Widening the Beltway: Where’s the Vision and Leadership?

Governor Larry Hogan proposes to widen the Capital Beltway by adding four (4) additional lanes to the Capital Beltway (I-495), and doing the same to I-270 and to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The added lanes would all be toll lanes, according to current plans. Mr. Hogan’s $9 billion plan is intended to lessen congestion.

Presumably once and for all.

It is so, so “1950s.” The entire proposal will prove to be a disaster for our region and well beyond. It may succeed in relieving congestion only for a brief few years. The plans, tragically, fly in the face of long acknowledged limitations of widening highways in dense urban areas.

The impact on Takoma Park and other communities inside the Beltway is obvious because every additional vehicle will, at some point, exit onto a major arterial. For us that means New Hampshire Ave, University Blvd and Colesville Rd (Rte 29) inheriting significantly more vehicle miles, thus more congestion.

The expansion will add to air pollution, more stormwater run-off, and contamination of our waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

Critics have attacked Hogan’s plans because of the destruction of homes and businesses in its path. But that will be the very least of the impacts. 

Making matters worse, the Washington Post on April 20 editorialized in favor of Hogan’s plans, citing statistics that by 2040 “roughly 30,000 more vehicles will be using Maryland’s portion of the highway each day.” This fact, says the Post, is the impetus behind Hogan’s proposal. 

Let me digress here. 30,000 more vehicles? Really? How many is that? It works out to a single lane of cars, bumper to bumper, 114 miles long. That’s just a tad short of the distance from Takoma Park to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I’m not kidding.

That’s all the reason we should NOT build more lanes. Who wants those cars?

But, back to the Post’s editorial that naively asserts: “Yes, the new lanes would have to be wedged into the Beltway’s narrow corridor in Maryland, meaning” . . . that along the 20 mile span . . . “as many as 34 homes and 4 businesses could fall victim.” The editors boldly assert, “That’s the stark trade-off: displacement, or inconvenience and diminished quality of life for some homeowners in return for massive improvement — in time saved and stress reduced — for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters. On that cold calculation, Mr. Hogan’s plan makes sense.” Quod erat demonstrandum! 

Alas, the Post is wrong. 

Worse still and inexplciably, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) supports Mr. Hogan’s planned highways. COG’s “Transportation Planning Board” includes the I-495 and I-270 projects in its “Visualize 2045 Plan.” Adopted October 2018, it stands as the National Capital Region Long-Range Transportation Plan. The Board’s seven primary visions include support for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Otherwise, it mostly just tinkers with the existing infrastructure. Visualize 2045 gives very little attention to the possibilities of extending rail lines, much less any new rails. Where is the vision and leadership?

The Capital Beltway is currently 8 lanes wide and more at interchanges. So, for a minute close your eyes and try to imagine 12 lanes and, of course, include the space for medians, dividers, shoulders and ramps. Oh, and add into your image the setbacks for sound barriers walls. Now, we have a space wide enough to land a Boeing 747. Imagine that space filled with lines of cars and trucks as far as you can see. 

To get real, drive along the Virginia Beltway through the Tysons area and the interchanges connecting to the Dulles Access Rd, Route 7 and I-66.

Virginia’s I-495 near the Interchange with Route 7
photo by Danya Smith for the Washington Post

Nominally there are 6 lanes in each direction including 2 toll lanes. But in actuality, there are 10 lanes in each direction because of wide shoulders and the many on-off ramps. Toll lanes require doubling the number of on-off ramps. This results in a distance from 300 to 400 feet between the sound barrier walls. You will see the popularly named “Lexus Lanes” for those who can afford the tolls. 

Dynamic tolling is scary. Under federal regulations, the toll price must be high enough such that speeds on express lanes do not fall below certain average speeds such as 45 or 55 mph. As the lanes fill up, traffic slows and this forces the tolls to rise in order to deter drivers. A little snow or a collision on the primary lanes forces drivers to use the Lexus Lanes. The higher the demand, the faster the tolls will climb to levels of $30 and more. 

As long as we add more lanes to ease congestion and make it practical to find parking at the destination, folks will drive and they are apparently willing to pay big bucks to do so. In 2017, rush-hour dynamic tolls were installed on I-66 through Arlington County. A current web site shows average evening rush tolls range between $8 and $10 one way. 

These marvels of highway engineering can be a pleasure to drive when traffic is rolling, but not at rush hour. Let’s also remember that all these vehicles have to exit onto our local roads.

Advocates for the expansion of Maryland’s commuter routes make the age-old argument that more lanes will accommodate more vehicles and thus ease, if not eliminate congestion. In a static world, that would make complete sense. But America’s major metro areas, like the Baltimore-Washington region, show no signs of stagnation.

As a Baltimore resident, I remember in 1971 the new I-95 opened connecting the Baltimore and Washington beltways. I was astonished by four lanes in each directions and the wide spans of bridges crossing over the new highway. And there was no traffic! It felt crazy. I thought about turning pirouettes in my VW bug just for fun. Why would anyone build such a ridiculously wide road? Who would ever use it?

In the old days, paths to DC included Route 1 and the B-W Parkway. The Capital Beltway in Maryland had only been completed in 1964 with mostly 3 lanes, which was generous. No wonder we all became convinced that wide, empty freeways were the future. 

Today, we all know that all the major commuter routes are “hit or miss” depending on the hour, weather, collisions, maintenance work and mysterious things that no one can explain. Certain bottlenecks and complete stoppages are predictable. Maryland’s portion of I-495 can seem like rush hour even at midday. 

Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, possibly the most powerful municipal official in American history, who built most of NYC’s parkways and many of its parks, tunnels and bridges, shows Moses learned the hard way that the faster he built these freeways, the faster they clogged with vehicles. Moses sabotaged mass transit in his obsession with roads, which is why today there is no subway line to JFK Airport.

The truism is that in dense areas, a growing population inevitably nullifies the advantages of added lanes. Let’s face it, Americans instinctively love the advantages of self-mobility, whether it be on our legs, on a bike or a personal automobile.

For example, if one could drive the 5½ miles from Takoma Park to Bethesda (or back) at a reliable 35 mph (= 16 minutes), no one would have proposed the Purple Line. 

Governor Hogan and the Post imagine that adding four lanes to I-270, I-495 and the B-W Parkway will solve congestion once and for all. But it won’t because the region’s population will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. From 1990 until today Montgomery County’s population grew 38% to 1.06 million. The labor force grew 31% to 600,000. Jobs in the county expanded by 21%. Today the percentage of people driving alone to work is 65.3%. That’s just a meager 2.4% less than 1990.

Over the next 25 years, the county’s population is predicted to grow 17% (178,000 folks), Frederick Co. by 31%, Howard Co. by 19% and Anne Arundel Co. to our east by 18.5%. That adds up to almost 400,000 more people in those 4 counties alone. (I think these population projections are too conservative.)

Picture this: 20 years from now toll lanes have been installed, there are now 6 lanes in each direction on the Beltway; 30,000 more cars have been added to the scene; rush hours are worse than ever, especially for those who can’t afford exorbitant tolls. Now what do we do? Does the governor add more lanes?

The answer is we don’t do this. It’s not 2039. We can still make a choice today. The answers lie in rapid speed rail and exclusive bus lanes.

You say we can’t afford this? We cannot afford not to do this. It’s time America grows up and does what Europe, Japan and most industrialized countries have done, which is to bind the large and small cities together in a web of rails in concert with Europe’s well designed autobahns, motorways, autoroutes, autovias and autostradas that knit the nations together.

Here’s a fun factoid:

In Cologne, Germany the Hohenzollern Bridge across the Rhine River carries more than1,200 trains per day. This seems unimaginable to us, but it shouldn’t. I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

We need to have contiguous rapid inter-city rail (not light rail or commuter rail) between Washington and Baltimore (including BWI airport, which has become the busiest airport in the region). There’s none now. Also, we need rapid rail in the Route 50 corridor between Washington and Annapolis, and between Annapolis and Baltimore. The City of Frederick could be tied in via exclusive bus lanes. That means lanes exclusively used by 60-passenger buses so they are not ultimately stuck among cars. 

(Equally important, there needs to be a Potomac River rail crossing connecting Gaithersburg to Dulles and Chantilly – route 28 – in Virginia.)

Tying together the region’s four largest cities by rapid rail and bus transit is the only way to keep 30,000 more cars off our Beltway and to preserve woodlands along the B-W Parkway. The $9 billion Mr. Hogan wants to spend on highway widening should go to seeding the funding for the rail lines.

Governor Hogan thinks $9 billion will cure congestion. We wish! This is a gratuitous estimate. Giant public works at this scale inevitably exceed early estimates. This was the strategy Robert Moses employed: underestimate the projected costs, get the project well underway, announce huge “unforeseen” costs, and explain that it’s too late to stop now. 

Consider that every bridge over these highways will have to be rebuilt. In contrast, rapid rail between the cities can be built in or above the highway r-o-w’s. Or perhaps adjacent to the Amtrak and MARC lines. Few bridges will have to be modified. Destruction of pastures, farmland and homes will be minimized.

