The following is a link to the agenda for the October 11, 2017 City Council meeting; https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/city-council-meeting-agenda-wednesday-october-11-2017/. We‘re tentatively scheduled to vote on appointments to resident committees. Then the Council will have a work session with discussions (but no votes, at least this week) on: 1) appropriate financial reserve policies for the City; 2) the Takoma Junction development, with a focus on the concept plan recently put forward by developer NDC; and 3) whether the City should take a position on a Washington Council of Governments study on the idea of constructing a new bridge over the Potomac River. I’ll turn to Takoma Junction first, given its importance to so many members of the community. There are shorter comments about the other two work session agenda items at the end of the Junction discussion.
Two weeks ago the Council received a presentation of a concept plan for the Takoma Junction project from NDC. Through the first link above you can see schematic drawings for the project contained in that plan. The second link includes some visual renderings toward the end of the presentation. We’ll most likely vote on a resolution at next week’s Council meeting giving some direction to NDC on the elements of the concept plan the Council agrees with or on which we have concerns or would like further clarifications or refinements. I want to emphasize that the vote will not be an up or down vote on the version of the concept plan presented by NDC, and I encourage all interested residents not to think of the concept plan as something on which they should take an absolute pro or con position.
If you see aspects of the concept plan you like or dislike let me know. For my part, having spent lots of time reviewing the plan, having heard from many residents of Ward One and elsewhere in the City, and after conversations with many others, some of the key areas I’m concerned about are the need for more public space at street level, whether we should have a third floor, and how to better arrange the overlapping activities like loading and unloading (including for the Co-op), patron seating and serving, trash collection, etc. that would take place toward the front of the structure in the current concept plan.
To be more specific, one of the important elements of the public sense of what kind of development we should have at the Junction has been adequate public space. People can obviously meet up at restaurants or other businesses that become tenants at the Junction, but there ought to be public areas for meeting or just hanging out. I’m not sure whether additional space would best be gained through a bigger setback, a more open central hallway, less built-out space at either end of the project, the arcade concept I’ve heard about, changing the square footage of the individual business spaces, or some combination of those, but ideas of that sort need to be on the table.
As for the third floor, that’s an idea for the site we haven’t previously seen, and the case for it hasn’t been made to my satisfaction. It may be that with a deep setback and creative plantings, a third floor could be included in a way that would be relatively unobtrusive (and it’s important to not just count stories, but height in feet), but at this point in the process I’m leaning against it, mainly because the height seems incongruous with other nearby structures.
On loading, trash, etc., we need more information to make an informed decision. I’m doubtful the current plans for trash handling would be workable. What seems to be undue proximity of some of the café tables to the lay-by can perhaps be addressed through a bigger setback or in some other way. The impact of the lay-by on Co-op operations is obviously very important, and we’ll get more information on whether and how it can be modified or if there is some better alternative as the traffic studies move forward. That’s also true for the entrance/exit from the underground parking.
As Mayor Stewart has noted, in addition to the NDC traffic study, the City will be undertaking a broader study focused on the whole junction area, including the challenging intersection. Once all of that work is done, we’ll understand more about how the project can move forward, and we’ll have a clearer sense for additional changes that may be needed to get us toward an actual site plan (which will have much more specificity than the concept plan). The areas we highlight for changes or more detail in our resolution will also be part of the site plan process.
I don’t know at this point where all my Council colleagues will be on these matters, but I don’t see completely scrapping the current plan or ending our relationship with NDC as viable options. Taking either of those steps, as I see it, would mean that we would be back where we are now with an underutilized and unattractive parking lot, and one likely to stay that way for a long time. So, I think the best way to proceed now is to take the concept plan as just that – a concept that we can modify, and to figure out together how best to do that so we end up with a development that is compatible with the neighborhood and our values.
Of course for many residents, the treatment of the Co-op is their top concern. The Development Agreement language calls for reasonable accommodation of the Coop, and I’m committed to that. I mentioned the lay-by earlier; some of the other components of the project are less relevant or unconnected to the Co-op’s operations, though still important to the overall project. So to me there’s a balance between taking into account the Co-op’s concerns and the broader concerns of the community.
Over the last two years, in my involvement as a Councilmember on this project I’ve sought to take neither a “pro-Co-op” position nor a “pro-NDC” position, but to try to do what I thought was best for the City as a whole. That meant that I worked with my Council colleagues to amend our Development Agreement with NDC to ensure that it would include better language aimed at ensuring appropriate accommodation of the Co-op, but also that the City would have the ultimate decision-making power at key stages in the development process. That continues to be the way I’m approaching the Junction Project. We have enough unnecessary divisiveness in our national politics – we don’t need that here. While I would never expect anyone to check their passion about local matters at the door, my hope is that the passion residents feel for their neighborhood forms the basis for collaborative efforts to find workable solutions. That’s in line with our Takoma Park values, and how I hope to continue being involved in the Junction project.
I urge all interested residents to offer their opinions at our next two Council meetings.
Reserve Policies. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2017/council-20171011-2.pdf. Like virtually all municipalities, Takoma Park has set aside funds in various reserve accounts in order to ensure smooth payments of financial obligations and as hedges against emergency needs. As detailed in the background material, our General Fund Unrestricted Reserves total $5 million, which represents 15% of our total expenditures. The ratio for this measure recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) is 17%. So, we are in the range of GFOA’s recommendation, but there are other ways of considering reserve policies, as described in the background material. In addition, different local governments have chosen various approaches to setting their reserve policies. While it’s my sense that we’re in a safe zone in this regard, it would be prudent to give some thought to potentially setting aside additional funds in reserve accounts, particularly given our recent increased bond indebtedness. I look forward to learning more about this set of issues from our staff.
Northern Bridge Crossing Study. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2017/council-20171011-4.pdf.
This past summer, COG’s Transportation Planning Board (TPB) voted to accept for study 10 major projects they believed had the potential to help achieve long-term regional transportation goals. The list covers a range of road, bridge and transit projects, including a new Northern Bridge across the Potomac to the north and west of the American Legion Bridge (which is of course part of the Beltway). A group of Takoma Park residents has petitioned the City to pass a resolution in opposition to the Bridge proposal and calling for its rejection in December when the list comes back before the TPB for a vote on whether to include any of the projects in the region’s Long-Range Transportation Plan. Takoma Park has a vote on the TPB.
I share the concerns that have been raised about the Northern Bridge because of its likely negative impact on the environment. I’d like us to concentrate more on transit in our region as the key to managing transportation. One point on which I’m uncertain -- and which I hope will become clear in our discussion in the Council meeting – is what the impact of adopting a resolution this month in opposition to the Bridge will be, since the vote will be in December, and the study will continue in any case.
As always, please feel free to be in touch about any of the above matters.
Takoma Park City Council