Yesterday, County Councilmember Hans Riemer, who is running against County Executive Marc Elrich, arrived very late to the Takoma Junction process, weighing in with a public letter filled with errors, misinformation, and inappropriate lobbying. This use of Council privilege to interfere with the County’s public review process, and apparently to try to score points in a political race, endangers residents by putting our community at risk of being saddled with an unsafe development.
The letter was addressed to the County’s Planning Board Chair, Casey Anderson, and urged the Board to “move forward” with the Junction project even though the State Highway Administration (SHA) has found the plan unsafe (four times). Councilmember Riemer used language including “I urge you to press SHA…” This, in spite of Planning Board rules stating clearly (Section 3.2) that Board members “must not communicate with any Person, other than Planning Staff or another Board member, about the merits or facts of any pending Application…except during the Board meeting when the Application…is being considered.” And yet Councilmember Riemer appears to be urging the Planning Board to pressure the SHA, and to flout Board rules on improper contacts.
Correcting the Errors, Point by Point
Here, we seek to straighten out any confusion caused by the errors and misinformation in Councilmember Riemer’s letter to the Planning Board Chair:
MISINFORMATION: Councilmember Riemer expresses “concerns about delays,” implying they are the fault of reviewers (such as SHA).
FACT: The current delay was caused by NDC asking for a fifth extension with the Planning Board, since they have not been able to manage to come up with a safe enough plan for approval by the SHA. The Board granted the extension, despite their own staff recommending against it.
MISINFORMATION: Councilmember Riemer states that his “conversations with Takoma Park residents” tell him the project is “very popular.”
FACT: The City’s own request for feedback last spring yielded 96% of comments against the proposed Junction project. (380 out of 395 comments).
MISINFORMATION: Councilmember Riemer states that “residents are bewildered” (implying they are bewildered as to why the project has not been approved).
FACT: Residents are indeed bewildered, but based on the written feedback, they are bewildered about why the City has not yet pulled the plug on this project, since the SHA has repeatedly found it to be unsafe, and the City Council voted unanimously to recommend against approval of the project, for five separate reasons, only one of which is the lay-by.
MISINFORMATION: The development “will provide additional parking” for the Co-op.
FACT: The project’s design requires a waiver to build a garage providing less than the amount of parking required by zoning for the new tenants alone. With loss of the City’s parking lot, there will be a net loss of parking for the Co-op and the existing small local businesses.
MISINFORMATION: NDC “needs the Co-op to succeed” as the Junction anchor.
FACT: This spring, NDC tried to evict the Co-op from the City’s lot, backing off only after the Co-op filed for legal protection. And NDC has already tried to buy the building out from under the Co-op. So it appears they do not feel they need the Co-op.
MISINFORMATION: “The Co-op officially does not oppose the project.”
FACT: The Co-op has repeatedly stated its objections to parts of NDC’s plans that threaten the Co-op’s deliveries and customer access to the store. Following extensive negotiations, the Co-op signed the mediation agreement with the City and NDC to not oppose the project unless NDC changes the project in material way(s) that would adversely affect the Co-op’s operations.
MISINFORMATION: “The lay-by…will primarily serve the Co-op.”
FACT: Any development with retail and restaurants this size is legally (and logically) required to have a loading zone for their own deliveries, and waste pick-up. Since no tenants have been made public, we have no idea what deliveries the new tenants will require.
MISINFORMATION: Implying the developer would consider any option other than a lay-by, Councilmember Riemer writes “…if there is an alternative approach that is better than a lay-by, great…”
FACT: NDC has steadfastly refused to cede any rentable square feet to make a safe loading zone at the rear of the development, where it belongs according to zoning. They have insisted on a lay-by, despite being told by SHA, and County reviewers, after four separate submissions, that each lay-by iteration was unsafe.
MISINFORMATION: Implying that the City wants this project. Referring to “a fair and equitable treatment for the property owner (the City)” and calling this project “the City’s exciting vision.”
FACT: The City Council voted unanimously to recommend the Planning Board reject this development proposal, for five separate reasons (not just the lay-by). Councilmember Riemer neglects to make any mention of this fact.
MISINFORMATION: Councilmember Riemer calls the City lot “a moribund parking lot.”
FACT: The parking lot is in full use, and often full, supporting the small local independent Junction businesses relying on it, including some that have just opened, or will open shortly. The developer has no plans to provide any particular number of parking spaces to these businesses.
MISINFORMATION: This project is “infill development.”
FACT: Infill development is defined as the reuse of “unused or blighted land.” The City lot is in full use, providing an essential function. The “walkshed” for development near a Metro stop is recognized as a half-mile. The Junction is too far from the Takoma Metro to qualify as walking distance. A Metro planner came to City hall during public comments, expressly to explain that the Junction is too far to qualify as Metro-accessible.
MISINFORMATION: Takoma residents want more shops, and offices.
FACT: Because the rents will be significantly higher than current rents at the Junction, any shops will drive gentrification if they succeed. However, retail is a sector that has been circling the drain since the pandemic. And, there are empty offices all over the region, due to the ongoing pandemic. This project is obsolete.
MISINFORMATION: The project will bring “a lot of new wage-earner jobs.”
FACT: By trying to pressure the SHA into approving a dysfunctional and dangerous lay-by as the loading zone, we risk driving out the Co-op, possibly the largest retail employer in the City. The Co-op is beloved for employing a diverse unionized staff with excellent benefits, working to feed the community. Workers in retail stores typically make minimum wage, with no benefits. So this would be a terrible trade-off, in terms of local jobs.
ASSERTION: There has been political interference in the planning process.
FACT: Yes, Councilmember Riemer’s letter is an attempt to use his Council position for political interference in the planning process now that the project is pending at the Planning Board. And he appears to be attempting to distort the decision on the safety of the Junction development to gain political ground in the race for County Executive. The County Council, and Planning Board, should not let this behavior stand.