More Than Housing

Choosing the Future of the Hospital Site

Washington Adventist University Commons

Bickering . . .

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

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

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

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

The old main WAH hospital building

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

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

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

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

A Lovers Leap

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

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

Former Adventist doctors’ offices

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

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

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

Who Gets to Decide?

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

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

Old, boarded Lisner building

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

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

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

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

A Ready-Made Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s in Charge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Praise of Mr. Raskin

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

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

Benefit Corporations and Legal Marijuana

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

Marcus Raskin and the Boston Five

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

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

Jamie Raskin and the author in 2013

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

Thomas Paine

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

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

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

Nancy Pelosi

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

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

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

Select Committee to Investigate January 6

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

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

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

A Person of the Year

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

Flat Property Taxes

Controversy abounds these days between the two candidates for Mayor of Takoma Park, the incumbent, Kate Stewart and challenger Roger Schlegel. Regardless of who one supports, the contest forces each of us to think deeper about our values and ideologies. One of the top issues concerns property taxes. Mr. Schlegel asserts that taxes have risen considerably under the Mayor’s five years of leadership and Ms. Stewart says that’s not true: yes, taxes have gone up due to inflation and rather inconsistent assessments across the city, but tax rates have gone down and the City has run a tight ship.

I am paraphrasing and generalizing what the two candidates have said in their numerous respective oral comments and written responses. Who is right on this issue? 

Anyone who owns property here is naturally concerned about the seeming relentless rise in property taxes, not just for themselves, but also out of concern over the affordability of housing in general.

Part I

Montgomery County does the tax billing for all the municipalities in the County as well as for itself.  The statement that we recieve shows assessment figures, tax rates and charges due. It can be a bit confusing for many people. First, to make sense of it, I am going to refer to the real property tax bill that the Schultz household receives.

There’s a list of dollar figures under the “tax/charge” heading that contains the following:

State property tax$476.00
County property tax$4,212.60
Takoma Park property tax$2,293.73
Solid waste charge$31.19
Takoma Park special$92.00
Actual 2020-21 Real Property Tax Bill

To simplify the math, I will omit the last two lines. The first three lines add up to $6,982. The combination of State and County figures equals $4,688, which is exactly 67% of the total. Takoma Park’s portion adds up to 33%. 

Bluntly put, this means that only one-third of the Schultz’s tax bill results from Takoma Park taxation. When we write our check, two-thirds is owed to the County and State and only about $2,300 goes to my city.

Part II

Keep the above in mind as we look at property tax rates. The City Council annually sets a tax rate for the coming fiscal year. The rate is expressed as X cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value. 

Not to go too far astray here, but it may help you to know that the State of Maryland determines the assessment of every property in Maryland. (The “assessed value” has only a casual relationship to the actual “market value” of one’s property.) The State assesses properties on a 3-year (triennial) cycle. If your property’s assessment goes up and the tax rate remains the same, then your bill will go up too. But the City Council can and does lower the rate as much as possible to keep our tax bills from rising too much. Unfortunately the County does not always do this. Its $5.8 billion operating budget has to pay for the schools.

The table below shows how tax rates have changed over the past 10 years from 2010 to 2019. These numbers come from annual city audits:

Property Tax Rate Comparison by Taxing
Jurisdiction in Dollars per $100 of
Assessed Value
FY 2010FY 2019
1City of Takoma Park0.58000.5291– .0509
2State of Maryland0.11200.11200
3Montgomery County0.68300.7166+ .0336
4M-NCPPC0.06900.0740+ .0050
5Transit District “Ride On”0.03700.0672+ .0302
6Recreation Areas0.01900.0264+ .0071
Source: CAFR, fiscal year 2019, page 100

Notice that over the past 10 years Takoma Park’s tax rate has gone down from 58.0 cents to 52.9 cents = a reduction of over 5 cents. Maryland has not changed its rate. Lines 3, 4, 5 and 6 are all Montgomery County, which added together show the County has raised its tax rate by .0759 cents = an increase of 7.6 cents.

