Sunday, May 31, 2015

More on Residential Area Parking, and More on Zoning and Development

The Monday evening, June 1 city council meeting will include further council-staff discussion of parking in residential neighborhoods adjacent to commercial areas -- this is a special concern, of course, in Old Takoma and near Montgomery College -- plus a discussion of the city newsletter and a vote on resolution disapproving of proposed Montgomery County zoning text amendment (ZTA) 15-04. I'll describe this items and post a bit more one reasons to revisit zoning along New Hampshire Avenue and in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area, a topic I covered last week.

Opposing Overbuilding at Washington Adventist University

The resolution opposing ZTA 15-04 will pass unanimously. (A ZTA alters county zoning code. This one would allow Washington Adventist University to build beyond the 35-foot height limit imposed by Maplewood Avenue's residential zoning.) We did express opposition to the ZTA just weeks ago, via Resolution 2015-20. Monday evening's restatement is required because the county council's Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee is considering a modification to the original proposed ZTA. We do have two of PHED's three members on our side, namely Council President George Leventhal and Councilmember Hans Riemer, as well Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Tom Hucker. Given a negative PHED vote and George's opposition, it is likely that we'll be able to stop the ZTA. Nonetheless, we need to protect against reintroduction of a modified ZTA. At the suggestion of a sympathetic county legislative attorney, I have suggested adding language stating that we oppose ZTA 15-04 regardless of any revisions or amendments that may be made.

The City Newsletter

Takoma Park's city newsletter is the #1 most used city information source, according to our 2014 residents' survey. 93% of respondents read the newsletter at least once, as compared to 68% who visited the city's Web site. For 91% of respondents, it's a key information source, compared to 82% for #2, special mailings. Clearly the newsletter is important. Monday evening's council meeting will include a newsletter discussion: How can we make it even more useful?

Parking

Yup, another parking discussion. It's a thorny issue! A draft for a proposed parking study states, "Public parking is a community asset but should be well-managed to meet the needs of residents, businesses and visitors. City of Takoma Park parking regulations have not been comprehensively studied for decades and needs and technology have changed significantly over this time." With council approval, work would be done over the summer, with a report back to the Council in the fall. For more, visit the backgrounder, which details possible near-term adjustments and review -- to parking permit zones, grant of permits to businesses and non-profits, and data collection -- and possible long-term actions and options.

Zoning and Development: New Hampshire Avenue

My May 25 "Council update: Zoning matters" looked at certain zoning and development concerns along the New Ave -- a vision for a transformed New Hampshire Avenue between the Eastern Avenue NW and University Blvd. -- and the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area. I advocated higher density and mixed-use development, rather than, for instance, the pocket sprawl creation, at NH Ave and Holton Lane, of a single-story Taco Bell with a drive-thru service window.

I thought I'd share a bit more of my thinking, a response to a constituent that I posted a few days ago to the PEN list. (I've made minor edits.) I start with a question --

Here's an opportunity to ask yourself, "What would Sam Abbott do?" I ask myself that question occasionally. This Taco Bell chunk of pocket-sprawl development will be with us for decades and will set the stage for more like it. What would Sammie do?

Let me reframe the discussion. Don't ask, "Why would a Taco Bell need a second floor?" Do ask, "What is the highest and best use for the site?" It's a mistake to ask, in effect, "What's the best design for a Taco Bell facility at the site?" I prefer to ask, "How can a Taco Bell fit in to a larger vision for the location?"

Density is appropriate at that location and all along New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park. That's why, in a similar situation, the city negotiated with a property owner who's putting in a dry cleaner farther down New Hampshire Avenue, to put in a second level. The Taco Bell site is zoned to allow a floor area ratio (FAR) of 2.5. Given space for the drive-thru, I'd estimate the FAR of the proposed Taco Bell at .5, meaning that the one-story building fills half the lot. With a 2.5 max FAR, you could put up a 5 story building in that footprint!

Further, the site is zoned for mixed-use development -- our New Ave initiative aspires to "quality, mixed-use, pedestrian oriented project[s]" -- which envisions that a site, even a building, will support a combination of retail, residential, office, and cultural/community uses.

In Takoma/Langley Crossroads, buildings equal opportunity. Melanie Isis, the T/LC Development Authority's executive director, presented at a recent council meeting. She said that the T/LC's commercial occupancy rate is 98%.

I went to a program May 24, here in Takoma Park, with Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Robert Goldman, president of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, speaking on demographics trends in our county. We're already way short on affordable housing. Where better to create new housing, in mixed-use developments, than in the transit-rich crossroads area?

So to answer your question: The community -- businesses and people -- need a second floor, and maybe even more, on the Taco Bell building. And we lose opportunity if ground area is devoted to drive-thru service, which will mostly serve passers-by, at a congestion and pedestrian safety cost, rather than locals and visitors who will also patronize other businesses.

The site -- we -- are inside the Beltway. Yet here we're contemplating a proposed Taco Bell, with a drive-thru, that's a small chunk of sprawl development in what should be a smart-growth zone.

Your Thoughts?

As always, please share you thoughts with me, at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225, or send comments for the council as a whole to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. Thanks for reading and engaging!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Council update: Zoning matters

Tuesday evening's (May 26) city council agenda includes two zoning-related items with broad implications, even if their immediate impacts focus on particular neighborhoods. One is a proposed county zoning text amendment (ZTA) introduced by Councilmember Nancy Floreen at the behest of Washington Adventist University, which hopes to build on Maplewood Avenue beyond the 35-foot height limit imposed by the neighborhood's R-60 (residential, single-family home) zoning. The second is a review of development standards in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads area that was prompted by a proposal to locate a Taco Bell restaurant, built around a drive-thru service window, at New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane.

