Monday, May 25, 2015

Council update: Zoning matters

Tuesday evening's (May 26) city council agenda includes two zoning-related items with broad implications, even if their immediate impacts focus on particular neighborhoods. One is a proposed county zoning text amendment (ZTA) introduced by Councilmember Nancy Floreen at the behest of Washington Adventist University, which hopes to build on Maplewood Avenue beyond the 35-foot height limit imposed by the neighborhood's R-60 (residential, single-family home) zoning. The second is a review of development standards in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area that was prompted by a proposal to locate a Taco Bell restaurant, built around a drive-thru service window, at New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane.

The stories behind these items will lead us, I hope, to a discussion of zoning and development city-wide, leading us further toward a more Takoma Park-y set of local development guidelines.

Takoma Park's 'Look and Feel'

The May 26 council meeting opens with public comment at 7:30 pm. It includes a Resolution Accepting the Report of the Residential Streetscape Task Force (which should be followed in the coming months by formal adoption of task force recommendations. View the April 20 task force report online.) The meeting will close with a Review of Policy for New Sidewalk Design and Installation.

These latter items address very specific aspects of the Takoma Park's "look and feel." So we're taking two steps forward, and we're on the defensive against being pushed two steps back --

Proposed ZTA 15-04: Washington Adventist University Overbuilding

Of the two zoning items, the first, proposed ZTA 15-04, would damage a different aspect of our city's "look and feel," by allowing over-building on a residential street. The city council has already passed one resolution opposing it, on April 13. We expect to consider and vote on another opposing resolution next week, made necessary by changes to the ZTA being discussed by the county council. You can help. Please write Councilmember Nancy Floreen <Councilmember.Floreen@montgomerycountymd.gov>. Identify yourself as a constituent and ask her to withdraw ZTA 15-04.Copy me and/or City Councilmember Jarrett Smith <jarretts@takomaparkmd.gov> if you wish.

The Crossroads: 'Quality, Mixed-Use, Pedestrian Oriented'

The Takoma/Langley Crossroads item was, as I wrote, prompted by an active proposal to build a Taco Bell with a drive-thru service window on New Hampshire Avenue. I oppose this proposal, as I wrote on April 29. In particular, a drive-thru is inconsistent with the city's Holton Lane Area Improvement Vision and with our larger New Ave initiative, which promotes "quality, mixed-use, pedestrian oriented project[s]." The proposed Taco Bell project is none of those things.

Supporting the New Ave Vision
My council colleague Tim Male has stated a belief that "we deserve stronger control over the look, feel, size and pace of development in Takoma Park." I agree completely. But what mechanism? Tim "think[s] the city needs to work with the county to update our 15 year old Master Plan OR we should consider taking on independent zoning authority as Rockville and Gaithersburg do." I agree here too, regarding the first alternative: A Master Plan reappraisal is in order, whatever else we do. Regarding zoning authority, the approach I would pursue is different. We can work within the current county system, without enlarging city government. How?

Much of Takoma Park -- but not Takoma/Langley Crossroads -- is part of the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (commercial revitalization) overlay zone. This overlay zone alters the rules for a smaller area within a very large county. But the TPESS overlay rules are not well adapted for New Hampshire Avenue, for the mixed-use, transit-oriented, higher-density development that, I believe, the community will welcome along this major commercial corridor. We seek smart growth, not sprawl-style land mis-use.

Our approach: Work with Montgomery County to create a new 'New Ave' overlay zone that would facilitate realizing the New Ave vision. The New Ave overlay zone would cover the length of New Hampshire Avenue in the city (with portions remapped from the TPESS overlay zone) plus University Blvd. between NH and Carroll Avenues. (And I sure hope it would disallow restaurant drive-thrus, which detract from pedestrian friendliness and do nothing to promote the greater business district.) Of course, continuing collaboration with Prince George's County, and intensified efforts to guide property owners to community-compatible land uses -- uses that create economic opportunity and attractions, amenities, and jobs -- will be essential.

For the record: I did not originate this idea of a new overlay zone for the crossroads and New Hampshire Avenue. It was suggested by a public official who is expert in zoning and planning matters. Expert assistance and joint work with Montgomery County, along with community input, will be required to make it reality. The effort will be worthwhile.

Your Thoughts?

Please do share your thoughts, during public comment at a council meeting or e-mail to the council via clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. My next drop-in office time will be this Wednesday, 8-9 am, at 7006 Carroll Avenue #202, and you can reach me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov and 301-873-8225.

Seth

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Budget votes and Old Takoma parking: The May 11 city council agenda

The Monday evening, May 11 city council meeting will include a first vote on three ordinances: Setting fiscal year 2016 property-tax rates, adopting an FY16 stormwater management budget, and adopting an FY16 budget covering all other aspects of city operations. Second reading votes are scheduled for May 18. Tomorrow evening's meeting and May 18th's are your last opportunities to comment prior to adoption of the city's FY16 budget!

