Monday, July 25, 2016

Does Starbucks Signal a New Takoma?

Starbucks is coming to Takoma, to a storefront location at Carroll and Maple Streets, NW. Expect the company's latest outlet — number 24,000-and-some — to open this fall.

Starbucks will arrive soon in Takoma soon, at Carroll and Maple Streets, NW
We've debated benefits and concerns. Negative responses to a late-2015 Old Takoma Business Association poll were illuminating, but didn't deter Starbucks. Preferences for independent rather than chain businesses, expressed for instance in POPville blog comments, are noble but ultimately moot.

We're now beyond speculation substantiated only by construction-worker chatter. A June 9 construction permit application, posted online at, reveals plans for a 2,055 sq.ft. space with (up to) 50 seats and 94 "occupant load."

I asked the company about plans. Received July 21: "We are happy to confirm that we will be opening a new location in the Takoma community, at 232 Carroll St NW, Washington DC, this fall. While we don't have an exact opening date just yet, feel free to check back in the coming weeks."

What does Starbucks' arrival mean for Takoma?

Urbanizing Takoma

Starbucks will offer Takoma residents and visitors a new third space — neither home nor office, less formal than a restaurant, large enough to serve as a drop-in place to meet or work or just hang out. Takoma is short on this sort of community space. We have only one, the very popular Capital City Cheesecake. Based on CCC's draw, I expect Starbucks to similarly attract a strong daytime crowd.

La Mano Coffee Bar has obvious cause for concern. La Mano is a small, independently owned business, down the block from the Starbucks site. La Mano does have a couple of significant assets. La Mano's coffee and food are far, far better than Starbucks'. I'm confident local fans will remain loyal. We'll do our best to make sure that La Mano survives.

Reality is that a few chain outlets won't harm our community, particularly when contained within a neighborhood friendly shell, as the Carroll Avenue Starbucks will be. Contrast with the CVS directly across the street, and with the nearby 7-Eleven: Both surrounded by parking, with out-of-place suburban-sprawl designs. The existence of those poor-fit chain outlets hasn't destroyed Takomaness, nor will Starbucks.

Fortunately, new Old Takoma construction, in recent years, has respected our urbanizing business district. The Takoma Central building, with Busboys and Poets sidewalk seating, is a positive addition to the neighborhood. The proposed Neighborhood Development Company building in Takoma Junction, despite the possible undesirable compromise of streetscape space for truck unloading, will revitalize the junction as an attractive commercial destination.

I'd welcome more of the same, business-district commercial and mixed-use development, that is. I suspect that we're going to see it in the coming years, in Takoma DC in particular. Quite a few low-density commercial parcels are in very close proximity to the Takoma Metro station, a transit hub, therefore attractive targets for redevelopment.

Candidate #1, for me at least, would be the properties directly behind the commercial strip stretching from new Starbucks locations to the railroad right-of-way. Check out this photo, with the Elevation 314 apartment building, shown from the rear, to the left. Imagine a new, multi-story, office/commercial/professional building — think new local employment and business-opportunity space, steps from a transit hub, utilizing the 50-foot height allowed by the site's C-2-A zoning — replacing the current low-grade, low-density use.

Low-density, low-grade commercial use a block from Takoma's Main Street, Carroll Avenue

There are other candidates. The current Barac rental office on 4th Street NW, a single-story building with a surface parking log, underutilizes close-to-transit commercial space. So does the Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home on Carroll Street Street NW, which seems to host very few funerals.

Slow to grow

Takoma commercial-district growth has been slow.

Rumor has it that Starbucks' or similar designs on Takoma Junction led the City of Takoma Park to buy the property there that's now slated for redevelopment. The site's high volume of vehicle traffic would surely have been an attraction. I shudder to think that the business might have included a drive-up service window in their building, to harvest all that traffic. If so, that's a bullet we dodged, and now we have a site-appropriate redevelopment project underway.

Supposedly Starbucks looked at the former Taliano's restaurant space on Carroll Avenue — Old Takoma Ace Hardware opened there in 2009 —but shied away because of low daytime traffic. But that was nearly a decade ago.

Since then, Takoma has added many hundreds of new residential apartment units. The 99 Willow & Maple units are steps from the new Starbucks location, and Takoma Central, with 150 units, is directly across the street. (The planned Takoma Metro development project appears to have stalled, however. Developer EYA did not respond to my request for an update.) The addition of new residents provides the daytime numbers that justified a Starbucks bet, I'd infer.

