Introduction – where we are now. At this week’s Council meeting we will consider whether to approve another 30 days for Letter of Intent (LOI) negotiations between Developer NDC and the Co-op, as part of the Takoma Junction Development. Under the Development Agreement (DA) between the City and NDC, if we reject the additional 30 days or if we approve the extension and there is still no LOI agreement at the end of the extension, the Council will then have two options: to end the relationship with NDC and pay them up to $75,000 for the work they have done so far, or to authorize NDC to seek another anchor tenant instead of the Co-op.
I plan to vote for the 30 day extension, and because the Junction project and the Co-op’s place within it has stimulated a high level of interest and concern among Takoma Park residents, I thought it would be helpful to offer my sense of where the project stands and our choices.
The Need for Compromise. One lesson I derived from the recent national elections is that it’s unhealthy to let ourselves get divided into two virtually armed camps. My goal is for our community to move forward on the project in a way that’s respectful of all viewpoints and has a reasonable chance of preserving comity in Takoma Park.
Perhaps some people involved in the LOI negotiations, or observing those negotiations from the inside (like City staff or Councilmembers) or from the outside (including many residents) believe the process hasn’t been fair in some way. It’s natural in important matters like this to feel passionate – this is our town and we’re talking about long-term changes -- but we have to keep in mind that we live in a community with diverse views.
This means that people should fight for what they believe, but also be open to compromise. The physical space at the Junction is too small for us to put everything we might want there. I originally favored putting residential units at the site, but I’ve recognized that won’t happen because of space considerations. I’m not going to vote to end the project just because of that. No one is going to get everything they want, and as in many development projects (and virtually any infill project) the site’s constraints have become more evident as the process has moved forward.
The Role of the City. There has been lots of talk about what’s best for the Co-op and what’s best for NDC. I reject that way of presenting our choices. The point is to do what’s best for the City. We own the land, and our community has decided, through a series of public processes, that we want NDC to develop the site with the Co-op as the anchor tenant.
Because of concerns that were raised about the DA, in July the Council agreed to make some last minute changes in the DA, and I’m pleased they were accepted by NDC. I noted at the time that the changes, some of them based on suggestions from residents, gave the City (rather than either of the other two parties) the ultimate leverage in the LOI negotiations. That’s still true, and what’s best for the City should form the basis for our decisions.
No Co-op Relocation. The Co-op is not required to relocate under any of the current NDC proposals. Yes, under one proposal the Co-op could end up entirely within the City Lot, rather than, as many people had anticipated, partly in the City lot and partly in its current spot in the Turner lot. Though that option would mean less square feet for other tenants, it would resolve the continuity of operations issues that have been among the Co-op’s main concerns. The Co-op could move right into a fully functional new building on a turn-key basis, remaining in Takoma Junction. That’s just one option. Other ideas put forward by NDC include, as noted, having the Co-op located partly in the Turner lot and partly in the City lot, or even entirely within the Turner lot. All these ideas would keep the Co-op in the Junction, and all would require some involvement by the Co-op’s current landlord.
Unloading Facilities. The key Co-op concern has been improving unloading access, and Co-op leadership has not favored NDC’s idea of putting the unloading operation in a “lay-by” parallel to Carroll Avenue. And some residents have asked whether the State Highway Administration (SHA) would even approve the lay-by concept. The discussions between NDC and SHA didn’t identify any major objections on the part of SHA, and SHA has confirmed this with City staff.
I don’t object to seeking a stronger statement from SHA, since it’s related to the unloading issue. But we won’t get a definitive finding from SHA in the next 30 days, so this can’t be a determining factor in whether the project should go forward. This means to me that if the extra 30 days are approved, it should be with the understanding that negotiations need to take place during that time, including on the unloading facilities, separate from whatever SHA may say.
Traffic Study. As for the traffic study which has recently been suggested, it’s not directly connected to the LOI negotiations, and it’s something that will be undertaken later in the project timetable. There are plenty of components of the project -- including for example the specific design elements of the building and the WSSC permitting process -- that will happen later. They are also unrelated to the LOI. To expect them to be completed at this point in the process is not realistic, and I believe that applies to the traffic study as well.
Co-op Expansion. I don’t think the Co-op could expand under either of the two options that will remain if the LOI negotiations fail. Expansion has been a key Co-op goal, and I’m convinced the best way to expand is through the LOI. Given the size of the site and NDC’s financial perspective, it seems clear the Co-op won’t be able to get the unloading arrangement they prefer. So, there’s a choice on whether to compromise on unloading or forego expansion. If the Co-op chooses not to expand, it will still operate at its current location with a long term lease (and a requirement that NDC accommodate the Co-op’s parking and unloading needs).
Conclusion – the 30 Day Extension. The extension was included in case a little more time is needed to finalize LOI details. That’s not the case at the moment. But because this is a key local project involving the only parcel open for development that the City owns, and because it’s an effort on which the community has spent lots of time and resources, I think it’s worth going the extra mile to see if a deal can be reached. Based on where we are now, if there’s no LOI -- even after 30 more days -- I would favor going with another anchor tenant rather than killing the entire development, especially since the Co-op would remain in operation at its current site, and the new tenant couldn’t be a direct competitor with the Co-op. To be clear, though, there isn’t any coercion: if there are no new ideas to break the logjam, the Co-op is free to decide it would be preferable to stay as they are. Taking 30 more days to figure out the right path seems reasonable.