Last night, Brunswick held the first in a series of public meeting to discuss the Railroad Square development. Big thanks to Mary Neubauer and another anonymous person for letting me use their notes.
The developer started out by describing the project. It will be a multi-family housing complex that covers an entire City Block between the MARC train station and Potomac Street. The first floor will be parking, with 3 floors above for apartments. They are looking at the 50-60 units with 1 to 3 bedrooms, between 700 and 1,200 square feet. Rent on these units would be about $800 for a 1 bedroom and $1,200 for a 3 bedroom. These apartments will have income requirements, ranging from $20K to $50K per year. There’s a chart that determines what tax credit the developer gets based on the median income level that is adjusted annually, so these numbers are not static.
Here’s where the entire project gets tricky. This entire project is only considered feasible because of a series of tax credits the development could receive. It’s not Section 8 public housing, it’s actually Section 42, which has some pretty strict requirements for the property owner to receive the credits. These include maintaining the property, background checks for tenants, and source of income for tenants. The only Section 8 that could be used here are Portable Vouchers, which can be used at any rental property and are required to be accepted by all landlords based on Federal Law. According to the developer, these portable vouchers have long wait lists and are rare. A similar housing complex already exists at 520 N. Market Street in Frederick.
Now it was the public’s turn, and my not-so-ghost-note-taker has characterized the citizen comments as “heated”.
The first speaker was from American Legion Post 96, which would be right next to the project. The Post has concerns with building orientation and parking, along with traffic from the MARC train parking lot. For anyone that has not been in that area when a MARC train arrives, that little stretch of S. Maple Avenue turns into Mario Kart for about 5 minutes.
John Klapac spoke next, another property owner in Downtown Brunswick with dilapidated vacant buildings. He brought up the parking concerns in downtown and specifically cited Smoketown Brewery as an example on how limited parking affects the area. Opposed to the construction without addressing the parking concerns downtown.
The next speaker asked by the demographic information in the marketing material had changed since the initial draft of the proposal (The first draft was marketed for fire fighters, nurses, and commuters). The Developer stated that the demographic target had not changed, that they were focusing on income levels and not professional title.
Charlie Smith, former State Delegate from 1975-1982, took to the podium. As a property owner in Brunswick, he stated that he believe downtown Brunswick should look more like downtown Frederick and that this complex was not compatible with that vision. According to his math, these renters would have little disposable income after bills/taxes and it would not be enough to contribute to the local economy. He also questioned construction quality and stated that he saw no advantage to Brunswick for this property.
Another speaker questioned why they were no amenities in the plan for kid stuff, like a playground. They also wondered why no archaeological survey was mentioned or performed in the area, and echoed the “math doesn’t add up” position.
The next speaker brought up concerns with the increased need for police/fire/EMS. While 60 units does not seem like a lot, we can safely assume that anywhere between 60 and 150 people will reside in that area, meaning such government services would need to be increased.
A downtown business owner said that this project was not his favorite, but wanted to make the best of it. Some Brunswick Crossing residents took their turn and asked about underground parking, which the developer said no. Another resident mentioned the crux of Brunswick development, that the new developments in Brunswick Crossing and Galyn Manor are too pricey for many residents and Washington County/WV are too far for commuting. Sounded like a tepid endorsement of the project.
Mark Long, member of the Frederick County Affordable Housing Council, also took a turn. According to him, Frederick County needs 5,000 affordable housing units to fill unmet need. He is familiar with this tax credit program and assured the audience that the property has to be in good working order to qualify for the tax credit.
I took a minute or two speak, mentioning the financial impact of residential zoned areas versus commercial and industrial. In short, residential areas end up costing more in government services than other zones. I also said that the devil is in the details of this project, whether or not this will benefit Brunswick will come down to the Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreement (DRRA).
The Council took their turn to ask questions, probably more heated than the citizen comments. Tom Smith asked about the projected water/sewer capacity needed for the facility. Carroll Jones brought up the issue of school capacity, Brunswick Elementary School is currently at 103% capacity (Middle and High School are under capacity). He also went on a Libertarian property rights spiel, which I giggled about. #TaxationIsTheft.
Harry Lashley questioned why we needed affordable housing and the income ranges within the presentation. The Developer mentioned here that the project is focused on people that are already in the area, that we would not be busing people in as tenants.
Lashley also made a poignant statement about the current property owner Scott Lessler, which I have heard echoed by residents in the city. Scott has owned a lot of property in downtown for years, and most of the buildings are uninhabitable and falling down. Why should the city approve this project when Lessler’s holdings are in such disrepair? Tom Smith made a similar statement, saying that the City has spent a lot of money trying to market downtown development and that Lessler has done nothing.
Lashley also went on to say that this project needs to be sold to the residents, striking a populist tone. There was definitely angst concerning Lessler’s probably financial reward from this project.
Angel White asked about the timeline of this process, essentially would there be a site plan approved before the application for the tax credit. While the state does not require an approved site plan for application, the Developer does have to meet zoning requirements. They did say that they wanted an approved site plan before application. She also asked what would happen if the tax credits were not approved, to which the Developer said the project would not move forward, they would apply again next year.
Vaughn Ripley offered some empty, emotional platitudes about being thoughtful and considerate.
Mayor Snoots reiterated, as he stated during his on-air interview, that there would be many more public comment sessions and opportunities for residents to express their concerns. He also vaguely mentioned a future proposed change to the Vacant Property Ordinance, to give it more teeth. I couldn’t help but feel like this was directed at Lessler.
I thought about how to best characterize and comment on this project. I have not been swayed either way, for or against, based on the current conversation. But since I am watching Parks and Recreation, there’s only one possible solution, a Leslie Knopian Pro/Con Chart!