With a vote on the Takoma Junction site plan resolution scheduled for this week’s City Council meeting, I’m writing to share my views on the resolution and where we are on the project. This write-up is longer than my usual posts. But given the complexity of the topic and its importance to the community, I think a lengthier set of comments is in order.
I would note that several matters unrelated to the Junction will be considered first by the Council on Wednesday evening, none of which appears controversial. Details are in this meeting agenda link (which also has Junction information and the resolution text): https://takomaparkmd.gov/meeting_agendas/city-council-meeting-agenda-wednesday-july-25-2018/
At this week’s meeting child care will be available from 7:30 - 9:30 PM for families that might otherwise find it difficult to attend. I also have office hours (no appointments required) on Tuesday, July 24 at Takoma Bevco from 10:00 am - Noon. If that time slot is inconvenient, please contact me so we can find another time to talk.
I have serious concerns about what I consider to be an inadequate amount of public gathering space in the current version of the Junction site plan. I’m giving thought to potential amendments for this week’s Council meeting aimed at increasing the public space. But it’s clear I’m in the minority among my colleagues on that point, and if I’m not able to convince them to support increasing the public space, I’ll be voting against the site plan resolution. I would add that I’m not supporting the alternative resolution drafted by several residents, which Councilmember Smith is offering on their behalf. Details of my positions on these matters appear below, but I’ll offer some general thoughts on the project first.
Much of the discussion on the project has centered on areas where the Co-op and NDC have not reached agreement. While it’s important to get a good resolution on those points (and I have some optimism about the mediation process that has begun), the reality I’ve seen when I talk to residents is that there’s a spectrum of opinions on the project as opposed to a debate with just two alternatives. Many people who have been cast as opponents of the project favor some development, though they may disagree with certain aspects of the current proposal. Others who’ve been seen as supporters of the plan would welcome modifications to it. For my part, I’ve sought to make it clear that I’m neither pro-NDC nor pro-Co-op, but rather pro-City.
This underlines what I see as a vital point: the job of a Councilmember is to take into account the broadest possible range of views on any municipal topic as part of the decision-making process, with the goal of doing what’s best in an overall sense for the City. That’s the approach I took when we considered both the 2016 Development Agreement between the City and NDC, and the resolution we passed in October of last year in response to the NDC concept plan. It could mean taking action that’s beneficial to one or more private parties, but only if it appears on balance to also be good for the City. In this case, taking into account all the ideas people have for development of the Junction property, it’s inevitable some will be disappointed with the outcome, because the site isn’t large enough to accommodate every concept that’s been put forward. Within those constraints, I’ve tried to look for workable compromises that have the potential to satisfy a broad cross section of the community. I’m disappointed that we haven’t made more progress along those lines.
While some of the decisions on the project were made before I was on the Council, I don’t subscribe to the idea that simply because it’s been a long process we have to stick with every part of it. On the other hand, I think it’s been an open process with plenty of opportunities for public engagement, and I don’t feel there’s a compelling case to undertake a major revamping of the steps that got us to this point. I’ve certainly placed a high priority on doing all I can to interact with residents in a variety of different ways including neighborhood get-togethers, one-on-one meetings, small group gatherings, conversations during office hours, email exchanges, phone calls, unplanned discussions during random encounters, and other forums.
I’ve heard from residents who’ve expressed a concern that they’re not being listened to. I can say that I’ve worked hard to listen to as many residents as possible. I’ve benefited from their input, and in many instances I’ve relied on their ideas for amendments or other changes to various key documents like the Development Agreement, the October resolution, and the site plan resolution. It’s my sense that most residents who have spoken out -- wherever they live in the City -- have been heard and most arguments have been understood.
The reality is that there’s a disagreement about the best path forward. That difference exists not because Councilmembers are dishonest or unethical, as some have suggested. Rather it’s a case where people of good will have honest differences of opinion. My biggest worry connected to the Junction isn’t that I’ll dislike the version of the development that may ultimately be approved. That’s a major concern of course, but the bigger danger is that the level of acrimony and divisiveness in the community will continue to grow. So as work on the project continues, doing what I can to reduce that trend will continue to be a high priority for me.
In terms of where we stand now on the physical elements of the site plan, as noted I’m hopeful the Co-op/NDC mediation will yield positive results. Although I didn’t sit in on the first mediation session, the exchange of letters between the two parties prior to mediation did suggest some solutions were within reach in areas like deliveries, trash/recycling and parking. On traffic and other transportation concerns in the Junction intersection, it’s my sense it will take some time, working with the State Highway Administration, to determine whether or how to reconfigure the intersection. That’s something we should explore regardless of whether the development project goes forward. The other key questions relating to the physical makeup of the project relate to its size and height, and how much public space there should be. Those are factors that to the extent possible need to be addressed in the site plan resolution.
