In which resident David Paris provides a historical perspective on the Takoma Junction development, and some parallels with other local development projects:
It is in the interest of all city residents, including even those who only shop elsewhere, for the city’s Takoma Junction lot to be sold or groundleased to the Takoma Park Silver Spring food Co-op at a market rate price in order to avoid further undermining the cooperative’s competitive position, shrinking the city’s commercial tax base, and tying up funds that are needed for important civic purposes. The development should serve the interests of the Co-op and existing residents rather than those of an unreliable outside developer trying to get away with the same sort of bait and switch tactics practiced by developers and by the Washington Adventist Hospital (WAH).
Amazingly, our Co-op has prospered despite the competitive advantages of nearby Shoppers Food Warehouse and Whole Foods locations, which both benefit from significantly larger stores coupled with seas of free parking spaces. Last year’s announcement that Amazon would be purchasing Whole Foods, accelerating existing uncertainty regarding the future of the food industry, just adds to the long list of reasons why our city government should be working with our food Co-op rather than further undercutting its competitive position.
NDC has exhibited short-sighted insensitivity to the core grocery services that have made Takoma Junction an important community destination. Supposedly, NDC was chosen, despite its low bid, because it promised to build a loading dock. Instead, NDC quickly abandoned the loading dock, substituting a large and unsightly driveway in front of the store, despite a series of safety concerns expressed by the Takoma Park Fire Department. Moreover, promised plans to maintain access for grocery consumers during construction have not materialized, and promised community space is to be shoehorned into the front loading area.
The abandonment of the loading dock that the Co-op requires to survive, which was promised in all of its original plans, was rationalized in a 2016 NDC letter by a blithe reference to the existence of frontal loading at a single unidentified Trader Joe’s store. This turned out to be Trader Joe’s in Adams Morgan, which is located 6 miles from Takoma, located in a renovated building that, unlike the proposed new building, could not be retrofitted with a loading dock.
All of the Co-op’s nearby grocery competitors have substantial loading docks and parking lots, including Shoppers Food Warehouse (1 mile), Whole Foods (2 miles), and Safeway (2 miles). Moreover, all other Trader Joe’s DC locations have loading docks, including the West End facility, which nonetheless appears to have some problems with trucks blocking the sidewalk. A liquor license application for the Capital Hill Trader Joe’s includes a signed agreement with DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, promising to “receive deliveries at the loading dock provided by the landlord of the subject premises for use by retail tenants.”
It is a tribute to its economic strength that the Co-op has been prospering despite the burdensome redevelopment process imposed by the city government. In 2014, the current wasteful Takoma Junction development process was initiated by the city in response to the Co-op’s forthright expression of interest in purchasing the city lot. In 2012, the Co-op’s working budget called for paying as much as $1 million dollars for the lot, which is ten times more than the value that NDC placed on the lot during the selection process. The land was purchased by the city in 1995 for $500,000 and appraised for $1.475 million, several years ago. In 2014, the Co-op planned for modest/buffered development, a wider choice of moderately priced merchandise, indoor/outdoor public facilities, and, of course, a loading dock.
If the lot had been sold or groundleased to the Co-op during 2014, the community already would be enjoying the benefits of an expanded facility. Instead of engaging the Co-op, the city instituted a seemingly rigged Request for Development (RFD) bidding process that irresponsibly ended up selecting NDC, which valued the property at $100,000, one tenth of the amount introduced by the Co-op and considerably less than the $500-600,000 valuations used by the other developers. Over its first five years, the NDC lease calls for the city to receive far less rent from NDC than the Co-op has been paying to park cars on a small portion of the city lot. Further, the rent breaks continue throughout the 99-year life of the lease.
The short-sighted willingness of NDC to abandon the critical loading dock, which is tantamount to killing the goose that laid the golden egg, is reminiscent of the eagerness of WMATA and EYA to compromise future Takoma Station bus spaces and to consume parkland to accommodate townhouses with two-car garages under the guise of transit oriented development. In contrast, the community proposed a small apartment buildingon the station parking lot. In 2008, lenders would have been interested in financing the apartment, in light of rental unit demand resulting from a the freeze on residential construction. In 2010, NDC partnered to develop a DC school site with EYA, which has maintained a stranglehold over Takoma Station development for well over a decade.
Misleading and irresponsible comments about the Co-op from Takoma Park officials and the prejudicial planning process seem to have been calculated to rationalize shackling the Co-op with a developer, subverting local control of the grocery’s expansion. For example, during the October 6, 2014, council work session, City Manager Brian Kenner and a council member irresponsibly speculated that the Co-op might not remain at Takoma Junction and that it might fail within two years of expansion, due to the uncertainties facing groceries.
The discriminatory RFP process downgraded the Co-op submission because it lacked development experience and outright failed to credit the Co-op for the expertise of its advisors, including Edward S. West, a successful real estate attorney, who has negotiated leases involving a long list of businesses including, McDonalds, Food Lion, Giant Food of PA, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Patagonia, Thrift Drug, Au Bon Pain, Safeway, and Pepco. Other Co-op advisors included an architect and a nationally recognized development team that has been associated with 200 successful food coop expansions, according to Co-op testimony.