The Visualize 2045 report — to its credit — is not sanguine about the future of road congestion:

“Forecasts are mixed regarding future road use. Twenty-five years from now, the average person is expected to drive less than today. But population and employment will grow faster than the highway and transit systems will expand, and the resulting pressure on the system will accelerate congestion and crowding. As a result, some areas of the region will experience a reduction in the average number of jobs accessible by auto within a 45-minute commute.” (page 46)

In the 1950s leaders envisioned the 107-mile Metrorail system that was to be completed in the early 2000s, and it was. Why is there no visionary leadership today? Where are the voices?

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A Primer on Takoma Park’s Budget

During my time on the City Council I quickly learned two things about the city’s budget. It is the City Council’s second most important responsibility (after hiring the city manager) and it seemed unfathomably difficult to understand. (This coming from a commercial bank lender.)

If you’re perplexed by the budget document, don’t feel bad. Even councilmembers have a hard time. One reason is that many of us tend to assume the city budget is like our household budget or a business’s profit & loss statement. It’s not.

Residents need to be able to understand the city’s budget if they wish to be effective advocates and hope to influence the City Council and City Manager’s budget priorities. If residents are better versed on the budget, the job of the Mayor and Councilmembers’ job will be far easier. 

Residents have often asked questions like:

  •             How can the city have expenses that exceed revenues?
  •             Why doesn’t the city create a 5-year budget?
  •             What happens to the money saved on projects that don’t get built?
  •             What is the general fund? 
  •             Why can’t money be shared among funds?
  •             What’s the point of large reserves, if we never use them?
  •             What’s the difference between a fund and a reserve?

First, I refer readers to Deputy City Manager Jason Damweber’s superb article in the January 2019 City Newsletter explaining how the executive staff and councilmembers perform this duty. Mr. Damweber’s piece walks us through the 5-month process, including how the public’s preferences are taken into account. Read it here: https://takomaparkmd.gov/newsletter/dollars-and-sense-approaching-fiscal-year-2020/

This blog is different. It’s about how to read the budget – that is, how to make sense of it. Believe me, there is a rationale to the structure of the budget and the flow of the budget’s funds in practice.  

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Fund Accounting            Government agencies, many non-profits and places of worship use what’s called Fund Accounting. Unlike with businesses, there is no such thing as the familiar “bottom line.” Governments do not try to make a profit; instead they provide accountability, constancy and transparency.

Fund Accounting allows the municipality to properly manage funds that come from many different sources each of which requires that the money be used in a specific way. 

An easy example is the Speed Camera Fund that receives over a million dollars each year from fines collected from speeders. By state law this money must be used for “public safety,” and can’t be used for anything else. Other funds include the Stormwater Management Fund, the Special Revenue Fund and the General Fund. More about these later. 

Another way to view Fund Accounting: think of each fund as an independent entity with its own budget. Bundle all these funds together and, voilà, you have a municipal budget.

“Bundle all these funds together and, voilà, you have a municipal budget.”

Revenue Inflows            Takoma Park receives income or revenue from a multiplicity of sources. Some of these are restricted and some aren’t. Most familiar to us are revenues from property taxes. The next largest chunk is a mixed bag of money transfers from the County, the State, and the Feds. This includes income tax and Highway User Revenues, as well as tax duplication money, recreation and police assistance from the County. There are also various fees, fines, service charges, as well as grants from agencies and organizations. Let’s not forget bond sale proceeds. 

Expense Outflows            In contrast most of the City’s expenses and outlays are predictable. Many occur like clockwork, just like household expenses. Nevertheless, in any fiscal year there are always unknowns: staff vacancies, programs and projects that get delayed or take longer than expected, weather events, equipment breakdowns, accidents, legal issues, actions by other governments (e.g., a government shutdown), construction overruns, cost increases for supplies, replacement parts, insurance premiums and so on.

“You can think of the General Fund as a big bathtub with revenues flowing in and expenses draining out simultaneously every day.”

The General Fund            To simplify things a bit, the General Fund is the City’s primary budgeting vehicle for overall operations. It covers all the departments and almost all of their basic functions; all the wages and benefits of everyone who works for the City. You can think of the General Fund as a big bathtub with revenues flowing in and expenses draining out simultaneously every day. The City Manager prepares and presents to the City Council a proposed annual budget that assures that “water” in the tub won’t drain out or get too high and overflow. 

Translated, this involves the big challenge of estimating future revenues that will come to the City in the fiscal year ahead. This includes sustaining the city’s operations while anticipating increased costs (wages increases, health insurance costs, repairs and replacements, new technology and inflation, etc.); accommodating new projects and programs council members and residents want; accommodating new mandates imposed by higher level governments; seeking new cost-saving efficiencies and reallocating staff resources. 

This may come as a surprise, but in truth the City has little control over its revenues, except for regulating property tax rates. The City’s revenues often are either dictated by other levels of government, affected by the economy or influenced by just pure political considerations. 

Reserves            This is where Reserves come in. Reserves are nothing more than a fund’s balance at the end of the budget cycle. The balance represents the unappropriated accumulation of the difference between actual revenues and expenditures, or the water left in the tub when all the year’s revenues and expenditures have been accounted for. If in a fiscal year actual revenues are larger than expenditures, then the reserve balance will become higher, and vice versa. 

Here’s an example. In the proposed FY2017 budget the General Fund was projected to have total revenues of approximately $24,518,000 and projected total expenditures of $27,564,000, resulting in a projected deficiency of $3,046,000.

“Wow,” you say, “that’s not even close to a balanced budget.”  And, by the way, Maryland law mandates a balance budget.

Actually, the deficiency is made up by pulling in money from the Reserves also known as the “Fund Balance;” namely unspent, accumulated cash in the General Fund.  In this example, the proposed “Fund Balance” would drop from $11,320,000 to $8,273,000.  The City Manager probably explained to the Council that the Fund Balance was unnecessarily high, perhaps because a major project was delayed or there were position vacancies for part of a year, and thus we could use some of that money in lieu of raising the tax rate.

Think of the City’s Fund Balance as you would your family’s savings account. Most of the time you live out of your checking account. But if income is too low or there are unexpected expenses, you take money out of your savings account. The opposite happens when times are fat.

How High the Reserves            The State requires municipalities to maintain reserves at a certain level. There are also “best practices” among municipalities. Common sense takes over from there.  A big factor for any city is that it must pay routine bills and obligations every week, like salaries and utilities.  But revenues come in irregularly, such as income tax property tax receipts and intergovernmental transfers.  

“The Fund Balance is also there for really bad times when there is a fiscal or economic crisis as happened in FY’10 to ‘14, or some sort of calamity occurs.”

Therefore, the Reserves supply the cash when expenses exceed revenues. The Reserves can fluctuate a good bit throughout the year.  Effectively the City has its own bank line of credit with itself.

The Fund Balance is also there for really bad times when there is a fiscal or economic crisis as happened in FY’10 to ‘14, or some sort of calamity occurs. The Great Recession caused revenue growth to almost stall. General Fund balances were drawn down for three years in a row from 2010 to 2012. In 2010 Takoma Park was forced to eliminate eight positions to make ends meet. 

On the upside, a decent-sized General Fund Balance makes it easier for the City to borrow money from a bank or via a bond issuance. Takoma Park doesn’t have a bond rating because we are too small, but our creditworthiness helps us when Maryland issues bonds on our behalf, as was the case when we borrowed money for the planned Library renovations and major street projects. 

Other Funds                        We mentioned the Speed Camera Fund. There are some other funds, like the Stormwater Management Fund and the Special Revenue Fund.  The City is responsible for managing its stormwater system that includes the above ground drains and collection areas as well as the entire underground pipe system.  Annual fees from each property owner finance this fund.

The Special Revenue Fund gets revenue from cable companies through franchise agreements, the federal CDBG program, the WSSC and Safe Routes to School. Each of these sources stipulates restrictions on how the monies can be spent. Yet another fund is the Facilities Construction Fund, which helps the City to monitor monies received and earmarked for the construction of the city’s facilities. For example, monies gained from the sale of bonds for constructing the Library expansion must be segregated and only used for that project. Money for the renovation of the police department might come directly out of the General Fund.

“Congress refuses to appropriate the money Trump wants to build a wall and so he’s trying . . . to grab money out of other agencies’ budgets. He cannot legally to do that because Congress approved money for specific purposes”

Affordable Housing Reserve            Sometimes the Council creates “special” reserve accounts, which are entirely different than the fund balance in the General Fund or any other fund.  A big difference between “funds” and “special reserve accounts” is that the former contains money from outside agencies and grantors; whereas special reserve accounts are simply set-asides of city monies that are already in the General Fund. 

In 2016 the City Council adopted a plan to create an “affordable housing reserve.” It is not a fund in itself. But rather a commitment, adopted by council resolution, to dedicate a set-aside to be used exclusively for facilitating affordable housing. In 2018 the Council resolved to dedicate all rents earned from the 99-year ground lease with the Neighborhood Development Company to this reserve. Unlike most budget authorizations this reserve is designed to be added to and carried over from year to year while expenditures are made at Council’s discretion. 

