Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ward 1 update: run-down/vacant properties, Takoma Central development

This post will bring you up-to-date on four pending projects in/near Takoma Park's Ward 1.

1) The city has been working for some time to deal with the abandoned, run-down house at 36 Philadelphia Avenue. Restoration may be feasible, or the house may need to be demolished. The city has contracted with an engineering firm to conduct an assessment, but the interior was so cluttered that clean-up was required to permit access. That clean-up took place on March 19, according to Takoma Park Housing and Community Development Director Sara Daines, and she is waiting to hear back from the engineering firm as to when they will be on site. The city will apply for a Historic Area Work Permit and decide next steps once the assessment results are in. If it seems demolition is the best/only option, we'll make sure that nearby residents have an opportunity to comment.

2) Walt Rave's house at 29 Holt Place was severely damaged in December 7 fire that killed Walt. The house has been condemned, according to Sara Daines. The city has inspected the property and, Sara reports, "the insurance company has addressed the issues raised by Code staff. We will continue to monitor the property to make sure that it is secured and the lot maintained in accordance with the Property Maintenance Code. Little will occur until Mr. Rave's estate is probated."

3) You may have noticed a For Lease sign in the vacant storefront, the former TJ's Market, at 7300 Carroll Avenue. That's a good thing. An environmental clean-up has been underway a few doors down, at 7306 & 7308 Carroll Avenue, to deal with fumes from dry-cleaning fluid from a dry cleaner formerly at 7306 Carroll. According to a staffer at the Maryland Department of the Environment, initial sampling show clean-up progress. Levels of perchloroethylene (PCE), a cleaning solvent, meet cleanup standards while levels of the trichloroethylene (TCE) solvent are slightly above standards. Remediation and testing are continuing.

4) The architect of the planned Takoma Central development, at 231-5 Carroll Street, NW, wishes to revise his plans, and the revised plans may need to go through a public review process. The Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission has asked for a public hearing. ANC requests carry "great weight" in District decision-making.

ANC Commissioner Sara Green wrote on February 25 --

"Mr. Gharai [the architect] is asking Anne Brockett, of the Office of Historic Preservation staff, to approve two design changes to 231 and 235 Carroll Street (235 Carroll is the one with the foundation partially dug). DC law permits staff approvals if the changes are not significant.
"The changes: 1) removing the penthouse party room and roof deck (235 Carroll - not clear) and 2) moving the canopy from the red brick (corner of Maple and Carroll) section of 231 Carroll and putting it over the 'glass hyphen' feature that is in another part of the building.
"Based on the drawings and the description, I think the proposal makes the building, particularly 231 Carroll, look quite different. Therefore, I am asking ANC 4B to adopt a resolution on Monday night asking that the community be given an opportunity to comment and that HPRB hold a public hearing to review the proposals.
"Two drawings can be seen on ANC 4B's web page: http://ANC4B.info (Go to the 'issues' section the left and the scroll down to the Carroll Street items.) The drawings aren't clear to me, so I have asked Mr. Gharai to provide large sized color renderings and will put them in the Takoma Library."

Based on experience to date, I doubt that construction will restart within the next two months.

Monday, March 19, 2012

City sidewalk policy to be put to a vote

The city council is slated to vote on city sidewalk policy at this evening's meeting. This policy has been in the works for quite some time, based on a draft first introduced and discussed before I joined the council. I and other council members have heard from many residents, some advocating higher thresholds for community-generated requests, some lower. Community members have raised concerns about walkability, environmental impact, traffic-calming coordination, maintenance burden, accessibility and safety, imposition against property-owner wishes, and the need for (or opposition to) sidewalks on particular streets.

I believe the council has a fair, workable compromise policy before it, for consideration at tonight's council meeting. Please see the agenda packet.

The draft policy could still be modified, deferred, or rejected, however. Please do weigh in, by direct e-mail to me and/or other council members or on-list, or at the council meeting. I'm pasting in, below, e-mail from one resident, which I found helpful. There will be an opportunity for public comment before the vote.