While Takoma Park has been steadily reducing its tax rate, the County has been raising its rate. Even worse, the County’s impact is twice as heavy because their share of the bill is twice as big as the City’s. As a consequence, even if the City Council lowers our rate and the County raises its rate, our tax bill goes up. Yes, some years the City has raised our tax rate because of exigencies.

Our Mayor and City Council are fighting a losing battle. Our tax bills go up each year largely because of the County. So, while the perception may be that the City is increasing our tax burden a lot, that is not the case. So, the answer to the question is that, for the most part, the City has either not been raising our property taxes or doing so quite modestly. It’s a mistake to say otherwise.

Part III

The City’s revenues come from many sources, the property tax being the largest percentage. Did you know that the property tax is the only revenue source over which the city has full control? Intergovernmental revenues are large, but almost all of it is restricted to designated purposes. By law the City cannot introduce a new tax. The County can.

Roughly 74 percent of the City FY’21 budget, excluding capital projects and debt service, is attributable to personnel costs; that is, salaries and benefits. This means in order to do large enough cuts to materially reduce our property tax bills, the Council would likely have to lay off a lot of people. Let me illustrate.

If the City Council chose to reduce our budget by 2%, say, that would mean a household’s $6,000 annual property tax bill would go down by about $40. That’s hardly of consequence. However, for the City, it is signifcant: about $280,000. If we multiply that by 74% = $207,000 which is a reduction of two lower salary level employees and the services they support. The bigger the reductions the more lay-offs.

Part IV

The current FY’21 budget does not raise our tax bill. The City Council set a tax rate equal to last year’s rate. The Council has built into the budget certain expenditure “holds” totaling $1.3 million due to uncertainties related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The “holds” come from leaving staff vacancies unfilled and other short term cuts. This money is held in the unrestricted General Reserve until the Council can decide via budget amendments where and when the money can best be used. The 2021 budget includes a new Covid-19 Fund of $440,000 to respond to the need “for direct assistance to business owners, housing assistance for vulnerable families, COVID-19 personal protective equipment purchases, and workforce development assistance” [2021 adopted budget, page 3].

So . . . . . I hope this contribution can help calm nerves about our city taxes and the conscientiousness of our City Manager and Councilmembers. We have enough to worry about with the “Crazy Uncle” in the Whitehouse without having to invent new ones in Takoma Park.


Our New Library

With the city election coming up November 3, now is a good time to explain the reasons for Takoma Park’s rebuilding and expanding our library. There seems to be some misconceptions about the project and some bad information circulating.

To help folks sort this out, let’s look at it from two angles: first the “why” and second, the money to build it. 

Our library has been described in public testimony as the “Soul of the City;” it’s cultural heart. Its plentiful programs and holdings capture a broad patronage among all ages and from every social and economic segment of our city. In contrast, the County library in Silver Spring isn’t about that at all.

Built 65 years ago, our library is a 9,400 sq. ft. utilitarian building with no enduring qualities. It has outlasted its useful life. It is obsolete by many standards and must be rebuilt. Prior to the new Community Center, it was a stand-alone building. The attempt to connect the two structures led to a confusing, inefficient waste of space. This part of the Community Center will be remodeled as part of the library re-build.

It is constructed of uninsulated masonry walls and windows. The ventilation systems are old and failing and are inadequate for the Covid-19 pandemic. A low ceiling eliminates room for new ventilation ducts above the dropped ceilings. There are no sprinklers. Structural weakness prevents adding an upper floor. The concrete floor sits below the flood plain and is decaying. 

There’s not enough space for the collections and new technology; for young people to be comfortable reading and studying; or to serve children’s programming needs.

Cramped employee work stations, out of public view, look like something from a horror movie. A small storage room serves as the employee conference/lunch space. Restrooms are obsolete and ADA non-compliant. Aisles in the book stacks are too narrow per ADA and lack wheelchair turn-around space. The 84” high shelves are too high for many people. Tall shelves severely limit staff visibility and limit light and air circulation. Both natural and internal light are inadequate. To comply with ADA, a lot of library space would be lost.

