Friday, March 20, 2015

Moving Forward in Takoma Junction

The Takoma Park City Council is moving toward selection of a developer for the city-owned Takoma Junction lot. I expect the council will either decide -- or decide when to decide -- at its Monday evening, March 23 meeting.

My council colleagues and I -- and city staff and the finalist developers and interested members of the public -- have been listening, questioning, and evaluating for six months now, following on years of community and city exploration of junction revitalization possibilities. We have heard from a broad range of stakeholders and have considered a spectrum of views. It's now time to decide.

NDC's initial proposal for Takoma Junction city-lot development.
The facade and other design details will change!
My own preference is the Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) proposal although I find Keystar-Eco Housing's an acceptable second choice.

I'll offer a fuller assessment of those two finalist developers and their proposals, below. But remember: The council discussion/decision has not happened yet. My council colleagues have not voted yet. If there is an overwhelming constituent preference for Keystar/EcoHousing or another approach, I'll reconsider my choice.

First recapping -- skip the next two paragraphs to get to my assessment --

The city issued a development request for proposals (RFP) almost 14 months ago, on January 22, 2014. We received 7 responses by the May 28 deadline. On September 5, 2014, we identified 4 finalists. One of those finalists, Community Three Development, withdrew its proposal last month, and the council announced Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) and Keystar-Eco Housing as the finalist-finalists on March 2, 2015. While the Ability Project is out of the running, we welcome consideration of including them as a tenant, alongside the only must-accommodate business, the TPSS Co-op, which is the junction's commercial anchor. By "must accommodate," I mean that the city stipulates that the chosen developer must provide for co-op expansion and workable delivery unloading space in the site design and must ensure minimal disruption of co-op operations through the course of construction.

Do visit the city Web site for detail including links for the city's 2014-5 Takoma Junction presentations, listening sessions, worksession discussions, and question sets, and visit the Takoma Junction Task Force site for material documenting the 2010-2 task force work.

A choice point --

My own assessment starts with a baseline belief that both NDC and Keystar-Eco Housing are capable, experienced developers. Both have sufficient financial resources to complete the project. Both would include the community in the process of refining the design and site plan, both would take required steps to accommodate TPSS Co-op expansion and operational needs, and both would recruit a tenant mix that will work for the site and for the community.

Since both Keystar-Eco Housing (K/E) and NDC could do the job, the decision can be made based on their actual proposed plans for the site, and (a distant second criterion for me) on financial return.

Both developers include street-level retail and an acceptable amount of public parking and both have signaled that they will explore inclusion of community space in their project. Design elements such as the facade can and will be changed.

Otherwise, the designs are markedly different --
  • K/E has 21 co-housing units versus 9 apartments for NDC
  • K/E's building rises 2 to 3 stories versus 2 for NDC
  • K/E's site plan includes the Takoma Auto Clinic lot; NDC's does not
I like co-housing, and I like it for Takoma Junction. Apartment housing in that particular, highly-walkable and bikeable, transit-friendly location makes sense and could be built with minimal or no residential parking spaces so that the residences' traffic impact would be minimal. Both K/E's 21 co-housing units, versus 9 apartments for NDC, would work in Takoma Junction. That's point #1, but...

Let's refer to the Takoma Junction Task Force report, which is online with a host of other task force documents. (I co-chaired the task force until a few months before report delivery, when I joined the city council. I recognize that some community members view the finalist plans as insufficiently community-driven. I believe that the city's current process is comfortably within the set of possibilities that the TJTF envisaged.)

The guiding, deciding recommendation for me is:

"C2. Any new development on the C1 parcel should harmonize with the existing architecture and scale of activity, and should not exceed two stories in height based upon previous commercial infill in the Historic District."

...revised after community and city discussions.
The proposed Keystar-Eco Housing building is both too high and too wide. The proposed NDC building is a better fit for Takoma Junction.

I'll call out one other design element. K/E would create a Carroll Avenue pull-in for large trucks making TPSS Co-op deliveries. K/E suggests that the city could install metered parking in the pull-in for daytime use. But the co-op has said this delivery approach is unworkable. Myself, I believe a Carroll Avenue pull-in would be a step in the wrong direction: We're trying to make Takoma Junction more pedestrian and bicyclist friendly, to maximize community space and improve aesthetic appeal. I would hate to carve a wide truck/parking lane out of the current Carroll Avenue sidewalk area at the expense of the streetscape and community space. I have asked K/E to revisit this approach but the team has made no commitment to do that.

On the other side of the ledger, money. K/E has proposes to pay $600,000 for the Takoma Junction development parcel and NDC only $100,000. (It is unclear whether the sale would include the residentially zoned wooded parcel on Columbia Avenue.) While NDC's proposed payment is low, NDC executives have said it could be higher if costs are lowered in certain ways, for instance, by reducing residential parking. There are other variations that come into play. For instance, both developers will consider a condominium arrangement with the co-op, where the co-op would purchase its expansion space and building (not that there aren't signs that one of the two -- my pick, actually -- wouldn't be easier for the co-op to work with). These variations may also change the financial figures. In any case, $500,000 isn't remotely close to enough to sway me toward a less-desirable design.

