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 (https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/government/city-council/agendas/2017/council-20170208-5rev.pdf) 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
less.

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.

Takoma Junction: Dateline 1995

I came across an old article on Takoma Junction while researching a new one, on Maryland state investment in our community.

Regarding Takoma Junction, dateline 1995:
'The $1 million from the state would be used to acquire other property in the area and spur creation of a commercial, retail and residential hub, said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "Without public investment, you won't get the right kind of private investment," Franchot said.'
With the City of Takoma Park's revived Takoma Junction revitalization initiative, we have private investment, from the Neighborhood Development Company, on tap. That's a good thing, something we've been working toward for years.

The full article, published in the Washington Post:

GLENDENING, TAKOMA PARK BULLISH ON JUNCTION

By David Montgomery August 30, 1995

After a decade of failed revitalization, things started looking up for an ailing section of Takoma Park yesterday morning when the governor, a posse of politicians and an army of activists met in a vacant lot and outlined a deal.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said he would be favorably disposed toward Takoma Park's request for $1 million in state economic development funds if the city could demonstrate there also was significant new private money ready to be invested.

The state funds, in the form of a $500,000 grant and a $500,000 loan, would be used to spruce up Takoma Junction, an underachieving stepsister of the city's old town, which was revitalized a dozen years ago. The old town is situated where Laurel and Carroll avenues converge, and Takoma Junction is located a few blocks up Carroll, by the intersection with East-West Highway.

Glendening was careful not to promise anything. But he said the Takoma Park project "excited" him. And, with a twinkle in his eye, he observed that in the gubernatorial election,

Takoma Park handed him his highest margin of victory in the state: 91 percent.

"I won't forget this at all," said the governor.

Glendening was on a tour of Montgomery County yesterday, promoting his efforts to revitalize the older neighborhoods and "urban cores" of Maryland. Another scheduled stop was in Friendship Heights, where, he said, his vote margin was almost as overwhelming as in Takoma Park.

Takoma Park already plans to spend $515,000 next month to acquire a vacant 1.4-acre lot in Takoma Junction and convert it to interim parking while seeking a developer for the property, said Beverly Habada, the city administrator. The money includes $200,000 in block grant funds from Montgomery County and a $315,000 city bond, which will cost the city more than $27,000 a year in debt service, Habada said.

Montgomery County officials have discussed relocating the Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department from Takoma Junction. City planners said that if that happens they might seek to acquire the fire hall for a cultural center, but they said no source of funds has been identified for that project.

The $1 million from the state would be used to acquire other property in the area and spur creation of a commercial, retail and residential hub, said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "Without public investment, you won't get the right kind of private investment," Franchot said.

Past proposals for the property have included a Pizza Hut and a chain drugstore, both violently opposed by city residents, who said they wanted a grocery store most of all. Residents banded together to create a community development corporation to foster controlled development of the Junction.

A leading contender to move into the Junction -- if financing comes together -- is the Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Cooperative, a booming vegetarian market in nearby Silver Spring.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Time to Make Takoma Park Business Taxes Fairer


How is it that Takoma Park's S&A Beads paid $2,064.14 in city taxes in 2016 but nearby restaurant Kin Da, occupying a similar space, paid only $614.73? And that SunTrust Bank, just steps away, paid just $364.41? What sort of system charges a small, locally owned business 450% more than a megabank that occupies a larger commercial space?

Takoma Park's business-tax system is not fair, and it has been that way for decades. The inequity results from city levy of personal-property taxes on commercial inventories, obviously not paid by service businesses including my own Takoma Park consulting firm. It is worsened by a special exemption granted by Maryland state law to financial institutions. The good news is that we — that is, the Takoma Park City Council — can set the city's tax system right without sacrificing the revenue that funds city programs benefiting local businesses.

Either of two proposals would address business tax inequity. Each would offer relief to small retail businesses. One, a local-ownership exemption on inventory taxes, would cost the city only a modest revenue loss. The second, replacing the inventory tax (or perhaps all personal-property taxes, also paid by businesses on equipment and furnishings) with higher real-estate taxes, and would redistribute the tax burden and entail no revenue loss at all.

The backstory is complicated but captured in a pair of articles published earlier this year. Start with my May Takoma Voice column A tax break for Takoma Park businesses?, and then consult S&A Beads' owner Larry Silverman's Inventory tax an unfair burden.