Visit the agenda page for material on each of these items -- and you may wish to revisit my April 29 "reconciliation" write-up. I highlighted areas where the council altered City Manager Suzannne Ludlow's proposed budget, by eliminating certain spending, adding a few items, and putting an extra $100,000 toward the city's unfunded police pension liability while reducing the property-tax rate increase to 1.5 cents from 2 cents per $100 assessed value. Again, the revenue generated by this increase will go foremost toward a three-year, catch-up phase-in of higher staff pay.

Also on the Monday evening agenda, a Continued Discussion of Parking Adjacent to Commercial Areas.

This discussion is of particular interest for PEN, Victory Tower, and Old Town-Carroll residents in Ward 1, who are most affected by commercial and residential development in Old Takoma, notably the recent opening of Busboys & Poets and the Takoma Central apartments and the start of construction of residential buildings behind the CVS between Maple and Willow Streets NW. Old Takoma residents and business patrons are also affected by the recent conversion of the private lot at Willow and Carroll Avenues to paid parking.

Do consider attending the council meeting -- public comment is at 7:30 pm -- or send comments by e-mail to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. And my next twice-monthly drop-in office time will be Tuesday (2nd Tuesday), 5-6 pm, at 7006 Carroll Avenue #202, and after that, May 27 (4th Wednesday), 8-9 am. Or phone me with your thoughts or questions: 301-873-8225.

Seth

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Taco Bell in Takoma Park?!

MUY! Companies, based in San Antonio, Texas, the 6th largest franchise restaurant company in the U.S., proposes to build a new Taco Bell restaurant in Takoma Park, at the corner of Holton Lane and New Hampshire Avenue. The development will reportedly include outdoor seating, a drive-through, improved pedestrian areas, sidewalks, landscaping, and stormwater management.

I recognize and appreciate MUY!'s willingness to invest in our community. That New Hampshire Avenue spot is currently an unproductive, unattractive expanse of asphalt, part of the Aldi grocery parking lot. Nonetheless --

I oppose the plan. The proposed Taco Bell, with a drive-up service window, is a poor fit for Takoma Park.

Yet I see a win-win-win path forward, one that welcomes MUY!'s proposed investment in Takoma Park, in keeping with MUY!'s statement, "We also believe in investing in our neighborhoods." (http://muycompanies.com/)

This win-win-win path forward also accommodates Takoma Park priorities that include promotion of locally owned, non-chain businesses and pedestrian friendly development (that is, deep-six the drive-up service window).

The third winner is the local economy, which features a diversity of successful, non-chain (or small-chain) restaurants such as, along Takoma Park's New Ave, Mid-Atlantic Seafood, Sardi's Pollo a la Brasa, and Tiffin, The Indian Kitchen.

What better way for MUY! to invest in the neighborhood than by partnering with a small, local business to create a non-chain restaurant that would be far better suited to this vibrant section of Takoma Park? As a minority (49% or less) owner, MUY! would bring financial resources and food-service expertise to the table. MUY! and partner would revise their site design to promote visits that extend to other area businesses, that help build community instead of catering to pass-through business.

MUY! Companies, how about it? I'm sure the City of Takoma Park and our diverse community would warmly welcome your venture here, reworked to promote our shared values!

Seth Grimes

Takoma Park City Council, Ward 1
sethg@takomaparkmd.gov, 301-873-8225


References:

1) Holton Lane Area Improvement Vision (2009):

"The streetscape represents the public realm – the place where the pedestrian interacts with the built environment, and great care must be taken to ensure that Holton Lane is perceived as an attractive, comfortable, and safe place to spend time. The streetscape should strike a balance between the pedestrian and the car, accommodating both without sacrificing safety and comfort for the pedestrian."

2) International Corridor Community Legacy Plan (2003):

See page 16 of the file (page 23 of the doc), which call for "Recruitment and marketing of area to ethnic restaurants and food services," "Build critical mass and clustering of internationally-themed businesses in several commercial nodes along the corridor," "Increase the number of internationally-themed businesses recruited to the corridor over time," etc. Further down, we have the opinion, "Presently, the Corridor is an unwieldy auto-oriented mess."

Takoma Park city budget reconciliation -- outcome

The following is a short report for constituents on the outcome of Takoma Park city FY16 budget reconciliation. Reconciliation is the process by which the council decides on additions to, and subtractions from, the city manager's proposed budget.

The council agreed, Monday night, to raise the property tax rate by 1.5 cents. The city manager had proposed 2 cents.

