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

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