A Local-Ownership Exemption

Takoma Park's goal should be to raise revenue sufficient to fund needed city services, via progressive taxation. By "progressive," I mean balancing fairness — Larry is right that the inventory tax means that retail businesses pay far more than service businesses for the same city services — with policy goals that include promotion of locally business ownership, which recycles profits back into the community.

This sort of policy goal led to the creation of homestead credits for real-property taxes. If you own the Maryland home you live in, the growth in real-property taxes you pay due to higher reassessment is capped at ten percent per year. That is, Maryland grants favorable tax treatment for owner-occupied residences.

The City of Takoma Park could likely offer similar favorable tax treatment for locally owned businesses, in the form of an inventory tax exemption. S&A Beads would be exempted from inventory taxes, as would the TPSS Co-op (perhaps in proportion to Takoma Park or Montgomery County ownership) and locally owed Takoma-Langley Crossroads retail businesses. (The city's ability to create a local-ownership exemption — an exemption for owner-operated businesses is an alternative, to accommodate DC and other non-Takoma Park residents with small businesses here — would need to be verified by the city attorney.)

As an aside, I disfavor a top-line inventory exclusion granted to all businesses. The inventory tax is not a significant burden for the city's largest inventory-tax payers — Advance Auto Part, Walgreen's, Aldi, and the like — and none has sought, nor deserves, tax relief.

A Shift to Real-Property Taxes

Elimination of the inventory tax, or perhaps of all city personal-property taxes on businesses, offset by higher real-estate taxes on commercial properties, is an alternative that would be a step toward business-tax equity. Property owners would pass their higher costs on to their business tenants, and Takoma Park would join those Maryland jurisdictions that offer a full or partial inventory-tax exemption.

How would this work? The city would create a new real-estate tax class, based on geographic location and use.

For comparison purposes: Rockville has four tax classes. Commercial properties within the Town Square boundaries, Class 1, are currently taxes at $0.622 per $100 assessed value, while commercial and residential properties outside Town Square, Class 50, are taxed at less than half that rate, at a $0.292 rate.

The City of Takoma Park could similarly create a class for commercial properties in commercial areas city-wide. It would include Carroll and Laurel Avenues, the storefronts at Maple and Sherman Avenues and Flower Avenue at Erie Avenue and near Piney Branch Road, and the New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard corridors. The council would task staff to calculate a rate that would offset elimination of the inventory tax, or of all personal-property taxes paid by businesses. I would suggest a phase-in over several years because to avoid punishing landlords whose tenants have multi-year leases.

The system would be progressive although not completely fair: property owners in more-desirable parts of town already pay more for city services based on valuations higher than those in less-desirable areas. I would keep it simple, however, and not apply different rates to different parts of the city.

Time to Act

I have described two approaches that address Takoma Park business tax inequity. That this bit of unfairness should be addressed, I hope all will agree. The state and county, which handle property tax assessments and payments, will need to be help. The system has been unfair for years. We can and should act now to set it right.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Jeanette Dixon and Shebra Evans for School Board; No on Term Limits

Board of Education candidates Shebra Evans and Jeanette Dixon
Your 2016 down-ballot choices matter — your votes on state and county questions and for school board.

This year, Montgomery County voters will choose three of eight Board of Education representatives and decide ballot questions that include term limits for county elected officials. Voters state-wide will decide whether to modify the procedure for filling state-office vacancies.

My recommendations:
  • Jeanette Dixon for Board of Education, at-large
  • Rebecca Smondrowski for Board of Education, District 2
  • Shebra Evans for Board of Education, District 4
  • For on Question 1 (state vacancy appointments)
  • For on Question A (special election for county executive vacancy)
  • Against on Question B (term limits for county offices)
  • For Question C (partial-term definition for county offices)
I offer no recommendation on the ballot's judicial races, and the 2016 federal races require exactly and only one sentence: I support Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine for President and Vice President and Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate, who will carry Maryland, and Jamie Raskin, who will win his race for U.S. House of Representatives, Maryland District 8.

Board of Education

Disparities in student accomplishments and resources that result from wide differences in family economic and social circumstances. Disparities are linked to race, ethnicity, neighborhood, parent educational attainment, and language skills. Yet many classrooms and schools are overcrowded, and some facilities are substandard. We aspire to equity, but we have fallen short.