When the Council met on July 11 to begin considering potential changes to the initial draft of the site plan resolution, I put forward a proposal that called for reducing the square footage of the development structure by 15 percent. Under the current version of the site plan the building would have approximately 48,000 square feet, and many residents have felt that 34,000 square feet would be more appropriate. My proposal, which took into account my understanding of where the rest of the Council was on the idea of adding more public space, called for splitting the difference and making the total square feet around 41,000. That change, which would have permitted more than a doubling of the current amount of public space and also reduced the building’s mass, was turned down by the Council on a 5 - 2 vote.
There have been plenty of discussions around the public space issue, and I’ve commented numerous times on the topic. However, given the centrality of the concept to the development, I think it will be useful to lay out here in some detail what my concerns are. I think the October resolution is a good guide to what the Council expected to see in the site plan. And among the key features we indicated we expected to see in the draft site plan were the following:
· A large amount of vibrant, comfortable, and easily accessible street-level public space that functions as a community gathering spot, does not require the purchase of food or beverage to use, and is accessible for year-round use
· Massing that fits with the area and is comfortable for those using and passing by the site on Carroll, Sycamore, and Columbia Avenues.
I acknowledge that these are subjective descriptions, but I don’t think the criteria have been fully met. The Junction property is public space, much of which we’re contemplating giving up with the expectation that a good amount of gathering space will remain. In contrast to some of the other public spaces in the City -- including for example the Gazebo area -- a key purpose of the Junction development is to draw people to patronize the commercial establishments that would be located there if the project moves forward. Some patrons will presumably go to the second floor offices, but the major draw will be at street level.
The current version of the site plan would have people gather either on a sidewalk that’s narrower than the one along the block where Busboys and Poets is located, or in the area around a small “inset.” Much of the inset will be seen as space connected to the restaurant expected to occupy that space in the new development. That won’t in my opinion provide enough public gathering space, especially if we have the kind of tenant mix that draws lots of people to the area. Perhaps on a random Wednesday morning in late October the space would be adequate, but not during times when the retail outlets are major draws. And for larger events like concerts, ceremonies and rallies, a space only a bit larger than the Gazebo area will be insufficient.
I also don’t think the debate has fully taken into account the broader financial impact if some square footage is sacrificed for more public realm. The assumption has been that reducing the building’s square footage will mean loss of rent revenue and/or the need to raise rents beyond the currently expected level (which would in turn make it harder to attract the kind of retail tenants we want at the site). However, with more people spending more time in the public gathering area, there would be more potential customers, which would be attractive to potential tenants. And, the concern about the inset being too deep into the structure of the building isn’t relevant if the front of the building is also moved back, making the depth of the inset the same.
I’m also not persuaded that having a sidewalk with a width more like the one down the block from Busboys and Poets would corrupt the proposed façade, its financial value, or its ability to draw people in (particularly since under the current plan the façade appears to bulge out from the Co-op building before it pulls back). Some readers will be aware I’ve suggested versions of this idea over the past couple of months, though again I haven’t had much support.
To me, a reduction of that sort fits in with how the Council and the community reacted to the earlier NDC concept plan. Many of us thought the building in that plan -- which ran right up to the sidewalk -- didn’t have sufficient public space, and that’s why we called for more in the October resolution. At this stage, if the resolution is approved, the site plan will begin to be reviewed by the County Planning Office, the Historic Preservation Commission, and the State Highway Administration. Those entities may require the building to have less height, a changed façade, a shifting of the lay-by, etc. None of them will call for more public space -- that’s up to the City of Takoma Park, and this is our chance to demand it.
Some have said the public space under the type of amendment I offered could end up being “too large.” If that were to happen we could fill portions of the space with tables, chess sets, a children’s play set, a fountain, etc. But if it turns out we have too little space, we won’t be able to do anything. Others have said the impact of the changes I proposed would be minimal. I don’t think so, but if the impact is minimal, then one can just as easily argue there’s little reason not to make the change. As I mentioned above, I’m now thinking about other options for amendments to address the public space issue, though with a clear understanding of my colleagues’ opinions on the topic.
We’ve heard from the development team that the proposed height is a good match for the surrounding area, and from many in the community that the height is in line with the Old Town commercial buildings. But it’s evident that except for the Fire Station, there’s nothing else that high with that mass at the Junction. Yes, there are apartment buildings down the hill, but they aren’t part of the visuals of the intersection. The other commercial structures tend to be one-story, sometimes with a high single story like the Co-op building. Most of the houses have a third story, but they are almost all peaked roofs, with of course space between each house so there is no broad façade-like appearance. The proposed structure would clearly be tall for the Junction area.