Facilities Maintenance and the Equipment Replacement Reserves          These are two other similarly constructed reserves, which the Council finances annually. These two reserves maintain balances from year to year and are intended to assure there’s adequate money set aside to pay for maintaining and repairing city buildings and replacing equipment when needed. 

Capital Budgeting            We conclude by describing the unique Capital Budget. It is part of the overall General Fund, but addresses the need for financing multi-year public facility projects. This could include sidewalk construction, street repaving, facility renovations as well as the purchase of long-term assets such as trucks, police vehicles and other heavy machinery and equipment. 

The capital budget covers 5 years, with the first year being the upcoming fiscal year. Why 5 years? Because the City knows the life expectancy of existing facilities and equipment including what will need to be replaced and when.  Also, because 5 years is standard throughout the U.S. (In fact, the Equipment Reserve plans as far as 8 years ahead.)  In the case of building construction (like our Library) the planning and design phase may take a few years and the construction will take a year or more. 

Common sense says the City has to commit years in advance to provide for the needed monies to build projects and to replace worn out equipment. It can’t be done on an annual basis like routine operating expenses because the hit on the budget would be too big. If money for a project comes from special sources like grants, then these monies may go into the Facilities Construction Fund where they can be carefully accounted for.  An example is the Flower Avenue Green Street project, which has six or seven grant sources that must be used for this project.[ The DPW and the Dept of Finance have to account to each funding source that their money was spent and how it was spent. 

Does this ring a bell?            Compare this to President Trump’s attempt to find money to build a wall on the Southern Border. Congress refuses to appropriate the money Trump wants and so the President is trying, willy-nilly, to grab money out of other agencies’ budgets. He cannot legally to do that because Congress approved money for specific agencies and purposes. 

In Maryland, the General Assembly approved casino revenues to go for school construction. It really hasn’t, and so some Assembly members want to constrain the governor to use casino receipts for schools and not be shifted to something else. Do we see a Casino Receipts Fund in Maryland’s future?


“Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.” –  Clement Atlee, British Prime Minister

Greater Takoma Business Alliance

Last September, the Takoma Park City Council held a work session on the idea for establishing differing, higher property tax rates for commercially zoned real estate. The idea was prompted by the City Council’s prior decision to abolish, once and for all, the city’s tax on business’s inventory, which was cumbersome, unfair and unenforceable. Abolishing the inventory tax, a boon to certain retailers, is estimated to cost the City’s treasury about $320,000 in annual revenue. The City naturally wants to recover these loses by some other means. Thus, the intriguing idea of a slight increase on commercial property tax rates arose as a way to make up the difference, which also would have the side benefit of not affecting residential tax rates. 

As councilmembers and city staff batted the pros and cons back and forth, which is what a “work session” is intended to accomplish, a question arose about the necessity of asking the commercial property owners — those who’d be affected — if they would support a differential tax rate and, if so, how much of a difference might they tolerate. 

Well, someone said (I am paraphrasing), we need to ask them. Someone else asked, who are they and how do we do this? 

Sitting in the audience, when I heard this, I chuckled to myself: Who indeed are they! Staff appropriately responded they would work on it. It occurred to me that no one who runs this town really knows who owns what when it comes to non-residential property. Yes, we have anecdotal information. From my experience, I know this information is often difficult to find out because most income-producing properties are owned by LLCs rather than individuals. 

I also know there’s no one who can legitimately speak for all the landlords, whether commercial or multi-family property owners in the City. No one. Sure, we may know the owners of many of the small businesses in town, but almost none of them own the real estate they occupy.

Much of Takoma Park’s identity; that is, it’s “sense of place” derives from its business districts, especially to visitors.

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The City has hired the long awaited new Economic Development Manager. She will be introduced to us soon. The City has created a new economic development operating division within its Department of Housing & Community Development. The Council previously approved this action as part of the current city budget.

Undoubtedly, the addition of a new position will enable certain internal duties to be shifted. Of great importance, the staff’s professional capacity will be notably expanded.

So What Does All This Mean?

First it means that for the first time in its history, the City can give full-time focus to stimulating business growth, the construction of affordable housing, the activation of Sector Plans and Concept Plans along New Hampshire Avenue and in Long Branch, and facilitating the redevelopment of various obsolete commercial properties.

Equally important, it means that Takoma Park’s business community can now have a place “at the table” on any issues affecting business and property owners and the direction of our economy. 

Much of Takoma Park’s identity; that is, it’s “sense of place” derives from its business districts, especially to visitors. The “Old Town” area attracts shoppers and diners from a wide area. It projects an enviable, appealing shopper-friendly ambiance. The New Hampshire corridor does not. Yet, it is bustling and vibrant, providing a huge piece of Takoma Park’s tax base and it offers an even bigger (perhaps gigantic) as-yet unrealized economic potential. 

A 2017 State of Maryland study of the economic potential of the N.H. corridor found that full development of the developable parcels could increase assessed values (as of 2017) from $2.13 million per acre to $18.57 million per acre. This would be an order of magnitude increase in assessable values of more than 8 times. This would increase City revenues by more than $2 million annually. Keep in mind, each new dollar allows a reduction in the tax rate. The study also shows that added jobs could number into multiple thousands depending on the kind of businesses.

Ironically, despite these facts, business community members — those people behind these businesses are virtually invisible to us. They are largely unknown to the City Council and the people who run our city. And this is nobody’s fault. 

This would be an order of magnitude increase in assessable values of more than 8 times. This would increase City revenues by more than $2 million annually. 

So if we are going to do economic development well in Takoma Park, we need the business community to organize itself. They need to make themselves knowable and and make their voices heard. Based on conversations with business owners we are calling it the Greater Takoma Business Alliance

The business community comprises owners of the multi-family properties in the city, owners of the shopping centers and office buildings, and all the small business owners. All have one thing in common owners make their living, literally, in and from Takoma Park. Each of them has invested in our city.

Business people, whether a landlord of an 8-unit apartment building or an owner of a nail salon, are affected by city laws and regulations, but also benefit from the pubic services Takoma Park provides.

Thus, if we are going to undertake economic development, doesn’t it make sense to involve the business community in this process? They stand to lose or gain as much as anyone. And, they have knowledge, experience and ideas to offer. They can and need to be partners with the City.

What Characterizes Economic Development? 

As a genre, Economic Development has many permutations that vary considerably among communities across America and even just in Maryland. These permutations can be boiled down to four: 1) increasing the assessable property tax base, 2) increasing sales revenues of businesses, 3) attracting / preserving businesses and 4) job growth, which is not an area of concern. Under these rubrics, there are scores of methodologies and programs that localities employ to enhance their well being.

What’s Our Economic Development Agenda?

This is a tough question. The Mayor and City Council more or less set the policy agenda based on the strategic plan and the Council’s annual update of priorities. In October 2017 the city received a voluminous consultant study, the “Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan” that is replete with recommendations on what to do. The city is using it as a kind of foundational guide to its thinking.   

But the issues that get addressed (what gets done first) are affected by those stakeholders  who speak up and bring their concerns to bear. 

To start with, we’re all aware that our property taxes keep going up year after year. The tax rates gets set by both the County and City. For those of us on fixed or modest incomes, this is a big problem. Being able to live in the City — whether you own or rent — is becoming more and more challenging. That’s not news, is it? This side of shrinking the city and county governments, the only practical solution for rising taxes lies in increasing Takoma Park’s assessable tax base. And for this we need commercial property developers to improve their properties in a big way and build more affordable and market-rate housing.

  This side of shrinking the city and county governments, the only practical solution for rising taxes lies in increasing Takoma Park’s assessable tax base.

Some Key Issues:

Here are six. I could easily give you lots more, but will spare you. Dear readers can think of others, doubtlessly.

(1) The Rent Stabilization ordinance (“rent control”) is timeworn and it does not work the way it used to. Conscientious landlords are operating in the red. They cannot increase their rents adequately to cover the upgrades they need to undertake. This is not a a sustainable situation for them or the future of affordable housing.

(2) Why has there been no new housing, especially affordable units, built in the City for the past 40 years? How can the City best leverage its limited resources to get movement?

(3) Instituting a proposed tax-rate differential on commercial properties is something the City Council is currently wrestling with. Councilmembers recognize the need to gain input from the business community. 

(4) The county boundary line along parts of New Hampshire Ave and University Blvd. is lamentable. From an economic development perspective each county seems paralyzed into inaction. Why? Because how does a jurisdiction promote half a business neighborhood? Well, one answer lies with the Old Takoma Business Association that promotes and markets across a state boundary. Let’s do something similar at the Crossroads and along the lower part of NH Ave. County leadership is called for!

(5) Now that Montgomery County has a new chief executive in Marc Elrich, maybe now we can advanced the idea of designating the Crossroads as a TIF (a tax increment financing district) for at least the Montgomery side of the Crossroads and ideally for all four corners. As assessed values in the district rise TIFs earmark some or all of the incremental increase in property taxes for either or private development purposes in the district.