Every school-board member and every candidate talks about these issues and uses words such as transparency, accountability, budgeting control, and parent engagement. The major candidate differences are elsewhere, so my 2016 electoral choices reflect an evaluation of the candidates' school involvement, energy, independence, listening and communications skills, and political and diplomatic abilities. Which candidates will make the most compelling case for additional state funding? Which will prioritize inclusion and best represent students who most need a BOE advocate, respect teacher voices, and offer sensible results?

The District 4 school board race features two newcomers who seek to replace retiring incumbent Chris Barclay. Of the two, Shebra Evans communicates strong understanding of achievement and opportunity disparities and has put time and effort into understanding community voices and building relationships. Her opponent Anjali Reed Phukan offers facile, feel-good reliance on technology and parent-child programming as solutions to overcrowding and disparities, solutions most likely to work for those who least need them. I endorse Shebra Evans.

I support Jeanette Dixon for Board of Education, at-large. Dixon will bring an educator's perspective to the board — she retired in 2013 after eleven years as principal at Paint Branch High School — with a keen understanding of east county and minority needs. Dixon's combination of knowledge, conviction, independence, outspokenness, and personal warmth adds up to compelling candidate. My only reservation, based on a house-party encounter, is an impression that she might have more to learn about local needs — in Takoma Park-Silver Spring and, I'd suspect, in other parts of the county where she doesn't have direct experience — than she realizes. Yet the promise is there, and so is my endorsement.

For another perspective on the at-large race, please consult activist Dan Reed's March 2016 essay, Why Montgomery County school board is the race to watch in 2016. And you may find myMCMedia 2016 MCPS Board of Education General Election candidate videos of value.

I endorse Rebecca Smondrowski, as the better school board District 2 choice, without comment.

Ballot Questions

Ballot Question 1 would modify the Maryland Constitution to require a special election for Attorney General or Comptroller, should a vacancy occur early in a four-year term, and to require the Governor to appoint a member of the former official's political party, or from a list provided by that party, otherwise. Direct elections to fill vacancies makes sense, as does preservation of the voters' previous party choice. I recommend a For vote on Question 1.

Questions A, B, and C are specific to Montgomery County.

Question A would allow the County Council to schedule a special election to fill a County Executive mid-term vacancy. I am For Question A.

Question B puts forward a three-term limit for County Council and County Executive offices. If it passes, voters will lose the right to choose preferred candidates. I recommend a vote Against Question B and For Question C, which should term limits pass, would not count office occupancy of less than two year as a term.

Vote Early

Montgomery County has eight days of early voting. Visit any of the ten county voting centers — they're listed online and include the Silver Spring Civic Building — October 27 to November 3, 8am - 8pm.

If you miss early voting, make sure to head to the polls on November 8, 7 am to 8 pm. Happy voting!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Parking or Public Space?

"Reclaim your City!" That's the aim of PARK(ing) Day, "an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks." Takoma Park and Montgomery County 2016 observances, on September 16, were small scale, but then turning parking to public use  I'd characterize parking as temporary personal use of public space — is not a new idea. Locally, in Takoma Park, think farmers markets, Fourth of July parade, Street Festival, Grant Avenue Market, and JazzFest, all of which displace cars, actually in those examples from both curb and street spaces. What's different about PARK(ing) Day is that it's a Friday, a weekday rather than a weekend or holiday. That's significant. Our only local weekday closure is Anne Street in Takoma Park, for the weekly Wednesday Crossroads Farmers Market that runs June to November.
PARK(ing) Day 2016, Fenton Street, Silver Spring. Photo by Eric Rasch.

Fact is that many jurisdictions have an ample supply of commercial district parking, enough to cover weekday and weekend needs. Metered street and lot parking, adding in private lots, ranges from adequate to plentiful in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Bethesda, and Rockville, the parts of Montgomery County I most often frequent, and the county and city are taking progressive steps to boost transit use, biking, and walking. Further, the growth in Uber and Lyft and the like mean reduced parking demand everywhere, as does the prospect of self-driving cars that would drop you off, park a few blocks away, and fetch you when you're ready to go.

We're reclaiming some of that supply for productive uses, for housing, businesses, and recreational space. Urban design consultant Dan Reed described one local project in a 2013 Greater Greater Washington article, "Rebuild of the Blairs will turn Silver Spring parking into parks." Reed reported that redevelopment of the Blairs parcel off East-West Highway, now underway, "would double the amount of housing and triple the amount of commercial... The shopping center, office building, and older apartment buildings would be replaced with acres of new parks, courtyards, and buildings with green roofs." That's 2,800 residential units, 450,000 square feet of commercial space and six permanent parks, according to July Bethesda magazine reporting. I'd love to see revitalization on this scale in Takoma-Langley Crossroads, where large strip malls sit behind acres of surface parking. (Here: a 2013 Urban Land Institute study of the area.) If only we could get Crossroads property owners such as B.F. Saul motivated!

