Development at Any Cost

Last night’s council worksession on the Quality Inn-site development was noteworthy for the nearly-complete absence of critical thinking skills exercised by anyone in attendance.

City Manager Scott Somers appears to have been appointed an honorary member of the Terrapin Development Company’s board of directors. And if he hasn’t, he should be.  He could hardly have put forward a more-favorable picture of the Quality Inn project, whose financial foundation appears to be so anemic, only massive taxpayer subsidies can save it.  The project appears to be less financially-stable than a house of cards built in a wind tunnel.

This isn’t a public amenity.  It is a 400-unit commercial apartment building, pointedly and proudly noted as being “market rate” housing, hardly a category of development College Park is in any shortage of, and certainly not one that should require any additional taxpayer intervention to support.

400 units, at, let’s say, $1800 a month, comes to a gross take of well over $8,000,000 per year, even before any retail space leases have been taken into account. That’s quite a haul, for a project to require an additional 15 years of 50%-75% tax abatements from both the City and the County.

If the financials for a development project don’t work out, without piles of cash being handed to the developer, that’s what we call a bad deal. This is a bad deal. A bad deal for taxpayers, and a bad deal for the City.

I have been critical of the Terrapin Development Company in previous articles. If this debut development deal is typical of what we can expect from TDC in the future, I am not enthusiastic about their possible future development along the Purple Line corridor.

The City Manager went so far as to engage in a little subtle fear-mongering during the meeting, by pointing out that if this project doesn’t happen, we won’t know what we might get in its place. That is correct.  But, at the least, it will be able to pass the most basic test of a development project: The ability to make financial sense.  This is not that kind of project, unfortunately.

 

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TDC Facing a Blue Christmas; Gifts Delayed by BPW

Stakeholders were temporarily thwarted today in their effort to finalize the transfer of several State-held, off-campus properties from the University of Maryland to the Terrapin Development Company.

University of Maryland College Park President Wallace Loh, UMCP Vice President of Administration and Finance Carlo Colella, and TDC President Ken Ulman appeared before the Board of Public works, making what they thought would be their final statements regarding the matter. They were met with unexpected pushback from State Comptroller Peter Franchot, Governor Larry Hogan, as well as Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

Franchot expressed concern that the agreement for the transfer in its current form would prevent the State from having any future oversight over the use of the property, unless it was actually put up for sale. The Comptroller requested an amendment to the agreement, which would provide for Board of Public Works review of any long-term lease of the properties. “A 99-year lease is essentially a sale,” noted Governor Hogan.

More surprising, perhaps, was the reluctance which Colella and Ulman showed in agreeing to that amendment. All three BPW members balked at the hesitation.

“Can you tell me the difference between the sale of a property, and a long-term lease?”, Franchot asked Colella. There was no reply.

For the next several minutes, Colella and Ulman appeared to talk in circles, and were repeatedly called-out by BPW members for not answering the question. Governor Hogan ended the conversation, and moved to defer the item until the first meeting of 2018, to allow the TDC time to ponder their next move.

You can watch the discussion below:

Do We Need a New City Hall for $12.5 million?

A Petition by Suchitra Balachandran

Mayor and Council of the City of College Park

In 2014, the Mayor and Council of College Park voted to build a new and larger City Hall at the present Knox Road site for roughly $8 million. They chose this site despite the majority of civic associations urging the council to build on the Calvert Road school site which was larger and could accommodate onsite parking. Instead the Mayor and Council preferred a joint project with the University of Maryland which included an office building or two for the University and a larger space for City Hall. That project required the University to acquire the frontage property on Route 1 which the University has been unable to fully obtain yet.

