More Than Housing

Choosing the Future of the Hospital Site

Washington Adventist University Commons

Bickering . . .

It’s already begun. The vacated Washington Adventist Hospital campus confronts us with an exciting and perhaps daunting once-in-a-century revitalization opportunity. Barely into the public hearing phase, bickering and confusion among residents have already broken out.

I have the strong feeling that all of this so-called “planning” that’s been done so far is being done backwards. Zoning, which neighbors are fretting about, is NOT how we should start. Zoning is a government regulatory tool that has a role to play at some point down the road. But zoning does not accomplish anything. It doesn’t give direction. It does not provide inspiration. Zoning does not and cannot make anything happen. 

Dealing with zoning at this nascent stage is putting the cart in front of the horse. It’s like the husband asking the wife what wallpaper they want in the master bedroom when they haven’t even bought the house. Too prescriptive zoning forecloses possibilities. Too broad zoning designations risk making residents exceedingly nervous. 

Montgomery County’s professional planners are doing no one a favor by making such a big deal out of zoning. The Takoma Park City Council should not be forced to effectively make zoning decisions even though this is formally done by the Planning Board. That is cruel and unusual punishment to put councilmembers through. I speak from experience.

The old main WAH hospital building

Instead, let’s cool the debate and start at the beginning.

What once had been a revered institution, a kind of “grande dame” of hospital care in the Washington region, saw its doors close in 2019. Abandonment came amid broken pledges for continuity of medical services; and so ended Takoma Park’s dominant employer.

What we are left with is this large acreage containing a huge, virtually empty hospital. Next to it, there’s an empty 3-level parking garage. Interspersed among empty parking lots, I count three boarded up ancillary buildings. There’s a former “women’s health center”/conference center; another very old building labeled “Eisner;” and a doctors’ office building. Plus a heating plant which is operating.

When I look at the main structures, my first thought is Environmental Hazard.

A Lovers Leap

Of grave importance, to the rear of most of these buildings runs a crumbling, caving (not kidding) service road that hangs on the precipice of a near vertical slope into Sligo Creek. (Kind of a lovers’ leap since there are no guard rails.) This is ominous because construction and mechanical engineers will have to play a featured role in the dismantling of the hospital buildings and the design of any new structures proximate to the ravine.

On the subject of demolition, it may cost a couple million dollars to demolish these structures and remove hazardous materials, doing so in a way not to harm the creek. This means any future development proposals by private parties will have to account for the financing of these costs. This unique cost burden (as opposed to developing a clear site) complicates the site’s future.

Former Adventist doctors’ offices

East of the access road lies the large, lovely greensward with big trees – WAU Commons — whose sole purpose apparently is to grace the WAU campus. It seems to be rarely used for outdoor functions.

Most people, including me, have no idea what this collected mishmash of structures, the greensward, empty parking lots and access road, possibly purports to serve.

Who actually holds title to it or its various pieces, and who maintains it all? Is the nameless road that traverses all these spaces, public or private? 

Who Gets to Decide?

Given present circumstances, we can reasonably surmise that until someone or some entity takes charge, it may sit there and just rot. What or who will that be?

I am concerned that given Takoma Park’s penchant for opting for the do-nothing alternative, that is not an unlikely outcome. Do-nothing is obviously not an option here.

Old, boarded Lisner building

On the bright side there appears to be consensus that this large piece of Takoma Park situated at the city’s epicenter presents an unprecedented opportunity, especially in a town of just 2.2 square miles. The possibilities for its reuse challenge our imaginations. 

There’s a lot of talk about the need for “affordable housing,” the definition of which seems to depend on who you are listening to. As recently as three years ago, purposes such as a health campus under Adventist Health Services’ aegis, or a new elementary school, or an aquatic center, or an expansion of the University were batted around. But those schemes seem to have receded from the conversation. 

Nowadays, it’s more about “mixed uses” which, to me, translates to some combination of multi-family housing and neighborhood retail services plus public spaces, the latter having a dozen interpretations. 

Depending on how the site’s boundaries are defined, the site may be large enough not just for multi-family housing, but many other functions including shops (like a small grocery, sub shop, café), childcare services, professional offices, indoor and outdoor functions including pop-up opportunities, and decorative gardens. Maybe spaces for WAU classrooms and faculty offices.

A Ready-Made Community

I’d like to take a step back and propose a bigger picture, and consider something exciting.

Rather than wrangle over these individual components, let’s imagine more of a self-contained community that is more than just housing. Why is it when big apartment towers are built, they almost always stand alone, bereft of necessary, convenient stores? Look around Takoma Park, for example. Isn’t that the case? (It may not be hard to guess the answer.)

If we are going to build a lot of multi-family housing — regardless of the income targets — it’s better to provide for those essential stores and services that occupants of any income level will always need, and to do it simultaneously.

Call it a ready-made community. So, when residents buy or rent a unit, they can immediately access space for remote work, or shareable work spaces and studio spaces. But also child care services, places to buy essential groceries, get a haircut and or your nails done, community spaces for meetings, a place to play games, relax and make friends.

In this manner the old codgers, young families, singles, college students and disabled folks can experience each other. A mélange of ages and stages. It also means fewer car trips for routine necessities. 

As elderly persons living in Takoma Park, my wife and I know there’s no such living arrangement around these parts. Not everyone wants to live in a Riderwood-type of “senior” housing where everybody is old or really old. 

There’s an inevitable need for parking of course. One answer might be underground. The slope down to Maple Avenue could enable the construction of underground parking. As an aside, I note that the Eastern Market Metro Station has below-ground parking and a Trader Joe’s. It was packed when I was there in August. (Just a thought.) Or perhaps the existing 3-level parking garage can be salvaged.

Together doesn’t all this sound like a mini town center?

Who’s in Charge?

We as a community can set the direction for the future of this site. The catch word here is “community.” Of course, the process requires local residents’ role to assure our values are protected. This is a complicated challenge with great potential and a lot of issues that need to be researched and answered. The city does not own or in any way control this site. The city’s role should be to help coordinate this process in conjunction with Montgomery County planning staff, the University and/or the SDA.

