Letter from Seven Former Members of the Takoma Park City Council

June 26, 2018


Dear Mayor Stewart and Councilmembers Dyballa, Kostiuk, Kovar, Seamens, Searcy, and Smith
:

 As former City Council members we appreciate the serious thought and considerable time you have invested in Takoma Junction development.  We respect the efforts of the Mayor and Council as well as City staff, many community stakeholders as well as the developer and consultants. 

 We can identify with the sense of “getting this project done” now after long hours of public debate.  The lengthy, complex and contentious process has led to even more questions and some issues, such as traffic implications, not fully answered. 

 Despite many great efforts, there is still a tremendous amount of community disagreement, which unless resolved, will threaten the larger sense of community for which Takoma Park is known.   We urge you to take additional time for consideration and debate to assure that Takoma Junction becomes a vital part of a larger community vision. 

 As you prepare for a vote on the Takoma Junction site plan we former Council members would like to share the following thoughts:

 Takoma Park is a built city

Two of us served on the Council in the 1980’s.  It was a time when the City was coming out of bank redlining issues (deposits from TP welcome; housing loans not so much) and beginning to deal with issues of gentrification.

 We are unsure whether any of the traffic study options will have positive impact in the short term.  However, we do believe that none of the options will make Takoma Park a better place to live in the long term.

 Even acceptable levels of traffic today will likely mean unacceptable levels tomorrow and create pressure in an area where road widening and neighborhood spillover are unacceptable.

 In a community like Takoma Park, process is at least as important as product

For so many of us who came to Takoma Park, the goal was a city welcoming for all, a city open to seeking out and hearing all opinions.   It is that view that took us beyond city to community.

While we understand the desire of the Council to conclude a long process and move on, the impact on Takoma Park will be decades long.  Disagreements are expected, honest and deserve consideration…and a process that assumes respectful and good faith postures can resolve them.

There are multiple stakeholders with different views on the use of the Takoma Junction property.  Each believes that their view contributes best to the public good. The Council’s role is not to tinker with design (we suggest that be left to professionals) but rather, something far more important, to manage us through a process that not only delivers a better Takoma Junction but also a stronger and more engaged community.

You now have your traffic studies. You do not have a unified community.  We encourage you to take some more time, bring together representatives of all stakeholders, keep your minds open and task them with creating several consensus options for your review.

We wish you our common success.

Sincerely,

Rino Aldrighetti, Lynne Bradley, Jim Di Luigi, Sharon Levy, Hank Prensky, Marie Ritzo, and Dan Robinson

 

A Letter from 15 Local Architecture and Design Professionals

June 26, 2018

Dear Mayor Stewart and City Council Members,

We are writing to you, as Takoma Park residents who are also professionals in the field of architecture and design, regarding the handling of the Takoma Junction project. Our goal is to express our concern about the approach the City is currently taking, and to offer our counsel about steps to be taken that can ensure that the customer’s vision – in this case, the City of Takoma Park is the Customer – is properly realized by the Developer. We appreciate that you as leaders of our City and many members of our Community have invested time energy toward the opportunity. However, we are concerned that collaboration with the Community has flagged and that the opportunities associated with inspired public space might be lost.

Traditionally in projects of this nature, the Customer’s goals and requirements are a starting point in working with an Owner’s Representative (an experienced architecture and design professional) to develop a Program that defines the required functions of the project. The Program is the resultant product of a phase where goals are clarified, relevant information gathered and priorities established. It details specific information such as estimated square footage and functional relationships of each usage type. The success of a project depends on the Customer, Owner’s Representative and Developer having a shared understanding of these key requirements and, to use the language of architecture and design, the problem to be solved.

Takoma Park has not followed standard practice and we are now paying the price for failing to do so. The City has produced a number of different documents that have elements of the necessary requirements: these include Resolution 2015-19[1], which spells out the project’s ‘Mission Statement’ and lists the elements to be included in the developer’s ‘conceptual plan;’ the Junction Development Agreement and Ground Lease,[2] which provides additional objectives and intentions, and Resolution 2017-53[3], which offers a critique of the developer’s earlier plan and provides a one page list of goals going forward.

