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!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Inventory Tax comment, February 8, 2017

Comment I sent to the members of the Takoma Park City Council, February 8, 2017:

Dear Councilmembers,

I note the council's February 8, 2017 discussion of personal property taxes, prompted by the large bill faced by Priti's Fashion and Jewelry.

It would be appropriate for the city to waive the over $80,000 in penalty interest owed by Priti's, suspend further interest penalties for the years 2013-6, and  direct the city manager to work out a multi-year finance plan with the business, and I urge you to put action on the inventory tax on the council agenda in time to have a change go into effect July 1, 2017. More on that topic below.

I oppose the council's forgiving Priti's back taxes and expect that forgiveness would prompt hundreds of Takoma Park businesses to demand refunds of past years'  taxes. Actually, I question whether the council even has the legal authority to forgive a single payer's back taxes, but if do move ahead with forgiveness, you might limit it to the amount above what any other commercial businesses paid in each of the subject years, to forestall refund requests.

Incidentally, the backgrounder ( misstates the contribution of Priti's PPTs to the city. PEPCO pays personal property taxes 2.5 times what Priti's pays, and Washington Gas pays almost as much annually.

Please act soon to rework or eliminate the inventory tax. A homestead-type exemption for locally owned businesses (with a suitable definition of locally owned) could be implemented immediately in order to take effect July 1, 2017 with modest loss of revenue beyond other than Priti's. Second best, elimination of the inventory tax (or all PPTs) in favor of a switch-over to multiple real-property tax classes, with commercial properties taxed at a higher rate, would need to be phased in over several years, I think, and therefore wouldn't provide needed immediate relief.

Other approaches would not work. A cap on inventory taxes paid by a single business would help Priti's but would unnecessarily reduce taxes paid by Aldi's and Walgreens, for instance, without revenue replacement. An inventory exclusion -- which I think is not a good idea for other reasons -- would solve Priti's' problem even

Thank you for considering this comment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ten Issues for Maryland District 20

Maryland District 20
Monday evening, January 9, the 28 members of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (DCC) will meet in public session for a public vote to appoint a new District 20 representative to the Maryland House of Delegates. The appointee will serve a majority-minoritylegislative district that includes Silver Spring and Takoma Park and extends north to White Oak and beyond, for two years through 2018. Let's quickly discuss the process and then move to what matters more at this moment: Candidate positions and response to issues.

As political observer Jonathan Shurberg notes, the approach to filling state legislative vacancies, via vote by county committee of the departed legislator's party, "has been around in the Maryland Constitution for over a century." Still, as Bill Turque reports in the Washington Post, "the appointment process has come under increasing scrutiny from critics who contend that it is undemocratic and rife with cronyism." The concern is that DCC members, most of whom are elected, and some of whom were appointed to fill vacancies and for gender balance, act unethically in appointing their own to fill state delegate and senate vacancies. My take matches Jonathan's. Each would-be candidate had equal opportunity to position herself for appointment to a mid-term vacancy. So sure, we can consider changing the system, but until it's changed, the DCC shouldn't punish a candidate's foresight.

You have two formal opportunities to hear the candidates, at a January 3, 2017, 7 pm forum at the White Oak Recreation Center Community Room, 1700 April Lane, Silver Spring, and January 5, 2017, 7pm, at the Silver Spring Civic Center, and you'll find them on Facebook and Twitter and out in the community. Myself, I met recently with three and spoke by phone with a fourth, and I know a fifth quite well through years of collaboration on community matters. What candidate Darian Unger reportedly calls “government by Starbucks” is a bit more open than you might think: The candidates are accessible to those who reach out to them. (For the record: I met Darian and candidate Daniel Koroma at Kaldi's in Silver Spring, and Jheanelle Wilkins at Busboys & Poets. Shop local!)

Review the candidates' applications — Yvette Butler, Lorig Charkoudian, and Amy Sabo Cress have also announced — attend a forum, pose questions, and make an endorsement if you wish. If you pose forum questions, or if you're a candidate reading this column, please consider raising these...