With regard to the Old Town commercial structures, as we learned once the measurements were taken by staff, this new building is generally taller. Setting aside the Church and the two high-rises, which are not retail, and which few people would say should be the bench marks, the structure proposed in the site plan is taller than almost all the Old Town commercial buildings. So, to me, from an actual height perspective and from an esthetic viewpoint, when compared to both Junction and Old Town buildings, the height is excessive.
I understand there’s a financial argument that the height may affect the kind of restaurants or other tenants attracted to the space, but I don’t think residents really want, say, the kind of restaurant or shops we’d get with a 20 foot ground floor. I was pleased that Councilmember Dyballa’s amendment (for which I voted) calling for a reduction in the height of the building was approved. Though we don’t know at this point how much of a reduction this language will lead to (it says: “up to five feet”), if we get the maximum reduction, that will make the structure somewhat more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. I’ll certainly be pushing for the maximum reduction as we move forward.
OTHER CHANGES TO THE RESOLUTION
Despite my concern that the lack of adequate public space makes the entire resolution problematic, I didn’t think it was appropriate to simply stand aside in my opposition. So, during our July 11 meeting, I proposed a number of other improvements to the resolution, which were approved by the Council and added to the resolution. These included the following:
· Making it clear that the Council favors consolidation of the main Junction lot with the Johnnie’s Auto Repair lot under City ownership as the best way to satisfy County requirements regarding multiple lots.
· Clarifying that the site plan can be modified during the County review process not only at the request of the State Highway Administration or NDC, but also by the Council.
· Ensuring that the Council will promptly notify the County if any changes to the site plan are required as a result of the Co-op/NDC mediation process.
· Calling for a written agreement between the City and NDC in order to minimize negative impacts from the construction process and to address the needs of businesses for continuity of operations.
· Prioritizing safety of walkers, bikers and public transit users; giving appropriate consideration to historic preservation concerns, and minimizing cut-through traffic, as part of any work we do with State Highway on reconfiguration of the intersection (Councilmembers Kostiuk, Dyballa and I all offered versions of this amendment)
I also backed amendments offered by my colleagues to, among other things, do the following:
· Improve the design of the rear portion of the building
· Emphasize the importance of further refinements of the traffic study data
· Strengthen the project’s environmental requirements beyond the LEED Gold level
· Underline the importance of local, community-oriented businesses as retail tenants
· Require the creation of a formal process for input from the Tree Commission
· Ban “formula” retail outlets (that is, chain stores) at the development unless there's a vote of the Council in favor of a given store
· Agreement that the ground lease payments and potentially other project revenues will be dedicated to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund
I’m considering several additional amendments (unconnected to public space) for this week’s Council meeting, and I expect my colleagues may also put forward amendments of their own. I believe all the changes described above make valuable improvements to the resolution. They will help make a development based on the current site plan function better, but they don’t remove my concern about the inadequate amount of public space.
That leads to a crucial question: what would happen if the Council approves an amendment on public space that NDC disagrees with, or if a majority of the Council votes against the resolution? Under the Development Agreement, if the City and NDC can’t agree on the site plan, the two parties must enter into a three-month period of mediation. If there’s still no agreement after that, then we can go our separate ways with no financial obligations in either direction. Under these scenarios, I think we could resolve outstanding differences with NDC one way or the other within a relatively short time frame.
The resolution that Councilmember Smith will be offering calls for delaying the site plan resolution until four conditions are met: the Co-op/NDC mediation is complete; the funding and design of a potential reconfiguration of the intersection has been worked out; there has been a racial equity analysis of the project; and the City holds a mediation and town hall process aimed at reaching a community consensus on the project. I understand some of the appeal connected to the idea of delaying the vote. But I differ with those who drafted the alternative, primarily because I think several of the criteria in the resolution would create a delay without a specific end-point. That would lead to further open-ended, ongoing debate, which I don’t think would be productive at this point.
1. The Co-op/NDC mediation is proceeding, and as noted we’ve added language to the resolution that enables the addition of any necessary changes to the site plan that may be connected to the outcome of the mediation. I'm committed to ensuring that any needed modifications to the site plan that emerge from the mediation process are put in place as part of the County approval process.
2. As for the Junction intersection, in my experience with a number of similar transportation projects involving coordination among various levels of government, it takes a considerable amount of time to figure out the potential scope of needed changes, and the funding is often not completely lined up in advance. Design alone can take a year or more. In many cases, the process of working on a project can lead to the pulling together of funding from more than one source, as we saw with the City’s Flower Avenue Green Street project. If work on the intersection does go forward there will likely be added time needed to figure out the historic preservation components. So for me, insisting that the development not proceed unless all the funds for any potential changes to the intersection are lined up and any potential re-design is complete would mean a lengthy delay of an unknown duration.