But what has been missing is the articulation of the requirements and expectations – in clear, concise and measurable/accountable form – that must be included in a successful project. That gap is what has empowered the Developer to deviate substantially from the initial concept plan and mission statement, moving the community further and further away from consensus and delaying the completion of an acceptable plan that is actually consistent with the Junction Task Force’s mission statement[4]:

“Takoma Junction, predominantly located in the Takoma Park Historic District, is a small commercial district in the heart of a residential community, with historically significant resources and a vital fire station that should:

encourage motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists to slow down, park, relax, and shop while functioning adequately as a link within the local road and transit networks,

encourage sustainable commercial opportunities and provide convenience to local consumers,

serve as a cultural meeting-point for old and young in a diverse community,

blend harmoniously with adjacent residential neighborhoods, and

all in a forward-thinking, attractive and environmentally sensitive way.”

We advise you to make a critical mid-course correction in the current process to enable us to realize the community’s vision. While it may take some time to develop a complete Program, the up-front investment will save time, irreversible decisions and lost opportunities, heartache and possibly litigation costs. Here is a suggested pathway for action:

1. Hire an experienced Owner’s Representative and, working with that architectural/ design professional using the documents already prepared by the City (Resolutions 2015-19 and 2017-53 and the Development Agreement and Lease), and other information already gathered from users, generate an outline Program and identify questions and research required.

2. Conduct a Community Programming and Design Charrette, open to the public, led by a Charrette facilitator to include: independent design professionals; the Developer and their professional design representative; local business owners, and neighborhood representatives. Produce a community-valued Program that establishes consensus and captures expectations.

3. Use a Council Resolution to formally adopt the Program.

4. Armed with the finalized Program, authorize and empower the Owner’s Representative to represent the City in the back and forth with the Developer.

During this recommended mid-course correction, we should also be examining our priorities in this project, emphasizing and enhancing what is valuable to us – our Co-op, other local businesses and services and our neighbors. There is also the opportunity to explore a shift in the current direction of this project to come up with some new ideas—a new way of looking at the problem to be solved. There are members in this architecture/design community interested in an exploration along these lines.

We urge you to heed our professional advice and put a process in place which will enable us to achieve a mission we have set for ourselves.

Sincerely,

James A. DiLuigi, AIA, CSI (Ward 6)

Jeffrey C. Luker, AIA (Ward 1)

Joan Duncan, AIA (Ward 3)

William Mallari, AIA (Ward 5)

Carl Elefante, FAIA, FAPT, LEED AP (Ward 3)

Charles Poor, AIA (Ward 3)

Dana Haden, RA (Ward 2)

John Salmen, FAIA (Ward 3)

Sydney Katz, RA, LEED AP (Ward 2)

Charlotte Schoeneman, Architectural Designer (Ward 3)

Byrne H. Kelly, LLA, ASLA, QEP (Ward 3)

Richard J. Vitullo, AIA (Ward 2)

Joseph Klockner, LEED AP BD+C (Ward 2)

Maria Wright, Architectural Designer (Ward 2)

Rick Leonard, Pres., Heritage Bldg & Renov Inc. (Ward 3)

 

[1] https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/resolutions/2015/resolution-2015-19.pdf

[2] https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/initiatives/project-directory/Takoma-Junction/HCD-20160801-DA-GL-wOCRScannedSignaturePages.pdf

[3] https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/resolutions/2017/resolution-2017-53.pdf

[4] The Mission Statement is spelled out in the 2015 Resolution: see footnote 1 above.

Young Folks Against the Proposed Development

Last night at City Council, three young Takoma residents read the statement below, representing young people from Takoma, and others who grew up spending time in Takoma. They noted, “These signatures were collected over the past 24-hours alone and the list is growing by the minute.”

Here is their statement:

Those of us young folks signed below, urge you to vote no on the proposed Junction site-plan. We are concerned about the racial and socioeconomic exclusion that would undeniably result from this huge, high-end retail development, and instead urge you to put the community before corporations, by considering a plan with more communal, free, space.