It’s going to require consultation with outside Specialists, some who may participate as community members; others may need to be hired. One of the first decisions is determining who will take charge of this process. Normally, this would be the property owner who, I assume, but don’t know, is some component of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Does the City or the County know the owner’s intent or capacity to manage a complex multi-year process? Or even whether they want to retain ownership?

Specialists include those who understand the financial and engineering challenges this site faces. That means architects, builders, landscape designers, and engineers: creative geniuses who can help expand our imaginations for the best uses for the site, while keeping the ambitions with the realm of feasibility. 

I for one don’t want to sit in a room of well-intentioned residents arguing with each over the future of the site; only to come up with some sort of plan that no developer in his right mind will be able to undertake and be successful.

In fact, the whole thing may require a combination of development entities including for-profit and non-profit entities, ones which specialize in housing, in commercial spaces, or in what is known as “place-making.” Our best chance is to devise a whole-cloth development scheme, and to avoid a piecemeal approach that will never reach completion.

In planning parlance, this approach is sometimes called a “planned unit development.” When we get this big picture figured out, then THAT will be the time to make zoning decisions: ones that will not foreclose innovation and will fit the situation.

This approach will take time and be a lot of hard work for our city staff and residents who want to get involved. 

The wide scope of possibilities for the hospital site points the way to proceed. Let’s pull out and dust off the proverbial drawing board and get started. 

Erwin H. Mack, R.I.P. – an homage

I don’t actually remember when I first met Erwin Mack. Likely it was in his capacity as executive director of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority (“CDA”), and I was a newly christened city council member. In the intervening 15 years I came to know an extraordinary man.  

When I first met Erwin Mack I don’t actually remember. Likely it was in his capacity as executive director of the CDA, the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority, and I was a newly christened city council member. 

In the intervening 14 years I came to know an extraordinary man.  

I think his extraordinariness came from the combination of Erwin’s leadership in the Seventh Day Adventist Church’s Potomac Conference and his thoroughly secular understanding of the world of small business and government bureaucracy.

Yet this barely explains the man. While passionately serious in his work, many will remember Erwin’s ready smile and gently teasing sense of humor, which helped disarm many, shall we say, who were good at saying no. This didn’t mean a “no” got converted to a “yes”, but it always opened doors and kept them open.

A case in point were various supplications Erwin and I made to State Highway Administration’s District 3 engineer to build sidewalks and improve traffic safety on Carroll Avenue in front of Takoma Academy in my ward. We got nowhere. Always gracious, these meetings gave new meaning to the word futility that, regrettably, has outlasted Erwin. 

Because I represented the heavily commercialized Ward Six and had a background in redevelopment, Erwin and I found ourselves working on numerous projects, most of which related to SDA church properties. 

Erwin died April 13, 2023 at age 91, bringing an end to Sylvia’s and Erwin’s 69-year marriage. His passing is a great loss to the greater Takoma Park community.

He was a Korean War veteran and he had many interests. Erwin was by any measure a high energy person to his last days, sure proof that the difference between “youth-ful” and being “old-ful” has little to do with a number. 

To the rear of his Takoma Park home in the Kilmarock neighborhood just across the city line stands a two-story garage. The lower level houses his restoration workshop and his famous Model T Ford, one of the earliest production models, circa 1909. He and Sylvia transported it in a special carrier across the United States for Model T excursions. Takoma’s Independence Day parade invariably featured his antique that I was lucky enough — and a wee bit scared — to ride in. Scared because making the steep grade up Grant Avenue to the parade’s assembly area felt like “The Little Engine That Could.” But Erwin knew how to coax it to the top.

Upstairs finds Erwin’s wood-working shop with sawdust everywhere and filled with planers, drill presses, power saws, chisels, and racks of hardwood varieties. He frequently gave pieces of his handywork as gifts to colleagues and friends. 

From my secular observations, the SDA church firmly believes in service to the larger community, especially the needy, and counts on God’s grace in finding the right path.

I won’t attempt to speak to Erwin’s faith work as Senior Elder in the Potomac Conference. But what I do know was his success in helping to bring to the table the senior leaders of Adventist Health Services, Adventist Hospital, and Adventist University, as well as the Potomac Conference’s overseers of its three Adventist schools in Takoma Park. I was honored to get to know these people and gain their trust, which for instance, enabled Mayor Bruce Williams, myself, and fellow councilmembers to have extended, productive discussions over the future of the hospital. 

Erwin balanced his faith work and civic work by gaining trust from seemingly everyone. In our private conversations I was often surprised by his candor and openness regarding the inner workings of the SDA’s institutional leadership and proclivities. Simply put, he was helpful in getting others to be helpful.

At heart Erwin was a problem solver. But at the same time, he had little tolerance for the Conference’s sometimes slow moving and indecisive bureaucracy. Over two years, he and I worked hand in hand with a study group and the city planning staff (namely Roz Grigsby) to convert the SDA-owned, 3-story, gutted office building (next to the Jiffy Lube) into a small business or arts incubator for minority businesses.

My vision was a low-cost way to redeem a forlorn building and help the SDA to make it serve an economic goal. Potomac Conference execs voted enthusiastically for the concept, agreeing with the city to split the $28,000 cost of an engineering and cost analysis. The study showed it would be expensive but would provide space for maybe twenty start-ups. Alas, the Conference suddenly abandoned its commitment and its willingness to share the study’s costs. Erwin was also mystified. (It remains vacant.)

In 1987, Erwin, then owner of Denis Sleep Shop in the Takoma Langley Shopping Center, led the formation of the CDA in cooperation with the city of Takoma Park and Prince George’s County. A new Maryland law helped to instigate it. Originally structured to encompass the PG side of the Crossroads intersection, political skullduggery (according to Erwin) sank PG’s participation. Thus, the CDA ended up serving only the Takoma Park side.

For 25 years until 2012, Erwin single-handedly (with the guidance of its board) made it his day job looking after the needs of over one hundred small businesses and property owners in the Crossroads. The CDA’s legality has always depended on the City Council’s periodic reauthorization.

But this did not deter Erwin Mack from crossing swords (which I witnessed) with the city manager or the SHA in solving problems. A highly visible legacy today is the wrought iron fences in the medians of University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. The fences were not installed for aesthetics sake, but to reduce the alarming deaths of jay walkers, which was achieved. 

