Monday, March 23, 2020

Redirection of city spending and FY21 budget planning in light of the covid-19 crisis

I wrote Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart and her City Council colleagues, regarding redirection of city spending and FY21 budget planning in light of the covid-19 crisis. Here's the text I sent today, March 23, 2020: Mayor, Councilmembers,

We as a community are looking at difficult times ahead. City spending -- current and planned for FY21 -- should reflect the unforeseen difficulties that will be faced by Takoma Park residents and businesses, altered demand for city services, and the likelihood that both city revenues and intergovernmental funding will take major hits, with lasting effects. I respectfully suggest you consider steps that include the following:

  • Systematic assessment of the city's ability to respond to residents' health, food security, and housing security needs, working with the county and state and local nonprofits.
  • Suspension of capital projects that are not substantially underway or required for public health or safety reasons.
  • Deferral of all capital purchases that are not required for public health or safety reasons.
  • A freeze on hiring for nonessential positions.

Looking at the agendas for up-coming council meetings, Mayor Stewart, I suggest in particular that you defer the authorization of a contract with RR/MM Lukmire Architects for library-renovation design work and award of a contract for a replacement recreation department bus.

I further suggest that the city postpone sidewalk installation and replacement work not already underway as well as rework of the police office space, which I believe hasn't started. Those are examples; I haven't reviewed the city's FY20 budget to see what other purchases and capital projects are pending. I'm sure there are other capital projects that can be put off.

City income tax revenues will likely take a big hit this year. Property-tax revenues could decrease after the next assessment cycle, and there'll be understandable pressure to lower the tax rate for FY21, which starts July 1, 2020. The city could lose anticipated intergovernmental revenues, from the county and state, in FY21.

It would be prudent to suspend nonessential city spending now, redirecting resources to residents and businesses who most need the city's help, and in the coming months, you'll want to rethink how the city will deliver services -- the Rec Department in particular and also the Library -- now, this summer, in the fall, and in the first half of 2021.


Seth Grimes

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Advocating a City of Takoma Park paid family leave benefit

I wrote Mayor Kate Stewart and her City Council colleagues, advocating a City of Takoma Park paid family leave benefit. Here's the text I sent today:

I am writing to ask the City of Takoma Park to implement a paid family leave benefit for city employees. While employees can already use sick leave and short-term disability to cover parental time off, this allowance falls short of a clear stance in support of an important social policy, one that has significant equity implications.

I wrote the council on this topic in October 2016 and had previously discussed it with the city manager and then-HR director in early 2015. In the time since, other jurisdictions have advanced paid family leave policies. The Council of the District of Columbia enacted the Universal Paid Leave Amendment Act of 2016 in December 2016. Per the page, "The District of Columbia is implementing paid family leave so you don’t have to choose between caring for yourself or your loved ones and your job security... On July 1, 2020, the District will begin administering paid leave benefits." Even the federal government is considering paid family leave for federal employees (

Offering a paid family leave benefit is the right thing to do. There are a variety of mechanisms the city might consider. The cost to the city does not have to be high. I urge you to direct the city manager to explore and report on options with the goal of timely implementation.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On zoning changes to produce housing across Takoma Park

The following is comment I sent to Takoma Park City Council members, given their September 25, 2019 discussion of Takoma Park's Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan.

Mayor Stewart, Councilmembers,

I'm glad to see work advancing on Takoma Park's Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan.

I note that one of the plan's three thematic points is that the City should "Produce more housing and opportunities for local businesses to start and grow across the income spectrum and in neighborhoods across the City to meet the diverse housing and economic needs." One strategy within the first objective of the Produce thematic point is "changes in allowable use or zoning may be considered as a way to accomplish this."

For the city to produce more housing "in neighborhoods across the City," zoning and land-use reform must be a central strategy. In neighborhoods such as my own Ward 1 neighborhood -- and especially in our historic district -- the only way to create housing, "across the income spectrum" in particular, is by allowing conversion of existing single-unit housing stock to multi-unit buildings and, in certain locations, the creation of new multi-unit apartment buildings.

I wrote about this in a January, 2019 article in Greater Greater Washington, "Montgomery County needs more homes. Here’s how it can ‘densify’ with little disruption." ( Recent Montgomery County Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reforms were a step in the right direction, but they're far from enough.

Would you please study zoning changes that would allow greater residential density in Takoma Park, "in neighborhoods across the City," and ways to implement them? This study should account for possibilities that include creation of new housing -- preferably as part of mixed-use development -- at locations that include the Washington Adventist Hospital campus, the Washington-McLaughlin property, and locations along New Hampshire Avenue and University Blvd.