The tax-rate increase is necessary because we need to bring staff salaries back to competitive levels, which we'll do over the course of the next three years and in order to meet city service priorities. Fortunately, we did identify revenue that wasn't included in the proposed budget: $175,000 in Community Parks and Playgrounds funds and $92,378 in additional Maryland state Highway User Revenue. Further, we are drawing on our unrestricted general fund reserves, in order to keep the tax increase down, and this year, we will put an extra $100,000 toward the city's unfunded police-pension liability, beyond the yearly payment recommended by our actuary.

The council agreed Monday evening, by a 4-3 vote, to include $200,000 in library design funding in the FY16 budget. The council will decide which of the three options put forward by the consultant (Lukmire Partnership) after discussions starting in June, and we may direct that the design work in elements that aren't in the chosen option. Actual construction work would start in FY17, which starts July 1, 2016. We will have to pay for the project -- $3-4 million -- by borrowing money, by issuing a bond. We may be able to get the state to cover some of the cost.

The city council put an extra $19 thousand into the Lunch & Learn program, organized by Councilmember Jarrett Smith, making the city's total FY16 contribution $25 thousand, matched by $45 thousand from Adventist Community Services. We will put an extra $30 thousand into the MANUP youth mentoring program, $30 thousand for more-durable crosswalks along Maple Avenue between Philadelphia Avenue and Sligo Creek, and $10 thousand toward consulting on steps to improve police-community relations.

The budget includes funds to provide additional, grant assistance to community organizations: $165 thousands for large grants and $15 thousand for mini-grants.

We will not create a proposed new management position. Instead, we will evaluate resources needed to promote economic development, after a new deputy city manager is in place. (The DCM search opened yesterday.) We will not fund the start of a proposed city-boundary survey, and we will make modest city TV cuts, in contractor use, that I hope we can enlarge in a process of evaluating city TV coverage beyond core city events.

The budget and tax rate will be officially enact via votes scheduled for May 11 and May 18. I don't expect significant changes, so long as there are no surprises that affect the city in Montgomery County's enacted FY16 budget.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

ALERT: Old Takoma parking

I met Friday afternoon, April 17, with Bill Kirchiro, owner of the commercial property at Laurel & Carroll Avenues, which includes the parking lot at Willow & Carroll.

Bill has engaged a parking-management company and will start a six-month paid-parking trial on/around May 1. Expected hourly-rate hours are 7 am-5 pm. Flat-rate parking would start at 5 pm, running until maybe 8 pm Monday-Thursday evenings and later Fri-Sat evening.

Times and rates and the whole trial approach are subject to change.

An attendant will staff the Carroll Avenue lot entrance near the old drive-through bank teller structure. The other Carroll Avenue driveway, nearer Willow Avenue, will be closed. The Willow Avenue lot driveway will also be closed, except for waste hauling access.

The basic rate will be $4/hour between 7 am and 5 pm, or $2/hour with a receipt from one of the Carroll & Laurel businesses (Mark's Kitchen, the Middle East Restaurant, Dolci Gelati, the shops and offices.) The flat rate starting at 5 pm will be $10, or $2 with a business receipt. The business tenants will be able to buy passes for themselves and stamps for their visitors. (My own business and the city attorney, the Silber & Perlman law firm, are office tenants at Laurel & Carroll. We don't have any other business interests here.)

I'm sure many drivers will react to the switch by using street parking spaces -- at meters and on nearby residential streets -- and by using the lot behind the Laurel Avenue strip, which is currently free for the first hour.

Takoma Park's street meters are active 7 am to 7 pm, Mon-Sat. (A few meters are active Sundays until 1 pm.) The meter rate is currently $.75/hour. Most meters have a two-hour limit; some have a one-hour limit. There is also plentiful metered parking in the District, along Eastern Ave NW and Laurel Ave NW.

Parking in the lot behind the Laurel Avenue strip costs $3/hour after the first hour, with a $16 daily maximum; Sunday parking is a $2.50 flat fee.

Takoma Park residential zone hours are 8 am to 7 pm, covering Tulip, Willow, Maple, Cedar, and Holly.

The city recently hired a new, half-time parking enforcement officer who started just a few weeks ago. I will ask the city manager to have special attention paid to Old Takoma for the next few months, starting May 1.

(As an aside, I've been asking the city administration, for a few years now, to raise our street parking rates to $1/hour, matching the rate in Silver Spring. Street parking in downtown Bethesda costs $2/hour.)

Residents can consider petitioning to extend residential zone hours later in the evening although because both the meter hours and the current residential zone hours end at 7 pm, that step may not be necessary. I'm happy to discuss other steps.