Erwin and I together also slogged through his thankless assignment (by the Potomac Conference) to take charge of the John Nevins Andrews school closure, find a buyer for the site and merge the students into what would become the Takoma Academy Preparatory School. There were more than a few actors who ultimately contributed to or frustrated the effort. We entertained the Baltimore based Children’s Guild Monarch Academy as a possible buyer, among others.

In 2002, Mayor Kate Stewart issued a Mayoral Proclamation honoring Erwin Mack for his decades of service to the city and declaring Erwin and Sylvia honorary citizens of Takoma Park.

Erwin Mack was perhaps many things to different people. To me he was trustworthy friend I could count on, full of good ideas and good humor. Always willing to sit down and talk at the IHOP. Always happy to make new acquaintances. Driven by a deep commitment to his faith, he was always a gentleman who never used a curse word and rarely any kind of pejoratives. He was inspirational and a man I looked up to. That he is gone is hard to accept.

When Erwin stepped down from executive director of the CDA, he asked me to arrange a farewell party at Wilkinson Hall for his friends, which I did, and many people spoke. When I retired from the City Council in 2017, Erwin presented me in front of the congregation with the Sligo Seventh-Day Adventist Church Caring Heart Award for 2017.

I would like to honor his legacy by proposing the city change the name of Merrimac Drive to Erwin H Mack Way. 

The one block Merrimac Drive leads to two SDA schools, plus the Spanish SDA Church and the Washington DC Ethiopian SDA Church. Just two businesses have Merrimac addresses: Campeon Pollo a la Brasa and a 7-Eleven. This should be easy to do. 

JBG Smith Abandons the Crossroads

Last month JBG Smith sold its approximately ten-acre commercial property located in the heart of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads. The unexpected sale to a private equity firm casts the future of the Crossroads in a dramatically different light. It forces us to question the direction of Takoma Park’s planning and economic development goals. 

JBG Smith’s abandonment of the Crossroads should make decision makers in the City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County sit back and take a hard, fresh look at the relevance of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Sector Plan that maps the Crossroads’ future.

The Sector Plan, adopted by the County in 2012, was a joint city/county/county effort. It employed “transit-oriented development” (TOD) principles intended to attract developers to build higher density residential projects mixed with retail and small office. TOD favors pedestrian movement, plazas and green spaces and discourages reliance on cars and parking lots.

Purple Line and bus center

The plan was conceived in the expectation of a future Purple Line light rail stop, and the fact that with 12 bus lines converging in the Crossroads, it is the highest trafficked multi-modal intersection in the state of Maryland and DC not associated with the Metro System. The unique situation forced Maryland DOT to construct a $35 million Crossroads Transit Center that opened in 2016 to corral all the bus transfers and keep riders safe.

When JBG Smith acquired the tract in 2015, it seemed to signal that the Sector Plan now had an investor willing and able to kick the redevelopment phase into gear. The company, generally regarded as the largest property developer in the region, however, never indicated its intentions for the property. But its people let it be known that they were all about building “place-making” projects, a concept fully compatible with the Sector PlanThe JBGs of the world don’t willy-nilly acquire real estate just for the sake of collecting rents. 

A moral dilemma

Langley Park is a significant part of a two-mile stretch along University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road is popularly known as the “International Corridor.” A big part of it is Langley Park, on the Prince George’s side of the Crossroads, is a densely populated home to 20,000 people, largely Hispanic, and mostly from Central America.

In 2009, at the outset of the sector planning process, planners faced a moral dilemma. if the Sector Plan were to become reality, it could well mean that much of the long established immigrant community that lives and works there and depends on the shops, grocers, and services would be displaced by new development.

Indeed, virtually no one in the Langley Park section of the Crossroads supported the Sector Plan. Even the property owners were hardly excited about it. Led by Casa of Maryland, residents and small business owners expressed dismay with the prospect of higher rents, the possible destruction of a lot of old, but affordable rental housing in favor of more expensive units, and displacement of many of the ethnically owned businesses. From their viewpoint, the Sector Plan posed an existential threat to their cultural enclave.

The property

The transacted property occupies the southeast corner of the Crossroads and ranges from the Walgreens to the US post office. It is purely commercial, with a lot empty space in the middle, composed of 12 parcels, about 120,000 square feet of floor area, and assessed at $41 million. Most of the structures date from the 1950s and constitute one of the oldest strip centers remaining in Maryland. 

The intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard

The company that paid nearly $58 million for the JBG Smith holdings calls itself Granite Canyon Partners. Located in the DC area, according to it website (, GCP is a relatively new entity that has recently purchased a variety of commercial properties scattered across the Baltimore and DC regions. The principals are seeking equity investors and tenants. Buying and then leasing or flipping non-residential properties is a routine way to invest in commercial real estate, but it typically has nothing to do with redevelopment. 

Lacking any discernible evidence that any of the ten or so major commercial property holders in the Crossroads have any interest in redeveloping their sites, JBG’s singular action makes it doubtful that any of the Sector Plan will be realized in the foreseeable future, if ever. It calls into question the Sector Plan’s underlying proposition that the Crossroads is ripe for redevelopment. Evidently, that is simply not the case.

So what’s happening?

The overall context is the Crossroads’ hugely prosperous economy. There are three good reasons for what is and is not happening.

First, the JBG Smith property is a “cash cow,” meaning that it spins off a huge surplus cash flow due largely to strong market rents and durable tenancies with waiting lists. The owners have told us this. Likewise, this is the likely case for most of the retail properties in the Crossroads. If you’re the property owner, that makes it daunting to justify demolishing and rebuilding from scratch, a process that would take a minimum of three years, if not more. 

Second, the Purple Line’s expected economic impact on the Crossroads has always been overrated from the standpoint of redevelopment. (Overall, the Purple Line is of course extraordinarily important for racial equity reasons, including access to jobs and education.) While the Crossroads is already a bustling, dynamic commercial district with little space for change, in contrast, the Purple Line will likely spur extensive redevelopment at the Long Branch stop.

