Friday, June 12, 2015

June 15 discussion of library options, and a question: Should the city offer paid parental leave to employees?

The Monday evening, June 15 city council meeting will be devoted to a discussion of library renovation options, taking place in and around the library, taking place after a public hearing and vote on debt issuance -- debt refinancing, actually -- and a first vote on a revised employee classification and compensation system.

The public hearing is legally required, scheduled for 7 pm. Usual public comment on other matters will be at 7:30 pm. According to the city manager, refinancing a bond issued to pay for the community center will result in anticipated savings of about $160,000 over 10 years.

Paid Parental Leave?

The council discussed the proposed revised employee classification and compensation system last week. The city aims to make up for ground lost during the recession. The revision will raise pay to fair, competitive levels. We plan to phase in higher pay over the next three years.

During last week's discussion, I brought up another compensation possibility. I asked the council to direct the city manager to evaluate offering paid maternity and paternity leave (which would extend to adoptions) to city employees.

City employees already have the possibility of equivalent coverage, through employee-paid disability-leave options and donated sick leave. The city manager estimates that offering parental leave would cost the city some tens of thousands of dollars yearly. Yet "equivalent" is not "equal." I believe offering parental leave is the right thing to do. But we will pursue the matter only if there's support, hence my question to constituents:

Should the city offer paid parental leave to employees?

President Barack Obama noted, in last January's State of the Union address, "Today, we're the only advanced country on Earth that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers."

An employer can offer a benefit even if not legally required. I'm sure the city can craft a paid parental leave plan that works, at acceptable cost.

But what's your thought on the topic? Please let the city manager and council know, via e-mail to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov or comment at a council meeting.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Zoning Tools Can Help Takoma Park Shape Local Development

The City of Takoma Park has a variety of tools at its disposal, when it comes to guiding development within city limits.

Montgomery County zoning code, enacted by the County Council, applies in Takoma Park. Zoning is administered by the county's Planning Department and governed by the five-member Planning Board. Yet the city does have a say in zoning linked decision. I'll attempt to explain how Takoma Park can shape local development, reposting a write-up I sent to constituents as part of a neighborhood discussion.

The Takoma Park Historic District

Beyond base zoning code, a number of artifacts carry weight. They include (area) master plans, sector plans, and design guidelines. We also have -- and can seek modification of -- overlay zones that refine the base zoning for a defined area. This is all in addition to the Historic District protections. Finally, prospective developers are often required to submit site plans for Planning Board approval, and the city can and does weigh in on these.

I'll give examples and also explain a provision on state law that gives Takoma Park special say in zoning matters within the city. Residents with more expertise than I have (including Frances Phipps and Faroll Hamer) and others can add to, correct, or clarify all this.

Planning Documents


  • Much of Takoma Park is within the Takoma Park/East Silver Silver Spring Commercial Revitalization (TPESS) overlay zone, which was created a number of years ago and modified during the 2013 county-wide zoning rewrite.

  • I am advocating that the city discuss creation of an overlay zone for Takoma-Langley Crossroads and the full extent of New Hampshire Avenue in and bordering Takoma Park.


  • The Takoma Park Master Plan is available online.

  • It's possible to seek a "minor master plan amendment" in order to make adjustments.

    Other county master plans are functional, covering uses rather than specific geographic areas. Montgomery County's recently-adopted Bikeways Master Plan is an example.


  • You can also find the Takoma Langley Crossroads Sector Plan online.
  • For New Hampshire Avenue, we've created a Corridor Concept Plan and Streetscape Standards.

    I realize that these docs wouldn't cover residential tear-down situations, if the county were to alter residential zoning. I don't see much risk of that happening any time soon, but certainly we could discuss using the tools available to create new protections for Takoma Park residential neighborhoods outside the Historic District, within the county's zoning framework.

    A Special Supermajority Provision

    State code § 24-202 says, "A two-thirds majority vote of both the district council and the county planning board is required to take any action relating to zoning within the City of Takoma Park that is contrary to a resolution of the Mayor and City Council."

    Many Montgomery County zoning text amendments (ZTAs) -- including the now-withdrawn ZTA 15-04 -- would apply within the City of Takoma Park. Therefore a vote on such a matter, whether on a Planning Board resolution recommending alterations or an ordinance of the County Council (sitting as the district council) to enact a ZTA, is an "action relating to zoning within the City of Takoma Park."

    A Planning Board 3-2 vote would not advance a matter the City of Takoma Park opposes. A Montgomery County Council 5-4 vote would not advance such a matter.

    A Montgomery County legislative attorney I consulted agrees with this reading, as does a Montgomery County planning official. The real test, however, would come when we actually § 24-202. Takoma Park City Attorney Sue Silber said that she hasn't yet found any case law indicating a deviation from the plain reading of § 24-202.

    Do these references help in your understanding of tools Takoma Park can use to shape local development? Please do post comments or send me corrections.

    Relationships Count

    Do note that all I've described is tools. There is no substitute for forming relationships with the city's property owners, regional developments, county planning and elected officials, and state and Prince George's County officials. We need both tools and relationships if we are to successfully advance our own Takoma Park vision of locally appropriate, environmentally sound, transit friendly development that creates amenities and economic opportunity for all community stakeholders.

    Monday, June 8, 2015

    June 8 city council meeting: routine matters

    I haven't prepared an extensive update for this evening's city council meeting because the agenda items are routine matters: contract awards and policy clarifications. See for yourself: the agenda is online.

    I'll call out just two items:

    - The council will vote to move ahead with installation of sponsored notice-board kiosks in city parks. This initiative was organized by Play Lady Pat Rumbaugh (thanks!), who recruited a business that will donate the kiosks at no cost to the city. The kiosks would have a small donor logo. You can see the draft resolution and a design sketch online.