From: Joe Edgell <>
Many of you know that sidewalks have been discussed extensively here in Takoma Park. The Task Force on Environmental Action, or TFEA, recommended the following:
"The City should work hard to Improve human-powered transportation accessibility including pedestrian and bicycle access and ensure robust enforcement against cars infringing upon pedestrian and bicycle access."
As part of that recommendation, the TFEA further noted:
"In neighborhoods with no sidewalks, build ADA- compliant sidewalks on at least one side of the street if desired by community. Construction should be done in a manner to minimize negative secondary impacts including increased stormwater runoff." (emphasis added)
The TFEA was acutely aware that sidewalks needed both community support and environmental impact mitigation. To provide mitigation, the TFEA created a stepped approach to sidewalk design where the least impactful approach is tried first, and only when that approach didn't work, should the more impactful designs be tried.
The TFEA recommendations addressing the environmental impacts of sidewalk construction looked like this:
(1) Where appropriate, build sidewalks and/or bike lanes in existing roadways. This approach eliminates [the] need for additional right of way and eliminates creation of new impervious surfaces. This solution also can reduce roadway size, thus acting as an effective traffic-control measure;
(2) If insufficient road width exists to build sidewalks and/or bike paths in current roadway, ensure that any constructed sidewalks are separated from streets by at least three feet to minimize runoff from new sidewalks. Also incorporate rain gardens or trees/vegetation in that three-foot space between new sidewalk and road;
(3) Where neither option (1) or (2) is possible, stormwater should be captured in detention or retention ponds and infiltrated, evaporated, or released in a controlled manner.
Takoma Park has many wide streets that exceed 29 feet curb-to-curb. It is possible to install sidewalks in these wide existing streets, creating zero new impervious surface and eliminating most of the tree-root impact. This creative in-street design also has the excellent effect of providing traffic calming that residents so desperately desire. While residents clamor for ineffective, car- and bike-damaging speed bumps, narrower streets are one measure that are guaranteed to slow cars the entire length of the street while simultaneously not slowing emergency vehicles. The design benefits from an odd trait of human psychology. When drivers perceive a road narrowing, they slow down. The design is good for pedestrians who walk the street and good for residents who live on it.
The City Council is considering, tonight, instituting a "sidewalk policy" that will guide future City Councils and employees on how to work through the pros and cons of sidewalk installation. While the City staff did not exactly adopt the stepped approach the TFEA recommended, City staff have incorporated recommendations very similar to those of the TFEA.
As the former co-chair of the TFEA, I appreciate the City's efforts, and particularly Daryl Braithwaite's, the City Public Works Director, to incorporate our recommendations. Because of this, I support the City's revised sidewalk policy, and will so state at tonight's Council meeting.
I encourage you to come out and support these efforts. While sidewalks are not appropriate in all locations, this policy will bring a rational approach to the City's efforts to evaluate where sidewalks are appropriate. And where they are, guide the City in minimizing or eliminating the environmental impacts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Takoma Park City Council Members Should Take Up Non-City Issues!

I blogged last week on the question, Should the Takoma Park City Council Take Up Non-City Issues? Now I see how to answer Yes.

My disinclination to back council action on non-municipal matters was shared by Councilmember Tim Male. It was well received by some folks. One constituent posted to a neighborhood e-mail list, regarding my and Tim's no vote on a council resolution urging overturn of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision,

I am delighted that our newly elected local council members won't waste time with symbolic resolutions on matters that are beyond their jurisdiction. Takoma Park's city council has no legislative authority over federal campaign finance issues. It's pointless for them to have a "full debate" over a Supreme Court decision they've got zero power to change. That's a matter for federal legislators. Our council members were elected to take care of matters in Takoma Park, and that's what they should do. Good going Seth & Tim!

Others didn't agree, regarding council inattention to non-city issues. One wrote,

I would hate to see Takoma Park lose this part of its identity. Given the case at hand, I also would like to hear what Jamie [Raskin] has to say.

That latter suggestion is a good one. Our neighbor Jamie represents Maryland's District 20 in the state senate. His political and policy views, his positions and tactics, inform us all.