Third, is something few in Takoma Park seem to understand. Within a 3-mile radius of the Crossroads there is virtually an unlimited supply of land that will be far easier to acquire and develop than in Takoma Park. And, probably more lucrative to develop with far less social displacement. Developers are rarely interested in knocking down hundreds of dwelling units and popular shopping districts to build new developments. Proof of this surrounds Takoma Park. Look at the Prince George’s Mall area (know relabeled Hyattsville Crossing), College Park, Hyattsville, Wheaton, and of course on our city’s very own doorstep, the Takoma Metro station in DC. Developers, alas, go where the investment opportunities appear easier, more predictable, feasible and are welcomed. 

This is not a slam against the City of Takoma Park where preservation is valued and change is met with caution. The Sector Plan doesn’t need to be revoked. It can stay in place. But the City of Takoma Park, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County together need to recognize that, come what may, the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Crossroads and the associated International Corridor are here to stay.

Where does this lead? 

The moral dilemma cast by the threat of major redevelopment and dislocation goes away. That’s really important. Small business owners and residents in the Crossroads will gain more assurance that the coming of the Purple Line will actually accrue to their personal benefit.

It does not, however, mean there will be no redevelopment at some point. Residential landlords could elect to replace aging housing when the stark tax advantages and cheaper operating costs of building new housing become paramount.

Takoma Park’s task

The City can and should put its energy and ingenuity into promoting the Crossroads and celebrating the International Corridor, especially in cooperation with Prince George’s County. The robustness of the Crossroads’ economy redounds to the benefit of the first- and second-generation migrants who’ve come to the Crossroads and are still coming by the busload to DC at the present time.

We need to celebrate the Crossroads as one of the largest and most successful settlements of ethnic diversity in the United States. A wonderful model of how this can be done is the Eden Center, an old strip mall of over 125 stores in Falls Church, VA that describes itself as “Washington DC’s premier location for Vietnamese cuisine and specialties.” It has a fabulous web site at

Past promotional efforts have been stymied by the county boundary that bisects the Crossroads. But this can be easily overcome with leadership. 

Takoma-Langley Crossroads Foundation

A big first step in that direction is the formation this year of the Takoma Langley Crossroads Foundation (I am a director). Kayleigh De La Puente, executive director of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Authority has organized it. The foundation hopes to lead a conjoint effort to advance the interests of the small business community on both sides of the county line. Unlike the Authority, the foundation won’t be proscribed by political boundaries.

Let’s ensure that newly elected officials from the Governor’s office to the state assembly representatives to county council members in both counties and in Takoma Park will take the bit in their mouths and run with it. There’s a lot to be excited about.

Why Hans Riemer for County Executive

The choice for Montgomery County’s Chief Executive really comes down to Leadership. By that I mean, someone who literally gets out in front and leads our community to new solutions and in new directions to resolve long-standing problems. I am convinced that Hans Riemer is not only the best choice for County Executive, but that he will do a great job.

I’ve known Hans Riemer for a good many years. Here’s what I would want voters to know about him. First, we are truly lucky to have a candidate as smart and experienced as he is.

Hans has served three terms (since 2010) as an at-large member of the County Council. Thus, he has repeatedly won broad public support across the county.

Hans brings an enormous aptitude for dealing with both social and economic equity issues in our rapidly growing County. At a young age Hans fought for the voices of both seniors and young people. He helped lead the national fight to defeat George Bush’s hairbrained idea to privatize Social Security. Working for candidate Obama, Hans led the National Youth Vote campaign that was important to Obama’s victory.

Hans has fought for the Purple Line since its early planning days because for him the “PL” will not only stimulate commerce and job creation, but will also increase accessibility for lower income and immigrant families. He is concerned about expanding all types of mobility.

Concerns about climate change led Hans to propose building the County’s first large-scale solar panel arrays, a plan nixed by the current county executive.

On the foremost issue of insufficient affordable housing, Hans proposed incentivizing high-rise housing construction over Metro and Purple Line stations (Bill 29-20). He led the County Council’s override of Marc Elrich’s veto. Hans will tell you building more housing is critical to keeping middle income people (teachers and firefighters) in the county and stemming the tide of fast rising housing prices.

Hans opposes widening the Beltway (I-495) and supports improvements to the American Legion Bridge and I-270. Hans has worked to alter the County’s unbelievably arcane liquor laws that harm both consumers and restaurant owners.

The list could go on. All of these issues have no finger-snapped answers, but at least Hans is not afraid to take them on.

How to characterize Hans as a person? The first thing I noticed when my wife Nancy and I first met him years ago is his friendliness and willingness to take the time to chat and engage in casual conversation. Hans is never in a hurry to shake the next person’s hand. Speaking as a former city council member, I know when voters express their concerns, most folks simply want a chance to be carefully listened to. Not necessarily to expect an instant solution, nor an argument or a brush off. Hans will lend you his ear along with a dose of candor and gentle sense of humor.

Hans is neither partisan nor parochial. He’s worked collegially for years with all his fellow council members. A California educated son of activist parents, Hans brings an open-minded national perspective to addressing today’s issues; unlike his two opponents. He doesn’t think he’s smarter than everyone else or that he has all the answers. But, we can expect he will get things done.

At 49, Hans is a full generation younger than the incumbent Marc Elrich. He and his wife Angela have two young kids in school. That’s important for being in touch with a big county that’s growing fast and changing demographically. Since 2006 the county has grown by 18%, increased greatly in diversity and become a majority minority jurisdiction.

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, our county will become home to 60,000 additional households by 2040.

We all know these are, without exaggeration, scary times. Domestic terrorism, out of control gun assaults, global warming, a terrible war in Ukraine, food shortages, and rising gas prices. We need fresh leadership in our county:  someone really smart, politically seasoned, young and vigorous who has a good sense of what needs to be done, and how to do it.

Come July 19, let’s vote for Hans Riemer.

In Praise of Mr. Raskin

Our Congressman, Jamie Raskin, has been in the news lately, if you haven’t noticed. I am certain that most everyone in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District has noticed. Possibly most Marylanders have too, as an increasing number of Americans across the country awaken to his influential defense of our democracy.