Your reactions? Remember that council discussion is still ahead of us, and the council has not voted yet.

Please let me know your thoughts via e-mail to or by phone, 301-873-8225.

Thanks very much!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

March 16 at the City Council: Elections Update, Sustainability & Energy Efficiency, Plus a City Manager Search Update

The Monday, March 16 city council meeting opens with a 7 pm report by the Board of Elections on 2014 activities and plans for 2015 leading up to this year's city election. The board's report is online. It recommends a number of general steps to improve electoral awareness and others to increase voter registration and expand access to voting. I'll be looking for board reaction to a few ideas myself -- for instance, what if we required petitions to get on the ballot, which would force would-be candidates to get out into the community, replacing the nominating caucus, which requires only two nominators? -- and I'd be happy to forward your questions and suggestions to the board.

Environmental Sustainability Update

Also on the agenda, a Sustainability Program update from Sustainability Manager Gina Mathias and discussion of an energy efficiency incentive program.

The city's environmental sustainability initiatives center on efforts to win the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize -- the city is one of 50 finalists -- and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gina will outline a neighborhood-based energy-challenge competition the relies on individual green home certifications aided by incentives and development of a set of preferred contractors. The city government will take its own steps. See the backgrounder (linked above) for information and a break-out of the $258,475 program budget.

Your comments are welcome; you're participation is essential for the environment progress we aspire to.

City Manager Search

Finally, an update on the search for a replacement for Brian Kenner, who resigned as city manager effective January 30:

The council decided to conduct an expedited search this go-around. [Added March 16:] "Expedited" means that we reused the 2012-3 materials (position description, brochure) with only a basic update and not a rewrite. The council agreed to close the search after only 30 days and to screen the candidates ourselves, in order to come up with a short list, rather than use the search consultant. And it means not setting up a residents' committee; instead we'll involve residents only if there's a close split in the hiring decision. We may also involve residents informally during interviews, as tour guides.

We do welcome public input. You can relay your views to the city council by e-mail -- I'll paste in e-mail below -- or by commenting at the council meeting, at 7:30 pm.

Best to comment soon. We haven't made a selection, but I expect we'll have an announcement within 3-4 weeks.

Our last city manager search was very recent, only two years ago. (We were all surprised that Brian left so soon, but agree that appointment as Washington DC deputy mayor was a great opportunity.) The key quality sought then -- and now, I believe -- was/is desire for a city manager who will be engaged and visible in the community. That's on top of management experience and competence, of course.

Here are council e-mail addresses:

Bruce Williams <>
Fred Schultz <>
Jarrett Smith <>
Kate Stewart <>
Seth Grimes <>
Terry Seamens <>
Tim Male <>

Please share your thoughts!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dog Park Decision Time

The city council agenda for Monday evening, March 9, includes a Dog Park update, slated for 8:10 pm. You can check out the revised site plan and estimated cost schedule, part of the council packet for the meeting.

Dog Park site plan (March 4, 2015)
City staff members have been working closely with Takoma Dogs and architect Eric Saul, who has donated design services. Thanks! They have revised plans based on construction cost estimates for earlier iterations that came in very high. (The last council presentation and discussion occurred on November 24, 2014.) Note, however, that the site plan in the council packet is not final. Joe Edgell says that of Takoma Dogs is producing a new drawing this weekend that incorporates city staff changes.

At the March 9 meeting, the council will almost certainly approve moving forward with dog park construction. I support it, although the cost is higher than we had expected. According to city staff, the current construction estimate is $190,000 to $200,000. That does include $35,500 for a water line and fountain, which I would treat as an option, more on which in a bit.

Next steps would include land-use and permitting discussions with Montgomery County Parks and development of a construction request for proposals. I do plan to raise a number of questions at the meeting, and I'm sure my council colleagues will have their own.

My questions include whether we can get Montgomery County to run a water line to the end of the Darwin Avenue parking lot, to the planned entrance to the dog park, which if feasible could save the city over $35 thousand, according to staff's estimate of water-line cost. (The water fountain (for people and dogs both!) nearby in Takoma Piney Branch Park is out of order right now, but we'll try to get that fixed.) Another question is whether staff have identified any non-city funding that could make up for the $50+ thousand in Maryland Program Open Space money that we had hoped to use for the project this current fiscal year. The money is channeled through Montgomery County and had been approved by the county, but the county clawed it back.

A possible second phase would expand the dog park. I've asked city staff to provide a rough estimate of costs although Takoma Dogs suggests that an "option for the Council to consider is to hold off on phase 2 and instead put the money into opening a couple of the smaller, neighborhood parks that we proposed in our initial presentation."

Finally, I have asked city staff to address the status of development of the planned Colby Avenue and Sligo Mill Overlook parks, at Monday evening's meeting. Completing these parks is a priority.

Public comment, regarding the dog park or any other city topic you wish to speak about, takes place at 7:30 pm.

The dog park item will be followed by discussion of a proposal to locate advertising-supported bulletin board in city parks. And prior to the public meeting, the council will meet in closed, adminstrative-function session to discuss next steps in our search for a new city manager. I expect we will conclude that process by mid/late April if not sooner.


Seth, 301-873-8225