Takoma Junction

July 23, 2018

As Mayor, and before that as a member of Council, I can say with great confidence that during the discussion of the Takoma Junction revitalization, we have breathed new life into the common refrain about our community:  “What happens in Takoma Park gets debated in Takoma Park.” Yes, it does. This project has drawn in longtime neighbors and new residents, old friends and new friends, familiar faces, and new ones.

And it has been a challenging one for me personally because no matter what I type or say, no matter my reason, I will disappoint someone. There are many opinions. I want to thank everyone who wrote emails, spoke at Council meetings, and met with me. I very much appreciate your insights, concerns, and feedback. Whether we agree or disagree, I have approached you all as my neighbors and friends, listened to your views, and sought to understand diverse perspectives in our community.

I have come to a decision that I believe will provide opportunities for our community today and in the future. After more than 20 years of hard work by residents and City leaders who served before me, we have the best chance to transform an under-utilized parking spot in Takoma Park into a vibrant area, and dramatically improve safety and traffic flow.

Throughout this process, I have consulted with many people both in and outside our community for advice. I have heard repeatedly a project such as this is one of the most difficult tasks of a city government because the possibilities and all the variables to consider can feel endless, as do the various opinions and concerns of residents. Discussing the range of possibilities and the constraints – and disagreeing while we do so – was to be expected when we started this journey.

A number of people have asked that we delay the vote on July 25th and wait. When I was the City Councilmember for Ward 3, I advocated and successfully convinced my colleagues to slow the process of selecting a development partner to garner more community input, and as Mayor the last three years, there have been numerous times I have supported providing and built in more time in our process. I have been open to slowing down the process when it is advantageous to our process and our community.

At this point, I do not believe it is in the best interest of our community to delay the vote. I believe it is important for the City Council to move forward with a vote on the draft site plan on July 25th so that we can determine if a majority of the Council believes the project should move forward to the review by State Highway Administration, the County Planning Board and the Historic Preservation Commission. These reviews will provide us with further information to help guide the project and future decisions so that we continue to develop a project that reflects and benefits our community.

I want to restate that my vision for Takoma Junction continues to be to create a well-functioning area overall – not only the redevelopment of the parking lot. This project is one piece of the picture. An important piece, but not the only one. Given recent meetings with the SHA administrator, I am more optimistic than ever before that we are on our way to address the safety and traffic issues at this intersection.

We as city officials are looking at more than a development. We are thinking about addressing affordable housing, ensuring we have services and programs for people across incomes, making sure we remain true to our values of inclusivity, racial equity and diversity, and striving to remain a welcoming community. We need to look holistically at what we are doing across the community and how this project fits into our work.

As I have stated in the past, my priorities throughout this process have been:

  • Making sure this project reflects who we are in Takoma Park. Ensuring we have a project that benefits residents across the City and embodies the values of our community has been a top priority for me. A place that reflects who we are and our values so that when people come to Takoma Junction they know they are in Takoma Park. Takoma Park is a wonderful community not because of our buildings but because of the people who live here. I strongly believe no project will make us Bethesda because of our residents and members of the city council and our collective commitment to affordability in the community. We may change, and over the 20 years I have lived here we have been changing. We need to make sure as we do, the change reflects our values as an inclusive and welcoming community. Since I moved here, I have witnessed increased housing prices and residents struggling to continue to live here. This is a change we need take head on and as a council we have prioritized this work by establishing an Affordable Housing Reserve, creating the pilot project Homestretch through which we have been able to help renters in our community move to home ownership, and beginning work on an Affordable Housing Strategic plan.
  • An open, transparent process. I know there is frustration with the formal setting of Council meetings, which is why we added numerous other opportunities for people to discuss, share views, and listen. I also understand that our lives are busy, and it is not possible for everyone to follow along with all the meetings and decisions. I am constantly looking for new ways to engage members of the community not just on this project but across the work we do. Over the last few years, we have been holding more meetings throughout the City, especially at the New Hampshire Recreation Center, and making sure information is available in Spanish and Amharic and through formal meetings and informal gathering making sure we go where people are instead of only expecting them to attend council meetings to share their views. And, in the end, we are all neighbors; we talk on the streets, in the parks, and at soccer games.
  • The Co-op. From the time I joined the Council until now I have worked to ensure the Co-op’s needs are front and center in our discussions and decision making. I worked on the Development Agreement with others to ensure 1) accommodations will be made for the Co-op’s deliveries, trash and recycling, 2) that their parking needs will be met, and 3) that they will be able to continue to operate through construction. In addition, we have restricted the tenants that can be in the project so that no other grocery store can rent space. If the project moves forward, it will also have an additional elevator for Co-op customers.