The stories behind these items will lead us, I hope, to a discussion of zoning and development city-wide, leading us further toward a more Takoma Park-y set of local development guidelines.

Takoma Park's 'Look and Feel'

The May 26 council meeting opens with public comment at 7:30 pm. It includes a Resolution Accepting the Report of the Residential Streetscape Task Force (which should be followed in the coming months by formal adoption of task force recommendations. View the April 20 task force report online.) The meeting will close with a Review of Policy for New Sidewalk Design and Installation.

These latter items address very specific aspects of the Takoma Park's "look and feel." So we're taking two steps forward, and we're on the defensive against being pushed two steps back --

Proposed ZTA 15-04: Washington Adventist University Overbuilding

Of the two zoning items, the first, proposed ZTA 15-04, would damage a different aspect of our city's "look and feel," by allowing over-building on a residential street. The city council has already passed one resolution opposing it, on April 13. We expect to consider and vote on another opposing resolution next week, made necessary by changes to the ZTA being discussed by the county council. You can help. Please write Councilmember Nancy Floreen <Councilmember.Floreen@montgomerycountymd.gov>. Identify yourself as a constituent and ask her to withdraw ZTA 15-04.Copy me and/or City Councilmember Jarrett Smith <jarretts@takomaparkmd.gov> if you wish.

The Crossroads: 'Quality, Mixed-Use, Pedestrian Oriented'

The Takoma/Langley Crossroads item was, as I wrote, prompted by an active proposal to build a Taco Bell with a drive-thru service window on New Hampshire Avenue. I oppose this proposal, as I wrote on April 29. In particular, a drive-thru is inconsistent with the city's Holton Lane Area Improvement Vision and with our larger New Ave initiative, which promotes "quality, mixed-use, pedestrian oriented project[s]." The proposed Taco Bell project is none of those things.

Supporting the New Ave Vision
My council colleague Tim Male has stated a belief that "we deserve stronger control over the look, feel, size and pace of development in Takoma Park." I agree completely. But what mechanism? Tim "think[s] the city needs to work with the county to update our 15 year old Master Plan OR we should consider taking on independent zoning authority as Rockville and Gaithersburg do." I agree here too, regarding the first alternative: A Master Plan reappraisal is in order, whatever else we do. Regarding zoning authority, the approach I would pursue is different. We can work within the current county system, without enlarging city government. How?

Much of Takoma Park -- but not Takoma/Langley Crossroads -- is part of the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (commercial revitalization) overlay zone. This overlay zone alters the rules for a smaller area within a very large county. But the TPESS overlay rules are not well adapted for New Hampshire Avenue, for the mixed-use, transit-oriented, higher-density development that, I believe, the community will welcome along this major commercial corridor. We seek smart growth, not sprawl-style land mis-use.

One approach: Work with Montgomery County to create a new 'New Ave' overlay zone that would facilitate realizing the New Ave vision. The New Ave overlay zone would cover the length of New Hampshire Avenue in the city (with portions remapped from the TPESS overlay zone) plus University Blvd. between NH and Carroll Avenues. (And I sure hope it would disallow restaurant drive-thrus, which detract from pedestrian friendliness and do nothing to promote the greater business district.) Of course, continuing collaboration with Prince George's County, and intensified efforts to guide property owners to community-compatible land uses -- uses that create economic opportunity and attractions, amenities, and jobs -- will be essential.

For the record: I did not originate this idea of a new overlay zone for the crossroads and New Hampshire Avenue. It was suggested by a public official who is expert in zoning and planning matters. Expert assistance and joint work with Montgomery County, along with community input, will be required to make it reality. The effort will be worthwhile.

Your Thoughts?

Please do share your thoughts, during public comment at a council meeting or e-mail to the council via clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. My next drop-in office time will be this Wednesday, 8-9 am, at 7006 Carroll Avenue #202, and you can reach me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov and 301-873-8225.

Seth

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Budget votes and Old Takoma parking: The May 11 city council agenda

The Monday evening, May 11 city council meeting will include a first vote on three ordinances: Setting fiscal year 2016 property-tax rates, adopting an FY16 stormwater management budget, and adopting an FY16 budget covering all other aspects of city operations. Second reading votes are scheduled for May 18. Tomorrow evening's meeting and May 18th's are your last opportunities to comment prior to adoption of the city's FY16 budget!

Visit the agenda page for material on each of these items -- and you may wish to revisit my April 29 "reconciliation" write-up. I highlighted areas where the council altered City Manager Suzannne Ludlow's proposed budget, by eliminating certain spending, adding a few items, and putting an extra $100,000 toward the city's unfunded police pension liability while reducing the property-tax rate increase to 1.5 cents from 2 cents per $100 assessed value. Again, the revenue generated by this increase will go foremost toward a three-year, catch-up phase-in of higher staff pay.

Also on the Monday evening agenda, a Continued Discussion of Parking Adjacent to Commercial Areas.

This discussion is of particular interest for PEN, Victory Tower, and Old Town-Carroll residents in Ward 1, who are most affected by commercial and residential development in Old Takoma, notably the recent opening of Busboys & Poets and the Takoma Central apartments and the start of construction of residential buildings behind the CVS between Maple and Willow Streets NW. Old Takoma residents and business patrons are also affected by the recent conversion of the private lot at Willow and Carroll Avenues to paid parking.

Do consider attending the council meeting -- public comment is at 7:30 pm -- or send comments by e-mail to clerk@takomaparkmd.gov. And my next twice-monthly drop-in office time will be Tuesday (2nd Tuesday), 5-6 pm, at 7006 Carroll Avenue #202, and after that, May 27 (4th Wednesday), 8-9 am. Or phone me with your thoughts or questions: 301-873-8225.

Seth