Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On zoning changes to produce housing across Takoma Park

The following is comment I sent to Takoma Park City Council members, given their September 25, 2019 discussion of Takoma Park's Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan.


Mayor Stewart, Councilmembers,

I'm glad to see work advancing on Takoma Park's Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan.

I note that one of the plan's three thematic points is that the City should "Produce more housing and opportunities for local businesses to start and grow across the income spectrum and in neighborhoods across the City to meet the diverse housing and economic needs." One strategy within the first objective of the Produce thematic point is "changes in allowable use or zoning may be considered as a way to accomplish this."

For the city to produce more housing "in neighborhoods across the City," zoning and land-use reform must be a central strategy. In neighborhoods such as my own Ward 1 neighborhood -- and especially in our historic district -- the only way to create housing, "across the income spectrum" in particular, is by allowing conversion of existing single-unit housing stock to multi-unit buildings and, in certain locations, the creation of new multi-unit apartment buildings.

I wrote about this in a January, 2019 article in Greater Greater Washington, "Montgomery County needs more homes. Here’s how it can ‘densify’ with little disruption." (https://ggwash.org/view/70533/montgomery-county-can-densify-housing-with-little-disruption.) Recent Montgomery County Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reforms were a step in the right direction, but they're far from enough.

Would you please study zoning changes that would allow greater residential density in Takoma Park, "in neighborhoods across the City," and ways to implement them? This study should account for possibilities that include creation of new housing -- preferably as part of mixed-use development -- at locations that include the Washington Adventist Hospital campus, the Washington-McLaughlin property, and locations along New Hampshire Avenue and University Blvd.

Implementation approaches would include creation of a new Takoma Park overlay zone that modifies the rules for properties zoned for Residential Detached construction, including R-60 and R-40 zones. This overlay zone would be different from the existing Takoma Park/East Silver Spring (TPESS) commercial revitalization overlay zone, which covers only selected non-residential areas in the city. Montgomery Planning and the Montgomery County Council would consider legislation to create this overlay zone if the City of Takoma Park requested it.

I suggest also studying whether modifications to Historic Preservation guidelines and decision processes to facilitate the city's achieving its goals are feasible. If one focuses on form rather than use, and on modernization steps that create resilience that protects our historic resources, they should be. As part of this study, please look at changes that would facilitate progress toward the city's Climate Emergency goals. Historic preservation does not intrinsically impede progress.

The second Produce objective of the Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan lists a strategy point that mentions master planning efforts. I note that the Takoma Park Master Plan was last revised in 2000 (https://montgomeryplanning.org/planning/communities/area-1/takoma-park/). The normal revision cycle for area master plans is 15-20 years, so we're due for a rewrite. This would be a multi-year, systematic process that would be the formal way to come to a recommendation to change or add an overlay zone for the area (not that that couldn't be done outside the master plan process). Please evaluate whether it's time to ask Montgomery County and MNCPPC to consider a Takoma Park Master Plan rewrite, which would take into account conditions and priorities that have evolved very significantly over the last two decades.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Seth Grimes

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Takoma Park tax increases are not as steep as you may think

[Edited: I corrected my calculation, replaced some figures with more accurate figures I found after I first posted, and clarified the conclusion.]

One of my neighbors posted text including the following to my neighborhood e-mail list:
"Takoma Park resident and financial management consultant David Navari made a presentation about the city’s budget, based on months of analysis and meetings with city officials. He noted that the tax burden is heavily carried by residences... [and] that our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years."
The statement that "our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years" seems deceptive.

As a 2011-5 member of the city council, I spent a lot of time looking at the city budget, and I voted on the FY13 to FY16 city budgets. I'll break out some figures.

Here are audited real property tax figures for the last nine years, FY11 to FY19 --

FY11 -- $10,858,055
FY12 -- $11,237,329
FY13 -- $11,496,733
FY14 -- $10,974,639
FY15 -- $11,144,083
FY16 -- $11,516,876
FY17 -- $11,998,604
FY18 -- $12,094,212
FY19 -- $12,652,357 (estimated)

So real property taxes went up 16.5% in the eight years to the current year, FY19. (They went up 2.5% in my four years on the council, less than half the inflation rate.) The Washington DC area CPI increase from July 2011 to March 2019 was 10.9% (with 2 months remaining in the fiscal year) so the city's property tax increase over 8 years has been 5.6 points above inflation.

Maybe David Navari was including other figures that the city lists under Taxes and Utility Fees in its annual budget. Some did show steep increases.

Highway revenues are transferred from the state, which had cut them severely a decade or so back. Local governments won a big victory in getting them restored so that city receipts went from $43,931 in FY11 to $464,802 in FY19 (estimated).

The city's Admission and Amusement revenue went from $514 in FY11 to $130,000 in FY19 (estimated), almost totally linked to Chuck E. Cheese's opening in Takoma Park, since the city gets a cut of money pumped into game machines.

The amount received by the city from state income taxes jumped from $2,326,483 in FY11 to $3,400,000 in FY19 (estimated). I note that Maryland's unemployment rate dropped from over 7% in 2011 to 3.7% over the last year, responsible for some of the higher revenue.

