As noted in the message I circulated on Friday, the revised Takoma Junction development plan submitted by NDC was officially accepted for formal review last week by the Montgomery County Planning Office. More recently, on Tuesday NDC sent a letter (https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/initiatives/project-directory/Takoma-Junction/2019-NDC-Updates/20190219-AW-Letter_to_TPCityCouncil-corrected.pdf) to the City confirming that they will be seeking approval from the County for a substantially smaller design for the Junction project, as measured by overall square footage, in order to keep the structure within the appropriate zoning limits. Yesterday the City Manager sent an email to Councilmembers in reaction to that letter, clarifying some points about communications with NDC, and also addressing questions about the role of City staff and potential next steps on the project. That email is appended to this message.
As most residents are aware, I voted against the earlier, larger version of the site plan approved by the Council last year, in particular because of my concern about what I saw as a lack of sufficient street level public space at the front of the development. I’m still reviewing the very lengthy set of documents NDC submitted to the County, which you can access through this link: (http://eplans.montgomeryplanning.org/daiclinks/pdoxlinks.aspx?apno=820190090). My initial reaction is that -- even with a 17 percent reduction in the overall size of the building -- the public space questions aren’t addressed by the new design, because the front façade would remain the same as in the earlier site plan.
In any case, I think it’s essential, given the scope of the modifications to the project, that the Council have appropriate opportunities to be briefed on the new design, discuss it, consider changes, and decide whether we support it. At this point, I’m not sure what the best process for doing that would be. As I mentioned on Friday, the Junction proposal is scheduled to be on the Planning Office's Development Review Committee agenda on March 19, and later there would be a public hearing before the County Planning Board. I’ll be continuing to talk with residents, my Council colleagues and City staff about how our need to better understand the new design and react to it would best fit in with that County process. And as part of that, I’m very interested in hearing from recipients of this message. So please feel free to contact me with your thoughts on this set of issues.
Regardless of how we proceed with respect to the County process, it’s clear that, in order to be able to continue working with NDC -- especially taking into account the matters that are detailed in their letter and the City Manager’s email -- it will be essential to see improvements in how they communicate with us. I’ll be placing a high priority on that as we move ahead.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council, Ward One
Here’s the email from City Manager Suzanne Ludlow:
I have seen a number of email posts about the change in the NDC Takoma Junction project that questions what happened. Some of the more troubling comments question staff’s role and competence or ethics.
First, as I have shared through my City Manager Comments and the posts on the Takoma Junction project page, the change in the zoning for the site (to NR) in 2014 restricted development options that were previously available and continue to be available in most other zones. In particular, the restriction of transferable development rights (TDRs) to just adjacent properties in the NR zone for the purpose of determining the allowable building size was eliminated. This change was not highlighted when the NR zone was created, and was not known by City staff. It appears that it was not previously known by County planning staff either. NDC and its experienced development legal firm did not know until they had their zoning consultant doublecheck every detail in their application.
This zoning information on the floor area ratio (FAR or building mass) limit was learned after the project had received the approval from City Council to move into the County development review process.
When NDC learned that its floor area ratio (FAR) was too large for the NR-zoned site, they looked to purchase transferable development rights (TDRs) from adjacent parcels in the NR zone. They also considered pursuing a zoning text amendment to allow transferable development rights from the Healey Surgeons building, which is in a different zone. These efforts to purchase TDRs were ultimately unsuccessful.
Part of the reason staff had urged the City Council to approve having the plan move forward into the County’s review process was to be able to find out information from the various departments and agencies that must examine the plans in detail. City staff are not experts in a number of development review areas, such as zoning, utility or fire department requirements. The information learned from the Development Review Committee (DRC) may lead to other changes of the configuration of the building or site plan. Once this information is identified, the Council will want to see if the revised plans meet its goals for the project and still adhere to the terms of the Development Agreement. Most of the information from the County departments and other agencies and utilities will be learned in the March 19th DRC meeting. There may still be requests for additional information from NDC made at that meeting, but enough information on aspects of the plan that may need to be changed should become known at that time. Soon after the DRC meeting, I recommend that NDC come to a Council meeting to present its modified plan and City staff can share comments learned from the DRC meeting.