Seth, 301-873-8225

Residential Streetscape Task Force presentation, Monday evening April 20

Takoma Park's Residential Streetscape Task Force will report findings and recommendations at the Monday evening, April 20 city council meeting. The RSTF presentation is scheduled for 7 pm and will be followed by public comment and then the regular council meeting, starting at 7:30 pm.

I'll write about the streetscape work a bit farther down. First --

There are two worksession items on the council's Monday evening agenda, scheduled to start at 8 pm: a) discussion of options for LED conversion of street lights and b) the police chief's quarterly update.

Our aim, in the street light discussion, is to understand option benefits and costs given the goal of reducing energy consumption. According to staff, street lights make up about 60% of the city's electric use each year. Converting every streetslight to LEDs would reduce Takoma Park's municipal energy use by 30%, an important gain in its own right and one that would advance us in the the Georgetown Energy Challenge competition.

Police Chief Alan Goldberg will report on crime, staffing, emergency management, technology, and other matters. I'll have questions for him, myself, regarding status of the Takoma Park Police Department's implementation of license-plate reader (LPR) data sharing with the Maryland state data-fusion center and the city's Community Cam video-sharing program, both of which were approved by the council last year, in July and November, respectively. A July, 2014 presentation on the then-proposed Community Cam program is online.

Finally, regarding the police: Mayor Bruce Williams said, at last week's council meeting, that he will schedule discussion of department policy on the photographing of minors for a June council meeeting. Councilmember Kate Stewart has been seeking that discussion for quite some time, also Councilmember Terry Seamens,

*Residential Streetscape Task Force Report*

The council appointed a Residential Streetscape Task Force (RSTF) in November 2013, as a follow-on to a June presentation by an ad-hoc residents group. That presentation, Improving the Streetscape of Takoma Park's Residential Neighborhoods, is online. And so is the RSTF's report.

Thanks to RSTF members David Cookson, John Lorenz, Thomas Luebke, Pierre Perrolle, and Frances Phipps for their diligent work! I'm looking forward to their presentation and expect that the mayor will schedule council discussion, of city implementation of RSTF recommendations, at an up-coming council meeting.

Please do share your thoughts, regarding the streetscape, police, or other city issues: sethg@takomaparkmd.gov, 301-873-8225.

Thanks,

Seth

Friday, April 10, 2015

City budget public hearing, resolution on Takoma Junction developer: April 13 at the city council

The city council will hold a public hearing on the FY 2016 budget, Monday, April 13 at 7:00 pm. Your comment is invited, at the hearing in the city auditorium or by e-mail to the city clerk, clerk@takomaparkmd.gov.

City Manager Suzanne Ludlow's proposed budget is online. It includes a 2 cent increase in the property-tax rate, our first increase since 2002. The increase would cost the owner of a $500,000 property $100 per year. It would allow the city to maintain current services, fulfill commitments that include building a dog park, and start a phased pay increase for staff. The city has had only small wage increases since 2010. Our aim this year is to raise employee compensation to a level that is fair, reasonable, and competitive.

To get the essence of the budget quickly, I suggest you read:

- The city manager's budget presentation. It walks you through the budget high points and concludes with a timeline for discussion and budget adoption.

- The 2-page FY 2016 Budget at a Glance table on pages 9-10 of the budget document.

I did suggest one budget modification. The city manager included a "place-holder" management-level position, with duties to include economic development that have not yet been defined. I prefer a different approach. I would not create a new position now. Instead, I would consider creating a position or hiring a consultant, for economic development, after needs and tasks have been defined and discussed publicly. We can make any needed changes via a mid-year budget amendment. The council will take up my suggestion and other possible changes during "reconciliation" in a few weeks.

On Monday evening, in addition --

There will be a reception to celebrate Suzie's appointment as city manager, at 6 pm Monday evening. All are welcome.

And at 8 pm, the council will vote a "Resolution Authorizing the Initiation of Negotiations with Neighborhood Development Company, LLC for the Redevelopment of the City Lot at the Takoma Junction." The resolution and cover memo capture our rationale for our selection of NDC.

The posted file includes an NDC Preliminary Project Timeline with three project phases:

1) A 9-month feasibility period that includes a traffic study and 6-month, overlapping windows for community engagement and schematic architectural design. The outcome of the feasibility period is execution of a development agreement.

2) A projected 18 months for municipal approvals, architecture & permitting.

3) An 18-month construction period.

According to this schedule, you can expect construction to be completed in four years, in 2019. During this same period, starting next year, I expect the city and community will tackle streetscape, pedestrian, traffic, and business improvements for the whole of Takoma Junction.

I'm really excited about Takoma Junction possibilities and about our opportunity to similarly revitalize the New Ave -- New Hampshire Avenue -- and Takoma-Langley Crossroads in the years to come!

Seth, sethg@takomaparkmd.gov, 301-873-8225