(6) The very best way to attract the specific businesses we want is to harness our business leaders to join with the city in talking with the corporate officers, making the case, and inviting them to our city. That’s far better than our passively waiting on shopping center leasing agents to make these decisions for us. 

These six issues have one thing in common. By addressing them together they conjoin our business and city leaders in pro-actively growing and developing Takoma Park the way we want it. In truth, you will not find more ardent Takoma Park boosters than the business men and women who make their living here.

How Does This Get Done?

A bit of historical context here:  Much of Takoma Park’s reputation and civic pride has been built — since the 1960s —  on its ability to stop destructive development and protect its physical character. If Takoma Park has a reputation as a difficult place to build or own income-generating real estate, well, we’ve earned it honestly. Now, however, that has to change. 

But it won’t be easy. It will take time.

As cited above, on the east side of town where there is considerable room for growth, the City and the business community can and need to work together to get redevelopment underway.

With minimal expense to the city, sensitive development can get us a new Recreation Center; a lot of quality housing, and far superior shopping and dining experiences. We do not need more auto parts, cell phone, mattress and check cashing stores, pawnbrokers, nail salons, and tax and insurance services. In the NH corridor alone, we have enough (9) franchised quick service restaurants (QSRs), and 8 gas stations. In the Crossroads area alone I counted 9 cell phone stores and 14 tax preparers, and these are just the ones with prominent signs.

Serious investors with ample capital might want to replace the Econolodge and Quality Inn — our notoriously hottest crime spots in the City — with high-rise housing, retail, community space or perhaps a proper hotel. South of the Ethan Allen Avenue intersection, we see acres of land, asphalt parking lots, and obsolete structures that represent tempting targets for hugely lucrative mixed-use projects.

Obviously, the creation of an economic component within the city is the critical first step. Hooray for that! But the second critical component is enrolling our business community in the process. Again, here’s why it is so important:

In other words, government can only do so much.

In that regard, Takoma Park can try to provide incentives and form public-private partnerships as inducements. The City has already amassed a $700,000 fund to support affordable housing. Sections of NH Ave, University Blvd., Holton Land and Sligo Mill Rd  areas are designated by the State as Enterprise Zones, which provide employment and property tax credits, certain Montgomery County fee waivers and certain utility exemptions.

Greater Takoma Business Alliance

The GTBA is not intended to be a membership organization in the sense of paying dues or who gets to vote. Rather, it’s an interest group, or call it an affinity group, of concerned business people who do business in and around Takoma Park. It should be inclusive, not exclusive. 

Residents can also participate because in this context they are consumers with tastes and preferences. Residents also can learn a lot about what it means to be in business for yourself and have your livelihood grounded on the success of your investment and enterprise. If you have never been in those shoes, you really can’t know what it’s like.

The GTBA will not supplant the Old Takoma Business Association or the Crossroads Development Authority; rather just the opposite. They will strengthen each other. The GTBA can represent business not part of these two organizations, and also it will be issue oriented. The two existing organizations focus on promoting, marketing, sponsoring events and helping individual proprietors in their respective geographic areas.

The GTBA will take on whatever shape best suits the participants’ interests. Regardless, it will enable members of the business community to become more fully informed about whats going in the city that may affect them. It will be an effective means for lobbying the City Council. 

My belief is that the business community and the City’s new economic development staff will naturally want to work together to address problems, like those I previously described, and to exploit opportunities. Since business owners don’t all think alike, the GTBA will be a place for opinions to be heard.

I have been meeting with various business leaders over the past six months. All are interested. The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce is also interested in helping out. Soon I will be initiating a first meeting of these folks, which hopefully will be the first of many.

Dear Reader, if you are interested and want to be contacted, please get in touch with me at SchultzAssociates@rcn.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn.

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Frederick Schultz 1/12/19

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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The 2nd American Revolution

 

The Lone Ranger rides into a little town with his trusty Indian sidekick Tonto. Tonto says, “Kemosabe, something’s not right; it’s too quiet here.” Lone Ranger replies, “Yes, Tonto, I sense the same thing. Let’s dismount.” We all know what’s coming next.

I feel like Tonto these days as we observe President Trump in the White House. Call it a vibe or perhaps an undertone to the daily news. There is something in the air telling me of impending danger to our nation. But yet it’s nothing that I would dare to predict. It’s just a heavy, mournful feeling.

Just as wild animals can telepathically sense impending danger and will move to higher ground or deeper into the forest, we humans need to take seriously the feeling that something is not right. We need to cease the Pollyanish attitude that “this” can’t happen here. It may happen in Argentina, Turkey or Hungary, but surely not here.

Cable newscasters keep using the term “unprecedented” to describe President Trump’s behavior. “Unprecedented” is what history is all about. History is the story of what happened that had never happened before.

As bad as the situation surrounding President Trump has become, my sense is that things are going to get far worse before they get better. American history reminds us of numerous transformative events. Sometimes they’ve come out of the blue (JFK’s assassination, 1961). Sometimes we “know” it’s going to happen, but remain in denial such as the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. More recently: the 2008 financial collapse.

Unfortunately, American history is almost always taught by looking backward from today to how things happened yesterday. We learned, for example, about the birth of our nation and the Founding Fathers’ great wisdom and courage from the perspective of 230 years later. Logically, you think to yourself, “Isn’t it great how great America has become; how everything has worked out despite all the obstacles.” But back in 1775 none of that was guaranteed.

In the little towns of Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775 no one knew that day would be the day the American Revolution would start; the day an unknown militiaman fired the “Shot heard around the world”.

It feels like we are approaching that day . . . a transformative time in America’s history. Consider that we may be witnessing what may become known as the 2ndAmerica Revolution. No, not Minutemen attacking the British Redcoats; not a war, but a profound reckoning and, hopefully, a rediscovery of the values that America was built on.

Right now, however, as we breathe, we are enduring a critical time in our nation’s history. Things that for generations we’ve taken for granted about our Republic (to which we pledge our allegiance) are threatened. Our Congress, as delineated in Article I of the Constitution, has become fratricidal. A 72-year old child who lives in a land of make-believe heads the Executive Branch. His babysitters are, based on Bob Woodward’s interviews, terrified of what Mr. Trump’s next impulse may be. The Attorney-General seems to hang by a thread.

Mr. Trump is consciously undermining the Rule of Law and his Oath of Office. Describers of his character find themselves groping for new adjectives. Regardless of what he is (or why), it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that he lusts toward authoritarian rule, or as much of it as he can grasp. (The word pussy comes to mind here.) I doubt Trump consciously knows this – he lacks the self-awareness – but he has a visceral response that leads him toward authoritarianism.

One noted political scientist describes “authoritarianism’s equilibrium as resting mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity” [Przeworski]. Another writes that populist authoritarian regimes “are mobilized regimes in which a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups” [Gasiorowski].

Thus, Donald Trump lies. He disparages the press as the “enemy of the people;” he castigates judges who rule contrary to his wants; he disparages and humiliates anyone less than fully loyal. He debases his own civil service (the “Deep State”). He bloviates upon his superiority and righteousness. He persists in campaigning in front of white working class audiences, while actually doing little for them. Trump praises Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Kim Jong-un because he wants to be like them. And, by praising their character and accomplishments, he justifies (to himself) his imperialistic grab at all the authority he possibly can get.

The President is neither a Republican nor a conservative. The Republican Party is the sheep’s clothing he hides under, and he shifts under this mantle to sustain his base of loyal voters. He is not loyal to Republican credos but, like Svengali, is loyal only to himself while cleverly mouthing the words congressional Republicans want to hear.

There’s no evidence that Trump gives a damn about dealing with immigration, re-building the nation’s infrastructure or strengthening the middle class. If he cared about these things he could easily have done something about them. But he hasn’t because of one practical reason:  once he does, he won’t have those drums to beat anymore to rally his believers. Authoritarians need enemies to keep their followers in line. So, of course, Trump finds his enemies everywhere including the press, the FBI, Muslims and anyone who doesn’t look like a Norwegian.

Through 44 presidents Americans have never experienced a president like Trump. We have no reference points: not even Richard Nixon who had some redeeming accomplishments and a conscience at least. That has made it hard for any of us, including reporters, to figure out what Trump is doing. An authoritarian? It is incomprehensible to most of us, understandably.

Trump isn’t going to stop. He feeds off of criticism and chaos. The more, the better. He has cowed most members in his own party who have chosen either to kiss his ring, scurry off into a dark corner, or resign. If Trump becomes a cornered man by the Mueller investigation, expect him not to cave but to usurp even more power and authority. Like a blooded bull, his instinct is to attack and tear down.

The mid-term election may see a Democrat-takeover of the House. No matter how optimistic you may be, Donald Trump will still be Commander in Chief and the so-called leader of the free world.

So what do we do?

We need to vote in November, of course. Democrats capturing the House will stymie Trump’s legislative efforts as scant as they have been. Democrats will initiate legislation that will force the Republican-led Senate to react. My bet is Republicans will start second-guessing and become more cooperative. Trump will become more combative; or he might decide to abandon his Republican supporters and talk like a Democrat: whatever is best for Donald, Donald will do.