Some time after that, the Council can consider a resolution on the revised plan. The resolution can be a recommendation to the Planning Board to "approve" or "approve with conditions" the revised plan, or it can be a resolution to withdraw the application and/or end the project. In any event, the resolution would be based on detailed information that is not available at this time.
Second: What has been the role of City staff? Should they have known of the zoning FAR restrictions? Have they known information and not shared it with the Council and public? Have they acted unethically?
City staff function as both champions of the project as an economic development project with a legal City partner and as technical staff reviewers. We have been careful to keep those roles separate and, in particular, to provide objective technical planning information.
City staff did not know of the restrictions on TDRs as part of the FAR calculations for the project. However, we were aware of a different unfortunate provision of the NR zone: the lack of the option to gain additional building size or similar in return for additional public benefits, including larger community space, the addition of public art, or the provision of other public goods. For that reason, City staff had advocated against zoning the property NR during the 2014 County Zoning update.
Staff has worked very hard to share information in a transparent way. We provide an enormous amount of information on the website, we asked for weekly updates from NDC that are posted on the website and we have promptly notified the Council when we have learned new information.
I am taken aback by some claims (even from NDC!) that staff has known information at a point earlier than we did, in fact, know it. Regarding the move to a plan for a smaller building in the County review process, here is the timeline:
Between the time the City Council acted on the NDC plan and the beginning of the submission to the County, staff was made aware that NDC was looking to pursue TDRs. When NDC was just about to begin submitting the plan to the County, we learned, and shared with the public, that the submission to the County was for the plan approved by Council but that that plan would require TDRs to meet zoning building size requirements and that the information on the source of the TDRs was not included. Later, we were informed that there was a delay in the acceptance of the plans for review by the County because the County wanted to see a “by right” plan – a plan of a building of the size without the additional square footage TDRs could bring. We were told that both the City Council-approved plan with all of the details and the smaller plan would be considered by the DRC. We promptly shared that information with Council and the public. We were then surprised when the application was not “accepted” for review on the date when we had been told by County staff it would likely occur - Tuesday, February 12. Even in my City Manager Comments of February 13, I mentioned that we expected the plans to be accepted and made public shortly.
On Thursday, February 14, we learned from NDC that, rather than having the City Council-approved plan with all of the details and a smaller plan, the plan of the somewhat smaller building would be the primary plan for review by the DRC. Even at that time, we still thought that NDC might pursue some TDRs or a zoning text amendment.
Because the news that the plans for the smaller building were to be the primary plans for review was quite different than I had shared with the Council, I asked NDC for a letter to the Council explaining the situation.
Yesterday, February 19, City staff received a letter from Adrian Washington of NDC that stated that they were only pursuing the smaller plan, that NDC had known this since late January and that City staff had been kept fully in the loop on all of this information. I was quite upset. I asked NDC for a revised letter that took out the reference to knowing this information in late January, as that was completely not true. While we certainly had not been kept in the loop on all information by NDC, a sentence to that effect was kept in a revised letter that was submitted.
I immediately sent the revised letter to the Councilmembers to give a head’s up before having the information posted on the City’s website. Unfortunately, when we posted the information on the City’s website, we accidentally posted the first letter. The letter has since been replaced with the correct one.
At no time has my staff ever acted unethically on this project (or any other project). We pride ourselves on following the tenets of our professional associations as planners and managers. We greatly respect the role of the Council and the public on making decisions with full information in the best interest of the community.
As we move forward, we will continue to try to find ways to learn and share information promptly. I will be working with Council and NDC on better communication methods for this project.
Also, we have a new staff member, Samira Cook Gaines, our new Economic Development Manager. Her assistance on working with small and larger business owners should help protect and enhance our existing business community as we advance Council goals on this and other initiatives.
I would have shared this information as part of my City Manager Comments at a Council meeting tonight, but the Council meeting was canceled due to the weather. I wanted to go ahead and share it with you so you can help address the questions you are hearing from your constituents. Please let me know if there is additional information you would like to know.