Yet many Takoma storefront locations remain vacant. They include Takoma Central retail space and large spaces in the Willow Street NW building owned by Douglas Development.

Otherwise, Old Takoma storefront vacancy rates are generally low, excepting spaces in Takoma Junction that are in transition. Some businesses do face patronage challenges. The restaurants in the stretch from Horace & Dickie's and Evolve on 4th Street NW, to Republic and Roscoe's on Carroll Avenue, by way of Busboys and Poets, Mark's Kitchen, and the Middle East Cuisine, aren't doing anything close to the weekday lunch and afternoon business they could. That's because employment-wise, Takoma Park — Washington DC's first instance of transit-oriented development — is a "bedroom suburb." Residents commute elsewhere to work. Business-district urbanization, focused on Takoma DC, close to the Takoma Metro station, will change the equation.

New commercial/office/mixed-use development would be a strong positive, boosting local businesses and providing local, transit-friendly employment and business-creation opportunities. I read the Takoma arrival of Starbucks, a business that relies on daytime patronage, as a bet on that future. I'd prefer our new business neighbor were other than Big Coffee, but I welcome Starbucks' vote of confidence and the future it signals.


For the record: Starbucks' construction permit filing, downloaded July 18, 2016 from Click to view the full image —

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Tax Break for Takoma Park Businesses?

Should Takoma Park eliminate its tax on business inventories? 

An Old Takoma business, S&A Beads, has made just that request to the city council. The council deferred the question to a future worksession, but let's get a jump on the council and consider it now.

Let's start with facts --

The inventory tax is part of the personal property tax (PPT), paid by businesses on their furniture, equipment, computers, and inventory.

Do strong businesses need low taxes?
All companies that operate in Takoma Park must pay PPTs on their equipment and inventories, if any, that are located here in Takoma Park. That includes companies incorporated outside Maryland -- Walgreens, Aldi, Advance Auto Parts, and Starbucks, for example -- and incorporated home businesses. Businesses, including my own consulting company, must file annual returns with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

PPTs are the only city tax levied directly on every incorporated city business.

I mined PPT data from the Montgomery County Personal Property Tax Web site -- business PPT assessments and bills are public records -- and count 557 fiscal year 2016 (FY16) payers.

Of the 557, 180 businesses paid inventory taxes in FY16. Their inventory taxes contributed an estimated $152,323 to the city's general fund. That's about 39% of the total FY16 business PPT liability, $387,521 by my calculation if you exclude PPTs paid by public utilities.

Focusing on the inventory tax --

Five Takoma Park businesses paid inventory tax of over $5,000 in the current fiscal year:

  • Advance Auto Parts: $24,419
  • US Medical Innovations (at Carroll & Eastern): $14,333
  • Walgreens, $13,439
  • RS Legacy Corporation (Radioshack): $5,611
  • TPSS Co-op: $5,547.61
One more fact --

If the city eliminates or reduces the inventory tax, the council will have to either cut programs or make up the revenue through other means.

Where does the money go?

Business property taxes -- PPTs and real property taxes paid by commercial real-estate owners -- funds city operations and programs that benefit the businesses and their patrons and employees: police, roads and sidewalks, parks, street lights and street cleaning, and so on. They fund city business and economic development activities including the city's annual subsidies to the Old Takoma Business Association (OTBA) and the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (CDA).

OTBA received a $37,000 subsidy in FY16. The CDA's FY16 subsidy was $30,000.

Is the inventory tax fair? Is it wise?

Here's where we get into value judgments.

Does Walgreens get fair value from the $16,320.57 the company paid in Takoma Park PPTs in FY16, and for the $15,330.40 (net of a $12,572.35 enterprise-zone tax credit) that landlord JBG Retail paid in real-property taxes? Does the House of Musical Traditions fairly benefit from FY16's $1,086.40 city PPT payment (of which $1,061.13 is inventory tax) and $2,144.03 in city real-property taxes?

My unquantified reaction is yes.

Personally, my wife and I paid the city $2,860.65 in property taxes on our home, this past year. Most residents pay city taxes, and I'm not dissatisfied with the type and level of services delivered. But should homeowners pay more, another 3/4 cent in real-property tax rate, in order to compensate for elimination of the inventory tax? I'm not feeling that I, personally, should pay to lighten the tax burden of large businesses such as Advance Auto Parts and Walgreens.