You can finds tons of information, data, photos and design renderings on the City’s “Library Renovation/Reconstruction” web site here.

The Money

In 2017, the City Council approved, 7 to 0, issuance of a $9,000,000 infrastructure bond, of which $7 million is earmarked for the library. The remainder is for the Flower Avenue Green Street and related purposes. These funds are in hand, effectively in escrow, and are by law restricted for the designated use: the design, engineering, construction and outfitting of the library and other listed purposes. 

It’s important to understand that the bond money does not belong, per se, to the City’s taxpayers. It is borrowed money and did not come out of taxpayers’ pockets. Like any loan, you have to spend it the way the lender requires. 

Some people feel the City cannot afford a new library. But in fact we can. Repayment of the bond is spread out over 30 years, rather like a home mortgage. The City Council determined that the City could indeed afford the semi-annual payments within the City’s yearly budgets. The City still has surplus borrowing capacity within its self-imposed prudent borrowing limits. 

I know some residents question the need for a new library and suggest abandonment of the project because of the costs. Here’s why this doesn’t make sense:

(1) Our community needs the library. Killing the library runs counter to our town’s core values in a time when racial equity frames our social ethos. Our library lies steps away from three public schools. Many nearby residents have limited means of mobility and no broadband access. Our library greatly helps compensate for that. 

(2) Greg Lukemire of the Lukemire Partnership in 2016 presented 12 different design options for the library covering every possible solution. These have been narrowed down based on Council and community input and surveys. All this would be wasted including hundred of thousands of dollars in fees. It would discredit the work of every City Councilmember since 2014 who have voted unanimously without exception for this project.

3) It would mean having no library at all in the near future, according to City Manager Suzie Ludlow. That would be a considerable loss that no one would be happy with. The present library is simply too hazardous for employees, patrons and children, made even worse by the pandemic. The bond funds would then need to be used to pay off the bond holders. There’s zilch to be gained by killing the library.

This fall the City Council will be reviewing and making alterations to Lukemire’s final plans. The current projected cost estimate is $8.43 million, according to Deputy City Manager, Jessica Clarke. But certain project components could be omitted to pare costs. Meanwhile, the City has won $300,000 in state bond bills (grants) pegged for the project. Additionally, the City can access substantial restricted cable grant funds. 

Tentatively, after the bid process and permitting, actual construction could begin next spring. How can we not be excited about the prospect of a beautiful new building providing so many new resources for everyone?

Clearing the Air: Takoma Junction

With the days winding down toward the November 3 election, we feel the growing tenseness in the air. This presidential election will mark a crossroads in our nation’s history. And locally, Takoma Park’s city election will be more important than in recent memory.

In Takoma Park, some candidates for Mayor and City Council are making themselves known. Mayor Kate Stewart is being challenged by a repeat candidate, Roger Schlegel, who has announced his intention. Rumors circulate as to which city council members may face challengers or might retire. It is rare, however, for incumbents to be unseated because divisive issues have rarely arisen.

It may be different in Takoma Park this year. Proverbial lines have been drawn in the sand over the future of the city-owned public parking lot at Takoma Junction. For years a small number of folks employing an endless array of objections have tenaciously argued against all versions of the proposed 2-story mixed commercial project. Opponents may know what they don’t want on the asphalt lot, but not what they do want. 

Meanwhile questions have arisen over the wisdom of paying $7 million to modernize and expand the City’s library. Covid-19’s threats cast a different light on the City’s finances. Going back many years the councilmembers have consistently voted to support both projects.

In this blog I want to address the Takoma Junction project. I will save the library for next time.   

NDC’s latest preliminary architectural rendering submitted July 2020 to the Montgomery County Planning Board

Opposition to the Junction project has always been vigorous, but now has tipped over into personal acrimony questioning the honesty and motivations of our mayor, the city manager and professional planning staff.

I have supported this project since the Takoma Junction Task Force (TJTF) made its recommendations in February, 2012. I am deeply familiar with the professional aptitude and integrity of each of the city officials involved with this project as well as the processes employed, which have been by the book.