The following 50 young voters in Takoma Park have currently signed the statement:

  1. Isabel Hendrix, Takoma Park
  2. Mahalia Iwogu, Takoma Park
  3. Eliza Wapner, Takoma Park
  4. Ashe Durban, Takoma Park
  5. Trevor Gibson, Takoma Park
  6. Ife Adelona, Takoma Park
  7. Eva Blockstein, Takoma Park
  8. Maaike Laanstra-Corn, Takoma Park
  9. Salah Khanjari, Takoma Park
  10. Dio Cramer, Takoma Park
  11. Alex Frandsen, Takoma Park
  12. Ariela Sirota, Takoma Park
  13. Ben Segal, Takoma Park
  14. Jenny Bates, Takoma Park
  15. Haki Johnson, Takoma Park
  16. Leila Bartholet, Takoma Park
  17. Lucas Richie, Takoma Park
  18. Adrian Kombe, Takoma Park
  19. Jeanne Jarvis-Gibson, Takoma Park
  20. Sam Dembling, Takoma Park
  21. Nick Huget, Takoma Park
  22. Jacob Rini, Takoma Park
  23. Sandy Hunter, Takoma Park
  24. Miles White, Takoma Park
  25. Ellie Struewing, Takoma Park
  26. Peter Berger, Takoma Park
  27. Alex Fairhall, Takoma Park
  28. Geneva Jimreivat, Takoma Park
  29. Dana Cook, Takoma Park
  30. Mattie Cohen, Takoma Park
  31. Erin Nolan, Takoma Park
  32. Amelia Langer, Takoma Park
  33. John Fair, Takoma Park
  34. James Fair, Takoma Park
  35. Becca Richie, Takoma Park
  36. Mer Caprioglio, Takoma Park
  37. Aimee Miller, Takoma Park
  38. Alison Goodman, Takoma Park
  39. Nesha Ruther, Takoma Park
  40. Molly Ellison, Takoma Park
  41. Paul Munger, Takoma Park
  42. Stella Del White, Takoma Park
  43. Jesse Broad-Cavanagh, Takoma Park
  44. Miles Royce, Takoma Park
  45. Lyla DiPaul, Takoma Park
  46. Ben Miller, Takoma Park
  47. Ian Askew, Takoma Park
  48. Alexis Redford-Maung Maung, Takoma Park
  49. Conor Donohue, Takoma Park
  50. Aidan Keys, Takoma Park
  51. Amye Gulezian, Takoma Park
  52. Karis Danner-McDonald, Takoma Park
  53. Sebi Medina-Tayac, Takoma Park

And the following young people from surrounding Maryland towns and DC, joined them in signing:

  1. Maya Montenegro, Silver Spring
  2. Emanuel Enrique Ceron, Silver Spring
  3. Will Buckley, DC
  4. Cole Garcia, Washington DC
  5. Jasper Saah, Glenmont
  6. Amir Price, Washington DC
  7. Connor Smith, Silver Spring
  8. Naomi Weintraub, Silver Spring
  9. Alex Michell, Silver Spring
  10. Naeem Alam, Silver Spring
  11. Conor James, Silver Spring
  12. Elia Tzoukermann, Silver Spring
  13. Rob Millar, Silver Spring
  14. Jonathan Chang-Min Hyon, Silver Spring
  15. AJ Jayawardena, Columbia
  16. Matthew Kickenson, Silver Spring
  17. Wyatt Qualiana, Silver Spring
  18. Serena Faruqee, Silver Spring
  19. Marco Saah, Glenmont
  20. Blue Keleher, Silver Spring
  21. James Anthony, Silver Spring
  22. Eric Suter-bull, Bethesda
  23. Charlie Flack, Washington DC
  24. Sean Durkin, Silver Spring
  25. Thea Piccone, Washington DC
  26. Stefan Bindley-Taylor, Fort Washington
  27. Leigh Cook, Silver Spring
  28. Kalanzi Kanjubi, Glenmont
  29. Harper Leigh, Silver Spring

 

 

What Do the Traffic Studies Tell Us Vis-a Vis the NDC Site Plan?

by Roger Schlegel

1. The traffic studies are extremely complex in terms of assumptions, methodologies, measurements, and recommendations. The City Council should seek expert review of these studies before moving to vote on the NDC site plan because that site plan appears to be dependent on reconfiguring the intersection. To be clear, there is no estimate of the cost of such a reconfiguration, nor is there a sense of who would pay for it, nor is there a sense of when or whether SHA would approve such a reconfiguration.

