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Welcome to my blog, which features frequent updates on local Takoma Park issues, including City Council meeting agendas, plus occasional commentary on national news and politics.

Takoma Junction Site Plan to go to County Review Process

Dear Neighbors:

I expect most residents are aware that in our meeting on July 25 the City Council approved the Takoma Junction site plan resolution, a step which paves the way for the plan to enter the County review process. Here’s a link to the final version of the resolution we adopted:  https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/resolutions/2018/resolution-2018-41.pdf.

In addition to sending this message to the usual email lists I use for this blog, I’m also circulating it to other Ward One residents who contacted me recently by email or sent comments to the City Clerk. I apologize if I failed to respond to your email initially. With the high volume, I missed a few when they first came in, and I would welcome any follow-up comments if this message doesn’t address specific concerns you raised.

The Council approved the site plan resolution on a 5 - 2 vote, and I was one of the no votes. As I explained in my July 23 blog (http://www.councilmemberkovar.com/blog/2018/7/23/update-on-takoma-junction-development-1), my biggest concern about the site plan since it was released in April has been what I consider to be an inadequate amount of public space as part of the development. When my amendment to increase the amount of public space was defeated in last week’s Council meeting, I then voted against the resolution on final passage.

Alternative Resolution.  Prior to debate on the site plan resolution, we considered an alternative resolution put forward by Councilmember Smith that called for delaying the vote until four conditions are met: the Co-op/NDC mediation is complete; the funding and design of a potential re-configuration of the intersection has been determined; there has been a full 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 voted against that alternative when it was voted down by the Council 6 - 1. My July 23 blog includes a detailed explanation of my concerns about the alternative resolution. To summarize, I opposed it because I thought it wouldn’t be productive for us to approve what amounted to an open-ended delay in consideration of the site plan.

Under the Council’s parliamentary procedures, once Councilmember Smith formally offered his alternative it needed to be “seconded” by another Councilmember in order to be officially considered. While I didn’t agree with the substance of the alternative, I also didn’t think it would be healthy for there to be no discussion of the topics it raised. So, I seconded the alternative resolution, after which I explained that I didn’t support the type of open-ended delay it called for. Other Councilmembers were able to offer their views on the alternative as well.

Public Space Amendment.  Once the vote on the alternative resolution was complete, the Council turned its attention to the site plan resolution itself. I thought my amendment on public space was important because, while other aspects of the site plan -- including for example the building’s height, the appearance of the facade, and the safety and function of the lay-by -- will have to be reviewed by the County planning office, the Historic Preservation Commission, or the State Highway Administration, none of those agencies will be an advocate on behalf of more space for the City.

That was why I decided to offer the public space amendment, even though a previous version had been rejected by the Council a few weeks earlier. That earlier amendment called for reducing the square footage of the building by 15 percent, with the additional space generated through that reduction dedicated to public space at street level. The amendment I offered this past week called for a 10 percent cut in the building’s square footage, with the additional open space added at street level in front of the main façade. The public space would have been nearly double what it is at present in the site plan. Unfortunately, the amendment was voted down on a 5 - 2 vote.

I hope it turns out I’m wrong about the amount of public space being insufficient, or that there will be further opportunities to expand it as the project continues to move forward. However, with the failure of that amendment, which to me dealt with an issue that was so central to the entire project, I decided it made the most sense for me to vote against the overall resolution.

I would add that another significant concern about the site plan is the building’s height, which in my view is excessive for the Junction area, in addition to being taller than most of the commercial buildings in Old Town. I’m pleased that the Council did add language in the lead-up to consideration of the resolution that calls for reducing the height by “up to” five feet, and I’ll be pushing for the maximum reduction as we move ahead.

Other Amendments.  Other amendments I sponsored or supported as the Council developed the final version of the resolution include: ensuring any changes to the site plan that become necessary based on the Co-op/NDC mediation are promptly forwarded to the County planning office; calling for a written agreement between the City and NDC to minimize negative impacts from the construction process, and requiring the lay-by to be built first in order to help with the Co-op’s operations; prioritizing safety of walkers, bikers and public transit users, giving appropriate consideration to historic preservation concerns, and minimizing cut-through traffic, all as part of any work we may do with State Highway on reconfiguration of the intersection; improving the design of the rear portion of the building, and exploring creation of a walking path in the green space; strengthening the project’s environmental requirements beyond the LEED Gold level; underlining the importance of local, community-oriented businesses as retail tenants, and banning chain stores unless there's a Council vote in favor of a given store; and applying ground lease payments and other project revenues to the City’s Affordable Housing Fund.

I think these and other changes we made did help make the resolution better. And even though I continue to have major concerns about public space and height which may not be able to be addressed, I’m glad we were able to make the changes we did. I intend to continue doing all I can to seek further improvements as the process unfolds. And, while last week’s Council action does have the effect of sending the project to the County review process, it doesn’t represent “final” approval of this version of the site plan, as there are many points in the review process where the project can end up being significantly revised.

Next Steps.  Among the key next steps are the continuation of the mediation process involving the Co-op and NDC (with the Council set to meet in September to review the mediation results); and the beginning of the County review process. I’ll pass along information about these and other actions as appropriate. In addition, I’d be glad to meet with residents to talk over the recent developments or to discuss what may happen with the project going forward.

Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One

240-319-6281; www.councilmemberkovar.com

Update on Takoma Junction Development