What if, like the 2018 election, the polls are wrong and Republicans keep the House? The first Revolution wasn’t won in a day. We hang in there.

Impeachment needs to be pressed. The Republicans who survive the 2018 election will be a chastened lot. Like a termite-ridden house the party has effectively rotted, existing in name only. Without Trump it collapses. The so-called “resistance” inside the White House and the sycophants outside are all that remains at the national level. It has abandoned its classical conservative ideologies that go back to Thomas Jefferson. Impeachment and conviction will, in fact, serve the interests of both conservatives and liberals.

We cannot count on any particular outcomes from the Mueller investigation. Liberals and conservatives, I believe, can find common ground to help America recover from this era of debasement.

In the long term our schools have to do a better job teaching young people the meaning of the Bill of Rights, the 14thAmendment and the essence of the Declaration of Independence. Too many voters simply have no clue of the protections afforded by these key documents, what they mean and the limits on those protections. This is stuff that must be learned in high school. The big lessons of America’s history need far more emphasis in our schools. The scope of ignorance among American voters about these matters is appalling. Too many voters sing the national anthem and think they are patriots.

Finally, let’s thank Donald Trump for one good thing he’s inadvertently done. He’s raised the consciousness of millions of American by awakening them from their peacetime torpor. Women, discriminated minorities and young people have awakened to become politically engaged or run for office. Thanks to Trump, folks are catching on to the fact our democracy and are institutions are not marble edifices of a different era, but a living, breathing organism that has suffered abuse and been taken for granted long enough, and now must be vigilantly nurtured and defended.

There may not be a Paul Revere riding today, but we know the Redcoats are coming and everything – truly everything — is at stake. We have to make our stand. I think the free nations of the world are listening for another shot to be heard around the world.

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Why Redevelopment Reduces Your Taxes

        Residents city-wide often complain about rising property tax bills and not enough affordable housing. Who can blame them?

If you are a homeowner, you wince each year at this time when you receive your annual tax bill from Montgomery County. If you’re on a fixed income like so many seniors (including this household), you wince even harder. If you rent, it may seem your hope of ever owning your own home is becoming ever more remote.

Of course, we have rent stabilization, a.k.a, rent control. It helps protect tenants against unreasonable (from tenants’ viewpoint) rent adjustments. Our frustration is compounded by the fact that the Montgomery County Council gets to set it own tax rates, regardless of what we think. A case in point, in the fiscal year just completed (FY 18), your City Council — on which I served — not only reduced the city’s rate, but reduced it further to counteract rises in the property assessments, so that your out-of-pocket tax bill would decrease. But, alas, the County raised its tax rate so high as to completely annihilate our reduction.

There Is Hope

If you believe there is no answer for these annual hits to our pocketbooks, you would be dead wrong. So if you are tired of handwringing and gnashing of teeth, then take heed. There is a solution and it’s easy to grasp.

First, understand that over the past eight fiscal years from 2011 to 2018, property tax has constituted a dominant percentage of Takoma Park’s annual revenue, ranging between 52% and 71%. Over these 8 years, property tax has averaged 61% of the city’s revenue.

Second, most importantly, our city fully controls its property tax revenue. Our city answers to no one when it comes to setting the tax rate, except to you/us, the voters. This can’t be said about our other sources of revenues, which are affected by politics, other governments and economic factors.

Third, we all understand that if property assessments were to magically double, then everyone’s tax rate could be cut in half and the city would remain whole.

Thus, the obvious solution is to get property assessments to go up . . . way up. Thousands of jurisdictions across the US employ this approach.

How Do We Do That?

We do that by focusing on the redevelopment of many, if not most of the commercial properties along New Hampshire Avenue. These properties are underdeveloped, meaning that under the County Zoning Code and Master Plan they fall well short of what they are expected to physically accommodate. By building new commercial and/or residential uses to their maximum potential on these sites, the assessed values will go way, way up.

Says who? you might ask.

The Maryland Dept. of Transportation is who. MDOT published a report in November, 2016 regarding the “New Hampshire Avenue Corridor Economic Potential.” The City instigated the research through the assistance of our District 20 Delegation in Annapolis. The study area extended from the D.C. border at Eastern Ave to Piney Branch Rd to the north. It’s purpose was to derive an estimate of the potential tax revenue if the corridor were built out to its potential under the respective PG County (2009) and Montgomery County (2012) Sector Plans and the New Hampshire Avenue Corridor Concept Plan (2008). The Maryland Dept. of Planning identified and analyzed 15 redevelopment sites in the corridor and calculated future development capacity for each site and accounted for future expanded road widths and set backs. 11 of these sites are in Takoma Park.

The results were astonishing. At the time of the study (using 2013-2015 assessments) the 15 sites had an aggregated assessed value of $274.15 million, or $2.13 million per acre. They generated $3.46 million annually in property taxes spread among the State of Md, two counties and Takoma Park.

The study used two different models of potential redevelopment, the primary one assumes a 50/50 split between commercial and residential land use. They estimated that combined assessed values would be $2.39 billion, or $18.57 million per acre. The difference is a factor of nearly 9. This would generate $29.80 million in property taxes. The lion’s share would go to the two counties, a little bit to the state, and about $6.14 million to Takoma Park. The second model assumes a 96/4 split, effectively solely residential, the benefit of which in taxes to the City would be a little less at $5.32 million.

Let’s put this in a sensible context. The City’s FY 2018 adopted budget was just shy of $32 million. Of this, property tax revenue was about 52%, or about $16.6 million. In this context, $6.14 million in property taxes is a very big deal. It is a difference maker.

The research takes into account a lot of parameters and generates many other findings that can’t be discussed here. In any case, the study is well grounded in data and reasonable methodologies. https://documents.takomaparkmd.gov/initiatives/New_Hampshire_Initiative/2016.11.23-MDPlanning-New-Hamp-Ave-Corrdior-Econ-Dev.pdf

The hopefully obvious point here is that when high-to-medium density residential or commercial buildings (or a mix) get built, assessments go up big time and the tax rate for every property owner in the city goes down.

Where?

We don’t know the sites MDOT studied for potential redevelopment. There are many obvious ones, however, ripe for redevelopment because the improvements are old, obsolete and decaying. Most parcels are inefficiently used with extensive unused asphalt parking areas. These include:

1.   The former Washington-McLaughlin Christian school, a large structure that has sat mostly abandoned for maybe 12 to 15 years except for 6 senior housing units and a small adult day care center. There’s an acre or two of empty land to the rear, not including Dorothy’s Woods.

2.   The 10-acre site at University and New Hampshire. JBG, the biggest developer in Washington, purchased it in 2015 for the sole reason of redeveloping most, if not all of the site. JBG buys, develops and holds properties, and does not flip them.

3.   The 2.15 acre Advance Auto Parts site at the corner of Eastern and NH Ave, whose owner, Harvey Maisel, has for years wanted to replace the store with a large storage facility (which is not permitted). The site is an ideal, signature “gateway” for Takoma Park with huge potential for multi-story housing, retail and parking per the Corridor Concept Plan.

 

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Advance Auto at Eastern Ave

4.   The 3.5 acre site, familiarly known as the “Spanos” property, sits near the corner of NH Ave and Ethan Allen (Rte 410) across from the U-Haul. The original 70-year old strip center houses King Pawn, Walla Ethiopian Restaurant and Value Furniture & Rugs among others. Zoned at CRT 1.5, it has great redevelopment potential for a variety of uses. The existing structure is surrounded by unused, asphalt parking areas.

5.   The replacement of the Rec Center on NH Ave with a multi-level mixed-use building on top of a much larger, new rec center and below ground parking. The property is owned by Montgomery County who is at present negotiating to sell it to Takoma Park. Four different developers have shown interest in developing the site in partnership with the City.

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6400 and 6500 block of NH Ave has empty lots and inefficient buildings

 

6.   The 6400 and 6500 blocks of NH Ave are occupied by mostly old and/or inefficient commercial buildings with acres of unused asphalt. Any two adjacent parcels could be consolidated by a developer and turned into attractive, environmentally sensitive business locations with affordable housing units on top. All of this would comply with the New Hampshire Avenue Corridor Concept Plan, which is described here, https://www.thenewave.com/_files/docs/new-hampshire-avenue-concept-plan-web_2.pdf.

 

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acres of unused asphalt

The above is a short list, among many others, that illustrate the enormous unrealized potential. When developed, these sites will give huge boosts to Takoma Park’s tax revenues.

So Then What?

The logical next question is how do we make this happen. This is where a program called economic development comes in. It’s a specialized set of programs and actions designed to do two things: (1) Help attract business and development to the city. This involves promoting the city as a tempting place to invest, to build, or to operate your business. (2) Equally important is looking out for the best interests of the businesses and property investors already here. This, by the way, includes residential landlords.

This year City Council has budgeted to install an economic development program for the first time in its history. The city will be hiring a professional in economic development to lead this effort.

I worked in real estate and economic development for about 13 years. Later I spent 15 years as a commercial lender to real estate projects (new, rehab and expansion) and businesses. Some of my loan customers failed. So I know what success and frustration in the business world looks and feels like.