Historically, the city council has agreed. This year isn't the first the inventory tax has come up for discussion.

In 2010, when I was on the OTBA board, I headed an ad-hoc committee that looked into the question. Again mining county tax records, I found that in 2009, the Takoma Park inventory tax totaled $104,544. OTBA used that figure -- and real property taxes and non-inventory PPTs -- to argue for the annual subsidy that OTBA has now received for several years, and that the CDA now also receives.

There is no convincing argument that the inventory tax harms local businesses. As evidenced by Takoma Park's low retail vacancy rates -- in Old Takoma, along New Hampshire Avenue, and in other, smaller commercial districts -- businesses here are generally thriving. Of course there are exceptions, but we should not make policy that applies to hundreds of city businesses based on a handful of exceptions.

Are there alternatives to eliminating the inventory tax?

Yes. The city could cut its personal property tax rate, $1.55 per $100 assessed value in FY16. Councils since FY09's increased the rate in steps from $1.45/$100 that year which cutting the real-property tax rate from $0.605 per $100 assessed value in FY09 to $0.585 in FY16. I believe the council should realign the PPT rate with the real-property rate.

The city could exempt a certain amount of business inventory from taxation. I wouldn't do it. A $50,000 exemption would have cost the city $49,623 in FY16. A $100,000 exemption would have cost $75,515. The chief beneficiaries would be the large payers. Personally, I oppose any sort of tax cut that favors Advance Auto Parts, Walgreens, and Aldi... particularly one they haven't sought! Nor have the vast majority of locally owned businesses.

My call

Certainly, the city council should proceed with an inventory-tax discussion, but any councilmember who proposes reductions should also proposal off-setting service cuts or replacement revenues. That linking of tax cuts and off-sets is fair and reasonable and sound city government. My bet is that councilmembers will reach the same conclusion I did: A near-term inventory-tax reduction is not desirable or justified.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate

I recently asked my wife whether we could put a "Black Representation Matters" sign in our yard, alongside the "Black Lives Matter" sign we got last year. But what would my sign actually read? It would say: Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate.

U.S. Senate candidate Donna Edwards. (AFGE photo.)
Edwards is a black woman, running for a seat in a 100-member body with only two African American members and only twenty women. Senator Barbara Mikulski, one of the twenty, represents Maryland and is retiring.

Only nine African Americans have served in the Senate, ever. Barack Obama is one of the nine. Would Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley treat the president's appointments and initiatives with such disdain, were minorities represented in the Senate in proportion to their numbers?

The problem is us. Consider that Maryland has elected only one African American to statewide office in the state's entire history. In Maryland and nationwide, blacks are most often elected to state office and Congress from majority-minority districts. These districts are too-often the product of gerrymandering designed in some cases to promote a minority representative's election, in others to wall-off minorities (read: Democratic voters) to maximize the number of Republican seats.

Actually, I can think of only four woman ever elected statewide in Maryland. We're not doing so well, are we?

I have more to say on race and representation, but I will break to note that:
  • Donna Edwards is an experienced, able legislator who has represented Maryland's 4th district in Congress since 2008.
  • "Independent analyses often find that the Prince George's County lawmaker is among the most liberal members of the [House Democratic] caucus." (Baltimore Sun)
  • 64% of Maryland registered Democrats view Edwards favorably, according to a recent Washington Post-Univ. of Maryland poll. (Washington Post)
Marylanders believe Edwards cares about them and will work for them on their issues, on issues that include Social Security and Medicare, gun violence and police misconduct, and poverty, hunger, education, and opportunity. These are pressing matters.

No elected official lacks flaws. Edwards has weak points and so does her opponent Chris Van Hollen, a distinguished legislator who represents me and whom I respect immensely. The Baltimore Sun describes controversy about Van Hollen's past stands on Social Security cuts. Maryland-specific: Rep. Van Hollen was instrumental in obtaining tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for the Intercounty Connector (ICC), former Governor Robert Ehrlich's widely derided pet project, revived after Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Governor Parris N. Glendening, killed it. Better the funding had gone to transit -- the Purple Line and WMATA -- than a boondoggle highway.

How do Maryland registered Democrats see the U.S. Senate
candidates? (Washington Post)
The positions-effectiveness question is not a slam-dunk for either Senate candidate.