So, on Tuesday, November 28th, the Mayor and Council will hold a public hearing and plan to immediately vote on whether to threaten eminent domain acquisition for the two frontage properties the University has been unable to obtain. [See Ordinance 17-0-09 at http://www.collegeparkmd.gov/document_center/MayorCouncil/Agendas/2017RegularMeeting/111417RMP.pdf ]

PROJECT COST: The cost of the project has mushroomed to a conservative $12.5 million. Designs show a 3-story City building behind a 5-story University building and no onsite parking. [See http://www.kabircares.org/city-eyes-to-acquire-route-1-properties-by-eminent-domain-for-city-hall-project]. Council members have not discussed this cost inflation with residents; in fact the City Hall project has not been explained in public since the 2014 vote was taken. Before any further action is taken, it is incumbent on the Mayor and Council to discuss the size, scope and cost of the project in public forums held citywide and solicit public input on all aspects of this project.

COMMUNITY SPACE: Furthermore, since 2014, the City has signed the Calvert Road school property over on a 40-year lease to the University for a daycare facility. That lease agreement makes available 3000 sq ft of community space to residents on evenings and weekends except for 4 days each month. The allocation of this community space will be managed by the City.   That means that the new City Hall project, which included community space, should be redesigned.

Since 2014, the Mayor and Council have had no public discussion on the City Hall project and are now poised to embark on a project that costs at least 50% more than previously planned. The Mayor and Council owe us answers before planning to spend any more of our tax dollars.

Please sign the petition here:  http://bit.ly/2zt1M3m

A Government No One Deserves

In the wake of the recent elections, the City is not wasting any time trying to condemn the line of shops in front of City Hall along Route 1, and steal it from its rightful owners, who didn’t accept the low-ball offers they’ve (probably) been receiving.

The kicker is that the plan appears to be to hand this property off to Terrapin Development Company, a group of developer-wannabes populated by a gaggle of University serfs, for conversion into a series of outdoor lunch tables for University (and, if they must, City) employees.

Your tax dollars at work, folks.

This is all part of the plan to “rebuild” City Hall. They are converting most of it into University administration office space, which, honestly, won’t be much of a change from City Hall’s current use.

For 10 years we’ve heard about all the extra space the City government needs in order to do their jobs; now we find out that this plan gives the University the larger of the two planned buildings.  City Hall will be dwarfed, for the sake of some University-employed pencil-pushers who want a better view of the co-eds at lunchtime.

Even better, the downtown parking garage will become chock-a-block full of University and government employees, who are likely to get subsidized parking at the expense of the same taxpayers who funded the garage, in the first place.  A garage that still isn’t paid-off.

Converting productive retail property into concrete lunch tables really isn’t a valid use of eminent domain, especially when the direct beneficiaries of this action are the very people wielding that power.

It has been said that people get the government they deserve. If the election results are to be believed, enjoy your comeuppance, College Park.

 

 

Appeals Court Declares Peace Cross Unconstitutional

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals set the stage for a Supreme Court showdown Wednesday, ruling that the Bladensburg Peace Cross is unconstitutional.

The Court seemed obsessed with the shape and size of the memorial, as noted in my previous article about this. Justice may be blind, but these justices are not. Yes, it is a big cross.   You can’t miss it, it’s at the intersection of Defense Highway and Route 1 … but perhaps not for much longer.

The Court ruling takes into account a lot of trivia, such as pledge cards signed almost a hundred years ago by the memorial’s founders that professed a belief in God. Well, yes, that sort of thing was not unusual back then. Most volunteer organizations of that time included some reference to the Almighty in their literature. The AHA would have you believe the cards were signed yesterday, instead of 1918.  Prohibition was a popular idea back then, too.  It was a very different time.

Anyway, a link to the ruling can be found below. Please take a few minutes to read it, then take several more and read the dissenting opinion. I am grateful there was a dissenting opinion, at least.

I don’t know if the American Legion has the resources to appeal to the Supreme Court, but I hope they will. The Peace Cross Memorial should be treated as a veterans graveyard, not an eyesore. It deserves to stay, and it deserves the continued support of the community that sent these 49 men to a foreign country to fight and to die, never to return to American soil.

You can find the ruling here (PDF format):  Peace_Cross_Ruling

Franchot Cites Concerns Over TDC Agreement

An agreement to have 30 acres of land in College Park declared surplus by the State and given to the Terrapin Development Company was withdrawn from the State Board of Public Works agenda on Wednesday, following communications with State Comptroller Peter Franchot from State Senator Rosapepe and 21st District Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk.