Let me clarify unfounded alarmist claims against the Junction project as recently as the Council’s July 29 meeting.

1. The project does not address racial equity at the Junction.

The developer, NDC, is a Black-owned company. No names of tenants, if any, have been released. We can merely guess at the nature of the retailers and their price points. The Development Agreement limits subleasing to local and regional operators.

2. The new businesses will negatively affect other businesses in the Junction.

Economic Development principles stipulate the proximity of more, similar businesses attracts more customers and more spending. Hence the premise for town centers and shopping centers. 

3. We don’t know how the developer will get financing.

Financing is a private matter for the developer, not a concern for the public. NDC is a proven, experienced developer, having done many projects across the region, including the new project breaking ground at Carroll and Cedar Streets. 

4. Developers are not building because of the economy. 

This is untrue. According to the Washington Businss Journal 7/31//20, “Due to Covid-19, leasing velocity was slow in the 2nd quarter, and effective rents are likely to decline in the months ahead. However, activity in the Washington area has been more robust than in many peer markets, suggesting that this market is poised for a speedier recovery when conditions begin to normalize.

5.  TPSS Co-op is suffering from the project and has a gag order to keep it silent.

Neither is true. Were the coop suffering financially, it may be due to the pandemic, not the NDC project which hasn’t even started yet. No “gag” order exists as such, but maybe an agreement to cooperate with NDC.

6. There are secret negotiations occurring between the City and the County.

This is Trump-inspired paranoia. The City’s planning staff work daily with the County’s planners out of a spirit of cooperation and because laws require it. The Junction project is no different. Takoma Park relies on the County because we lack planning or zoning authority

7.  The project is too high and needs to be one story.

Since when? Nothing in the project’s planning since 2014, including the TJTF Report, has ever suggested a 1-story facility. What an enormous waste of valuable commercial land. Many of the nearby houses are two and three stories tall. 

8.  The SHA has raised objections to NDC’s project.

Not so far. SHA has only released a draft of its Vision Study findings, which does not adddress traffic issues or solutions for the intersection.

In sum, project review by State and County agencies may be slow but is proceeding deliberately. Our City’s staff are just doing their jobs professionally. NDC’s completed project will be a major asset to the City and our local economy. 

Next: The library expansion

The Problem with Takoma Park’s Rent Control

One of the nice things about living in Takoma Park is that nothing ever really changes. Right? The houses are old and generally well kept. We’ve got a huge old forest canopy that adds graciousness and helps cool our city. Crime has declined steadily for years. Most vacant and boarded houses have been gradually absorbed back into normal occupancy. 

Imagine you have been away for twenty years and just returned. You’d notice the new Community Center, a lot more sidewalks, brighter street lamps, more traffic calming devices, and you’d find that most of the stores have changed. But otherwise, it’s pretty much like you remembered it. 

There’s comfort in that notion. A lot of residents love this city for that reason, including me. Progressive values remain true and so does the City’s political influence as a thought leader on state and municipal policies. 

But physical appearances are one thing. Takoma park faces some serious, but well recognized, issues that may be less visible: steadily rising property taxes and tax assessments, and regular increases in utility and storm water bills that pinch those on fixed incomes; overcrowded schools and  insufficient classrooms; and, of course the worsening traffic around and through Takoma Park. None of this should be news to anyone in our town.

Often going unmentioned, however, is a hugely critical issue: Takoma Park’s rent stabilization ordinance. This is news. Adopted with acclaim in 1981, nearly 40 years ago, it no longer is benefiting our city. In fact, it’s hurting us. In Takoma Park the topic of rent stabilization is treated as sacrosanct. Almost no one, I find, is willing to talk about this problem, at least publicly. And, understandably, why should they? Tenants living in rent control units have got a great bargain. Home owners seem to have little interest in the practical effects of the policy.

Well, landlords want to talk about it and developers do too. But who pays any attention to landlords and developers?