Overall, Van Hollen has been a model legislator, but considering the spectrum of Maryland needs, he is not the better choice. It is telling that when it comes to addressing the needs of women and of African Americans, Edwards outpolls Van Hollen by 78-56 and 74-54, respectively, according to the Post-UMd poll. These needs outweigh other priorities for me at this time, with the Democrats poised to retain the presidency and retake the Senate majority. So again I find:

Donna Edwards is the progressive candidate who is the best choice to represent the diversity of Marylanders in the U.S. Senate.

Back to the race issue. It runs deep and wide.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports, "African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers," as of April 2015.

I learned about that report from a Daily Beast article titled The US Senate: The World’s Whitest Deliberative Body. Author Keli Goff offers that view that "[b]eyond idealism, there is a very real policy deficit we face as a country when we have people who have never experienced problems firsthand, tasked with crafting solutions for those problems." She cites a lack of federal action on racial profiling and police brutality and cites the work of Senator Tim Scott, who is African American, to secure federal funding for police body cameras to address the latter problem. Goff believes "it is not a coincidence that President Obama has made college accessibility and affordability legislative priorities during his time in elected office."

Another observation, from columnist Thomas Edsall in the New York Times: "The Democratic debt to black voters is immense, and the party has not paid up." Edsall's column asks, "Will the Democrats Ever Face an African-American Revolt?" Edsall's indictment: "Public officials — and the Democratic Party — have, in point of fact, failed to deliver housing, employment, or education programs that convincingly remediate the problems of poor black families."

Edsall sees a solution in "different 'deliberate policy choices'." I'm surprised he didn't bring up the complexion of the Democratic elites. The ones we have (per Keli Goff) have never experienced the most pressing problems firsthand. They are not representing. Let's change that via our votes in the 2016 Maryland U.S. Senate race.

My wife hasn't said yes to a yard sign, but I know how I will cast my Democratic primary vote: Donna Edwards for U.S. Senate.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

For Better Police-Community Relations, Listen

Police-community relations is a sensitive topic, racially charged, critical to individuals' feelings of safety and belonging in any diverse and crime-challenged community. I wouldn't say the crime or relations situations in Takoma Park and Silver Spring are bad, but community members do have well-founded concerns about police interactions, particularly those that involve minority youth. What can the City of Takoma Park and the community do to improve relations here? Takoma Park Councilmember Terry Seamens has long pushed for police involvement in city recreation programs, and Mayor Kate Stewart, as a councilmember, promoted city funding for police-community relations consulting, currently pending. Many community members have advocated meaningful community oriented policing (COP). I'll say only that public and police understandings of COP seem to differ.

Charleston Illumination Project
Given this backdrop, I was intrigued by the Charleston (South Carolina) Illumination Project, which I learned about during a spring break vacation visit. According to the project Web site,
"The City of Charleston began a year-long project to further strengthen relationships between the citizens and police by respecting the importance of Public Safety and Individual Rights... We all want and benefit from a respectful relationship between the police and the communities they serve. We are seeking your voice to help create a plan that will help insure greater teamwork and the long-term success of our communities."
Illumination and mutual respect are essential, as is the focus on teamwork. The project includes a series of police listening sessions:
"We are looking for your hopes, concerns and plans to build open and long-lasting relationships between the police and the citizens they serve."
"We" is a foundation called the Charleston Police Fund. It's unclear when the fund was founded, but I'll note certain special circumstances in Charleston and nearby: Last June's Mother Emanuel (the Emanuel AME Church) murder of nine worshipers and the April 2015 fatal shooting, by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., of an apparently unarmed man, Walter Scott, after a scuffle following a traffic stop. Incidents of this sort don't just happen; they're the product of circumstances that foster violent, hateful, racist responses to differences.

Fortunately, we've had nothing like these incidents in Montgomery County. Our local governments have worked to avoid them. Also locally, Safe Silver Spring, a community initiative, has contributed to community-police understanding.

The City of Takoma Park issued and then reissued a request for proposals for a police-community relations consultant. The proposal deadline was January 28, but I understand that the city did not receive a strong response. Puzzling.