I write about Jamie for two reasons. I want readers better to know who he is. And as an older guy I feel a paternalistic pride for a man I know personally (as many do In Takoma Park), who has emerged onto the national political stage. 

Benefit Corporations and Legal Marijuana

For those who don’t know, Jamie Raskin served for eleven years in the Maryland Senate representing the southern section of Montgomery County close to Washington DC. He rose to leadership, and became recognized for his progressive efforts to legalize marijuana, repeal the death penalty, support same sex marriage and making Maryland in 2010 the first state to establish benefit corporations. After getting his magna cum laude J.D. degree from Harvard Law he was for some 25 years a professor of constitutional law at American University.

Marcus Raskin and the Boston Five

Possibly most important for understanding who Jamie is, his father was the late Marcus G. Raskin, a lawyer himself. He co-founded The Institute for Policy Studies in 1963, a progressive DC think tank, became a staunch opponent of the Vietnam war, led teach-ins against the war and was a member of the Boston Five — Rev. Wm Sloan Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber and Mitchell Goodwin – who were all indicted for conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft (they were acquitted). The senior Raskin was involved with Daniel Ellsberg in bringing the Pentagon Papers to publication, according to Wikipedia. He was active in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and in the years following was a prolific writer, teacher, and philosopher on social causes, nuclear disarmament, national security and labor union organizing.  

Jamie’s upbringing, however, wasn’t what got him elected to state office or in 2016 to Congress. It was not as though he needed to tout his educational credentials. (Inside the proverbial Washington Beltway scads of folks carry impressive credentials.) It had a lot to do with sheer affection for the guy. In any case, there didn’t seem to be much doubt that his election was a natural next step in his political leadership. 

Jamie Raskin and the author in 2013

What got Jamie sent on his way to Congress is probably pretty obvious to those who know him. Locally to everyone he is just Jamie. Which means he’s accessible and disarming. The man you meet is who he is. There are no pretenses. There is no “different side” of him: a trait that bedevils so many nationally ambitious politicians who wear different faces depending on who has the money. When Jamie greets you, smiles or puts an arm over your shoulders, it means what you want it to mean.

Thomas Paine

Among the things that make Jamie special as person, I’ve noticed, is when he enters the room the space becomes energized. Enthusiasm and buoyancy take over. When he takes the microphone, the place become hushed with anticipation. Jamie has a way with words that most can only envy. His wit and humor shine through. He speaks with earnestness and sureness about his ideas on the law, and the nuances of the Constitution, placing it in today’s context and sprinkling in apt quotes from the Founders like Thomas Paine, one of his favorites. His thoughts seem to come from a deep place: maybe from the dinner table of his youth, or perhaps from his years in front of the classroom. 

Perhaps there is nothing new to be said about democracy that hasn’t previously been said by Paine, Locke, de Tocqueville, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill, and others. But Jamie talks in the context of today’s threats – Trumpism, the Big Lie and voter suppression — in ways that both young people and pre-baby boomers can relate to. Jamie brings a fresh way of understanding core principles. Too often, national politicians speak in platitudes or use catch phrases to trigger applause. They use code words with supporters to avoid recrimination and to obfuscate, or they just talk from their ego.

Jamie intuitively understands the potency of semantics and syntax to cut to the bone and make people think about issues and ideas in a fresh way. (I have found myself saying: I wish I could have said that.) It’s really just command of the English language like few in Congress have ever possessed. 

Nancy Pelosi

When Jamie Raskin won election in 2016, there was no question in my mind Jamie would quickly, like cream, rise to the top. And he has. Extraordinary political circumstances confronting Congress have brought Jamie to the fore. Perhaps more rapidly than even he imagined. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, quickly recognizing Jamie’s attributes and fortitude, tapped him as the House’s Lead Impeachment Manager for Trump’s second impeachment. 

This appointment came mere days after Jamie and his wife Sarah Bloom Raskin tragically lost their son Tommy Raskin to suicide as a consequence, reportedly, of serious depression at the age of 25. Regardless of the cause, I will say this: only parents who have lost a child can comprehend this particular grief and the enduring agony. Jamie has been quoted saying that Nancy Pelosi’s handing him the job of lead impeachment manager, was a godsend, even though this was only five days after Tommy’s burial. 

As is well known now, Jamie Raskin not only rose to the occasion, but was eloquent in arguing the case. That it fell on deaf Republican ears in the Senate speaks solely to the unfortunate state of the Republican party and not to the merits of the case. 

Select Committee to Investigate January 6

When in July 2021 Speaker Pelosi formed the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, she included Jamie in the nine-member panel. The committee continues its investigations, frequently making headlines. Jamie regularly appears on news shows. Given its uphill struggle to ferret out truths, the Select Committee seems to be the equivalent of Ukraine taking on and besting Putin’s wannabe Russian empire. The Select Committee keeps drilling down into the roots of Trumpists’ lies despite Republican’s juvenile efforts to ignore, discredit, and ridicule its diligence.

If our fragile democracy and republican form of government manage to survive, it will in part be due to the work of this Select Committee, the likes of Jamie Raskin, Liz Cheney, Adam Kitzinger and others who have the rare courage and the ability to speak truth to power. 

At critical tipping points in America’s history, certain individuals have seemingly materialized, perhaps by the grace of God, to help lead our country to a higher moral ground. This is one of those moments, and I think Jamie Raskin is one of those extraordinary individuals. I feel fortunate to know him. In all honesty I sleep better at night because of Jamie Raskin and the part he’s playing. I believe Jamie has and is making a difference. None of us knows, of course, whether the forces of autocracy, duplicity and shrinking liberties will win out. 

A Person of the Year

When Jamie first ran for Congress, he stated his ambition wasn’t to be in the political center, but to be in the moral center. This past December 2021 David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, named Jamie Raskin as “A Person of the Year.” He describes him as “an individual who embodies both the tragedy and resilience of our time.” Remnick interviewed Raskin about his efforts to write his new book, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy as a way to honor his son and to try to alleviate the depths of his grief.


I have noticed that when snow is in the forecast, it creates a unique level of anxiety among folks. It’s almost laughable. People want to know when it’ll start, how long it will last, how much will we get. Will the schools close; should they close; how bad will the roads be? Postponements and cancellations? Will we run out of milk or toilet paper? On and on.