We renewed our offer of the City paying for mediation between the Co-op and NDC. I am very glad to see that has started. The Co-op and NDC must work together to ensure “reasonable accommodation” during construction and in the final product of the work.

If the mediation continues and we vote on July 25th – I want to emphasize that changes can be made to accommodate the operational needs of the Co-op to reflect agreements made during the mediation. The City has consistently provided the Co-op with draft resolutions on the Junction that contain references to the Co-op and asked for their feedback and have worked with them. The process is such that if the proposed site plan proceeds based on our vote on July 25th through the formal development review process at the County level, we will have more detailed information to help us ensure that reasonable accommodations are made.

Adjustments made to the site plan to address feedback from the Planning Board, Historic Preservation and State Highway are likely once each of these agencies review the proposed plan. As such, if the process moves forward, we anticipate having to give ongoing attention to these needs throughout the development review process. I want to state again we have assured the Co-op that we will uphold the Development Agreement and make sure that reasonable accommodations are made for them.

If at any time the Council does not believe the proposed accommodations are reasonable, it can decide to have changes made to the Site Plan. If changes are not made and discussions between the City and NDC are unsuccessful, the project can be terminated with no penalties to the City.

The bottom line is that if the project moves forward all of us – the City, NDC and the Co-op will be working together for a long time. The overall goal of the mediation is to build trust and a stronger relationship among all parties so as changes or issues arise – because they will – we will have a stronger relationship to address these situations as they come up.

In the last few weeks, people have asked me what the benefits are to our community to moving forward with this project. After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that this project provides a number of opportunities to enhance the area and benefit residents throughout the community:

  • Building environmentally responsible in-fill development in a commercial and residential area, accessible by walking, biking, and transit that will increase the vibrancy of Takoma Junction. A place where everyone in our community can join together.
  • Reducing driving by residents who could access retail and office opportunities closer to their homes.
  • Creating appealing space for new and expanding local and regional businesses with an emphasis on providing a space for those already living in our community.
  • Establishing a retail tenant mix featuring local and regional businesses by emphasizing preference for local and regional operators and precluding certain types of businesses identified as not appropriate for the location, such as chain or formula businesses (an amendment to the resolution I put forward).
  • Opening up new employment opportunities for community residents and the opportunity to expand the City’s summer jobs program that helps place young people in jobs.
  • Allowing infrastructure changes to facilitate improved circulation of pedestrians and bicyclists traveling through the Takoma Junction development through cooperation with State Highway.
  • Mitigating environmental impacts created over the years by the landfill materials located under the asphalt surface of the parking lot. This environmental mitigation will be done by NDC and the city will not incur expenses for the environmental clean-up.
  • Diverting and treating run-off into the Chesapeake Bay with the construction of various storm water management features.
  • Retaining and improving the green area on Columbia Avenue through the stabilization of the wooded slope, removal of invasive plants, and introduction of new natural landscaping elements and the creation of a forest conservation area.
  • Creating a valuable addition to the City’s commercial tax base and provide lease revenue to the City. These resources can be directed to our Affordable Housing Reserve as well as to specific programs to address the needs of residents in the community.

I would like to address some of the top concerns people have raised regarding the project.

  • Making sure we are an inclusive and affordable community is a top priority and we need a holistic approach to ensure this happens. I know much attention is focused on the Takoma Junction project and we also need to place it within the context of what else we are doing in the City. As housing prices increase, we need to look at programs and policies to ensure we still remain a diverse and inclusive community. We kicked off this work with the Affordable Housing Community Conversation three years ago. In response to those discussions, the City created its Affordable Housing Reserve and the pilot program Homestretch which is a down payment assistance project to help first time homebuyers purchase a home in Takoma Park.  We are in the middle of finalizing a strategic plan. In addition, the City’s rent stabilization policies limit rent increases and protect renters against large rent increases – these policies are subsidized by the City and these policies and subsidies are not impacted by the development at the Junction — except by providing additional revenue to help support them.  Through the Resolution we have already discussed assigning money that we will receive from the groundlease to our Affordable Housing Reserve Fund.