2. The site plan consideration and the exploration of a reconfigured intersection are not entirely separate, “parallel-track” activities. While it may be true that background traffic soon to come online will push the performance of existing Junction intersections just below acceptable levels of service, it is also true that the studies characterize the site plan’s design and traffic generation as necessitating an intersection reconfiguration. The City Council should be clear in recognizing that the new development is the main impetus for reconfiguring the intersection.

3. The projected improvements in traffic flow associated with the reconfigured intersection appear to rely on the elimination of an all-red crossing phase for pedestrians (both at the main intersection and at the Philadelphia Avenue intersection). They also require the elimination of the new crosswalk (and signal) at Grant Avenue. The City Council should consider carefully whether these changes would be sustainable after the construction of a new development that would increase north-south pedestrian movement and possibly encourage jaywalking.

4. The lay-by as designed is apparently too close to the stop line at the existing intersection. Moving that lay-by back would eliminate a chunk of the small proposed public space, increase the length of the loading/unloading path for trucks, and possibly make the development less attractive to tenants. The proposed reconfiguration of the intersection makes it possible for the lay-by to remain in the NDC site plan. Alternative concept plans exist which would provide off-street deliveries. The City Council should push NDC further to see whether it is open to an alternative design that doesn’t rely on a lay-by.

5. The studies did not address the functionality of the lay-by when multiple trucks arrive simultaneously, the possibility of double-parked trucks, the impact on streets and roads around the area if trucks are expected to circle around and re-attempt delivery or pick-up, or the impact on emergency vehicle movement. The City Council should seek answers to such questions before voting on the NDC site plan.

6. The NDC development would appear to increase traffic at the Junction by up to 11% during the AM peak-hour and by up to 24% at the PM peak-hour. This implies that the NDC development, not other increasing background traffic, would be the primary contributor to the projected failing performance of the Junction intersections. Again, the City Council should not marginalize the traffic impact of the new development as it deliberates about the site plan.

7. Big questions remain about the location and functionality of the driveway to the parking garage. The City Council should be certain that this is a viable design before passing the question on to reviewing agencies. In particular, if the City pushes ahead to try to reconfigure the intersection, it eliminates a possibly more viable location for a parking garage driveway, which would be on line with the existing signal at Carroll/Ethan Allen/Grant. It is clear that there will be significant queues to exit the garage during the peak PM period, even without a restaurant use. The peak AM projected queue does not assume the presence of a coffee shop on-site or of a grocery store open during those hours. There are real questions about sight lines and pedestrian and cyclist safety. The TTG study did not clarify how left turns into and out of the garage would be affected by queues in the travel lanes.

8. The future fate of the Turner Building needs careful consideration before any vote on the NDC site plan. Setting aside the impact of the site plan on the Co-op (as this is subject to the current mediation process), the City Council should consider closely how the proposed lay-by and the proposed intersection reconfiguration, would affect the future utility of the Turner Building (which the Co-op currently rents). In addition, the City should seek independent professional advice about the long-term viability of a lay-by arrangement for future tenants of the proposed NDC development. In particular, given the value that a grocery store provides as an anchor for a business district, the City should find out whether any grocery store would be attracted to a site that relies on a lay-by for all deliveries and trash handling. Beyond this, the City should investigate how suggested relocation of the entrance driveway and possible reactivation of the loading dock would impact the capacity of the Turner Building’s parking lot.

9. The City still knows very little about the present state of cut-through traffic at the Junction. The City-commissioned study (AMT) provided measurements of cut-through traffic only on one route involving the length of Columbia Avenue. The studies provided no data on present cut-through traffic in other neighborhoods or on projections of cut-through traffic resulting from the proposed development (cars as well as trucks). It seems that it would be crucial for the City Council to get a clear understanding of present and projected cut-through patterns before voting on the NDC site plan.

