The Council Meeting and the Junction Resolution
At the City Council meeting this past Wednesday night we saw a wonderful example of community engagement. There were three hours of public comments on the resolution relating to the Takoma Junction development, and we didn’t adjourn until well after 1:00 AM. We also had several dozen emails residents submitted for the meeting, and I had many conversations and email exchanges with people from Ward One in the lead-up to the meeting. I’m hopeful this message will be a useful general description of the Council’s actions and my views on the Junction, but I encourage anyone with more specific questions to contact me. I’d be glad to discuss this set of issues in more detail with residents who are interested in doing so.
The most important components of the resolution are: 1) approval of several development options for review as part of the traffic study; 2) laying out a number of Council concerns with NDC’s concept plan; 3) expressing our expectations for the site plan (which is the next phase after the traffic study); and 4) reiterating the need to follow the requirements of the Development Agreement between the City and NDC. As described below, I voted in favor of the resolution, following a process in which we made a number of changes to it. Here’s a link to the final version of the resolution: https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/resolutions/2017/resolution-2017-53.pdf.
The NDC Concept Plan
While there is a wide range of views within the community and in Ward One, most of those who spoke out or otherwise expressed their views supported some type of development at the Junction. Many also made clear their significant concerns about the NDC concept plan, with some preferring to stop the project, and others favoring coming up with a new plan or revising the existing plan.
I agree with those who raised concerns about the concept plan. I’d like to have a development at the Junction that is welcoming and attractive for the community and allows the TPSS Co-op to continue thriving, but I was disappointed in several key aspects of the plan. In particular, I think it has an insufficient amount of street level public space; I disagree with the idea of a third floor; and it’s my opinion that the jumbled together nature of the area that includes truck deliveries (for the Co-op and other tenants), outside serving tables and trash handling would not be workable in its current form.
I look forward to having those concerns resolved as we move forward, but Wednesday wasn’t a point where we faced an up or down vote on going forward with the project. The resolution was aimed at establishing criteria for NDC’s required traffic study, with the understanding that the development plan would continue to be modified based on the concerns of the community and Council. Once that study and a separate study funded by the City are completed, we can move to more specific design work in the site plan process. In that phase we’ll get to a go/no-go vote.
Amendments and Final Vote on the Resolution
It made sense to me to proceed with the traffic study as part of the overall development process, as long as the language of the resolution included several options for review in the traffic study and made clear the areas of the Concept Plan where the Council expects changes. Though I did have input into the drafting of the resolution, I felt it needed further changes before the Council voted. So I offered a group of amendments, which were approved by the Council, and I worked for the passage of other amendments, including modified versions of proposals put forward by the Co-op, all of which significantly improved the resolution.
The amendments I offered were approved unanimously by the Council. The key changes included the following:
· Requiring the traffic study to include an option with greater public gathering space at street level. As introduced, the resolution called for studying the traffic impacts of three options: an approximately 34,000 square foot building with retail at the ground floor and offices on the second floor; the impacts of additional square footage connected to NDC’s purchase of the Takoma Auto Clinic parcel; and the impact of an option with more public space, with the possibility of a third floor. While I appreciated the idea of reviewing several options, I was concerned that the third option didn’t reflect the notion that additional public space should be at street level. So my amendment clarified that point.
· Stating that by including a 34,000 square foot option among those to be studied we are not locking in that number. This is a study – we’re not at the point where we’re endorsing any specific size or footprint, and my amendment clarifies that studying that option doesn’t constitute approval.
· Calling for the traffic study to include pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation, as well as automotive traffic.
· Making it clear that the traffic study should take into account the resolution’s list of Council expectations about the site plan that relate to traffic. These include: having a large, easily accessible public space at street level; addressing the delivery and trash options in a way that works for all tenants including the Co-op; massing that fits the area including in particular Carroll, Sycamore and Columbia Avenues; design features that improve alternatives to automobile transportation; and reasonable accommodation for the Co-op with regard to deliveries, parking and continued operations during construction.
The Co-op suggested several amendments aimed at the following: ensuring that for the lay-by concept to work it has to be sized specifically to accommodate 18-wheel trucks and that if it’s found to be workable it should be included in the draft site plan; that there be sufficient advance availability of the draft site plan and the traffic study for public review before the Council or other governmental bodies (like the State Highway Administration or the County Planning Board) take action; and a proposal for reserving parking spaces for the Co-op. I actively supported including versions of most of these concepts in the resolution, and I’m pleased the Council approved modified versions of the lay-by and advance notice proposals. We felt that the parking proposal was more appropriate for later negotiation between the Co-op and NDC, subject to the Council’s approval as part of the “reasonable accommodation” requirement, and so that one was left out of the resolution.
Councilmember Male then offered two amendments (both of which were approved with my support) that call for NDC and City staff to provide more frequent updates on the project schedule to the Council. He also offered an amendment to strike the references to studying a potential third floor for the development in the traffic study. It’s my view that a third floor would not be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, which is composed mostly of one and two story buildings, with some three story houses. Unfortunately, I was on the losing side of that vote when his amendment was defeated 5 – 2.
Following that result, I weighed the various improvements we had made to the resolution, the deficiencies of the concept plan, our ability to make changes in the site plan phase, and the broad range of opinion within the City on the project. Taking all those points into consideration, it’s my view that on balance the resolution puts in place a reasonable framework for the traffic study, while also giving us plenty of opportunity to continue working for a final project that is a better fit for the community. That led me to vote in favor of the amended resolution when it was approved on a 6 – 1 vote.
Final Thoughts and Next Steps
I’m worried about the acrimony we’re seeing in the community connected to the Junction project. It’s my sense that if we completely stop the project and terminate our relationship with NDC – as some have suggested – the divisions in the community would be more likely to continue in the long run than if we continue the process through the traffic study phase so we can understand the impact of various options, and then make an informed decision.
One last point on the traffic study – the City is going to undertake its own traffic study which will take a broader look at the entire Junction area including the other nearby streets. I think this will be a valuable complement to the NDC study, and one of the other items on this past week’s agenda was approving the funds for that study. As it turned out, the winning bidder for the City study was the same firm that is going to be conducting the NDC study. I and others raised concerns about that at the Council meeting. I think it will be much more informative if we have two sources of data and analysis for the studies. I’m pleased that we’re going to hold off making a decision on that until after the election when the new Council is seated. The extra time should give us the opportunity to explore some alternatives.
I appreciate readers’ willingness to read through this lengthy write-up. Please feel free to be in touch with any additional questions or concerns.
Takoma Park City Council