To say that "our tax burden has gone up 25% in eight years" -- with the implication that we're talking real property taxes and the inclusion of items the don't affect the tax burden of the vast majority of taxpayers -- seems deceptive.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

What's up with development at and near the Takoma Metro station?


This is the story of two development projects, at and near the Takoma Metro station, one promising and the other stalled. It’s addressed to my Washington DC and Takoma Park neighbors and very much to WMATA and to would-be Takoma Metro site developer EYA.

Promising: 218 Cedar St NW

Developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is planning a new, four-story + penthouse mixed-use building for the 7-Eleven site at 218 Cedar St NW in Washington DC. The concept plan is viewable online; the image below is a concept-design elevation and the site is shown in yellow in the header image above.


I'd quote Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (4B01) Evan Yeats's project summary:
The current plan for the site is 30-35 [actually 37] 1&2 bedroom condos (standard 10% [Inclusionary Zoning] affordable) built above 10-15,000 square feet of ground floor retail with an underground parking garage with ~15 or more parking spots.
  • The building height will be roughly the same as the Takoma Central/Busboys development adjacent and built in a similar "transitional" brick style.
  • The current three curb cuts/sidewalk crossings will be reduced to a single entry/exit for the garage (on Cedar), and the surface parking will be eliminated.
  • They are planning to build it "of right" with no zoning variance requests, but it will require historic preservation review.
  • Tenants are not set yet, but NDC told us they are in talks with 7-Eleven corporate to see if they are willing to stay. NDC also said that they are open to community input on the retail tenants and floated the idea of a small format grocer (think Mom's or Yes or Streets) if 7-Eleven doesn't want to stay (they just built a new store at Ethan Allen & New Hampshire).
  • Resident pedestrian entry/exit will be on Carroll St and the retail entrances/exits will depend on whether it remains one retail space or becomes two.
  • They expect to begin construction in 2020, but there isn't a timeline for the closure of the 7-Eleven, etc.
There will be adjustments and plenty of discussion regarding the retail tenants -- and I wish that the plans included more than 10% affordable units -- but generally I like what I see!

Stalled: Takoma Metro Construction

The project at the 7-Eleven site is not connected to the proposed Takoma Metro development, at the station parking lot, to the left and up a bit in the header image from the yellow-colored 218 Cedar St NW parcel.

EYA is the would-be Takoma Metro site developer; WMATA owns the property. Different developers; different owners... projects also differ in that 218 Carroll developer NDC is pursuing by-right development, that is, within zoning limits and uses, while EYA's proposed building far exceeds zoning limits so that EYA will be forced to enter Washington DC's Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

Washington DC activists have filed a number of lawsuits in recent years, challenging PUD approvals that, they believe, displace long-time, lower-income residents. Click here for an example.

EYA received WMATA board approvals for the project in 2014 and 2015 -- the WMATA real estate committee, in its March 12, 2015 meeting, foresaw "Spring/Summer 2015 - Developer begins District of Columbia entitlement processes (Planning Unit Development application, Historic Preservation Review)" -- but EYA has filed plan. It has been four years. Why not?

I spoke to WMATA project manager Rosalyn Doggett in early January. She said that EYA is holding off until the release of the under-amendment Washington DC Comprehensive Plan. Plan revisions would clarify rules around affordable housing and displacement. The draft plan is currently being evaluated by Washington DC City Council. Click here for a helpful article.

Now quite a bit of time went by, after EYA received approvals and before the lawsuits started and also, the Takoma Metro development would replace a parking lot, with no displacement of current residents. My conclusion is that this project is simply low priority for EYA. Unfortunately, WMATA put nothing in the Joint Development Agreement to incentivize timely EYA filings or penalize for the sort of long delay we've experienced. EYA's proposed Takoma Metro design has serious design flaws -- it has four times the number of residential parking spaces that DC zoning requires, which will reduce residents' transit use, increase local congestion, inflate construction costs (which will be passed on to tenants), and lead to the zoning challenges EYA fears -- but those flaws are addressable and the project should proceed.

Delay Vs. Progress

EYA's delay is a shame. Washington DC and close-in Montgomery County need new housing and the commercial opportunities that make life better for long-time and new residents alike, and WMATA could use the revenue from sales of this underutilized parcel.

Before concluding, I'll mention that another project is in the works. Developer SGA Companies' plan for 300-308 Carroll St NW, directly across the street from the 218 Cedar St NW site, including 88 studio and one-bedroom apartments -- small apartments tend to be more affordable of course -- and five retail spaces, with zero residential parking! Like 218 Cedar St but unlike EYA's Takoma Metro plans, the 300-308 Carroll St NW design is within zoning height limits, which will ease the path to project approval.

I'm glad that NDC, SGA Company, and other progressive developers aren't fazed by the complications that attend in-fill development. I hope they'll invest on the Maryland side of the line as Takoma Park advances other pending and potential redevelopment opportunities!