On September 15 2021, the Montgomery County Planning Board agreed to give Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) a fifth extension to obtain approval for their proposed Takoma Junction project. NDC now has until January 20 2022, (approximately 90 additional days), to attempt to get approval from the State Highway Administration (SHA) before returning to the Planning Board. To date, the SHA has found both the layby and the exit drive unsafe (in four separate rulings), despite multiple design attempts by NDC.
In approving this fifth extension request, individual Planning Board members appeared to be unfamiliar with the details of the project. Notwithstanding the Planning staff’s recommendations that both the extension and project be denied, and the City’s recommendation that its own project be disapproved, Board Chair Casey Anderson nevertheless opined (watch starting at 3:15:00 on the video) that this would be a great project for the City if only SHA would approve the layby.
Community Vision for Takoma (CVT) is taking this opportunity to straighten out some of the confusion, evident at the Board hearing, surrounding the current proposal.
These are the facts:
- The layby is not the only problem cited by the City.
The City Council voted on June 23 2021 for a resolution to recommend the Planning Board vote to disapprove the project. In doing so, the City Council cited not only the lack of approval from the SHA, but four other longtime issues NDC has been unwilling or unable to solve: lack of meaningful public space, a problematic rear facade, lack of parking for surrounding businesses, and inadequate stormwater treatment.
The Planning Board may not concern itself with these issues, but the City does, according to their own resolutions and development agreement, and their vote in June. But the City needs to stand firm on these issues, explain them to the Planning Board, and pull out of the project if the Planning Board approves it.
- The layby is not the only problem cited by the SHA. They have repeatedly cited the inadequate sight lines for drivers coming from the garage exit ramp driveway (the egress) as a continuing safety problem.
NDC has pushed back by comparing their proposed exit to the current exit from the City lot. In a June 16 2021 letter from NDC to the SHA, NDC asserts, “We note that the same sight line issue exists today from the Intersection…and the entry point to the City’s parking lot on Carroll Avenue.”
However, this is a false comparison.
The proposed development would reduce the sight line by moving the driveway from the current location 40 to 50 feet to the west, closer to the fire station and blind corner. Additionally, the current lot is completely above ground, allowing exiting drivers to have a longer period to observe traffic coming from the west. The proposal, with vehicles exiting from an underground parking garage, limits that observation time. The proposal would also have drivers exiting from a darkened garage at the end of the workday and looking west into the setting sun. This visual adjustment time increases danger to bicycles and pedestrians as well as motorized vehicles in this heavily used area.
There are additional issues regarding the sight line. The September 7 2021 letter from SHA to NDC notes that there are other obstacles to the sight line (fencing, tree, parked cars), so the issue is not just one of absolute distance.
- No one should have been surprised by SHA’s repeated rejection of layby designs in 2021. Since the beginning, many concerns have been expressed about the layby.
- In 2015 when NDC was chosen by the City Council, Councilmember Seth Grimes wrote that the absence of a layby in NDC’s initial design was one of the reasons he voted to choose NDC for the project. He said a layby would be a “step in the wrong direction,” and that the “Co-op has said this approach would be unworkable.” (NDC switched to a layby design only after winning the project).
- In the spring of 2019, County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) reviewers noted that the layby “should be removed” because of safety concerns.
- In the spring of 2019, the Chair of the County’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) agreed with a resident who called the layby “an abomination.”
- In the fall of 2019, the HPC staff noted that Commissioners were “unanimous in their concerns’ about the layby,” but were told to back off, which they did.
- In the spring of 2020, MCDOT again noted multiple reasons why the layby location could not be approved.
- So in 2021, the SHA’s four consecutive rejections of layby designs should not have been surprising.
- Just because other developments have pickup or loading in front of the building doesn’t mean the Junction layby would be safe.
In public comments at the Board hearing, and as the Board considered the extension, there was discussion of how some other county locations handle loading or pickups, and a suggestion that these should be considered precedents for the approval of the Junction layby. However, none of these other developments have the same specific constraints and conditions of the proposed Junction layby:
- Marriott Headquarters (Bethesda) has a circle loop, not a layby.
- Avocet Tower (Bethesda) has a smaller pickup and drop-off layby for cars, but would not accommodate large trucks.
- Ace Hardware (Takoma Park) has loading by trucks on the street, but was never analyzed by State or County reviewers because it is an informal arrangement.
Key Differences in the Four Projects
|Marriott Headquarters||Avocet Tower||Ace Hardware||Takoma Junction|
|Pull-in, pull-out without right-angle turns?||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Used for deliveries?||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Trucks only (no drop-off/pick-up)?||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Used for trash hauling?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Large trucks involved?||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Deliveries/trash emphasize food-service?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Use shared by multiple properties?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Unconsolidated deliveries and hauling?||N/A||N/A||No||Yes|
|Delivery path conflicts with ADA route?||N/A||N/A||Yes||Yes|
|2-way adjacent traffic?||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Adjacent stop line, crosswalk, and signal?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Adjacent bus stop?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Adjacent garage entrance/exit?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Requires crossing dedicated bike lanes?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Located down-block from a fire station?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Area needed for emergency access?||Unclear||Unclear||No||Yes|
|Routes traffic onto residential streets?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Routes traffic through unsignalized intersections?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Along block-long merge and crossing of two State Highway routes?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Visibility issues for approaching traffic?||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Adjacent to walking route to school?||No||No||No||Yes|
|Approved by SHA & Planning Board?||YES||YES||Not reviewed||NO|
- The community does not want to work with a company that tried to kick the Co-op off the lot.
The most recent and relevant gauge of community support for this project is not the City election almost a year ago (when all incumbents were re-elected, whether or not they supported the development).
In April, NDC sent a cease and desist order to try to kick the Co-op off the lot, threatening its ability to function as a business. This aggressive action towards the Co-op caused some residents who had supported the development (or were neutral) to oppose it. We know this because of comments on the feedback page set up by the City last spring. Approximately 380 out of 395 comments opposed going forward with NDC and the project, or 96% of responses. Clearly, the City heard this feedback—which is the most recent and direct gauge of community opposition to the plan—before voting to recommend that the Planning Board disapprove the project. The relationship between the City and NDC is unclear at this point, and their weekly meetings on the Junction have stopped.