Implementation approaches would include creation of a new Takoma Park overlay zone that modifies the rules for properties zoned for Residential Detached construction, including R-60 and R-40 zones. This overlay zone would be different from the existing Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (TPESS) commercial revitalization overlay zone, which covers only selected non-residential areas in the city. Montgomery Planning and the Montgomery County Council would consider legislation to create this overlay zone if the City of Takoma Park requested it.

I suggest also studying whether modifications to Historic Preservation guidelines and decision processes to facilitate the city's achieving its goals are feasible. If one focuses on form rather than use, and on modernization steps that create resilience that protects our historic resources, they should be. As part of this study, please look at changes that would facilitate progress toward the city's Climate Emergency goals. Historic preservation does not intrinsically impede progress.

The second Produce objective of the Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan lists a strategy point that mentions master planning efforts. I note that the Takoma Park Master Plan was last revised in 2000 ( The normal revision cycle for area master plans is 15-20 years, so we're due for a rewrite. This would be a multi-year, systematic process that would be the formal way to come to a recommendation to change or add an overlay zone for the area (not that that couldn't be done outside the master plan process). Please evaluate whether it's time to ask Montgomery County and MNCPPC to consider a Takoma Park Master Plan rewrite, which would take into account conditions and priorities that have evolved very significantly over the last two decades.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Seth Grimes

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Takoma Park tax increases are not as steep as you may think

[Edited: I corrected my calculation, replaced some figures with more accurate figures I found after I first posted, and clarified the conclusion.]

One of my neighbors posted text including the following to my neighborhood e-mail list:
"Takoma Park resident and financial management consultant David Navari made a presentation about the city’s budget, based on months of analysis and meetings with city officials. He noted that the tax burden is heavily carried by residences... [and] that our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years."
The statement that "our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years" seems deceptive.

As a 2011-5 member of the city council, I spent a lot of time looking at the city budget, and I voted on the FY13 to FY16 city budgets. I'll break out some figures.

Here are audited real property tax figures for the last nine years, FY11 to FY19 --

FY11 -- $10,858,055
FY12 -- $11,237,329
FY13 -- $11,496,733
FY14 -- $10,974,639
FY15 -- $11,144,083
FY16 -- $11,516,876
FY17 -- $11,998,604
FY18 -- $12,094,212
FY19 -- $12,652,357 (estimated)

So real property taxes went up 16.5% in the eight years to the current year, FY19. (They went up 2.5% in my four years on the council, less than half the inflation rate.) The Washington DC area CPI increase from July 2011 to March 2019 was 10.9% (with 2 months remaining in the fiscal year) so the city's property tax increase over 8 years has been 5.6 points above inflation.

Maybe David Navari was including other figures that the city lists under Taxes and Utility Fees in its annual budget. Some did show steep increases.

Highway revenues are transferred from the state, which had cut them severely a decade or so back. Local governments won a big victory in getting them restored so that city receipts went from $43,931 in FY11 to $464,802 in FY19 (estimated).

The city's Admission and Amusement revenue went from $514 in FY11 to $130,000 in FY19 (estimated), almost totally linked to Chuck E. Cheese's opening in Takoma Park, since the city gets a cut of money pumped into game machines.

The amount received by the city from state income taxes jumped from $2,326,483 in FY11 to $3,400,000 in FY19 (estimated). I note that Maryland's unemployment rate dropped from over 7% in 2011 to 3.7% over the last year, responsible for some of the higher revenue.

To say that "our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years" -- with the implication that we're talking real property taxes and the inclusion of items the don't affect the tax burden of the vast majority of taxpayers -- seems deceptive.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

What's up with development at and near the Takoma Metro station?

This is the story of two development projects, at and near the Takoma Metro station, one promising and the other stalled. It’s addressed to my Washington DC and Takoma Park neighbors and very much to WMATA and to would-be Takoma Metro site developer EYA.

Promising: 218 Cedar St NW

Developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is planning a new, four-story + penthouse mixed-use building for the 7-Eleven site at 218 Cedar St NW in Washington DC. The concept plan is viewable online; the image below is a concept-design elevation and the site is shown in yellow in the header image above.