Regardless, the city could and should conduct listening sessions like Charleston's, actively promoted and moderated by an independent facilitator. These community relations sessions would complement the neighborhood crime meetings the police department participates in. You don't need a consultant to tell you that people like to be asked their views and to be heard. There is no better way to start learning than to listen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

County Funding Now! ... Budget Advocacy for Takoma Park Interests

It's time to speak out about Takoma Park priorities for Montgomery County budget funding!
County Executive Ike Leggett. Photo by Ed Kimmel

What are your city priorities? Me, I listed four of mine in a letter to County Executive Ike Leggett: 1) Paramedic coverage at the Takoma Park fire station; 2) Piney Branch Elementary School pool funding; 3) school capacity study funding; and 4) steps toward smooth implementation of the county's Healthy Lawns Bill.

Whether these are your county funding priorities or you have others, please do contact the county executive yourself. He is currently preparing his budget for FY17, the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2016. He needs to hear from you. I'll paste in my letter below, which you're free to adapt, or write your own. Do it soon. Mr. Leggett will present his operating budget to the Montgomery County Council by March 15. The council will then make adjustments and enact a budget in late spring.

City-County Budget Background

For those not in the know, I'll provide a bit of city-county budget background.

Takoma Park is a "full-service city"... almost. Montgomery County delivers essential services to Takoma Park residents and businesses. The county runs the public schools – education accounts for around half the annual county budget – and delivers fire & rescue services. The City takes care of the rest of the big stuff: police, public works, recreation, and more. The City does this quite effectively I'd say, for the $.585 (58.5 cent) current property-tax rate (per $100 assessed value). By contrast, Takoma Parkers pay Montgomery County property taxes at a $0.9962 (99.62 cent) current rate.

Fact #1: Fire Station 2, in Takoma Park, is one of only seven fire stations county-wide that lacks paramedic coverage. We deserve coverage and need it soon because pending Carroll Avenue bridge reconstruction, slated to start this year and to require bridge closure for at least 12 months, will cut off quick access to Washington Adventist Hospital from much of Takoma Park.

Fact #2: The Piney Branch Elementary School pool is immensely popular locally, for good reason: It's the only public swimming facility, used widely by school kids and seniors and everyone in between, in the southeast corner of the county. Yet each of the last several years Mr. Leggett has declined to fund the pool, and each year the county council restores operational funding.

Add in Fact #3: Elementary schools in our corner of the county are projected to be severely overcrowded in the coming years. The Board of Education has recommended Capital Improvements Program funding for a study to reopen a Silver Spring elementary school.

I cover Facts #2 & #3 in a December Voice item, School crunch threatens pool. And why is my fourth point a Takoma Park priority? Because Montgomery County's Heathy Lawns bill, banning non-essential, cosmetic use of synthetic chemical lawncare pesticides, was based on Takoma Park's 2013 Safe Grow Act.

On you on board with any or all of my four items? Use my text if you wish, or draft your own. But do write your own –

Letter to the County Executive

The Honorable Isiah Leggett
Montgomery County Executive
101 Monroe Street
Rockville, MD 20850

Dear Mr. Leggett,

Please accept the following comment about a few funding priorities that I hope you will consider in formulating your FY17 Montgomery County budget proposal.

1. Paramedic coverage for Fire Station 2 in Takoma Park. You have stated plans to add paramedic staffing, in the coming years, at the seven uncovered county fire stations. Please make Fire Station 2 staffing a priority, for FY17 staffing.

2. Piney Branch ES pool operational and maintenance funding. Respectfully, I believe your understanding of the pool’s physical condition is incorrect. The pool is in good operating condition and can continue operating, pretty much as-is, for several years, until a direction is decided regarding school-capacity expansion.

This pool is heavily used by lower- and moderate-income community members, especially children, who have no practical access to a public swimming facility. Further, Takoma Park property owners pay far more in Recreational Tax than the county spends on recreation services in/for Takoma Park. The needed funding is approximately $160,000; prospects are that the County Council will add the funding if you do not include it. Could we please avoid the past two years’ funding game?

3. MCPS Capital Improvements Program funding to cover evaluation of reopening of Parkside ES to relieve school overcrowding in the southeast sector of the county, as recommended by the Board of Education.

4. Adequate funding for county transition to lawncare without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, per Bill 52-14, the Healthy Lawns Bill. As you know, restrictions on county-owned property go into effect July 1, 2016. I hope you will also fund planning for public and professional-applicator education given that restrictions on private-property use go into effect on January 1, 2018

Thanks very much for considering this funding advocacy.


Seth Grimes

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Medical Marijuana, Under Attack in Takoma Park

What to make of proposed ZTA 15-13, a Montgomery County zoning bill that would restrict the location of medical marijuana dispensaries in Takoma Park?