Kids get excited. Parents have mixed feelings, as we try to deal with the quandary of what’s coming. Whether we welcome it or dread it, there’s anxiety and maybe excitement. I have also noticed our greyhound Willow isn’t fazed by the snow. She doesn’t “know” snow. Open the door, out she goes to do her business and then comes back in. No worries.

New Hampshire Avenue 2016

When I was little boy in Baltimore a long time ago, there were no weather forecasts. TV was in its infancy. The newspaper had a crude weather map. Almost always, snow came as a surprise. I vividly remember the times my dad would wake me in the morning and say, “Guess what? Look out the window. It’s snowing.” I would jump out of bed instantly lathered in joy. If the snow was coming down hard, there’d be no school. But just in case, my parents would turn on the radio and listen for school closing information. 

Dad might have to put the snow chains on the tires to get to work. (Plowing didn’t happen.) The steps and sidewalk would have to be shoveled. For older kids that meant there was money to be made. Mom would dig out my black rubber snow galoshes with the metal clips along with double socks, a second shirt, mittens and earmuffs, out into the whiteness to find my friends. The day was mine until the sun went down.

Today, TV forecasters have become our gurus, like faith healers. For them it’s a peak moment. They are pumped and so are their viewers. Our preoccupation with weather is proven in the plenitude of weather apps that offer data and predictions far into future and all over the planet. 

All this science and yet they sometimes get it grievously wrong, as we’ve seen with erroneous snow forecasts that cause schools to close needlessly. 

So I wonder, what did our grandparents do long before all this technology?  Clearly, they managed and simply lived with whatever happened. Sailors and farmers looked at the sky, sniffed the air, felt the wind and acted accordingly. If a summer rain arrived unexpectedly, my mother rushed out and pulled the laundry off the clothes lines. 

At a more fundamental level, the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of our determination to control natural forces that have the upper hand. Uncertainty has hung over us for two years. For scientists it’s been a moving target. As research advances, guidance has changed or even reversed. Our collective response has been confusion, frustration, fear and impatience. 

This boils down to the human race’s incessant efforts to know the future. One reason for this, of course, there’s great wealth to be gained if you are good at predicting the future. Think stock traders, gamblers, tarot card readers and economists. (It’s not for nothing economics has been called the dismal science.) But the big reason is our need to have control over our lives — or, at least, feel like we do — to protect everything that is dear to us, to be able to plan our lives and avoid calamity.

There are some ironies here. As science, technology and medical advances have extended our life spans, shrunken the world, and created amazing efficiencies in our homes and workplaces, so have our anxieties swollen about losing these things. While we want cleverer and more efficient technologies, at the same time we get more frustrated and angrier when the slightest thing goes awry. And it often does. The snow doesn’t fall when it should, or it does when it shouldn’t. The battery on your car’s remote key dies, Amazon’s delivery is a no-show, your map app steers you wrong, passwords are lost or don’t work, unwanted emails, scams and spams intrude, and the ever-present risk of identity theft.

Have you left home without your cell phone? It’s means you’ve cut yourself off from your family, work associates, loved ones and pretty much the whole world.

Have you tried to get tickets for a sports event? It’s nerve wracking. Remember tickets you could hold in your hand and keep as souvenirs? They are gone. They only exist digitally on your phone. As for movie tickets, now we must select seats like we’re taking a flight to L.A. Have you tried to call your doctor lately, and have a live conversation with her or him? Remember when you could do that, and just go to their office? 

My point is none of these problems and frustrations existed in my parents’ time or even when I was a young man. Life was tactile then. Now it’s all digital. You touched a thing and then you bought it. On meeting a person you touched hands, looked in their eyes and felt their aura. Things worked out. People coped. 

It’s tempting to refer to the past as “simpler times” as though people were more innocent and naïve “back in the day.” But that would be wrong. Living has never been simple. People have always been complex, and society filled with tensions and disagreement. 

The difference is that the digital world is confusing and complicated. Things that used to be easy to learn to do are no longer easy. A case in point. Last summer I decided to ditch our ISP and to change our email addresses we’d had since forever to save money. My advice? Don’t try this. Six months later, I am still trying to stamp out my old email. Like crabgrass it keeps reappearing. Our new TV access protocol still baffles my wife. There are hundreds of channels, but we only watch a couple dozen. Why does It need to be so hard? Who benefits from this? 

This needless complexity is creating a gulf between the young and the old, between the well off and the poor, between those who access the digital world of computers, broadband, software, and apps and those who cannot because they are trying to feed themselves, pay the landlord and get medical care. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think ATMs are wonderful. Put in a card, out comes money. It never errs. Credit cards are great too. It’s neat I can Facetime my son in France, and I can pay bills electronically. My car has 110,000 miles and it still runs like a top. (My dad traded in cars every two years.) 

But what has it gotten us? In 2022 we have no more assurance about the future than did our forefathers. The Pandemic has reminded us that nature still rules. That we can take all the precautions, but know we are plain lucky to have escaped infection. 

Global warming threatens us and suddenly, our planet Earth feels small and vulnerable. Climate change is an existential threat like nothing in my lifetime since maybe Khrushchev’s threatening atomic warheads in Cuba signified the end of the world.  

We have epidemiologists, climatologists, stock and commodity brokers, financial planners, actuaries, insurers, pollsters, news analysts, historians, fortune tellers, diviners and astrologists — all telling us what may lie ahead and assigning probabilities and dates. We sure keep a lot of people of busy in our collective efforts to guarantee our tomorrows and build our expectations. 

They all serve our purposes, I suppose. But in the final analysis, bad things happen, good things happen. We hug those we love, weep for those we cannot help. But ultimately, our dog Willow has it right. She doesn’t know it’s going to snow. If there’s snow, she pays little notice, and just goes out to do her business.

We need to do that too. It’s time to lighten up, accept what we cannot control.

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but wanting to control it.

Kahlil Gibran

Don’t worry, be happy.

Bobby McFerrin

Part II –2nd Amendment Repeal

As it turns out, rescinding our Constitution’s 2nd amendment, as I proposed in my last post, is not a new idea and not mine alone. So I am happy and relieved to say that I am in good company. None other than John Paul Stevens, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court expressed his advocacy for eliminating the 2nd amendment in a New York Times piece published March 27, 2018.

