton to be the new home for the parks department’s aquatics program, which monitors stream safety and fish populations.

She noted that the plan requires giving the aquatic section access to the building’s loading dock, “which conjured images of people carrying rods and buckets in a high-rise.”

Parks department project director Michael Ma replied that there is not much difference between a stream tested with a bucket and a planning department surveyor or inspector hauling their equipment into the building.

The board will revisit the issue next week after planning staff has a chance to further explore office space options for the program, including the possibility of retaining the parks Parkside headquarters at 9500 Brunett Ave. next to Sligo Creek Park, which is rented for $1 per year from the school system until it is needed again for future elementary students.

The board also will explore whether the new building should include space for the 16-member parks police department and what to do about parking for police cruisers if it does relocate to Wheaton.

Finally, board members debated whether a 15 percent growth rate is enough to provide future office space in Wheaton. Dreyfuss suggested that the board’s new reality should reflect the fact that the council cut planning department staff to 150 from 180 before the Great Recession hit county finances.

But Carrier said that staffing needs and office space requirements will grow quickly once the economy recovers and the planning department has to handle an increase in development applications.

Laurel garden apartments sell for $28 million

Westgate of Laurel, a 218-unit apartment complex built in 1964, sold for $27.9 million, according to CBRE Washington’s Multi-Housing Investment Team, which represented the seller, Westgate Apartments Investors.

Westgate DNB Associates, a subsidiary of Geller Associates of Roseland, N.J., bought the property, which was about 93 percent occupied at closing.

The Baltimore-Washington corridor and the region around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command “have become a magnet for high-tech jobs,” Michael E. Muldowney, CBRE’s executive vice president, said in a news release. “The resulting stability of the workforce continues to pump value and interest into the neighboring real estate market, as exemplified by the acquisition of this attractive asset.”

The 201,704-square-foot complex was updated by the seller with high-end elements, from windows to kitchen finishes, commanding a rental premium over most other local apartments.

The property, which is east of the Interstate 95 interchange with Route 198, sold for $11.3 million in 2000, according to state records.

Commercial real estate news items may be mailed to Robert Rand, The Business Gazette, 9030 Comprint Court, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877; emailed to; or faxed to 301-670-7183.