Ten Issues for Maryland District 20
  1. Sanctuary and civil protection are complementary concepts, the first the extension of shelter to undocumented individuals — to human beings — who seek to build a new life in our community, driven by political and economic conditions in the countries they left, and the second an end to institutional and institutionalized discrimination against minorities.
  2. Voting rights and civic inclusion. We in Maryland don't suppress voting, yet we could do much more to encourage it, starting with address of registration disparities. Automatic voter registration would be fantastic; Election Day registration, which Delegate Kirill Reznik has notably promoted, would help, as would campaign access to apartment buildings as allowed in Minnesota and in Takoma Park.
  3. Economic opportunity means policies that support both small business and fair wages. I don't mean corporate give-aways. I mean programs that foster business creation and employment and that underwrite expanded child care and affordable healthcare and housing.
  4. Transit. Let's get the Purple Line built and fund bus rapid transit — much of the Purple Line and most of the BRT Route 29 Corridor run within D20 — and fight Governor Larry Hogan's highway shell game.
  5. Takoma Park has been working on The New Ave, revitalization of the New Hampshire Avenue corridor and Takoma-Langley Crossroads, for many years. State involvement would help, given the need for funding and for cross-border cooperation involving Montgomery and Prince George's Counties and the City of Takoma Park. Former Governor Parris Glendening, a smart-growth pioneer, paid attention to the corridor's social and development needs. Robert Ehrlich and Martin O'Malley didn't and Larry Hogan hasn't. Can we revive state attention?
  6. District 20 and much of Montgomery County need new schools, to respond to school-population growth. Every candidate is concerned about closing the achievement gap. The first step is to eliminate the opportunity gap. State school construction funding and the governor's attempts to divert funding to private schools are District 20 issues.
  7. Protection of local authority, of the ability to expand on state and federal protections. Local authority is a priority for District 20. At this moment, Montgomery County's Healthy Lawns lawncare pesticide restrictions are under industry attack, based on a fanciful claim of state preemption. Governor Hogan has gotten into the act by aiming to prevent Maryland localities from requiring expanded business sick-leave coverage. I am especially apprehensive about federal and state attacks on Montgomery County, Takoma Park, and other Maryland sanctuary policies. We need legislators who will fight this aspect of the Trump-Hogan agenda — who might even work to expand local authority, for instance by introducing legislation to end state preemption of local firearms legislation — and who will also resist the devolution of federal and state responsibilities and funding liabilities onto local jurisdictions.
  8. State agency responsiveness. State agencies can be a pain in the butt. I'm thinking particularly of the State Highway Administration (SHA) and the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). I served four years on the Takoma Park city council. I found no state agency more difficult to work with than the SHA which, in my experience, has little sensitivity to the needs of residential neighborhoods and urbanized business districts, to desires for walkability, multimodal transportation options including bicycling, and streetscapes friendly to businesses and the environment. The MDA wears similar blinders. The MDA, for instance in its pesticide regulations, simply won't admit that residential lawns and school playing fields can and should be treated differently from farms.
  9. Accessible and affordable quality healthcare. The looming Trump-Ryan-McConnell train wreck will start with steps to derail the Affordable Care Act and gut Medicaid. These steps are likely to engender a tepid response at best from Governor Hogan. So here we have another statewide, countywide matter that will hit disadvantaged District 20 neighbors particularly hard: the loss of accessible and affordable quality healthcare. And a side point, actually a very significant one for District 20: Silver Spring-Takoma Park needs a legislative advocate for creation of a free-standing emergency-care facility on the soon-to-be-former Washington Adventist Hospital Takoma Park campus.
  10. Constituent services. Jamie Raskin was Senator Pothole (to borrow the moniker that kept Alfonse D'Amato, a nasty right-winger, in office representing New York in the U.S. Senate). Fortunately our new delegate won't take up the burden alone. Sheila Hixson, Will Smith, and David Moon are a great District 20 team, one that recognizes that superb constituent services, direct-to-individuals and supporting Montgomery County and the City of Takoma Park in Annapolis, is what differentiates a strong-on-issues legislator from a great representative. Let's maintain their standard of excellence!
My ten points extend over a huge amount of territory. No single legislator can cover them all well, particularly not one appointed mid-term and just at the start of the legislative session. Readers and other District 20 neighbors will add issues to my list, but whatever the appointee's strengths and focus issues, teamwork, openness, dedication, and responsiveness will be key to her or his Annapolis success. I'm confident the Democratic Central Committee will make a strong appointment, and it will be up to us District 20 constituents to help our new delegate succeed.