Allow me to thank my son, Rick Schultz, for researching this source.

Justice Stevens’s cogent words bring an historical perspective, explaining how we got to where we are today: far, far distant from the Founders’ reasonable expectations. I quote verbatim from the New York Times:

John Paul Stevens: Repeal the Second Amendment

March 27, 2018

Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday. These demonstrations demand our respect. They reveal the broad public support for legislation to minimize the risk of mass killings of schoolchildren and others in our society.

That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms. But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment. [boldface mine]

Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.

For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated militia.”

During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Chief Justice Burger’s and others’ long-settled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that there was an individual right to bear arms. I was among the four dissenters.

That decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.

That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.


Let’s be clear. Repealing the 2nd amendment will not eliminate guns. It will, however, allow state and local governments to constructively regulate them as best suits their respective communities. Thus the issue of what the Founders meant will be moot forever. People will still be able to keep a gun in their home for self defense.

In recent days well known historians Douglas Brinkley and Michael Beschloss are saying the current political discord is the scariest threat to our democracy since the pre-Civil War 1850s. Whether we talk about gun rights, Covid-19 anti-vaxxers, or Trump defeat-deniers, two themes emerge. There’s this “me-first” mentality that says my personal rights supersede the personal good of my neighbor. “You can’t make me where a mask. And not only that, but screw you and the horse you came in on.”

Second, as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9-11, the terrorist threat to America ironically no longer emanates from Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or even ordinary immigrants, but from fellow American citizens. Tragically, the national unity spawned by the 9-11 attacks has decayed to become the January 6, 2021 insurrection sacking the Capitol by our own citizens.

There are good things happening. The Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter — once believed improbable — are fundamentally changing America for the better. Now it’s time to kill the obsolete, putrefying 2nd amendment. Let’s put a fork in it.

Adieu to the 2nd Amendment

Despite its many amendments, the U. S. Constitution has suffered from two major flaws that have threatened to tear our nation apart. One was its failure to deal with slavery and its consequences. The Civil War was the result, and yet to this day, the issue of inequality among the races remains far from being resolved. 

The other serious flaw is the Second Amendment, which says, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The Constitution of the United States became effective in 1789, about 232 years ago. It has served our nation pretty well and become a model for other nations to try to emulate. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights were ratified two years later. These provided specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights. 

While the 2nd Amendment once made practical sense, it is now obsolete and serves no purpose in modern America. In fact, the 2nd Amendment defeats the very purposes of the Constitution. It undermines “domestic tranquility,” does not provide for “the common defence”, and it threatens rather than promotes “the general welfare.” It does nothing to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Outrageously, the 2nd amendment actually tends to eliminate posterity.

The concept of militias, whether well-regulated or not, is also obsolete.

These words were crafted in a time when today’s modern arms were unimaginable to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the principal authors. Even one hundred years later when territories of the Unites States were still being assimilated and tamed, ordinary rifles and guns were an essential tool for survival. 

Why do Americans need a “right” to own a gun, when we don’t need a “right” to own a car, a house or a washing machine?

Why do we Americans need a “right” to own a gun, when we don’t need a “right” to own a car, a house or a washing machine?

If the Constitution were being written in this century, no one would think to include the contents of the Second Amendment. Instead, a gun would be treated like any other domestic appliance or recreational gear. Those who would feel safer having a gun in their home would buy one. Others wouldn’t. Owning a gun would be like owning a fishing rod or a car, which you need a license to use. You might need to take a test to show you know how to handle it.

But because of the 2nd Amendment, none of this is possible. 

Guns have been regulated under Federal laws since the 1930s. Since then, the laws have been amended, strengthened and weakened too many times to keep track. Plus, each state has its own regulations. Confusion, complexity and loopholes lead to poor enforcement and consumer awareness. 

In America, defenders of the 2nd Amendment revere not just their right to own a gun, but the right to fire it. Otherwise, what’s the fun of just owning a gun? Target practice aside, the point is to be able to use it to kill something, whether it’s a grouse, moose or a person. Wounding barely provides any satisfaction at all.

For many Americans the 2nd amendment is the most important sentence in the Constitution

One big problem with the 2nd Amendment is that for many Americans, it is the most important sentence in the entire Constitution. For those folks, so long as you have the unmitigated right to own guns, as many and as powerful as you want, the rest of the Constitution is just window dressing. So much for the free speech, freedom of the press, and due process guarantees of the Constitution. Not for nothing did Samuel Colt’s six-shooter in the 1840s get called the “great equalizer.” Settling scores becomes easy. For the malcontent, loser and otherwise stupid guy, a gun can make a big man out of you in an instant.

If we don’t feel safe in our own community, then having a gun at home may make us feel better. But, in practice it’s not very workable. I have always wondered why in a mass shooting, no one ever fires back. I guess that’s because the family pistol is back home in the sock drawer, and you didn’t think you’d need it at the mall.

The proscription afforded by the 2nd Amendment of meaningful, effective regulation of firearms has resulted in massive proliferation of weapons. Anyone who wants a gun bad enough can get one illegally, and they do. In the big cities, daily multiple shootings and killings of young Black men should make us cry, but it doesn’t. Mass shootings of innocents, which used to shock our sentiments nationally, are only noteworthy until displaced by the next mass shooting. 

We struggle to know why. The media lead attempts to uncover the killer’s motivation, an utterly fruitless exercise. We hear the “if-onlys.” If only he had had counseling in school; had better parenting; his friends had reported his anger; hadn’t been released from jail; had been deported, ad nauseum. 

The utter randomness of road rage incidents and stray bullets killing children amounts to plain terrorism. Recently, gunfire occurred outside a mid-day Washington Nationals baseball game. Panicked fans ran to the exits. Players dove into the dugouts and the game was ended. I live in a safe urban neighborhood, but at night is it fireworks we hear, or are they gun shots that are not uncommon? In either case, there’s nothing to be done.

Repeal of the Second Amendment will imitate the 18th amendment, which abolished prohibition, and will read as follows:

“The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.”