The Good News

First, before going any further, let’s acknowledge that rent control has for decades preserved affordable housing in Takoma Park. It’s said that Takoma Park (almost 18,000 persons) contains the lion’s share of affordable housing in a county of over a million people. Arguably it has enabled much of the city’s ethnic diversity that we are proud of. It’s assured that affordable units have remained affordable as they have turned over. That part is what we do talk about. 

Second, later on we address possible solutions, which may allow us to make rent control work for the better interests of multi-family property owners, developers and the city as a whole.

The Problem

The part we don’t talk about is Takoma Park’s aging rental housing stock. As any homeowner well knows, it costs more and more to keep an old house up. Meanwhile, no replacement or new housing has been built in decades . . .  a longer period than perhaps 90% of the residents have lived in Takoma Park today.

It might help to think of landlords as small business owners who have invested heavily into Takoma Park

In this town, as in many places, the word “landlord” is often used as a pejorative. It’s like if you are a landlord, your motivations are suspect. A stereotype is: “They don’t live here and they’re just in it for the money,” implying “they don’t have a stake in our city.” That characterization is completely wrong.

It might help to think of landlords (multi-family property owners) as small business owners who have invested heavily into Takoma Park. True, landlords are indeed “in it” for the money, but so is every business in town (and so is every household whose breadwinners are “in it” everyday to make a living). The only difference is that landlords make huge investments to acquire or build a multi-family property, which becomes a 365 day a year operation. 

Owning an income property is by any measure a long term, illiquid investment. Thus, in order to protect the investment over the long term, the investor has to keep up regular maintenance, modernize as appropriate and replace things that wear out. He has to allow for lost rents due to vacancies; the cost of evicting tenants who cannot pay; the added expense of repairing tenant-abused units; plus pay for common area maintenance both indoors and on outside grounds maintenance. Rental income has to cover the debt service of his mortgage, property taxes, insurance, license fees, accounting and legal services; the salary and benefits of maintenance and management personnel, water and sewer, gas & electricity, stormwater fees, extermination and refuse collection.

You might be thinking as you read this, “Gosh, there must be an easier way to make a living.”

Explaining Rent Control

In 2017 the City hired a consultant, The Cloudburst Group, to prepare an analysis of feasible housing and economic development strategies. The City Council wanted outside expertise to lay the foundation for developing policies. Cloudburst’s study makes frequent mention of the downside problems associated with rent control, which we cite here. 

Cloudburst erred, however, when it asserted that “because the city is mostly built out, there is little new residential construction” (page 3). That’s not accurate. There are plenty of opportunities for constructing new housing in Takoma Park. Density has very little to do with it as we see in Arlington County and Washington D.C. which are “mostly built out,” yet redevelopment proceeds at a steady space. The real reason has primarily to do with the financial impracticality for a developer to build multifamily housing under a rent control regime.

Rent control has one purpose: to prevent rents from rising too rapidly beyond what the average occupant can afford to pay. To put it differently: to prevent displacement due to rent. Rent control means that an affordable unit remains affordable for the next occupant.

Rent control is a governmental technique to intentionally intervene in the local housing market. The normal supply-demand model for pricing rental housing is discarded in favor of government controlled pricing. While we happily live with the normal supply-demand model for private home purchases and non-residential uses, rental housing sometimes falls victim to government intervention.

About 47% of housing units in the city are rentals. Most of these (60%) are rent-controlled. (Many others are subsidized by the Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and Housing Choice Voucher programs. Only 9% of the rental stock is market rate.) Unfortunately a lot of the rent controlled units are in old buildings. Takoma Park ties allowed rent increases to the annual Consumer Price Index-Urban (CPI-U) for the Washington-Baltimore area. For the current 2019-20 fiscal year the allowed rental increase is 1.6%. Other sample years: in the 2016 FY it was 0.2%; in 2012 = 2.2%; in 2009 = 0.2%. Percentage increases jump up and down with no predictability.

Special provisions allow owners to seek supplemental increases if they have made depreciable capital improvements. This requires submittal of a complex set of documents to justify the application with no certainty of outcome. 