10. The size of the proposed public space in the NDC site plan has been a huge issue. In response to criticisms that the proposed space is too small for community events, it is frequently noted that B.Y. Morrisson Park is a more appropriate place for such events. The City Council should think carefully about what the elimination of B.Y. Morrisson Park would mean for the Junction in terms of its potential as a place for public events and gatherings. A mid-intersection “pedestrian refuge” triangle should not be characterized as a true park space. Also, the loss of the four public parking spaces on the north side of B.Y. Morrisson Park should not be ignored as an impact of an intersection configuration.

11. The businesses and residents on the north side of the Junction should be given ample time to review and respond to the traffic studies before the City Council votes on the NDC site plan. Many of these businesses are reliant on convenient parking and easy pedestrian movement for their viability. The projected queue lengths and delay times for exiting the new parking garage may be of concern to north-side businesses, along with changes in pedestrian crossing routes, the elimination of B.Y. Morrisson Park, and the elimination of the all-red pedestrian crossing phase. The City Council should also consider a scenario whereby Manor Circle and other nearby neighborhoods choose to have residential permit parking — how would such a change impact the functionality and convenience of the new parking garage, and would north-side clients and customers be willing to “migrate” to the new parking garage?

12. Stepping back from the details a bit, one can imagine that if the site plan (or something like it) gets built — without or without an intersection reconfiguration — it will become clear that the development, along with Turner Building, needs a rear path for cars to circle around and for trucks to unload (a.k.a. an “alley”). The City Council should closely consider whether the creation of an alley is an eventuality and, if so, confront that potential need before voting on the NDC site plan.

In summary, it is very important for the City Council to take the necessary time to examine the implications of the traffic studies and address unanswered questions before taking any vote on the NDC site plan.

For an extended Issue-by-issue Analysis of the Traffic Studies Vis-a-Vis the NDC Site Plan in table form, addressing 20 specific issues, go to the google doc at this link.

Unresolved Issues at Takoma Junction

Byrne Kelly and Roger Schlegel contribute this piece, documenting how the changes to the Takoma Junction plan requested last fall by our City Council still have not been resolved. These requested changes are documented in the Council’s October 25 2017 Resolution. (Previous analyses of how the current plan does not respond to City requests are found in previous posts here and here and here and here).

RESOLUTION ITEM (1) A large amount of vibrant, comfortable, and easily accessible street-level public space that functions as a community gathering spot, does not require the purchase of food or beverage to use, and is accessible for year-round use.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #1: A space that hugs the street edge, as the NDC design does, would not be “vibrant” or “comfortable.” If such a space were “vibrant” and “comfortable,” we would see people flocking to the picnic table near the Co-op entrance. The proposed (public) space is too close to the traffic and would be dangerous with cars entering and exiting the parking garage. The space would be in near-perpetual shadow for ninth months of the year.

RESOLUTION ITEM (2) Accommodation of delivery, trash and recycling vehicles in a manner that does not cause traffic problems, optimizes public enjoyment of the site, addresses the needs of on-site tenants, and provides reasonable accommodation to the TPSS Co-op.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #2: The lay-by:
  1. would add 200-400 feet to the delivery path for the people off-loading goods or loading trash and recycling – for both the Co-op and for tenants in the proposed development.
  2. would be in the State Highway right of way, up against the crosswalk and the “public” space, and likely to be blocked at times with drivers who are standing (legally) to pick up/discharge passengers.
  3. would be likely to cause additional trucks to double-park illegally and block traffic. (What else would waiting trucks do? Drive around the block, circle up Carroll, Flower, Piney Branch, Philadelphia, Grant, Lee, Maple, Sycamore, Columbia, Pine, Ethan Allen, Woodland, Beech, etc.)
  4. would be an ugly thing for people in the proposed “cafe” and other shops to look out at.
  5. would impede and endanger cyclists by encouraging them to clog up the sidewalk and thereby conflict with pedestrians.
  6. would create a hazard for children crossing, who are hard to see from the cab of a truck (as stated by a semi-truck driver at an State Highway Administration listening session in April).
  7. would create bottlenecks as it wouldn’t be possible to coordinate the timing of deliveries to the multiple businesses who would need to use the lay-by.

