The Purple Line Myth

 

Recently I had an unexpected, interesting conversation with former Takoma Park Mayor Kathy Porter about the Purple Line and its future impact.  Kathy Porter’s thoughts and questions got me to thinking about the validity of some (perhaps a lot) of people’s concerns about the Purple Line (PL).

Kathy knows a lot about public transportation. She has served since 2011 on the WMATA (Metro) board of directors. Prior to her 10-year service as our mayor, Kathy served on the Greater Washington Transportation Planning Board for nearly 15 years including a stint as chair. So I value her views.

She’s concerned about the negative impacts the PL will have by perhaps disrupting and displacing businesses during construction and the possibility of rising rents for both residents and businesses. Kathy is not alone. I’ve heard this from others.

For years we were concerned there’d never be a Purple Line. Now the concern is no longer about “if” or “when,” but whether the PL will trigger wholesale redevelopment in Long Branch and the Crossroads areas – where two PL stations will be located – and, second, will small businesses be forced to close. Will rising apartment rents push out immigrant families who shop in these businesses? In turn, these households themselves may get dispersed. This rich diversity is one of the assets that attract people to greater Takoma Park.

All of this seems reasonably probable on the surface, but there is in fact very little evidence to support this outcome. This is the myth. To the contrary, there is plenty of evidence and precedent to suggest that little will change right away in the Crossroads or Long Branch areas. And when change comes, it will be gradual at first and then may accelerate. But it likely will take years.

Consider this. The Takoma Metro station on the Red Line opened February 1978. It took about 30 years (about 2010) for significant new, privately financed construction next to the station to begin. In 1978 downtown Silver Spring was already an important regional business center, but real transformation related to the Metro only began around 2000 and only then because of aggressive efforts led by County Executive Doug Duncan.

The West Hyattsville station on the Green Line is familiar to many of us as a sometime better choice to get downtown via Metro. It opened 25 years ago, November 1993. No significant construction, including residential, has occurred yet. The station area remains surrounded by empty land.

So, just because “they build it” does not mean “they will come.”

Just to make sure all readers are on the same page, the 16.2-mile PL will have 21 stops with two stops serving Takoma Park; one in the Long Branch area on Arliss St. at Piney Branch Rd., the other on University Blvd at NH Avenue in front of the new bus transit center. Technically called light rail, it’s a confusing term in my opinion. (Metro is heavy rail, in case you are wondering). Instead, think of what in the old days used to be called streetcars. In Europe, they are called trams. Basically the “train” will be a single 136-foot long, open gangway railcar allowing passengers to walk the entire length. Power will come from overhead wires; rails will run mostly (95%) on the surface, typically in the middle or the side of a street, but separated from traffic. Stops (or stations), in most cases, will be simple ground-level platforms.

There should be no doubt the Purple Line will be an extremely valuable and an influential asset to the region and Takoma Park. It will improve mobility for everyone, but most importantly for lower wealth people who lack mobility, and those who prefer not to own a car. Mobility is intrinsic to economic wellbeing. Rail transit has hugely environmental advantages too, but these and other aspects aren’t topical here.

The Crossroads Station Area

The commercial district around the intersection of New Hampshire and University has the inherent capability to become a major regional draw, far more than it is now. I am often asked why hasn’t the Crossroads and NH Ave in Takoma Park been redeveloped long before now? Won’t the Purple Line spur development?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions for years. There’s a long list of reasons.

1) Much of the 2-mile stretch of New Hampshire Ave, except near the Crossroads, is chopped up into small parcels. It’s hard to assemble small parcels into big ones.

2) Larger parcels are already occupied by large buildings such as the Bank of America facility at Sheridan St., the U-Haul facility, the Spanos-owned shopping center (opposite), the “Shoppers Warehouse” center and the Washington-McLaughlin site.

3) All these were built 40 to 60 years ago when land was cheap and there was no premium for efficient land use.

4) Current landowners don’t sell because they are making good money from full occupancy and competitive rents.

5) The typical cost of development includes at least 5 years or longer of design, engineering, legal expense, community push-back, city and county review and approval, permitting, construction and lease up. Plus there is the loss of income for 2 or more years when no rent is coming in. In comparison, in downtown D.C., Bethesda and Arlington there are obvious gains to be made by building high-rise buildings.

6) Sometimes would-be developers find it’s just easier to build elsewhere because of fewer complications.  Developers tend to play follow the leader, which you see in Wheaton, Silver Spring, College Park and Hyattsville.

7) Ignorance is part of it. Some current owners and would-be developers seem ignorant of the gold mines they are sitting on along NH Ave . (The City’s future economic development program can cure this.)

8) Neither Prince George’s nor Montgomery County has lifted a finger to promote these areas or help induce development (a “political” failure). Takoma Park has done a lot – more than people realize – to promote our portion, but budget limitations, staff capacity and other higher priorities have stood in the way.