A Fresh Perspective

Some people associate “developers” with bad news, such as being big “outside corporate interests,” only profit-oriented and unconcerned about the local community, or money-grubbing residential landlords who just want to exploit their tenants to line their pockets. We do indeed have some slumlords in our city, but these are few.

Consider instead this fresh perspective. For a homeowner, buying a house or condo will be the biggest personal financial purchase he or she will ever make. In that sense, every home buyer is literally investing in Takoma Park. Yet the financial risk for most is not high.

Contrast that with those who invest in multi-family or commercial properties. Their investment is in the millions and requires obtaining a business or real estate loan. The deal will depend solely on the expected positive cashflow of the enterprise. Quite often, the borrower has to personally guarantee the debt. Also, if you think owning and managing a multi-family property is easy money, try it sometime. It’s hard and complicated.

For a small business start-up, the investment may not be quite so large, but the risk is extraordinarily high. Unlike a home mortgage, business loans are almost always of short duration and at much higher interest rates because of the risk to the lender. An enterprise’s failure can wipe out almost everything the principals own, including the possible loss of their home; their livelihood, their credit, their dreams and morale.

Thus, if it weren’t for such investors and risk takers, there might not be an Old Town as we know it, or the scores of independent businesses that we patronize. So, rather than be antagonistic toward developers, we ought to be grateful for those who are willing to invest in our town, betting their money on Takoma Park.

For some people in Takoma Park, the mere prospect of new development in our city knots their stomach. As for me, I see it differently. I’m not interested in living in a museum and seeing my taxes rise every year. Redevelopment and change are inevitable. While “shabby chic” business areas may be adorable to some, we cannot survive by trying to freeze-dry our city. The real choice is either to get ahead of the curve by being pro-active in our economic development program, or to wait passively for whatever redevelopment befalls us.

But Why Now?

As we know, in some areas in the DC region redevelopment happens seemingly spontaneously because demand for land and marketable space is so high. Places like Arlington County along the Orange Line, in southwest DC around the Nats stadium, Columbia Heights, and along Rockville Pike. Incentives are not necessary. The investors are knocking on the door. In fact, sometimes the opposite is the case where the jurisdictions require developers to contribute proffers to qualify for approval.

Takoma Park, however, is not one of those places, except maybe for Old Town where stores compete to find scarce space. We know that no new residential construction has occurred in Takoma Park since the 1970s. New commercial construction in recent years consists of the Taco Bell (2017) and Walgreen’s (2011). Have I overlooked one? Yes, there’ve been extensive retrofits of existing spaces, but not any new, ground-up construction that adds to the supply of space.

Still, oddly, there are almost no office and commercial vacancies anywhere in our town. Available retail and office space gets adsorbed quickly. So, why, if there is so much demand for space, has there been virtually no new construction? Well, that’s why we need the new economic development staff to help us figure this out and propose how the City can get things moving in a direction we want.

When Do You Have Your Say?

Residents, business owners, landlords and commercial property owners all need to have a say on plans and programs about future redevelopment. I have distinct ideas on this and will talk about this in a future blog.

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5 Journalists Assassinated Today

Let me add this subtitle:   “A Terrifying Coincidence?”

The premeditated slaughter this afternoon (June 28) of five staff members of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland is horrible and tragic. But, if this news saddens or depresses you, as it no doubt does, please now read this article published today June 28 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)¹. It’s article is entitled: “Leading alt-right figure advocates assassinating reporters”.

https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/06/27/milo-wants-vigilantes-start-killing-journalists-and-hes-not-being-ironic

This SPLC article cites recent, repeated public comments by well known alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos encouraging vigilantes to kill reporters.

The police arrested the murderer, Jarrod Ramos, at the scene. He is reported by the Baltimore Sun (which owns the Gazette) to be a life-long resident in the Anne Arundel County area, growing up in Severn, Maryland, attending Arundel High School, a former Federal employee, and a computer engineer described by family members as a “loner.” Ramos has had a public feud against the Capital Gazette since 2011 when it publicized a court case filed against Ramos by a woman because of a long-running harassment situation.

It’s important to note here that the assassin is not an immigrant, but just one more crazy white guy conducting terrorism, as most of the terrorist mass murderers in the U.S. are. The Baltimore Sun article says that Ramos has repeatedly referred to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in one of his online accounts. Senior editors of the Capital Gazette reportedly said today that they had long feared a physical assault by him might happen, but they weren’t sure how to prevent it.

Speaking personally, it is not immigrants that I am afraid of. Rather, it is the sickos who have borne all the rights and privileges of an American citizen their entire lives, plus the economic and social advantages of being white, but still are unhappy enough to go out and slaughter people willy-nilly. But maybe it was not so willy-nilly. Did Milo Yiannopoulos’ speeches stir Ramos to act?

In combination with the exhortations of Yiannopoulos to members of the alt-right to kill reporters, today’s murders become doubling terrifying.

A poignant personal side note  . . .  Today my wife and I attended the afternoon Baltimore Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards. The stadium sits a only a few blocks from the University of Maryland Hospital’s famous Shock-Trauma Center which serves the State of Maryland. Over a period of perhaps 90 minutes we noticed five (5) of the State’s large medical evacuation helicopters slide over the stadium to gradually alight upon the helipad on the Shock-Trauma Center roof. Seeing one of these is not unusual. However, when the helicopters kept landing about 20 minutes apart, my wife said to me that “something awful” must have happened today. Yes, I said, imagining a couple of bad traffic accidents.

¹  I am a dues paying member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the preeminent anti-hate organization fighting hate in the U.S.  The SPLC is a non-profit legal advocacy and civil rights organization founded by Morris Dees in 1971.

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Gentrification. WTF?

We hear a lot these days from all kinds of folks who are upset about “gentrification” in our City.

Currently some people are associating the term gentrification with the development proposed by Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) in the Takoma Junction as reason to kill the project. It’s clear that those employing this tactic don’t understand the terminology or are misusing it. So the question arises, what do we mean by gentrification? And why doesn’t it fit the situation under review by the Takoma Park City Council?

British sociologist, Ruth Glass, first used the term in a 1964 study on the occasion of middle class people moving into London working class neighborhoods. These days gentrification is almost always used as a pejorative in the context of poor Black folks being priced out of their own neighborhood due to rising rents. 

The web’s Urban Dictionary cites a colorful quote to illustrate one idea about gentrification:

“When uppity white people move into a ghetto and take over the real estate, which f**ks over the current residents. Usually followed by the opening of a sh*t ton of Starbucks, Nordstroms and Whole Foods.” 

The fact is gentrification refers to one thing: the displacement of lower income people by higher income people. Gentrification or displacement is not perforce a negative thing. It may or may not involve the displacement of racial minorities. 

Gentrification is essentially about neighborhood change. When lower wealth people face rising rents, it’s indeed unfortunate. But it also happens in reverse. Take Langley Park as an example. Today it’s home to one of the largest immigrant neighborhoods in the Greater Baltimore-Washington area. Langley Park was developed, according to Wikipedia, post WWII and became a middle class, predominantly “European-American, Jewish residents.” 

When we moved into our Ward 6 home 32 years ago, there was a Safeway supermarket (closed in 2009), a McCrory’s variety store, a Lerners women’s clothing store (later known as New York & Co.) and an aquarium store where Starbucks is now. Across University Blvd Langley Park S.C. had the Langley movie theater, a major chain grocery store, and a Hot Shoppes (Marriott-owned) sit-down restaurant that was replaced by a Taco Bell. There was a popular Hanover Fabrics shop. 

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Langley Plaza on the other side of N.H. Ave. opened in 1955 with a 3-story Lansburgh’s Department Store that closed in 1973 (per Wikipedia) followed in turn by EJ Korvettes, K-Mart and Toys R Us. Other big spots were a People’s Drugstore and Giant Food (closed in 1998). 

Today most of the businesses (numbering probably 300 to 400) around the intersection of NH Ave and University Blvd serve the Latino population and other immigrant groups such as from Haiti, Africa and South Asia. These enterprises simply reflect the modern demographics of Langley Park. 

The point is, Langley Park changed. No one has complained. Thus to the chagrin of Takoma Park residents, what was once a popular place to shop disappeared over a period of 30 to 40 years. Was this de-gentrification?

But, of course, history tells us it will change again. Why? Because the area sits well inside the Beltway within the hot Washington DC real estate market and it is, by any measure, one of the largest underdeveloped commercial real estate districts so close to the DC core. When this happens — and it will take many years — I expect there may well be concerns about the displacement of the residents and the businesses that rely upon them. 

Another example, one unfamiliar to most readers, is the Remington-Hampden-Charles Village area near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Last week my wife Nancy and I were in Baltimore visiting old haunts. Two neighborhoods quite familiar to me are Remington and Hampden (pronounced “hamden”) lie south and west of the JHU campus. In the 70s and 80s, these were ironclad white, working class, rowhouse neighborhoods. (In Baltimore, the term of art is rowhouse, not townhouse.) Blacks were not especially welcomed there. The storefronts were drab, rundown and many were empty.