RESOLUTION ITEM (3) Placement of the elevator or elevators in a location that serves patrons and tenants conveniently, including patrons of the TPSS Co-op.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #3: NDC’s current site plan placed the sole elevator at the opposite end of the development, so that Co-op shoppers would have to traverse the length of the development block to get to the garage. NDC has not released any revised plans showing a relocated or added elevator.

RESOLUTION ITEM (4) A street-facing façade design that consists of large storefront windows on the retail level and includes exciting or iconic features that evoke the spirit of Takoma Park.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #4: The facade may look nice, but numerous architects and other residents, including members of Historic Takoma and the Facade Advisory Board, have pointed out that the perspective renderings are inaccurate and misleading in terms of perceived height, point of view level, shadows, utility poles and lines, and context with the surroundings.

RESOLUTION ITEM (5) Massing that fits with the area and is comfortable for those using and passing by the site on Carroll, Sycamore, and Columbia Avenues.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #5: The massing doesn’t fit with the area because the building would range in height from 38-45 feet above the sidewalk. That would cast a big shadow over the sidewalk and street. The typical two-story building in the Historic District is well below 30 feet in height, so it is out of context. In the rear, it would loom approximately 55 feet above Columbia Avenue.
  • The Council requested to see a building no larger than 34,000 square feet. The proposed building would be 50,000 square feet, including approximately 42,500 square feet on City-owned property.

RESOLUTION ITEM (6) Appropriate landscaping and building façade design of the Columbia Avenue side of the property that improves the appearance of the green space and would help address environmental sustainability and other goals for the project.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO RESPOND TO #6: To date, NDC has failed to provide sufficient details regarding the rear and side facades, and the construction impacts on the wooded area. Their plan does not address rear emergency egress doors and paths.

RESOLUTION ITEM (7) Design features that will preserve and improve alternatives to automotive transportation.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO MEET #7: The NDC/StreetSense site plan does the opposite. The Capital Bikeshare rack would be eliminated. There would be minimal space for locking privately owned bikes or for dropping rental bikes. The bus stop would be eliminated, with no clear plan for relocation. There could be greater danger to pedestrians at the relocated driveway.  The recently established crosswalk at Grant Avenue would be directly in front of the lay-by, which could create a safety hazard for small children.

RESOLUTION ITEM (8) Details regarding parking options for off-site businesses located in the Takoma Junction.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO RESPOND TO #8: NDC has not provided details beyond saying that there will be 72 spaces in total, and that some “may” be set aside for Co-op patrons. The Co-op and NDC are addressing parking in a mediation process, but the Council has not indicated that it will wait for this process to conclude before voting on the NDC site plan. Other questions about parking costs, arrangements, and impacts on other businesses and neighborhood streets are not resolved.

RESOLUTION ITEM (9) Design and construction features which satisfy the requirements for LEED Gold or higher certification from the U.S. Green Building Council or an equivalent certification.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO PROVIDE ENOUGH INFORMATION TO RESPOND TO #9: Although NDC says that they will be claiming LEED points for many design features as “Innovation” and “Alternative Energy Generation,” their plan doesn’t provide details. They have also claimed that the higher heating and cooling costs associated with high ceilings and larger volumes will be offset by lower lighting costs.
  • While this project has been promoted as an opportunity for improve stormwater management, NDC has given no evidence of this in their plan. There is no geotechnical information on the infiltration and percolation rates for hosting a bioretention facility on the site. Their current plan would be in conflict with regulations regarding placement of such facilities on steep slopes. There is no evidence of a Natural Resource Inventory and a Forest Stand Delineation as required by M-NCPPC.

RESOLUTION ITEM (10) Details necessary to provide reasonable accommodation to the TPSS Co-op for access for loading of deliveries, customer parking, and continued operations during construction.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN FAILS TO RESPOND TO #10: Unresolved issues include the width of the delivery alley, the accommodation during construction, the accommodation of multiple delivery vehicles, pedestrian safety, shopper convenience vis-a-vis parking and cart handling, employee parking, and construction vehicle access. There is also no information on where the staging of materials and equipment would occur during the sequence of construction.

RESOLUTION ITEM (11) Identifies any resolution or agreement reached between NDC and the TPSS Co-op regarding shared façade design or other improvements that would enhance the aesthetic appeal of the whole commercial strip between Sycamore Avenue and the fire station.