Jamie's approach to Citizens United shows a way forward. Rather than introduce legislation in the Maryland Senate, Jamie drafted a letter, co-signed by D-20 Delegate Sheila Hixson, addressed to US legislators. They asked members of the Maryland General Assembly to sign on.

Personally, I think that letters are a great way to bring the council's attention to an issue. I've organized them myself, albeit focused on city issues, in the past, a 2007 letter advocating a city living-wage ordinance and one in 2008, calling for a ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Appropriately targeted letters from individuals work.

Should the the Takoma Park City Council voice an opinion on matters that do not relate to municipal government? If you think so, please consider Jamie's sensible approach. Draft a letter for council-member signatures. If you make the case -- if the views expressed resonate with council members and the broad community -- winning council signatures will be easy. And if it's a council resolution you're hoping for, demonstrating wide/deep local support, again via a letter, will help you get the exception you seek.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Should the Takoma Park City Council Take Up Non-City Issues?

Takoma Park resident and activist Thomas Nephew, in A city's 'city issue' issue, has taken me to task for a city-council vote that reflected my disinclination to back council action on non-municipal matters. I (and Council Member Tim Male) voted against a Takoma Park City Council resolution calling for overturn of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows unrestricted political expenditures by corporations and unions. Granola Park blogger Gilbert captured my view succinctly and accurately --

"He didn't see [a call for overturn of the Citizens United decision] as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jurisdiction."

The council took up Citizens United, at its February 6, 2012 meeting, under the heading, Legislative Update and Related Resolution. The staff-prepared background material explained,

Senator Jamie Raskin (District 20 of Takoma Park) is circulating a letter in the Maryland General Assembly to be sent to the United States Congress urging a Constitutional Amendment be initiated to overturn the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

That letter is appropriate. States, in our system, charter the corporations who have achieved campaign-donation personhood through the CU decision.

Now, if Senator Raskin (my neighbor and constituent, whom I've enthusiastically supported from the day he announced his state-senate run, which isn't true of all council incumbents) had asked the council's support, I would have voted for a resolution. He did not, and the resolution before the council did not reference Senator Raskin's initiative. That is, it failed to make the case that the Citizens United decision is a direct city-government concern.

I'm not an absolutist, however, and I recognize that I was elected to represent my constituents. Constituents views are important to me, which is why I blogged and I wrote to Ward 1 residents, via neighborhood e-mail lists, to ask their opinions on, as Thomas put it, this city's "'city issue' issue." I wrote, "I have misgivings... The Citizens United decision is bad news -- corporations are not people, and heavy corporate spending in electoral campaigns is pernicious -- but Citizens United isn't a city issue. Should the city devote time and resources to this question? Again, please share your thoughts."

Responses were split 5-2-6 -- No-Tentative-Yes. Here they are. (I've taken key sentences from a number of longer comments).

No
"Having read the resolution and its genesis, I agree that a city council resolution will have little impact and is not a good way for the council to use its time or resources."
"Stay out of the Citizens United issue. Takoma Park doesn't have a dog in that fight and we shouldn't waste city resources on it. Thanks, (& wife agrees) your constituent"
"I am generally opposed to the city involving itself in purely symbolic issues. Unless city action can have a tangible effect on the Citizens United situation, I would prefer that the council spend its time on issues that are local in nature."
"[My husband] and I both agree with you re: the city council's spending time discussing the Citizens United issue. It should be left in the capable hands of Senator Raskin and others who might possibly have some impact on the policy."
"Not, in my opinion, a good use of council's time. I never understand the temptation to get involved in federal issues."
Tentative
"Does Jamiue Raskin think it would be of any use to have the City on record on this? If he does, given his leadership and knowledge on the issue, my hope is that the council will act to do so."
"If Senator Raskin thinks that TP taking a position on this will somehow support his cause, THEN maybe it is worth the time. If not, then I think we as individuals can support Sen. Raskin's worthy effort."
Yes
"To those who think the Citizens United decision is not a city issue, I say that it's an issue affecting every one of us. And cities around the country, including Greenbelt and Mt. Ranier, are in the process of passing condemning resolutions. As a 37-year resident, I firmly believe Takoma Park should continue its proud history as a progressive community and at least match the efforts of those other cities."
"I just saw the resolution and I support it."
"The point of such a resolution in Takoma Park is not merely to influence state senators, but to make known our City's opposition to the Citizens United decision, and support for changing it."
"Let's speak out!"
"The citizens united decision is so egregious we need every voice to be heard in every forum. It certainly has a much bigger impact than a wind farm (as good as that may be)."
"This was a horrible decision! Very important to raise our voice in solidarity with others in opposition for many reasons."
"I wouldn't forego any critical local issues for this discussion, but communities don't end at the borders of municipalities. The more of the latter that can tell state and national governments what they think of this Supreme Court ruling -- which affects us all, at every level of self government -- the better."
The tally