A different Silver Spring project is reclaiming an obsolete Montgomery County parking garage, at Colesville Road and Spring Street, for an office building. The county sold the garage to United Therapeutics last year. The new project will include an 11,000-square-foot public plaza and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, according to Bethesda magazine.

In Takoma, how many readers miss the Carroll Street NW surface parking lot that was replaced by Takoma Central and Busboys and Poets? I'll donate $10 to the Action Committee for Transit for each person who contacts me with an honest "I miss it."

Takoma Park's most visible current project is redevelopment of the city-owned Takoma Junction parking lot. New construction will yield around 14,000 square feet of ground-level retail space; however, developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is bound only to "use its Best Efforts to create an accessible outdoor space devoted to year-round public use or enjoyment. By contrast, a number of community members had advocated Takoma Junction building less modest than is planned. They would dedicate lot space to community use. PARK(ing) Day writ large?

I have to say, the Main Street public-space vision is alluring. Ideas and illustrations presented by community advocate Welmoed Laanstra, at the March 2, 2015 city council meeting opened eyes to creative-reuse possibilities. The city went in a different direction, however, with the thought that doubling-down on retail space, with second-story residential or organizational use, would best serve the community, in the Junction context. The new NDC building would include TPSS Co-op expansion space. Construction will preserve public parking sufficient for the whole of the Takoma Junction commercial district. And even if plans allow only modest outdoor community space, at least we can hope for, and advocate, a deep building set-back from the street with a wide sidewalk, with a garden area that would serve pedestrians and business patrons.

I'll offer a different, better Old Takoma community-space candidate. Laurel Avenue (between Eastern and Carroll Avenues) has a light traffic load, wide pedestrian median, and close-by commercial parking lots and metered street parking. We already close the traffic and parking lanes for seven or eight hours each Sunday for the Takoma Park Farmers Market. All it takes to close either traffic side or both are saw horses and signs. Picture something Takoma-scale comparable to the blocks of Broadway in New York, cars banned since 2010, converted to pedestrian public space, and think of Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring.

An extended Takoma Park trial, on a partial, temporary, seasonal, or occasional basis, would cost very little while promising much. I can see immediate uses, for instance for expanded seasonal outdoor restaurant seating for Thai/sushi restaurant Kin Da, currently limited to a few sidewalk tables; as a place to munch your Pizza Mover's take-out or just hang out; and to support the planned Takoma Beverage Company, a cafe that is slated to open in late 2016 or early 2017. Laurel would be an ideal venue for food trucks displaced from the former Trohv location, now home to a Starbucks and the Big Bad Woof. All that's needed is tables and chairs. And the block has potential as a performance and meeting space that the Takoma Junction lot lacks. Laurel Avenue performers and speakers wouldn't be vying with the noise from four lanes of Route 410 traffic that often includes emergency vehicles.

Elsewhere in Takoma Junction, on a smaller scale, we could give over a couple of street parking spaces on Grant Avenue to Spring Mill Bread, which the business explored during a few of the Grant Avenue market street closures. Same with Dolci Gelati, if the business wishes, or the Italian restaurant planned by Dolci Gelati's owners for the adjacent Carroll Avenue storefront, and the Black Lion restaurant and Peter's Sub Shop at Maple and Sherman Avenues. Any other suggestions? Nothing permanent, just repurposing à la PARK(ing) Day, but everyday rather than one day.

It has been many years since developers, planners, and engineers laid out our streets. Times have changed — transportation choices, public priorities, and our sense how to best use shared community resources — so we revisit streetscape choices made decades ago. We add traffic calming, Bikeshare, bike lanes, and raised crosswalks, and we redevelop and downsize excess parking to create commercial opportunity and new housing and to boost community vitality. Montgomery County efforts have transformed Silver Spring. Takoma Park can also move forward. Progress will take persuasion in Takoma-Langley Crossroads, perseverance in Takoma Junction, vision in Old Takoma, and actually only a small experiment at at Maple and Sherman.

"Reclaim your City!" Let's make that PARK(ing) Day mantra ours, every day.

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 dc.gov, 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.

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