    - We are scheduled for the first of two required votes on a new classification and compensation plan for city staff. The plan is the outcome of policy discussions and union negotiations that took place over an extended period. The city contracted out for a compensation study in 2014; it found that "almost all salaries were below market levels and a number of positions were particularly low compared to similar positions in comparable municipalities." The city plans to bring salaries back to competitive levels, phasing in increases over three years.

    Thanks!

    Sunday, May 31, 2015

    More on Residential Area Parking, and More on Zoning and Development

    The Monday evening, June 1 city council meeting will include further council-staff discussion of parking in residential neighborhoods adjacent to commercial areas -- this is a special concern, of course, in Old Takoma and near Montgomery College -- plus a discussion of the city newsletter and a vote on resolution disapproving of proposed Montgomery County zoning text amendment (ZTA) 15-04. I'll describe this items and post a bit more one reasons to revisit zoning along New Hampshire Avenue and in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area, a topic I covered last week.

    Opposing Overbuilding at Washington Adventist University

    The resolution opposing ZTA 15-04 will pass unanimously. (A ZTA alters county zoning code. This one would allow Washington Adventist University to build beyond the 35-foot height limit imposed by Maplewood Avenue's residential zoning.) We did express opposition to the ZTA just weeks ago, via Resolution 2015-20. Monday evening's restatement is required because the county council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee is considering a modification to the original proposed ZTA. We do have two of PHED's three members on our side, namely Council President George Leventhal and Councilmember Hans Riemer, as well Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Tom Hucker. Given a negative PHED vote and George's opposition, it is likely that we'll be able to stop the ZTA. Nonetheless, we need to protect against reintroduction of a modified ZTA. At the suggestion of a sympathetic county legislative attorney, I have suggested adding language stating that we oppose ZTA 15-04 regardless of any revisions or amendments that may be made.

    The City Newsletter

    Takoma Park's city newsletter is the #1 most used city information source, according to our 2014 residents' survey. 93% of respondents read the newsletter at least once, as compared to 68% who visited the city's Web site. For 91% of respondents, it's a key information source, compared to 82% for #2, special mailings. Clearly the newsletter is important. Monday evening's council meeting will include a newsletter discussion: How can we make it even more useful?

    Parking

    Yup, another parking discussion. It's a thorny issue! A draft for a proposed parking study states, "Public parking is a community asset but should be well-managed to meet the needs of residents, businesses and visitors. City of Takoma Park parking regulations have not been comprehensively studied for decades and needs and technology have changed significantly over this time." With council approval, work would be done over the summer, with a report back to the Council in the fall. For more, visit the backgrounder, which details possible near-term adjustments and review -- to parking permit zones, grant of permits to businesses and non-profits, and data collection -- and possible long-term actions and options.

    Zoning and Development: New Hampshire Avenue

    My May 25 "Council update: Zoning matters" looked at certain zoning and development concerns along the New Ave -- a vision for a transformed New Hampshire Avenue between the Eastern Avenue NW and University Blvd. -- and the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area. I advocated higher density and mixed-use development, rather than, for instance, the pocket sprawl creation, at NH Ave and Holton Lane, of a single-story Taco Bell with a drive-thru service window.

    I thought I'd share a bit more of my thinking, a response to a constituent that I posted a few days ago to the PEN list. (I've made minor edits.) I start with a question --

    Here's an opportunity to ask yourself, "What would Sam Abbott do?" I ask myself that question occasionally. This Taco Bell chunk of pocket-sprawl development will be with us for decades and will set the stage for more like it. What would Sammie do?

    Let me reframe the discussion. Don't ask, "Why would a Taco Bell need a second floor?" Do ask, "What is the highest and best use for the site?" It's a mistake to ask, in effect, "What's the best design for a Taco Bell facility at the site?" I prefer to ask, "How can a Taco Bell fit in to a larger vision for the location?"

    Density is appropriate at that location and all along New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park. That's why, in a similar situation, the city negotiated with a property owner who's putting in a dry cleaner farther down New Hampshire Avenue, to put in a second level. The Taco Bell site is zoned to allow a floor area ratio (FAR) of 2.5. Given space for the drive-thru, I'd estimate the FAR of the proposed Taco Bell at .5, meaning that the one-story building fills half the lot. With a 2.5 max FAR, you could put up a 5 story building in that footprint!

    Further, the site is zoned for mixed-use development -- our New Ave initiative aspires to "quality, mixed-use, pedestrian oriented project[s]" -- which envisions that a site, even a building, will support a combination of retail, residential, office, and cultural/community uses.

    In Takoma/Langley Crossroads, buildings equal opportunity. Melanie Isis, the T/LC Development Authority's executive director, presented at a recent council meeting. She said that the T/LC's commercial occupancy rate is 98%.

    I went to a program May 24, here in Takoma Park, with Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Robert Goldman, president of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, speaking on demographics trends in our county. We're already way short on affordable housing. Where better to create new housing, in mixed-use developments, than in the transit-rich crossroads area?

    So to answer your question: The community -- businesses and people -- need a second floor, and maybe even more, on the Taco Bell building. And we lose opportunity if ground area is devoted to drive-thru service, which will mostly serve passers-by, at a congestion and pedestrian safety cost, rather than locals and visitors who will also patronize other businesses.

    The site -- we -- are inside the Beltway. Yet here we're contemplating a proposed Taco Bell, with a drive-thru, that's a small chunk of sprawl development in what should be a smart-growth zone.

    Your Thoughts?

    As always, please share you thoughts with me, at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225, or send comments for the council as a whole to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. Thanks for reading and engaging!

    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."