“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” U.S. Army Major, Vietnam, 1968
Not everyone I know shops at the TPSS Food Co-op. As with any retail business, there are those who prefer other places to buy groceries. Be that as it may, it’s safe to say that no one disputes that the Co-op is a Takoma Park institution, a signature business with many devoted patrons that helps define the character of Takoma Park.
So why is it that the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) appears to have a regulatory stranglehold around the Co-op’s neck that threatens to put it out of business? This, notwithstanding that the Co-op has thousands of members and defenders including the prominent Peter Franchot, Maryland’s Comptroller, who lives almost across the street from the store.
The future of the Co-op and indeed of the whole highly trafficked intersection known as Takoma Junction, will reach a critical turning point this month (June) when the Takoma Park City Council votes to either support or vote down a redevelopment project on the city-owned parking lot immediately adjacent to the Co-op. The sentiment of the 7-member city council is not really in doubt. Through a couple of mayors, three city managers and four city elections, a stable majority of the city council has always supported redevelopment of the city-owned parcel. Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), a local minority-owned development firm, plans to build a 2-story, 40,762 square foot commercial building with underground parking to contain neighborhood shops and eateries.
(In the interest of full disclosure, for eight years I was one of those councilmembers supporting the redevelopment.)
What casts a cloud over the outcome of the city council vote and the future of the Co-op itself is the SHA’s refusal to permit construction of a 12 x 140-foot long layby in front of the Co-op on Carroll Avenue. It will accommodate daily deliveries from 53-foot-long tractor trailers. These deliveries are the “life blood of the Co-op,” Diane Curran, president of the Co-op’s Board of Representatives, told me. The Co-op has no control over the size of the trucks, she said. Also, the Co-op’s building has limited inventory storage space, which means the timeliness of deliveries is critical.
Absent a layby of sufficient dimensions, the Co-op cannot survive. It is as simple as that. Currently, deliveries arrive through the city-owned parking lot. From 1998 to 2016, the city leased the lot to the Co-op to allow off-street truck deliveries. The lease became a sub-lease in 2016 when the city signed a 99-year lease and a Development Agreement with NDC, so deliveries have continued. In 2018 the Co-op and NDC signed a Cooperation Agreement in which the Co-op agreed “not to oppose” NDC’s proposed commercial development and NDC agreed to build the layby and adjacent off-loading space in accordance with the Co-op’s specifications. It details a layby made of concrete and flush with the adjoining 7-foot wide sidewalk area so electric pallet jacks can safely and quickly move heavy loads into the store’s receiving area.
In 2018 the city council adopted Resolution 2018-41 contingently endorsing NDC’s project plans. This was a prerequisite for NDC’s submitting its site plan application to the Montgomery County Planning Department. Together with the Cooperation Agreement and the 2016 City / NDC Development Agreement and ground lease, these documents all support the Co-op’s continuation and economic viability and the construction of a layby. It signifies that the layby will be built first to assure uninterrupted deliveries.
This project “began” in 2012 when a Council-appointed citizen group, the Takoma Junction Task Force, issued its 105-page report recommending how the city-owned lot should be put to use. In hindsight, the scope and breath of the group’s work over nearly two years was more than commendable. The city council (on which I served) took the report to heart and tried to realize the Task Force’s recommendations.
As a result, NDC’s proposed site plan fundamentally honors the main ideas expressed in that report. The essence of the report boils down to one sentence on page 66:
“A majority of the participants would support a multi-use development on the city-owned lot, including a potential Co-op expansion, provided that such a development did not impact traffic on Columbia/Sycamore Avenues, maintained an adequate level of parking in the Junction as a whole, and improved the attractiveness and livability of the Junction.”
(There was also “broad” support for a place for “non-permanent business activities,” cultural gatherings, games, music and dancing. Whether the proposed project can accommodate some of these functions remains to be seen.)
Now at the 11th hour, the SHA has expressed in writing an adverse opinion on the feasibility of the proposed lay-by, citing engineering design hazards. On May 24, SHA wrote, “As stated in our May 17 letter it has not been adequately demonstrated the network can safely support the layby lane at this location, therefore we cannot approve it as currently proposed.”
Woah! That’s heavy stuff! The SHA’s stance is not necessarily determinative, but it has created doubt and confusion among public officials I’ve spoken to. The Montgomery County Planning Board holds final approval authority.