In 1970 my ex and I bought a house in a nearby mixed-race area that had just anointed itself “Charles Village,” paying $6,500 for a 3-story, 6-bedroom, porch-front rowhouse that had been vacant for several years. The roof leaked to the first floor. It had almost no electrical power; gas lamps lit the interior. No bank would provide a mortgage. We saw ourselves as pioneer rehab-ers. In modern parlance, we were gentrifiers. 

The neighborhood public schools my sons attended were about 90% minority (today about 80%). The local middle school was Robert Poole, virtually all white, in Remington. Parents in Charles Village were terrified of having to send their children to Robert Poole where they might  be beaten up and bullied. As an activist I knew all these things. I was president of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation that, with the help of JHU, organized and provided social services to these neighborhoods.

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Remington’s new signature sculpture

48 years later these areas have become gentrified in a positive way. Remington and Hampden are now mixed (about 75% Caucasian). Many houses have been renovated and remain extremely affordable running $150 to $350 thousand. In Charles Village, which is majority minority, they are a bit higher. The two K-8 public schools represent a multiplicity of nationalities. There’s been an explosion of new small businesses and eateries, some really notable. Check out “R House” in Remington and Cafe Hon in Hampden. Unlike the old days, these communities are cosmopolitan and interesting.

The key message here is these areas have kept their physical character and affordability, but underneath their social character and spirit have been transformed. What some people call gentrification, I call renaissance. 

Let’s get back to Takoma Junction. The proposed NDC development has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called gentrification or even for that matter, racial equity. I know what racial equity means. As part of the previous City Council I strongly endorsed the unanimous vote to view all City Council actions through the racial equity lens.

NDC’s project will not displace anybody. The site is a parking lot. Will the cost of housing in the City go up? Yes, certainly. But not because of this project. The cost of housing will go up the same if no improvements were to be made to the site. Housing costs are a function of where we live, and the powerful DC economy that is driving up prices everywhere in the greater Washington and Baltimore region. Compared to the recently built and planned developments near the Takoma Metro, this is a very small project. Skeptics feel the project will change the face of Takoma Park. It won’t. 

Will racial minorities be affected by this project? Yes, in a good way. The project will provide new, local jobs in Takoma Park, many of them basic service jobs. The project’s 2-year construction phase will create lots of much sought after construction jobs. NDC itself is a minority-owned local development company.

Will the local retailers and offices that occupy the new structure be too chi-chi for racial minorities to shop there? I don’t know; no one knows yet. I do know this: no one raised a hue & cry about racial equity when the higher-priced Republic Restaurant opened a few years ago. Strangely, however, some folks did scream & holler in opposition when the affordable Taco Bell opened last summer providing about 50 low wage jobs for area residents. How does that compute?

Finally, in my time on the City Council I heard a fair number of people say the Co-op was a main reason they moved here. So, it seems supremely ironic that many of those who rally around the dreaded issue of “gentrification” in reference to NDC’s proposed site plan are not only white and middle class, but also often vigorous supporters of the TPSS Food Co-op, whose products appeal to those having a distinct preference for organic (whatever that means) foods and the disposable income to afford to shop there. I realize that some shop there for other reasons such as proximity and the spirit of neighborliness. But, if the Co-op doesn’t represent a quintessential attraction to the so-called gentrified types, I don’t know what does. 

Let’s lay to rest non-sensical assertions about gentrification and racial equity. RENAISSANCE is what is happening to Takoma Junction.

For more information on the subject of gentrification, I recommend this 2015 article in Governing magazine: http://www.governing.com/topics/urban/gov-gentrification-definition-series.html

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The Takoma Junction Project: a Layman’s Guide

The proposed Takoma Junction development project continues to generate a lot of heat, but not enough light. While I no longer serve on the City Council, I continue to watch, talk to people involved and listen to their concerns and questions. 

Given my unique background in real estate development, banking and planning, I want to lay out here certain facts for, I hope, the benefit of everyone regardless of their particular views on the project. 

Let me be clear that I strongly support Neighborhood Development Company’s proposed plans as presented as recently as this month. This won’t surprise those who’ve heard my views over the past eight years. This implies, of course, that I am biased. To counter my biases, I am just going to stick to plain facts as much as possible in this particular blog post.

Confusion and Conflict

There’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty and misinformation regarding the plans for this project. It’s not surprising because different people assert different things about the plan itself and its future impact. Perhaps you get information from neighbors and others whom you know and respect. You hear statements from the developer (NDC), City staff and various consultants, and it may be hard to know what to think. 

City Council members have been deluged with residents’ varying opinions. Unfortunately, some are based on faulty or incomplete information, personal agendas, or wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, over the past six years — since publication of the Takoma Junction Task Force report in 2012 — the City Council has not stopped listening and steadily wading through all the comments and, along the way, finding many constructive ideas that have shaped the project plans.

The Process

While the proposed project design has always been a work in progress (and there still remains work to be done), there’s really never been uncertainty about the process. Let me explain.

With the issuance of the RFP in early 2014, the City Council publicly laid out a process that it intended to follow in order to give the best chance that the Task Force’s goals could be realized. The Council has proceeded one step at a time. For example, no one knew whether any developer would respond to the RFP. (Years before a prior solicitation had gotten no responses.) The City was pleasantly surprised to receive seven responses. So, the process continued to move forward with the Council deliberating publicly on its next steps. 

The Development Agreement

Let’s begin with the fact that the city owns most of the project’s site. NDC has made a side deal to acquire the adjacent 5,470 sq. ft. Auto Clinic site. whose owner decided to sell in part because he wanted to retire. The city-owned lot covers 53,493 square feet, but a chunk of that is an unbuildable treed slope. Taking required setbacks into account, I guess NDC has about 45,000 sq. ft. to work with. 

The City signed a Development Agreement (DA) with NDC in July 2016. This 2-party agreement is in fact a legally binding contract that stipulates terms and imposes conditions on the two parties that are intended to protect the peculiar interests of each. And, like any development agreement, it anticipates various eventualities that could reasonably occur in the future and how the parties will deal with them. The DA remains the operative document along with the contemporaneous ground lease between the City and NDC.

The City Council has been careful to maintain compliance with the DA’s terms.

The City chose to lease its land to NDC for a period of 99 years, instead of selling it. The City will collect rent from NDC over the duration and property taxes on the assessed value of the improvements, which NDC will own. NDC will be responsible for all costs of operations and maintenance as though it were the owner, including any environmental compliance costs. 

Motivations

NDC’s main motivation as a real estate development company is to make a profit. “Profit” in this case means that NDC expects to design, build, finance, maintain and manage the facility, and sublease the space to tenants at rents sufficient that NDC will earn enough revenue from leases to pay its development costs, financing and maintenance expenses, and be able to sustain a reliable cash flow that will accrue to NDC, its owners and investors. NDC is also naturally motivated to build a quality project to enhance its reputation. 

NDC will inject some equity (capital) into the project and will borrow the rest (likely in the millions) from a commercial lender. In order to get a loan, NDC will have to prove to the lender on paper that the cash flow will be more than sufficient to repay the loan, and that the property when completed and fully occupied, will have a value markedly more than the loan amount. (This is stuff I used to do as a banker.) 

There in nothing new here. It is well to realize that every building in Takoma Park was built through this process . . . unless the owner used his own money or built the house for his own personal use. B.F. Gilbert, the founder of Takoma Park, was a developer. So, casting pejoratives about NDC’s profit motives, as some have done, is not helpful.

The City has multiple motivations for entering into this DA. These include, among other things, putting the property back on the tax roll, attracting new businesses to the city, turning the Junction into a more viable shopping district, thereby strengthening all the existing businesses in the Junction, and demonstrating that the City is supportive of good real estate development.

Risks, Costs and Requirements

NDC is assuming all the financial risks in this project. In other words, in the event the project were to “fail” from a business investment point of view (assuming the City were to meet all of its obligations under the terms of the DA), then NDC and the bank that finances the project could suffer possible financial losses. So far the City has spent about $89,000 hard cash on the project, mostly for legal services and consultant fees. This may go up in the future, but not by much. There are rumors that the city has spent “millions” on this project. These are untrue. The City has of course incurred the cost of staff time.

The DA also states that NDC should consider the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-op as the effective primary tenant in the project in light of the Co-op’s desire to increase its floor space and to expand onto a portion of the city-owned lot. Although a private enterprise, the City nevertheless believed the Co-op was significantly important to its members and other shoppers that the Co-op’s expansion would strengthen the overall project. The Co-op is a tenant on private land adjacent to the city’s lot. The City cannot dictate to it, as with any other business in the city. 

Because the Co-op and NDC are private businesses, the DA stipulated that the two parties would need to negotiate an agreement to cooperate, called a Letter of Intent (LOI). It set a deadline for this to be done, with the expectation that a formal lease would follow. An LOI gives both parties mutual confidence that they can move forward together in the planning and development process. The DA also constrains NDC from doing certain things that might injure the Co-op, like leasing space to a store that competes with the Co-op.