There is nothing sacrosanct about RFPs, as exemplified by the misrepresentations, deflated expectations, and scandal surrounding the RFP process for the White Oak LifeSci mega-development. In fact, the project was renamed “Viva” after few initial bio-enterprises, other than WAH, were attracted. In 2016, the county dropped longstanding plans to participate in hundreds of millions of dollars in anticipated profits as a partner in the mega development because county employees somehow failed to identify restrictive covenants. The public documents should have been turned up by even the most perfunctory of title searches, let alone a protracted RFP process. In 2017, County officials appropriately chose Valentines Day to approve the sweetheart sale of the $42 million property to the developer for ostensibly $10 million.
Our city government further revealed its true colors when it appropriated $80,000 to pay the pro-developer law firm of Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday (BBS&G) to negotiate the groundlease, which is overly generous to NDC by providing ongoing rental breaks. Similarly, in 2016, Montgomery County hired BBS&G to provide legal advice regarding the White Oak development debacle. The retention of the firm was controversial. Critics argued convincingly that retaining the BBS&G was tantamount to hiring the fox to guard the hen house, since White Oak Master Plan was the “signature project” of Francoise Carrier, one of its attorneys, during her term as chair of the Montgomery Planning Board (MPB).
In 2013, BBS&G authored a highly controversial report, supposedly exonerating the MPB from charges of racism regarding the closure of the only roadway providing access to the historic Sandy Spring, Maryland residential community. Both the county and city legal teams include Carrier, who turned heads when she quickly joined BBS&G after presiding over adoption of the problematic White Oak master plan, in July 2014. The previous December, Carrier issued a press release proclaiming that the $120,000 Bregman report was “through and conclusive.” One month later, she announced that she would not be seeking a second term as planning board chair.
The BBS&G report “fails to address,” allegations by the county inspector general that state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler “quashed an investigation of the Farm Road matter,”after receiving campaign contributions from members of the Bregman firm. “The community got exactly what it predicted from Mr. Bregman – half truths and distortions,” complained Judy Penny, a relative of an elderly resident. The landlocking of the Farm Road community, established by African Americans following the Civil War, was the subject of a Maryland Black Legislative Caucus Hearing and a series of WUSA exposes. The access road is just as critical to the beleaguered Farm Road residents as the Co-op loading dock is to the success of the grocery store.
The outcome of the current Takoma Junction process will establish the basis for future community and developer expectations regarding a flood of upcoming development projects involving New Hampshire Avenue, the Takoma Station, the soon-to-be-vacated hospital campus, and the sites of two former schools. The linkage between Junction development and other projects, which has been recognized by city staff and officials, is exactly why the city needs to get Junction development right. The failure of the city government to defend actively the threat to local emergency services created by the county’s recruitment of WAH to anchor the White Oak Science Park has already established Takoma Park as a soft target.
It is obvious that Takoma Junction development process has diverted city resources from more important matters, including keeping emergency services local and securing a sustainable WAH medical campus. With the hospital move a year away, next year’s county budget contains no funds for additional ambulances, and no study has been commissioned of the impact of moving the WAH ER. Moreover, amazingly there has been no effort to regulate hospital-run urgent care centers, like the facility WAH plans to leave behind, although such regulation is being pursued in many other states. Meanwhile, our officials are touting the addition of a Takoma paramedic, which was extremely low-hanging fruit, since our station is the last unit in the county to be assigned a paramedic.
The TPSS Co-op has been a reliable member of our community since 1995, when it renovated and moved into the vacant Turner Building, creating a thriving ongoing community enterprise that is now threatened by governmental intermeddling and developer misrepresentations. The Co-op steadfastly went ahead with the move, despite the failure of the Maryland Assembly to appropriate $1 million in economic development funds for the Junction. The funds were to have been available “if the city could demonstrate there also was significant new private money ready to be invested” in addition to the city’s planned expenditure of “$515,000 next month to acquire a vacant 1.4-acre lot in Takoma Junction.”
Over the years, the Co-op has paid its own way. It may even have been overcharged by the city for use of the city lot for parking, judging from the reduced rental rate that the city is considering charging NDC. A recent state capital improvements grant, which must be matched, is the first occasion of the Co-op receiving or requesting substantial government economic assistance. Over recent years, the Co-op has been forced to spend hundreds of thousands for legal and architectural fees participating in the wasteful and unproductive process imposed by the city. Instead, the funds could have been applied to paying a fair price for the city lot, allowing the city to focus on more important matters.
The Co-op deserves the freedom to develop its own property independently, with the city government’s cooperation and supervision, rather than its domination. The city should sell the Takoma Junction lot to the Co-op for a significant portion of its appraised value. Although history has shown that the Co-op, unlike WAH, keeps its word, it is reasonable to expect the Co-op to sign an undertaking detailing how it will carry out its longstanding promises regarding density, community facilities, and a broader selection of products selling at lower prices.
Thank you for your attention.
Dave Paris, Larch