I'd quote Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (4B01) Evan Yeats's project summary:
The current plan for the site is 30-35 [actually 37] 1&2 bedroom condos (standard 10% [Inclusionary Zoning] affordable) built above 10-15,000 square feet of ground floor retail with an underground parking garage with ~15 or more parking spots.
  • The building height will be roughly the same as the Takoma Central/Busboys development adjacent and built in a similar "transitional" brick style.
  • The current three curb cuts/sidewalk crossings will be reduced to a single entry/exit for the garage (on Cedar), and the surface parking will be eliminated.
  • They are planning to build it "of right" with no zoning variance requests, but it will require historic preservation review.
  • Tenants are not set yet, but NDC told us they are in talks with 7-Eleven corporate to see if they are willing to stay. NDC also said that they are open to community input on the retail tenants and floated the idea of a small format grocer (think Mom's or Yes or Streets) if 7-Eleven doesn't want to stay (they just built a new store at Ethan Allen & New Hampshire).
  • Resident pedestrian entry/exit will be on Carroll St and the retail entrances/exits will depend on whether it remains one retail space or becomes two.
  • They expect to begin construction in 2020, but there isn't a timeline for the closure of the 7-Eleven, etc.
There will be adjustments and plenty of discussion regarding the retail tenants -- and I wish that the plans included more than 10% affordable units -- but generally I like what I see!

Stalled: Takoma Metro Construction

The project at the 7-Eleven site is not connected to the proposed Takoma Metro development, at the station parking lot, to the left and up a bit in the header image from the yellow-colored 218 Cedar St NW parcel.

EYA is the would-be Takoma Metro site developer; WMATA owns the property. Different developers; different owners... projects also differ in that 218 Carroll developer NDC is pursuing by-right development, that is, within zoning limits and uses, while EYA's proposed building far exceeds zoning limits so that EYA will be forced to enter Washington DC's Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

Washington DC activists have filed a number of lawsuits in recent years, challenging PUD approvals that, they believe, displace long-time, lower-income residents. Click here for an example.

EYA received WMATA board approvals for the project in 2014 and 2015 -- the WMATA real estate committee, in its March 12, 2015 meeting, foresaw "Spring/Summer 2015 - Developer begins District of Columbia entitlement processes (Planning Unit Development application, Historic Preservation Review)" -- but EYA has filed plan. It has been four years. Why not?

I spoke to WMATA project manager Rosalyn Doggett in early January. She said that EYA is holding off until the release of the under-amendment Washington DC Comprehensive Plan. Plan revisions would clarify rules around affordable housing and displacement. The draft plan is currently being evaluated by Washington DC City Council. Click here for a helpful article.

Now quite a bit of time went by, after EYA received approvals and before the lawsuits started and also, the Takoma Metro development would replace a parking lot, with no displacement of current residents. My conclusion is that this project is simply low priority for EYA. Unfortunately, WMATA put nothing in the Joint Development Agreement to incentivize timely EYA filings or penalize for the sort of long delay we've experienced. EYA's proposed Takoma Metro design has serious design flaws -- it has four times the number of residential parking spaces that DC zoning requires, which will reduce residents' transit use, increase local congestion, inflate construction costs (which will be passed on to tenants), and lead to the zoning challenges EYA fears -- but those flaws are addressable and the project should proceed.

Delay Vs. Progress

EYA's delay is a shame. Washington DC and close-in Montgomery County need new housing and the commercial opportunities that make life better for long-time and new residents alike, and WMATA could use the revenue from sales of this underutilized parcel.

Before concluding, I'll mention that another project is in the works. Developer SGA Companies' plan for 300-308 Carroll St NW, directly across the street from the 218 Cedar St NW site, including 88 studio and one-bedroom apartments -- small apartments tend to be more affordable of course -- and five retail spaces, with zero residential parking! Like 218 Cedar St but unlike EYA's Takoma Metro plans, the 300-308 Carroll St NW design is within zoning height limits, which will ease the path to project approval.

I'm glad that NDC, SGA Company, and other progressive developers aren't fazed by the complications that attend in-fill development. I hope they'll invest on the Maryland side of the line as Takoma Park advances other pending and potential redevelopment opportunities!

Monday, November 26, 2018

TPSS Co-op board recommendations, November 2018

If you're a TPSS Co-op member, you have until midnight Tuesday, November 27 to vote for 3 board candidates. I reviewed the candidates' questionnaire responses -- I also sent questions about co-op expansion to the 3 out of 6 I could find contact information for, and will try with the others -- and have the recommendations below. Profiles and voting link are at

My recommendations are based on 1) relevant co-op / business experience, 2) community involvement, and 3) agenda, and diversity matters. I'm looking for board candidates who clearly understand the job and the community, who have a background that suggests they're up to the job, and who have a vision of inclusive growth. These strengths will come into play in the coming years, as the co-op copes with construction next door, seeks to reach all segments of the larger community, and reevaluates the desirability and feasibility of expanding.