In addition, given some very important feedback on the racial equity work, we remain committed to applying a racial equity lens to all work we do.  Just over a year ago we put in place the Racial Equity Initiative. This work applies not just to the next step in the Junction process – but the ongoing work necessary to continue to move forward and create a community that is welcome to all and works to dismantle institutional racism. More details on this work can be found here. The decisions in the Junction also cannot be separated from broader discussions about services we provide across the City. Reducing revenue from the project or investing significant public resources at the site necessarily impacts the funds available for other city priorities (e.g., a recreation center on NH Ave, youth programs, and services for older residents and those differently abled).

Regarding the revenue for this project, this project is being privately financed with an estimated $22.3 million investment by NDC in this project which includes the cost of clean-up of the landfill, the creation of the forest conservation area on Columbia Ave, and the cost of construction.

The City will receive money from the lease, property taxes, and storm water fees. More information can be found here.  Recently people received their property tax bills and I received a number of emails complaining about the property taxes in the city. Currently, the main source of revenue (82%) for the City is property tax revenue from single-family residential properties while less than ten percent come from commercial properties.

We cannot sustain 82% of our revenue coming from single family owners. We need to diversify our sources of revenue and one way to do that is to increase, where appropriate, commercial properties. This is not the only way we are looking to diversify our revenue streams and will continue these conversations in the Fall.

  • Size: I see the size of this project as reasonable. I don’t think the two-story building proposed by NDC is a monstrosity. I understand some people would like a smaller project and I have thought long and hard about that. However, I have never over the last four years supported a project that was near 35,000 square feet. A smaller project implies higher rents, and taxpayer financing for the project. I have been and continue to oppose that because I do not favor taxpayer dollars going to this project and I have heard loud and clear from many residents they want to try to keep the rents as low as possible. I believe there are better places to invest our tax dollars including the renovation of the library, Flower Ave, and the rec center.

I do not believe that reducing the size would materially change the property’s visual impact, and as stated above it has an impact on the viability of the project. I relay the following as an explanation of how I have thought of this project. 

NDCs original concept plan consisted of 50,118 square feet (24,000 square feet commercial space, 10,000 square feet in residential space and 16,000 square feet in active roof space (including a fish farm), plus a single-family home on Columbia. After feedback on their original plan, NDC made several adjustments:

It moved from residential to office space in response to Council and community feedback and removed the third floor.

It eliminated the single-family home to preserve the green space on Columbia Ave.

In addition, the Co-op informed NDC and the City that they had no control over the timing of their deliveries and needed to have an 18-wheeler accommodated. This could not be done with the original concept plan because of the turn radius of the 18-wheeler and so the lay-by option has been explored.

In addition, the original concept had 49 parking spaces. We also added a requirement that NDC accommodated parking for the Co-op, as well as local businesses and so now there are 72 parking spaces planned and underground parking is very expensive.

NDC’s next concept contained 57,583 square feet and included a third floor. So that was bigger by about 7,000 square feet of what we had seen before and a number of council members did criticize the increase.

I also think there is confusion about the resolution we passed in the fall. It stated that we wanted the traffic studies to look at a 35,000 square foot development in order to compare to one at 57,583. We did this because a council member wanted a comparison to see how much more traffic may be created by different sized developments. The Council has not talked about a development of 35,000 square feet.

After hearing feedback from residents and the Council in the fall, NDC took off the third floor and the site plan we are now considering is 53,550 square feet. It is smaller than the concept plan we reviewed in the fall.

Over the last few months I asked for and NDC agreed to enlarge the corridor between the Co-op and the project. I support Councilwoman’s Dyballa amendment to the resolution to look at a reduction in the height pending review by the Historic Preservation Committee.

  • Public Space: This is a place where my views have changed over the last few months. In the fall, I was of the opinion that more public space would always be preferable. In the fall, I was also encouraged by many residents to find a consultant to advise the Council on the project. We were fortunate to have David Cronrath, the associate provost and former dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland serve as an independent, third-party advisor to the City Council as they consider the site plan design for the Takoma Junction Redevelopment project. I have found Professor Cronrath’s advice invaluable over the last few months. I have spoken to him about the public space in the current draft Site Plan and I agree with his assessment. You can read his full assessment of the project:

“In addition to a wide sidewalk the site design has a deeper set back from the curb at the southern end of the complex. Here the building’s front recedes a bit more to enlarge the public realm and make a space where people can congregate to watch a juggler, hear a musician, or sit watching the world pass. It is an asset to the townscape, but such a place is difficult to correctly design. Set back the retail too far from the pedestrian flow and the store becomes isolated and removed from those walking by, it is a dark recess. If the recess is not set back far enough, the resulting space is gratuitous, under-utilized, and accumulates trash and leaves. My judgment is the design team has struck the right balance. When this outdoor expanse is combined with an open retail façade it permits patrons to feel as if they are sitting outside while still inside the confines of the building. The result will further activate the space yet not detract from the mini-plaza’s public nature.