The Co-op and NDC were unable to agree on an LOI by the deadline (Jan 2017), but have continued discussions to try to work things out.

Takoma Junction Task Force

One of the more eloquent speakers at a recent city council meeting said it was essential we all understand the deeper purpose of this endeavor because to him the case was not clear.

The answer goes back to the work and report, published in February 2012, of the Takoma Junction Task Force. The City Council formed the task force in 2010, and appointed 22 people to it, with the mission of determining what should be done with the city lot. Eleven members were from Ward 3 (closest to the Junction). None was from Ward 5. The task force took great pains to reach out to a large number of interested parties including public officials. Its report enumerated 58 recommendations plus some imbedded “additional” recommendations. The authors noted some of the recommendations were mutually exclusive. Of course, a consequence of diverging recommendations is that residents have over the years cited different aspects of the report to support their wishes for the project site.

The City Council did not formally adopt or endorse the report. (It customarily does not do so for task force reports.) The Council commended the task force and has relied heavily upon it to formulate its strategy regarding the lot. NDC’s proposed site plan does in fact meet the major goals identified by the Task Force.

Current Issues

Current issues among opponents, undecideds and supporters include, in this order:

  • — the impact of the added traffic from the project on the existing roads, 
  • — the Co-op’s survival as a successful business through the construction phase and beyond, 
  • — the workability of the so-called lay-by for truck deliveries, 
  • — the overall size (scale) of the project, 
  • — the adequacy of off-street parking, 
  • — assurance of safe & convenient pedestrian paths across Carroll Ave, and
  • — adequacy of publicly available outdoor space (green features) 

In addition, there’s concern for defending the historic integrity of the Junction as part of a federally designated historic district. There is also a vague aspect that I can only describe, for lack of a cogent label, as the appropriateness of future retail tenants’ character in terms of what suits the taste of the quintessential Takoma Park resident.

Each of these matters could merit its own page here. I note a few points. 

Traffic

Everyone agrees that from a traffic and pedestrian standpoint, the Junction is a failure. We are fortunate to have two new traffic engineering studies addressing this. Although hired separately by the City and NDC, the consultants agree about the failure, but also say it’s fixable. The studies concur (or at least don’t disagree) that NDC’s project will contribute a very minor amount of new traffic to the intersection even during rush hours. The Traffic Group has presented a possible reconfiguring of the Sycamore/Carroll/Ethan Allen intersections that (they say) could cure traffic congestion, create far safer pedestrian movements and rationalize mobility and access concerns — even with the new project. This idea will require a more study separate from the NDC plan.

The engineers agree that the proposed lay-by will work for deliveries and trash pick up. Co-op spokespersons, however, remain skeptical. Traffic engineers are indeed engineers. Based on my training and experience in the field, they apply tried and true standardized methodologies to ascertain findings and produce forecasts. The work of these two consultants can be relied upon.

Scale

As for the size and scale of the project (“too big,” some say), NDC has removed any vestige of an earlier proposed third floor. In NDC’s sketches, it tends to look big next to the Co-op’s building. Let’s agree that envisioning a 3-dimensional volume is hard to do for most of us. So I suggest, try walking along nearby parts of Carroll, Sycamore and Manor Circle and see for yourself the relative height of many of the houses. Take a gander at the 2-story structures that house Middle East Cuisine, Mark’s Kitchen and Trattoria da Lina, as well as the buildings on the opposite side of Carroll, all roughly the same height as NDC’s design. They sit right up against the sidewalk. What makes those sidewalks so inviting to walk?

Parking

With 72 spaces underground, not counting the Co-op’s parking along Sycamore, parking will be adequate for Co-op customers, as well as for the new and existing businesses. Co-op shoppers laden with groceries may be concerned with accessing the underground parking. Is one elevator enough? The current city lot has 56 spaces, most of which are not used. Most of the current Junction businesses, other than the Co-op, don’t generate a large demand for parking, meaning their customers come and go fairly quickly.

Open Space

The adequacy of proposed public space is impossible to judge. There are no measurable standards like there is with parking and traffic; and everyone seems to have their own opinion on adequacy. I observe two things: first, small urban open spaces only function well when lots of people are present. Second, the B Y Morrison Park beacons it’s sheltered open space 60 feet away, yet remains neglected and deserted. Isn’t that odd?

The Site Plan Process: What’s Next

The City Council will vote later this month on a resolution approving the NDC project. Approval would enable NDC to submit a Site Plan Application to the Montgomery County Planning Board. This review process is highly regulated by County law. The Planning Board has the authority to command changes in the site plan. County agencies will look carefully at every aspect of the project. The process is time consuming and there will be plenty of opportunities for additional community input and further changes to the project’s design.

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Preserving Community Along the Mexico Border

The City of Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, lies about 40 miles or so north of the Mexico border. It sits in the high Chihuahuan desert at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. The 9,000 foot Organ Mountains loom over the city. The cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on the Mexico side appear to form one seamless metropolitan area. Together with nearby Las Cruces there are about 2.2 million people.

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Organ Mountains and irrigation canals

I had never been to this part of New Mexico before. We were visiting cousins who operate a small pecan farm in the Mesilla Valley that’s irrigated by the Rio Grande, when it isn’t dry. (This is desert, water is scarce and pecans are a big business.) They have 3 dogs and a bunch of large, friendly goats who enjoy eating the pecan husks.

Not surprisingly, the influence of Mexican culture and Mexican immigration is quite prevalent here. But Las Cruces is very American and prosperous from all appearances. Just over the mountains is the White Sands Missile Range and Spaceport America, the first commercial space port in the US.

My cousin, Anna, has worked for the Las Cruces Public Schools as a school nurse for many years and still fills in. Both she and her husband are retired air force officers.

In the course of our conversations around their kitchen table I was surprised to learn that Las Cruces has been a sanctuary city for many years and that the folks here were not actually aware of it. They weren’t aware of the terminology.

The “sanctuary city” thing, while not official, has emerged as a function of public schooling and aspects of Federal education regs that provide reimbursements to public school systems based on the population of eligible pupils. 

For a long time members of families who reside in Mexico have migrated back and forth across the border to go to school (and no doubt jobs too). Their kids attend school while living with friends and family members on the US side during the school year and going back home to Mexico during the summer. Enrollees typically provide proof of residency, birth certificate and immunization records. Apparently the Federal regulations do not distinguish whether a child is documented in determining eligibility for federal reimbursements. The enrollment of Mexican kids benefits the schools with increased federal dollars. In return, many youngsters from Mexico and other undocumented kids benefit from an American education and, as it happens, medical care available to students, as well as learning English and American culture.

The local school system doesn’t have a need to query students about their citizenship status. That’s actually no big deal. There’s nothing unusual about this. I’m no expert on this, but even in Maryland, schools do not ask about documentation. All that a public school needs is an address of record for the pupil. 

Today, with the national brouhaha over sanctuary cities being fomented and wholly mischaracterized by the Trump Administration and the U.S. Attorney General, the folks in this part of New Mexico realize they are providing sanctuary. 

Sure, I guess one could make the case that American taxpayers are being ripped off or the taxpayers of Las Cruces are being burdened in some way. That’s not how Anna sees it. She says it is a privilege to be able to help these immigrant youngsters who she’s gotten to know in a personal way. 

My cousin’s husband flew tankers in Desert Storm and now volunteers as a pilot for the local Civil Air Patrol. He loves to fly. He does this work to assist the U.S. Border Patrol to both help interdict illegal drug trafficking and to find and rescue border crossers who are lost and stranded in the desert. He takes pride in his work. 

On top of this, he also goes to Ciudad Juárez from time to time to meet with community leaders on the Mexico side to address immigration and social issues. Juárez has seen a drastic drop in crime over the past eight years.

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pecans ready for harvest

Whether my family members would label themselves as conservatives or progressives is really not important. Those terms seem rather meaningless here. The reality is that they live in one large community made up of Americans (however one defines the term) together with Mexicans living, working and getting educated together.

The difference between where we live in the greater Washington area is that we have state boundaries; here they also have an international boundary. Imagine building a wall along the DC/Maryland border. Imagine the chaos, inanity and stupidity of such a thing.

Yes, there is illegal immigration along the border, probably a lot of it. It needs to be minimized. The Border Patrol is trying to do its job. But, it’s abundantly clear there is no room or need for Trump’s wall to be built along this border. All it would do is destroy a community and cripple a viable economy. 

We were in the El Paso / Las Cruces area three days. It was a family visit, not a fact-finding mission. So I can’t pretend to offer more than these simple observations. It didn’t take long, however, for nuances of a cross-border community to become apparent.

I do know that a border wall will not help matters, and that a wall will never be built along this border because the two million people here won’t stand for it. 

I find myself wondering why Las Cruces feels like Takoma Park, despite the obvious differences. There’s the sanctuary aspect, the rich diversity of residents, a strong sense of community, a spirit of openness and welcoming, the heightened awareness of sustainability due to the scarcity of water, and a reverence for the land and its ecology. Maybe also because New Mexico is a “blue” state in a part of the US where there’s not a lot of blue.