While the cause of the item’s removal was not clear, it appears that the 21st District Delegation is pursuing a seat for themselves on the TDC Board of Directors, an idea first floated by Senator Rosapepe at a City Council work session in August.

There was brief conversation about the TDC engaging in further talks with the City of College Park, but it was later clarified that talks with “stakeholders in College Park” were being pursued.  The “stakeholders” in this case appear to be the 21st District delegation.  It is not known at this time whether the City will be a party in any future talks regarding TDC, after the City Council sent a letter of support in-favor of the project in August.

Comptroller Franchot was incensed by a move by the University to try to eliminate the BPW’s oversight over TDC’s property dealings, once the land has been transferred to TDC. “It’s going to be a problem for me, as Comptroller,” said Franchot. “The explanation that I got from the University…didn’t make any sense at all”.

“The bigger issue is, why exactly is the Board [of Public Works] being cut out of this?”

Talks regarding TDC got a little testy at the College Park Council work session held on August 2, 2017.  Senator Rosapepe suggested the inclusion of a stakeholder “who resided in College Park” to “have a seat at the table”, but it quickly became clear that Rosapepe was referring to including himself, which led to a confrontation between the Council and Delegate Peña-Melnyk.

“With all due respect, I think this should be an agreement between the City and TDC,” said Councilmember Nagle.  Mayor Wojahn agreed.

Delegate Peña-Melnyk countered that “the delegation can get involved later…get in the middle of it”.  Senator Rosapepe added that, “no one can force anyone to do anything…if the Delegation doesn’t want to work with the City, the Delegation’s not going to work with the City.”  The exchange begins around the 1 hour mark of the video below.

While I have a lot of concerns about this whole proposal, the most disturbing is the idea that the State government is going to hand 30 acres of off-campus property in College Park to a private, for-profit corporation, formed between the University of Maryland College Park Foundation and the University System of Maryland, but ultimately accountable to neither of them, nor to the State government.

The TDC would not be subject to governmental review or oversight once it passes the BPW hurdle, though it would boast University and State employees (and, potentially, State and local elected officials) among its leadership.  It is a recipe for disaster and corruption, and I hope the State Board of Public Works eventually sees through the hype, to the core of the problem with the Terrapin Development Company.

 

Swim Club Drowning Court in Paperwork

The College Park Woods Swim Club may have run out of real people to sue. They have filed two additional suits in the past several weeks, the latest naming “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” as defendants.  Seriously.

The suit is an attempt by the club to legally ratify changes to the by-laws they enacted earlier this year, and to make changes to their membership lists, which they declined to release upon direct-request by the City a while back, as part of their “due diligence” process. Apparently, there are at least two classes of membership in the Club: An “Equity” class, possibly consisting of charter members who hold an ownership stake in the property, and “Associate Members”.

A second suit filed the same day lists 22 “Interested Persons”, who are likely the people who make up the updated list of members. If you are not on that list, the odds are you will be shut out of any profit that may be generated when the Club sells or liquidates the Swim Club property.  Curiously, the suit appears to be intended to ratify an order of sale, but the City didn’t vote to pursue the purchase of the property until September 12, four days AFTER the suit was filed.

The suit notes a “walk-through to Judge Green by Law clerk”.  It is uncertain why Green should be the only judge name-checked in these filings. Perhaps it is for expedience, as the Judge appears to be currently handling other matters related to the Swim Club.

The Club appears to be playing a game of “beat the clock”, possibly due to an impending forfeiture by the State government.  The forfeiture could happen as soon as October 1, following the end of the Club’s fiscal year in September, and would prevent the Club from engaging in any further business activities.  That might be for the best.

Some of the papers related to the by-laws change is available below. The list of interested parties for the other suit can be found here: CPWSC Case Information CAE17-23591.

CPWSC_Member_Voting_Certificate_2017

CPWSC Proposed by-laws changes Feb 2017

CPWSC Case Information CAE17-23592