A positive feature is that the mini-plaza is defined on all sides. This will contain the space and discourage children in the space from darting into the access way to the parking garage. The need for a watchful eye is still required, but a careful design on landscaping along the edges will define a pleasant place for activity that is not retail.”

  • Traffic: For over 20 years, I have lived a block from Takoma Junction. I know about the traffic in the area and the work many have done before me to try to address not just traffic issues, but more importantly issues of safety.  Former Councilmember Male and I were able to get additional crosswalks on Carroll Ave. installed a number of years ago. But even as the SHA Administrator himself has admitted, these are Band-Aids; what is needed is a holistic approach to this intersection. We have the traffic studies that provide some useful direction in how we can rethink this intersection. We also have the commitment by the Administrator of State Highway to work with the City in identifying solutions. Regardless of how we move forward with the potential project at Takoma Junction I am very optimistic about working with SHA in rethink this intersection.
  • Existing Businesses in Takoma Junction: I have always looked at improving the Junction as a whole and that includes mitigating any negative impacts on the existing businesses and taking advantage of opportunities for them to thrive. I want to provide some background information. More than half of the business space currently at the Junction are owned by the businesses that occupy the space. Rental rates currently range from $27 to $38 per square foot and are in buildings that are 80 years old. Rents for newer buildings range from $45 to $50 per square foot. The needs of existing businesses, regardless of this project, are ones that the Council are committed to addressing including concerns about parking, traffic, and ease of receiving deliveries. We conducted a parking study in the city and this spring augmented it with new information from businesses in the Junction since the Montessori school opened and SeoulFood. I fully support Councilmember Kostiuk’s amendment to the Resolution to that outlines the Council’s plans to work with Junction businesses and create a Memorandum of Understanding or similar document with NDC to ensure that their needs are met during the construction process.
  • Making sure the project reflects Takoma Park. We have and will see through this development by working together with NDC this development will reflect our Community:
    • Prioritizing the Co-op by making sure accommodations are made for deliveries, parking, trash and recycling as well as barring another grocery store
    • Prioritizing local and regional and no formal businesses (an amendment to the resolution I put forward)
    • Planning for public art space
    • Beginning to implement the policy and program ideas identified under the racial equity considerations
    • Exploring the idea of the City becoming a tenant of the building to provide community programs
    • Promoting environmentally-friendly aspects of the project including the green roof and LEED certification
    • Ensuring a look and feel that is right for Takoma Park: This point is a bit tricky because it is subjective. However, the project will go through a preliminary consult with the Historic Preservation Commission, then have another review by the City’s Façade Advisory Board before NDC goes in front of the Historic Preservation Commission. The Façade Advisory Board writes a letter to the County Commission setting forth their recommendations.  The public has opportunities to comment to FAB and the County Commission as part of this process. More info on FAB:  https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/boards-commissions-and-committees/facade-advisory-board/ County Historic Preservation Commission http://montgomeryplanning.org/planning/historic/

Since the Draft Site Plan was presented to the Council a number of changes have been made and we continue to make adjustments through the Resolution:

  • Adding an elevator to the west side of the building next to the Coop
  • Reducing the building height up to 5 feet while maintaining natural light in the interior spaces
  • Minimizing negative impacts on the wooded lot behind the building
  • Minimizing noise and lighting impacts from the garage in the rear of the building and requiring outdoor lights with no higher than 3000K temperature
  • Setting 2,700 sq ft as the minimum amount of public space
  • Requiring “non-formula” businesses as tenants unless approval from the Council is provided
  • Dedicating revenue from the project to the Affordable Housing Fund
  • Funding mediation between the Coop and NDC

After much listening and talking to residents and given the above considerations I plan to vote for the resolution. This is a dynamic project and much work still needs to be done, including mediation and working with State Highway to make the Junction function as it should. I believe we ready to move forward to the next stage and continue working with NDC.

I hope whatever the outcome of the vote we can begin to work together on the many issues that not only face our community but our country.

Thank you,