One could count the Tentatives as Nos given that Senator Raskin did not ask for a city resolution. Adding a Yes vote from Thomas, the tally is 7 No, 7 Yes, with over 2,000 Ward 1 residents not voicing an opinion, including at least 243 of the 256 Ward 1 voters who cast a 2011 ballot.

I've buried the lede, down at the end of this blog article. Should the Takoma Park City Council involve itself in other than city-government matters? Residents who are engaged enough in this issue to weigh in are split. But most have not weighed in as is typical, which I read as trust in my ability to make a sound decision. I appreciate that trust and will do my best to justify it, and I'm quite happy to be held accountable.

Here are my comments on draft city sidewalk policy. What are your thoughts?

Sidewalks are a controversial topic. Some residents want more; some don't. Sometimes-heated exchanges have made it clear that Takoma Park could use a Policy for Sidewalk Requests and Installation, which the city council will consider at its meeting Monday evening, March 12, 2012.

The proposed policy, captured in a draft resolution, is the product of an extended discussions that have involved council members (former and present), city staff, and community members. It sets rules for a) initiating evaluation of a new sidewalk, b) discussion of the request, and c) feedback on either the design or on the sidewalk itself. (The scope of that last point is the unclear to me and is the subject of one of my comments.) Overall, the policy represents hard-won compromise.

I have several comments. I plan to bring them to the council meeting and I'll share them now. I'd also very much like to hear residents' thoughts. My first three (of four) comments are technical, aimed at making policy wording more precise. My fourth comment addresses a gap: The policy calls for up to three surveys of households. Is the final survey a referendum on design or on the sidewalk itself?

Here goes:

  1. First bullet, (2)(b): It would help to specify *which* residents may request a survey and how many residents much sign on to the request. I suggest a modification, "a minimum of two household in an affected area request that the City perform a survey of the households in the affected area and 50% of the responders provide a yes vote."
  2. A point says, "(7) The standard width of new sidewalk will be five feet." I suggest text, "(7) The width of new sidewalk shall be at least the minimum required for ADA compliance. It shall meet or exceed the current transportation industry width guidelines, 5 feet wide (1525 mm) with a planting strip of 2 feet (610 mm) on local streets and in residential and commercial areas as of March 2012, where possible." [See http://www.access-board.gov/prowac/guide/PROWGuide.htm#3_2_1]
  3. The next-to-last bullet could be more precise. I'd modify it to say "If at least 50% of the responses..."
  4. That bullet doesn't say what happens if the city doesn't receive at least 50% positive responses. Is that considered a design rejection or a sidewalk rejection?
    • If we'll consider that a design rejection, then added text would be in order, say "In the event fewer than 50% of responses are positive, the City will revise the design to account for respondents' concerns and survey the households on the side of the street where the proposed sidewalk is to be located on the revised design."
    • If we'll consider that to be sidewalk rejection, then it would be prudent to survey those "households on the side of the street where the proposed sidewalk is to be located" before getting to this point. But do we want policy that would ignore the rest of the affected area?

On one other point: Council consensus, the outcome of discussion, was to include only household residents and not property owners when surveys are called for.

Now please do share your own views on the draft sidewalk policy, via blog comments, private communications, or at Monday evening's council meeting. Thanks!