A huge positive aspect is that the two counties have adopted Sector (Master) Plans for their respective sides of the Crossroads business area that are premised on Transit Oriented Development  (TOD). Montgomery’s new zoning ordinance offers incentives (using the “Optional” site plan method) that allow higher densities for certain project features. In addition, the City and the MoCo Planning Department established “Urban Design Guidelines,” which set standards that architects and designers have to follow as part of the site plan process. This is important because every developers benefit by knowing exactly what’s expected of them as they plan their projects.

Given the long lead times to redevelop a large site, if commercial property owners were keen on taking advantage of the new PL service arriving in 2022, they would be announcing engineering and design efforts by now or pretty soon. But, there is no hint yet that any of that has started. While I’d like to be wrong about this, redevelopment will come slowly.

Purple Line construction will indeed be disruptive, and a real pain for some businesses, but not all. Rents will increase, but they will rise anyway even if there were no PL. As rents rise, but so will revenue growth for most well run businesses. We will witness some businesses closing. Again, keep in mind there is always a natural turnover among business tenants. And, businesses close for a multitude of reasons. (I can vouch for this from personal experience and professional experience as a banker.)

I have no doubt, however, redevelopment will occur if for no other reason than the forces of powerful regional economic growth and the decline of alternative development opportunities make it inevitable.

Long Branch Station Area

This commercial district is more or less bounded by Arliss, Flower and Piney Branch. These three streets encircle the primary commercial block now occupied by two supermarkets (Bestway and Giant), two large restaurants (El Golfoand El Gavilan), a Pentacostal church in the old Flower Theater, a dollar store, laundromat, Precision Tune, a hair academy and Capitol One Bank, among others. The Mary Center is moving out, and a rumor indicates the Bank of America may move. There are also many acres of paved excess parking.

Throughout Long Branch are countless small enterprises that may be wholly unremarkable, but are vital to the nearby residents. Most cater to the Hispanic community exclusively, which is composed largely of low wealth, hard-working households.

Significant private development can only occur when land ownership is consolidated into large enough tracts to make development practical. The described area is held under three ownerships. Fronting Flower Ave is a long 104,000 square foot parcel; a 212,000 foot piece contains the Giant Food and Capital One; a 103,000 foot piece features the Bestway Supermarket. (The Flower Ave frontage is roughly 160 feet deep, which might limit future retail development to a row of stores like there is now.) Redeveloping any of these parcels may, however, come at the cost of temporarily losing one or both supermarkets and might involve underground parking, which would be an environmental boost.

But don’t panic just yet because the next questions are important.  What could be built on these parcels? Is major redevelopment likely?

Another small shopping center lies just south of the Piney Branch /Arliss intersection and east of the Shell station. This 110,000 foot parcel contains at least 15 small retailers and services (like tax, accounting, staffing), including the Americana Grocery. Its size and proximity to the PL station would seem to be appropriate for redevelopment. But again, what would be the motivation to tear down and rebuild? Would it be to replace small stores with different small stores.

It’s important to realize that Long Branch is a “neighborhood” business area. The Long Branch Sector Plan refers to it as a “regional draw” (p. 21). It’s actually not, except maybe for two restaurants. Some others, like Ocean City Seafood, sell to a wide market. Long Branch’s commercial potential lies in providing convenience services to an area within perhaps a one-mile radius. Outside this radius consumers have similar but closer options. From a real estate developer’s viewpoint this is important because it tells them what kind of business they can attract.

Still, individual businesses can have a much larger market draw. If, for example, the former Flower Theater were converted back to a movie house showing a mix of art, first run and classic movies – like the Old Greenbelt Theater – it would be a regional draw.

The Sector Plan talks about preserving the single-family and multi-family housing that’s already there and supporting the existing small business character. The CRT (mixed use) zoning category, oddly, seems to allow large F.A.R.s (floor area ratios) and 50 to 100-foot tall buildings. Possibly, this will enable 7 to 9-story apartment buildings on the large parcels.

Is major new development likely in Long Branch? Yes, in my opinion. Much of it could include workforce housing (MPDUs), senior living, as well as market-priced condos and apartments. In conjunction, new retail, grocery, restaurant and service businesses would be a natural fit.

The point is that the PL could well stimulate new development, which may displace some small, minority-owned businesses. But new businesses are likely to be the ones that will serve the existing demographic in the Long Branch community.

The concerns shared by Kathy Porter (and no doubt others) need to be heeded. They are constructive and understandable. Nevertheless, it is far more likely that the economic and social changes that may be induced by the PL will be gradual and actually beneficial rather than disruptive.

Central Americans’ presence has long dominated the Long Branch and the Crossroads areas and the goods, restaurants and language usage reflect this.

Economic change inevitably accelerates shifts in the character of neighborhoods including ethnic makeup. We may well see this happen in the coming years. If Hispanics migrate out, we may see more Africans, Haitians, Caribbean people, Southeast Asians and Indians expand into these areas and increase the diversity. The richly diverse “International Corridor” can certainly coexist with redevelopment.

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