Photo by Neeta Lind,
The proposed zoning text amendment was introduced by Councilmember Tom Hucker. It says that a medical marijuana dispensary -- dispensaries are now sanctioned by Maryland law -- may not be located, if in the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (TPESS) overlay zone, within 500 feet of a school. (An overlay zone modifies more-general zoning rules for a certain area.)

We have been fighting for years for reform of harmful marijuana laws. Would ZTA 15-13 put in place a justified restriction, or is it an alarming recrudescence of the discredited War on Drugs?

I'm inclined to say the latter. Enough with throwing people in jail for drug offenses that shouldn't be offenses in the first place. We should be dismantling our failed marijuana policy rather than enacting new restrictions based on fears of Reefer Madness.

I don't fault Councilmember Hucker for introducing this bill. He was responding to constituent requests. I do, however, implore the Montgomery County Council not to advance the bill. Oh, and the councilmembers should note that the Takoma Park City Council, at its October 19, 2015 meeting, discussed a proposal to locate a dispensary in the Takoma Junction area. I was a councilmember at that time. We declined, by a 5-2 vote, to pursue zoning restrictions on dispensary locations.

It doesn't help the ZTA 15-13 cause that the text is a bit strange. Montgomery County Planning Board staff report, "geographic information system data depicts no CRT or NR zoned properties within the overlay zone and within 500 feet of a school." Unless there's a disagreement about measurement -- shops at the corner of Maple and Sherman Avenues in Takoma Park can't be much more than 500 feet from Piney Branch Elementary School -- the ZTA, as written, would have zero current effect. I'll add that I know of no move, underway or contemplated, to either expand Takoma Park areas zoned Commercial Residential Town (CRT) or Neighborhood Retail (NR) or within the TPESS overlay zone.

Medical marijuana is for therapeutic use. I have in mind a neighbor who approached me a few years back, when I represented Ward 1 on the Takoma Park City Council, with the concern that he could be arrested for using marijuana as a palliative for the symptoms of a degenerative disease he suffers. My neighbor and others like him in the community need a safe, reliable, convenient medical-marijuana source. There is no justification for stigmatizing these patients, for the suggestion that a dispensary is undesirable because it will be somehow sleazy, dangerous, or corrupting. Fortunately, we do have advocates on our side who include Takoma Park's own Senator Jamie Raskin, who is behind Maryland medical-marijuana legislation and other steps to reform marijuana policy. Delegate David Moon, also a Takoma Park resident, first elected to the General Assembly in 2014, has also been a strong policy-change advocate.

Policy change is needed, to end the disastrous War on Drugs, which has led to the incarceration of millions of non-violent offenders -- disproportionately African-Americans -- for drug infractions that should never have been enacted, given that the significance of the harm caused by marijuana use was never conclusively, scientifically established. The War on Drugs -- the War on Marijuana -- is little more than a suppression and control tool.

There has been strong backing state-wide for Maryland legislation to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in the last few years, and approach I favor, but initiatives have been blocked by House of Delegates Judiciary Chair Joseph Vallario. Let's hope that Speaker Michael Busch brings future bills to the floor for vote, or that Delegate Vallario is replaced following the 2018 elections.

For now --

After a January 19, 2016 public hearing, at 1:30 pm in Rockville -- you may testify or submit comment to the council -- proposed ZTA 15-13 will likely be sent to the Montgomery County Council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee, which I hope will give it a negative report. Your voice matters. Please testify on January 19 or relay your view to

Friday, December 11, 2015

The TP-SS School Capacity Crunch (and the Piney Branch Pool)

Takoma Park-Silver Spring is experiencing a school space crunch. Public schools are overcrowded and the problem is getting worse. The school system is taking steps to add capacity, particularly at the elementary level. But where and how? These are open questions. Should Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) open a new school in our end of the county, or perhaps add classrooms at schools that include Piney Branch Elementary School (PBES) in Takoma Park? The answer -- the approach taken -- will have repercussions for decades to come. And as an aside, the decision will determine the fate of the widely-used PBES swimming pool.

School space is a capital cost so proposed overcrowding remedies are covered in the FY17 capital budget and 2017–2022 Capital Improvements Program. (The county's and schools' FY17 fiscal year starts July 1, 2016.) You can find the Board of Education's FY17 capital requests online. In that document, the BOE asks funding for additions at East Silver Spring, Montgomery Knolls, Pine Crest, Piney Branch, and Woodlin elementary schools to relieve the overutilization of several elementary schools in the lower portion of MCPS's Downcounty Consortium.