3. With regard to racial equity, we’re continuing to refine our overall approach, and I think we’re beginning to do a better job of highlighting key questions that need to be considered for the Junction. When the Council adopted the racial equity policy last year, we understood that it would require substantial work to move it from an important goal to a tool that could inform our work on an ongoing basis. I regret we’re not very far down that road yet, and I hope we’ll be able to appoint a resident committee this year to advise us on how to make the policy into a more meaningful component of the Council’s and the City government’s activities. It’s not clear when we could reach a point of being able to conduct the kind of analysis contemplated by the resolution. It’s my view that, if the project moves forward, it makes sense to maintain a focus on these issues without tying the vote to a specific set of analyses.
I say that partly because the Junction isn’t the only City initiative that is connected to racial equity, and we’re moving forward on those fronts as we continue efforts to refine the policy. This includes actions like strengthening rent stabilization; putting money in the affordable housing fund; our Payment in Lieu of Taxes initiatives; the work we’re doing to create an Affordable Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan; expansion of our recreation programs so they serve more lower income and under-served communities; renovation of the Library with more room for children’s programming; studying options for rehabilitation of the New Hampshire Ave. Recreation Center; pressing the County School Board for a fairer, more inclusive approach to school siting; seeking ways to reduce negative impacts from the Purple line with a key goal of preserving affordability; improvements in outreach by translation of City documents into more languages (including in the Newsletter); a resident survey augmented by focus groups and a concentration on less engaged parts of our community; encouraging more diversity on resident committees; placing a high priority on community policing and better police relations with residents, especially young people of color; and targeting City grant programs to initiatives that serve lower income residents and people of color.
4. I respect the goal of seeking a consensus on the Junction, and I’ve certainly sought ways to help promote that goal. But I don’t see the type of additional public meetings suggested here as likely to produce that outcome, especially given the much longer time frame connected to the second criterion in the resolution.
So, for these reasons I don’t support the alternative resolution.
CONCLUSION -- LIVING TOGETHER AS NEIGHBORS
In some ways, the Junction development has taken on an out-sized level of importance, disproportionate to its size and likely impact. If it goes forward, whether scaled back or more or less in its current form, it’s my view that it won’t transform the City (positively or negatively). It will likely have a more modest impact, mainly on the parts of town closer to the Junction. If we do it right, the project will draw more people to the site, again mostly from within a walkable range, though without the public space changes I favor, that will be more difficult. And while I haven’t seen the project as a major revenue raiser, it should produce additional funds for the City, and I expect that will increase over time.
Some residents have suggested the idea of a referendum on the development plan. Again, I believe I understand the impulse behind this idea, but in the representative form of government we have, I see referenda as being appropriate for more fundamental changes to the structure or process of our municipal government. Examples would include switching our elections to even years (which will happen in 2020), or potentially making Council positions full-time. That’s an idea I’d like to see us begin to explore, as I mentioned most recently when I was on Takoma Radio last Wednesday.
For decisions on policies or projects, as opposed to that type of more basic change to our system of governance, I think it makes more sense for Councilmembers to vote, of course based on engagement with the widest possible cross section of residents. In that context, I was disappointed to hear about the recall effort that’s been mounted. To me, the recall process was created for situations involving malfeasance or corruption, as opposed to disagreement over decisions on policies and projects, no matter how hard-fought.
A few final thoughts; since I was elected to the Council I’ve been starting my messages to Ward One residents with the salutation “Dear Neighbors.” That may seem like a pretty basic description, but for me there’s a deeper meaning behind the phrase. I believe one of the best things about Takoma Park is our sense of community and neighborliness. It’s what struck me when my family first moved here. We knew we wanted to live in the City, but we didn’t fully appreciate that we were moving into a true community, where neighbors care about and look out for each other on a daily basis.
The message of our amazing Independence Day parade isn’t our progressive values and quirkiness -- it’s those things combined with a community-oriented and, yes, patriotic display. I would put our family values and neighborliness up against any more conservative town that wants to claim those things for itself.
That being said, I worry that what’s taking place on the national political scene may add to the temptation of demonizing those with whom we have differences. It’s natural for residents to feel passionately about where they live, but that passion could also be focused on promoting comity, even with the strong disagreements that exist. So when we meet this Wednesday, I encourage everyone to keep in mind that -- whatever happens at the Council session and beyond -- we’ll continue living together in the same community. That means we should treat those with whom we disagree in a respectful manner, like the neighbors we are.
Please feel free to be in touch with comments or questions about any of the points discussed in this message, or if you would like to set up a meeting with me.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One