Strangely, the SHA’s objections lack so little substance as to verge on the immaterial. No civil engineering degree is needed to suss these out. SHA’s letter of April 6, 2021 (and subsequent ones on May 17 and May 24 that repeat the same concerns) to NDC’s traffic consultant, The Traffic Group, objects to inadequate “sight lines” on Carroll Avenue for an eastbound driver approaching the future layby and the parking garage exit (where today there’s already an exit from the parking lot). To illustrate, when a highway bends, a driver must be able to see far enough ahead in time to brake for unexpected things in the path. At speeds of, say, 55 mph, a sight line needs to be longer than, say, at 40 mph. At 15 mph, the sight line can be very short. In stop and go traffic, sight line is irrelevant.
The latter is the case in the Junction where traffic moves slowly. Proof? The Sycamore and Philadelphia Avenue intersections lie 500 feet apart. In this span there are 3 stop lights, a fire station, 3 bus stops, 7 private-property curb cuts and 3 painted crosswalks. Except maybe late at night when everything is closed, traffic never speeds through the Junction because it can’t. SHA’s own Visioning Study acknowledges the chronic traffic delays.
SHA’s second objection seems to be fear that a semi in the layby “may overhang” the bicycle lane “posing an increased risk to cyclists.” AASHTO, the bible that SHA references for road design standards, posits a 12-foot width for a layby for 8 ½-foot wide tractor trailers, the same width as an Interstate Highway Lane.
SHA’s third objection is that the equipment employed to move goods from the truck to the Co-op will interfere with people on the sidewalk (which is routine in every downtown in America).
Each of the above objections is immaterial – to put it kindly – for three reasons. First, the layby lane will be built on private land and add to the width the road; not interfere with it. Second, SHA’s arbitrary insistence on these sight line standards is tantamount to preventing any commercial use ever being built on the city-owned lot. Third, contrast this with the two-thirds of a mile of Ethan Allen Ave (Rte 410) between Sycamore and New Hampshire Ave, all of which fails to meet SHA’s lane and sidewalk standards and has no bicycle lane at all, not even a “sharrow”. Strangely, the SHA is quite content with that, but not for the Junction block. Thanks, however, solely to NDC’s site plan, there will be a safe bike lane and 6-foot wide sidewalks.
We’re forced to ask: Why is the SHA being stubborn, pedantic, arbitrary and obtuse by withholding its approval of the layby that the TPSS Co-op desperately needs to survive?
Why is the SHA applying modern AASHTO standards to an urban infill development site abutting quirky roads that were laid out over 100 years ago?
Why does the SHA show no interest in reconfiguring the Carroll – Ethan Allen – Sycamore confluence? That would cure lots of headaches.
Why has the SHA taken 2 years to “study” and raise objections through the County’s Development Review process that normally requires a 30-day response? (NDC began exploring the layby concept with the SHA at least 3 years ago.)
Why did the SHA take over a year to produce a vacuous “Visioning Study” on the Junction’s future, which, unbelievably, ignored traffic improvements –– the whole point of the study? Perhaps the biggest let-down since Y2K or the Maginot Line.
This isn’t funny. The Co-op’s future hangs by this thread. No, it’s not NDC’s fault because NDC is building the layby for the Co-op, which NDC would otherwise not need nearly as big. Regardless of the outcome of NDC’s proposed site plan, the parking lot will not be available for the Co-op’s deliveries in the future because NDC and/or the City will build something there.
The Co-op needs a permanent layby now and for the future.
As to the “why,” rumors abound that certain high elected officials have pushed the SHA to help block NDC’s project from going forward. That could well be the case given the tenacity of opponents to the project. If true, such people are sadly misguided or awfully confused.
An iconic quote emerged at the height of the Vietnam War when the reporter Peter Arnett quoted a U.S. Army major who said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Later the quote became a tag line for the war itself about the U.S. forces having to bomb Vietnam in order to save it.
Opponents may win the battle, but lose the Co-op, which could move somewhere else. I have said it before: the opponents know how to oppose (that’s easy), but no two of them appear to agree on what they want instead (that’s hard).
As for the Co-op, despite the pandemic, the organization is strong financially and organizationally. At one time the Co-op vigorously opposed NDC’s proposed development in favor of its ambition to expand its store onto the city-owned lot. But in 2018, the Co-op dropped its expansion plans and opted to work out a quid pro quo with NDC. The Co-op has abided by the Cooperation Agreement ever since.
No one has said this to me, but unless the layby gets approved, it seems pretty clear to me the Co-op may have no other choice but to consider greener fields.