Sawa Kamara,
  • President of the Takoma Branch Civic Association, in Prince George's County.
  • "I would like to keep the option open to people in and outside the neighborhood to have access to healthy produce."
  • "I occasionally volunteer at the Glut Food Co-op in Mt. Rainier. I stock shelves, bag groceries, ring customers and greet everyone that walk through the door."
Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa,
  • Extensive board, co-op, green, and community experience.
  • Responded to my expansion questions: would explore a variety of possibilities.
Julie Eddy,
  • Board incumbent, secretary, with demonstrated strong commitment to the TPSS Co-op.
  • Extensive co-op experience.
  • In response to my expansion questions, Julia wrote, "I think [the co-op] probably needs to expand in order to keep up with rising expenses and changes in the grocery industry... [Expansion] can also come in the form of partnerships."

Bob Gibson,
  • Community experience; experience with cooperatives.
  • Responded to my expansion questions -- a plus -- but unaware of the TPSS Co-op expansion initiative and the Expansion Task Force.

Expansion questions

I posed three co-op expansion questions to the board candidates whose contact information I could find. I'm not going to paste in responses, but I will say that I am as much interested in each candidate's approach to the questions, as I am in their answers. My questions:

The co-op set up an expansion task force in 2010 or so and allocated funds for expansion planning, but expansion plans got off track. My questions -- and brief answers would be great:

1) Do you believe the co-op should expand?

If No, why not?

If Yes --

2) What will you do to get expansion back on track?

3) What options would you consider?

I will elaborate:

The co-op believed, in the 2011-2 era, that it needed to expand to survive. Profits from the sale of beer & wine, however, have changed the equation. I don't believe the co-op is threatened, given current profitability and community support. The co-op will weather the construction involved in redeveloping the current parking lot and will emerge stronger, given the increase in Takoma Junction visits.

There are expansion possibilities. First, I'm not convinced that the co-op couldn't resurrect NDC's original plan, for the co-op to move 100% into the new building. Another possibility is to acquire another property -- the Healey Surgeons building -- and expand into it by moving certain operations into it. A third possibility would be to acquire the RS Automotive property -- the service station / former gas station across the street -- and build a new building there. A fourth possibility, and least attractive, is to expand the Turner building over the Sycamore Ave parking lot.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Pesticide-Free Lawns: Your Choice

The case for curtailing pesticide use has never been stronger.

We see too many headlines like Pyrethroid pesticide exposure appears to speed puberty in boys. ("Pyrethrins and pyrethroids are insecticides included in over 3,500 registered products, many of which are used widely in and around households, including on pets and in treated clothing, in mosquito control, and in agriculture," according to the EPA.) Others: Monsanto Weed Killer Roundup Faces New Doubts on Safety in Unsealed Documents and Trump's EPA undoes effort to ban pesticide linked to nervous system damage in kids.

We need to resist the Trump Administration, Republican Congressional anti-health, anti-environment agenda, on seemingly small matters just as on high-visibility attacks on immigrants, LGBTQ and minority civil protections, anti-poverty programs, and just about anything linked to science and fact. Resistance isn't limited to protest marches and lobbying. Local organizing and personal actions count too, a lot. But you knew that. What you maybe didn't know about is a bit of local organizing, by a well-know national organization –

The Sierra Club Maryland's Pesticide-Free Yards Campaign

The Sierra Club is "the nation's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization." Grassroots translates into state organizations and local chapters, into response to localized needs and opportunities. In Maryland, the Sierra Club was particularly active, as a member of the Don't Frack Maryland Coalition, in the successful fight to win a state fracking ban making permanent moratorium that was due to expire. Excellent!

The Pesticide-Free Yards Campaign, which launched a few weeks back, aims individuals rather at enacting legislation. Locally, we do have protections created by the Montgomery County Healthy Lawns Act, a 2015 ban on non-essential, cosmetic lawncare pesticide use. Healthy Lawns built on the City of Takoma Park's Safe Grow Act of 2013, one of the city's many environmental sustainability initiatives. I'm proud to have helped advance both bills, but the real credit for them goes to the Safe Grow Montgomery activists, who built a broad health-environment coalition and overwhelming public support for the legislation. They demonstrated the activism's transformative power.

The Maryland Pesticide-Free Yards Pledge builds on the local laws. Of course, it's for all Marylanders, not just those covered by lawncare-pesticide restrictions. And signers pledge to stay away from all outdoor pesticide uses.

Want to show that you're on board? Put up a yard sign! Design to-be-done. You can help choose the sign design by responding to a Sierra Club Maryland poll, open through April 12. Choices are shown below.

Act Local

The Trump Administration is rolling-back federal environmental policies, regulations, and international commitment – inadequate as they already were! –  and proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 30%. State and local environmental action – and informed personal choices – have never been more important.

Some choices are fun – please vote on Pesticide-Free Yards Campaign sign design. Some are a bit just a bit harder – please join me in pledging to reduce or eliminate your own use of synthetical chemical pesticides. Every bit of resistance counts!