"Overutilization" is an artful word, isn't it? It hints that school families are to blame for the capacity issue. Regardless, MCPS officials are on our side. Note a memorandum included in the BOE capital request doc, starting on page 16, that directs,
"That a feasibility study be conducted to explore the possibility of opening an elementary school on the former Parkside Elementary School site, or another nearby former elementary school site, to relieve over-capacity at nearby schools."
The former Parkside Elementary School in Silver Spring
The Parkside school building is currently used as a Montgomery Parks headquarters. Reopening Parkside is a creative solution, originated by BOE Member Jill Ortman-Fouse, a welcome alternative to Interim Superintendent Larry A. Bowers' proposed approach.

This is where the Piney Branch ES pool connection comes into play. The superintendent's proposed PBES classroom expansion, dealing with a projected PBES deficit of 129 seats by 2021-2, would entail eliminating the pool. In particular, the superintendent says "A feasibility study will need to be conducted to explore razing the existing pool to construct an addition in the future. With the smallest site of any school in the county, at 1.9 acres, there is no room on the Piney Branch Elementary School site to accommodate relocatable classrooms."

Last summer’s rally to save the PBES pool.
(Photo by Bill Brown)
While County Councilmember George Leventhal and Board of Education Member Chris Barclay have asked MCPS to study building new PBES classroom space above the pool, keeping the pool open in the expanded school building, frankly that could be an awkward arrangement and there's no assurance MCPS could make it work. By contrast, if MCPS rehabilitates the Parkside building as a school, there will be less pressure to expand other consortium schools such as PBES. Again, reopening Parkside is a creative solution, a welcome alternative to the superintendent's proposed approach.

A Capital Improvements Program request transmittal letter, addressed to the county executive and council president and signed by Board of Education President Patricia B. O'Neill, acknowledges the system-wide need:
"For the 2015-2016 school year, MCPS is experiencing its eighth straight year of significant enrollment growth. Official September 30, 2015, enrollment is 156,674 students for a one-year increase of more than 2,800 students. Since the 2007-2008 school year, enrollment has increased by 18,929 students with most of the increase at the elementary school level."
And it describes the alternative BOE approach, requesting CIP inclusion of $100,000, "to conduct a feasibility study to explore an elementary school reopening on the former Parkside Elementary School site or another nearby former elementary school site," to relieve overcrowding, the alternative that would focus construction on one site rather than many and, as an aside allow the PBES pool to continue operating.

Support from County Executive Ike Leggett and from the Council will be critical. MCPS proposes annual capital and operating budgets, but it's the Montgomery County Council that has final say (subject to a state-imposed "maintenance of effort" constraint that the county fund the same dollar amount per pupil as the prior year).

The county officials' decisions are important. Schools are practically the only local institutions that draw and intermix individuals from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Only public libraries and sports leagues have similar potential, but our communities' children spend far more time at school than they do anywhere else other than at home. Facility, boundary, and catchment area choices shape our communities.

Want to weigh in? The Board of Education will hold public budget hearings, on the capital and operating budgets, on January 7 and 14, 2016. Sign up to testify, starting December 14. And you'll be able to testify at county council public hearings in the spring.

Before then, attend or watch the Takoma Park City Council's December 14, 2015 meeting. The council is slated to have an MCPS presentation, followed by a worksession discussion -- an Overview of Montgomery County Public School Capacity -- at 8:05 pm. I hope and expect the council will take up a resolution, at a later meeting, providing city comment on MCPS facilities plans. Public comment is at 7:30 pm. Do communicate your view to the city council.

Finally, regarding the MCPS operating budget: A good place to come up to speed is MCPS's new Budget 101 Web site, which aims to answer many of the questions that parents, students, staff, and community members have asked about the MCPS Operating Budget, according to Interim Superintendent Bowers. The superintendent has proposed $2.45 billion FY17 operating budget, online on the MCPS Web site.

There is no better social investment than adequate school funding, well placed, if your goals are to provide social and economic opportunity to all segments of our population, to immigrants and established residents, whether well-off or struggling, regardless of cultural background. Facilities choices should be linked to a broad set of community needs. One such choice is at hand, the approach we'll take to adding downcounty school capacity. The right choice is to explore the Parkside option by funding the BOE requested feasibility study.