  • DRAFT SITE PLAN DOES NOT PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT #11: NDC has aligned an “awning” with the 20-foot height of the Co-op building. No other design features or agreements are described or represented visually in the site plan presentation.

Straddling Two Lots at Takoma Junction

The Takoma Junction developer (NDC) chosen by the City plans to buy the auto repair business adjacent to the City lot. In the current site plan, the developer shows a footprint straddling the two lots, with the entrance to the garage on the lot owned by the developer. Here, lawyer and Takoma Park resident Jessica Landman writes to City officials to ask about the risks to a development that sits partly on City land, and partly on land owned by the developer.

Mon, Jun 11, 2018

Dear Mayor Stewart and Takoma Park City Council Members,

I am writing today to renew, more urgently, a request made to you during the public comment period at the City Council meeting on May 2nd.

In May I noted that the proposed Takoma Junction development plan anticipates construction of a building that straddles two parcels of land. It would bind the city to a 99-year lease, even though the city does not own or control one parcel that is vital to accessing the entire structure.

At the time I asked the City to investigate and inform the community whether this highly unusual arrangement poses a fiscal risk. As a lawyer and taxpayer, these questions concerned me greatly.

So far, there has been no response. The City’s silence left me wondering whether action was being taken or not.

Before the City adopts a Resolution committing to this project, it is vital that you determine whether there is a significant legal obstacle that could cause the City to have legal problems or incur unforeseen costs that the community would have to shoulder.

While I am not a real estate lawyer, I did undertake a preliminary review of the relevant rules in Montgomery County. From what I can discern, a building permit for a structure that straddles two parcels owned by two different parties will not be issued.

I urge the City to have its lawyers follow up, to determine whether they agree with the following analysis:

1.  Under Montgomery County’s building code, a building permit may only be issued for a building located on ‘a lot or parcel shown on a plat recorded in the County Land Records or on a parcel exempt from recording requirements under Section 50-3.3’. [1]

2.  The County’s subdivision rules define a ‘lot’ as a ‘discrete area of land that is described by a plat recorded in the land records for which the Department of Permitting Services may issue a building permit.’ [2]  The County Zoning Code uses nearly identical language to define a lot: ‘A lot is a contiguous area of land that is described by a plat recoded in the land records for which a building permit can be issued.’

Obviously, the two adjacent parcels at the Junction, while contiguous, are not on one ‘lot’ that is recorded in the land records. (Nor are they on a parcel exempted under the specific terms of the code.)

3.  At the Junction site there are two lots, which will not even be owned by the same entity. As such, the site does not meet the definition of a lot for which a building permit can be issued. The County’s rule is very clear; with the exception of a few exemptions irrelevant in this instance,

‘Construction of a new principal building may only occur on a lot or parcel shown on a plat recorded in the County Land Records.’[3]

My question for the City and the City’s lawyers is: Have you investigated how these constraints affect the Junction project?

If so, please share what you have learned.

If not, please undertake the appropriate due diligence to find out whether the project as currently contemplated would be unable to obtain a building permit.

Frankly, apart from the possibility that no permit would be issued for the proposed straddling two-lot project, the irregularity of the proposed arrangement strikes me, as a taxpayer, as risky. Could NDC – or a successor owner – who controls a portion of the parcel use that control to extract further, future fees or concessions from the City? What would happen in the event NDC defaults? Once can imagine many unhappy scenarios. Those may be the very reasons why the County rules forbid a construction permit for a structure that is not on a single ‘lot’. And even if a construction permit can somehow be obtained, the irregularity also suggests that investors will find the project risky, either steering clear or charging higher lending rates, which would in turn trigger higher rents.

Thank you for responding promptly to this letter; it is vital that you resolve these questions before you make a determination whether to approve the proposed project. It would be negligent for our City officials to fail to address these concerns.

Sincerely,

Jessica Landman

Ward 1

Another Resident Weighs In

In which resident David Paris provides a historical perspective on the Takoma Junction development, and some parallels with other local development projects:

Neighbors —

 

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.
 
Sincerely,
 
Dave Paris, Larch