Why would this work?

After repeal guns will still remain available

First, because guns will still remain available to anyone eligible to buy them. The difference will be that the federal and state governments will be able to regulate and tax their purchase, import and use like any other product with self-evident danger to consumers, like pesticides, electrical appliances, extension ladders, vehicles, medications and cigarettes. We accept and expect such regulations; no big deal. Second, because most Americans will want it.

This means we will see the end of mass murders with automatic weapons no longer being some sort of inalienable right to nullify life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of others. I know this will disappoint all those who have hoped to commit suicide by taking a lot of innocent by-standers with them. But there are plenty of high bridges around that can attract on-lookers. Also, a dramatic drop in gunplay on our streets will ensue, restoring domestic tranquility.

As for hunters, deer season will remain the same. 

Condominium Woes

The God-awful collapse of a 40-year old condominium tower in the town of Surfside, Florida and the instantaneous deaths of nearly 100 people who were sound asleep in their beds is the stuff of nightmares. It should raise certain concerns we all need to pay attention to.

I am not talking about the chance of a tall building falling down, which is about nil in Takoma Park. Instead, I find one of the most tragic aspects of the Champlain Towers South collapse is the failure of the condominium association to do anything about the known and alleged problems affecting the elemental structure of the building. 

None of Takoma Park’s large, multi-family buildings are less than 50 years old. Some are a good bit older.

Doubtlessly there were a number of factors contributing to the collapse, leading to a retrospective sequence of ‘if-onlys” going as far back in time perhaps to how the construction company poured the concrete underpinnings and laid rebar.

Survivors have have been quoted in the press that condo association members argued and were unable to agree on a plan to make repairs. Some condo board members resigned in protest and frustration, it is said.

This is the part that strikes me as the saddest. It’s not hard to imagine how the discussions might have gone at a condo board meeting:

“Can we trust the engineer’s report? . . It’s been this way for years; this is nothing we don’t already know . . .Things aren’t this bad . . . The costs will be too high . . . Some of us can’t afford higher assessments and we’ll have to move out . . . You’re being too much of a Cassandra . . . Major repairs will scare away buyers . . . Our units will lose value . . . Let’s just do some of the repairs now and the rest later . . . The pool needs repairs first . . . No it doesn’t . . .  The longer we wait, costs will go up.”

Add in possible personality clashes and that some members were either out of their depth or just disinterested. In the board’s defense, it is inevitable to expect resistance to big outlays, especially when they feel unprecedented in scope. Just look at humanity’s resistance to dealing with global warming (in case you have doubts). 

Condo association boards are made up of volunteers. The only qualification to serve is the mere fact you own a unit, and the time and interest to serve. As with most communities, only a few are going to come forward and your neighbors are simply grateful you are willing to show up for meetings.

I raise this issue here because in Takoma Park all the larger multi-family buildings – whether rentals or condos – are old by any definition. None are less than 50 years old, and some may be pushing 70 or 80 years. 

Let me explain where I come from on this issue. As a commercial real estate lender for many years, I handled loan requests from condo associations to finance major improvements to their facilities. In some cases, condo association boards wanted to borrower the money needed to make repairs and replacements rather that hit up unit owners with huge one-time assessments. 

For a bank to lend money to a condo association, it has to know that the loan will be paid back. Since there’s no collateral to secure a loan (every unit has a different owner), the bank must have confidence on a reliable cash flow. It does so by looking at reserves, the capacity to increase assessments if needed, the board’s competency, and facilities in relatively good condition. 

But often, a bank’s investigation reveals serious disqualifying problems. Champlain Towers South may not have qualified for a loan due its evident poor condition. 

It’s safe to say no one buys a condo unit because they want to run a condo association.

This catastrophe is a grim reminder to all condo owners (and those thinking of buying one) of the perils of condo ownership in the face of neglect, mismanagement and procrastination. 

It’s safe to say no one buys a condo unit because they want to run a condo association. Under most states’ laws there’s no requirement for transparency regarding a condo’s finances such as its reserves and financial condition. This information is private, secret and not available to the outside world, including any legal matters and the property’s condition. 

Purchasing a condo unit in not unlike buying a used car. You can walk the property, kick the tires, talk to the property manager (who is a hired gun), speak to any unit owners you may know and then you take the plunge. Actually, this may be unfair to used car dealers. I’ve purchased nothing but used cars for the past 40 years. With a dealership, you at least get guarantees and recourse to a car’s history.

Well managed condominiums undertake a “reserve study” every five years. (Very old buildings should have it done every 3 years.) It requires contracting with an engineering firm to examine every component of the building(s) including the foundation, roof, exterior walls, all openings, and the electrical, plumbing, HVAC, incinerator, elevator, security and life safety systems. Even things like parking surfaces, pools, railings, balconies.

In Maryland before 2020 there was no law requiring condos to do reserve studies. The Maryland Condominium Act pertaining only to Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties (not to the rest of the state) was amended to require performing a reserve study every 5 years for “common property major structural components.” It requires that the funding recommended by the reserve study for repair/replacement be included in an association’s annual budget for that year and the study be made available to all owners. The law gives condo associations the added authority to override any restrictions in the organization’s charter documents that otherwise might limit assessment increases.

The engineer assigns a life expectancy for each component and the estimated replacement or repair cost. The condo board has the authority to budget for these replacements and set aside a portion of assessment income in a reserve fund. It can increase assessments. That way, when the roof has to be replaced, the money is there. There is money to replace common area carpets, paint stairwells and hallways and upgrade security cameras and laundry rooms. 

A more extensive description of the Maryland state law can be found here.

This is an important improvement in Maryland law. However, inherent weaknesses remain, because the law cannot force a condo association to actually increase the assessments or to actually make the repairs. Apparently, the amended law does not require that a condominium’s financial and physical condition be made public. 

Still, the law may go a long way to increasing awareness and higher expectations among existing unit owners. It will help would-be condo unit buyers to be more cognizant of risks.

Of course, apartment buildings are just as subject to the ravages of time and neglect. Our City needs to pay attention to these as well.

The SHA and the TPSS Co-op

“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.)

The Layby

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.

The Origins

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.

The Stakes

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.