There are 157 municipalities in Maryland and Takoma Park is the only one having rent control. 

During WWII, President Roosevelt established the Office of Price Administration (OPA) to intervene significantly in the nation’s economy so as to conserve desperately needed resources to fight the war. Officially the OPA’s task was “to stabilize prices and rents and prevent unwarranted increases in them; to prevent profiteering, hoarding, and speculation; to assure that defense appropriations were not dissipated by excessive prices,” among other objectives. At war’s end in 1945 most price controls and rationing were ended. New York State and the City of New York have continued rent control, but the respective laws have been modified numerous times including 2019 to make them much more workable for property owners.

The Economic Consequences

Virtually all economists view rent control as unworkable or a bad idea for a lot of reasons as discussed in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Megan McArdle. []

Primarily rent control greatly discourages the construction of new housing and the upgrading of existing units. Why is that? The answer may be obvious.

Who would open any business if they were not free to set their own prices?

Any real estate developer knows that in order to obtain construction and long term financing, he has to prove his bank that projected rental income will be adequate to pay the mortgage and all the other expenses with a margin to spare. Not just for the first year but for the entire term of the loan. If the developer/landlord can’t be in control of rent charges, he cannot take the risk. That’s common business sense. Who would open any business if they were not free to set their own prices? By the same token, the lender must examine the projected future cash flow (net operating income) for reasonable assurance its loan will be repaid on schedule. A bank cannot, as a rule, support a commercial loan when the borrowers’ income will be constrained by law. The same holds true for significant remodeling.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that construction of multi-family housing ceased in Takoma Park at about the same time as the rent stabilization ordinance was adopted. No new housing has been built here since the 1970s, except for a handful of infill houses.

Walter Block, a libertarian economist says, 

“One effect of government oversight is to retard investment in residential rental units. As a result, the quantity of apartments for rent will be far smaller than otherwise. And not so amazingly, [this] holds true not only for the case where rent controls are in place, but even where they are only threatened. The mere anticipation of controls is enough to have a chilling effect on such investment.” Block says that other land uses like condos, commercial space, offices, warehouses get built because they are never subject to rent control and no one fears they will be. These land uses have healthy turnover and, he says, “extremely slowly increasing rental rates while residential space suffers from a virtual zero vacancy rate in the controlled sector and skyrocketing prices in the uncontrolled sector.”  [ ]

Studies have shown that when rent control is first adopted, tenants clearly benefit from the reduced rents for a period of years. That stands to reason. However, problems accrue over time. Because market rents rise faster than controlled rents, the growing separation becomes obvious to existing tenants. According to the Cloudburst study (page 3), “the median rent in Takoma Park in 2017 was 22% lower than surrounding areas, and nearly 50% lower than in Montgomery County” as a whole.

Tenants in rent controlled units thus have a bigger and bigger incentive to stay put, if their personal circumstances permit. Those who might otherwise want to relocate choose not to, perhaps realizing they cannot “afford” to move. The net result is that healthy vacancy rates disappear and unit turnover tends to stagnate. Worse, this compounds into another problem. Newcomers wanting to find affordable housing in Takoma Park can’t because of the lack of available vacancies. In 2015-16 vacancy rates in Montgomery County and Takoma Park where 2% and 1%, respectively.

This defeats the original purpose of rent control. What good is it to have cheap rents if you can’t find one to rent?

According to Robert Murphy at the Foundation for Economic Education, 

“There are further, more insidious problems with rent control. With a long line of potential tenants eager to move in at the official ceiling price, landlords do not have much incentive to maintain the building. They don’t need to put on new coats of paint, change the light bulbs in the hallways, keep the elevator in working order, or get out of bed at 5:00 a.m. when a tenant complains that the water heater is busted. Furthermore, if a tenant falls behind on the rent, there is less incentive for the landlord to cut her some slack, because he knows he can replace her right away after eviction.”  (Foundation for Economic Education, “The Case Against Rent Control,” Robert P. Murphy 11/12/14)

We obviously know that as things age they deteriorate, whether it’s living things like oak trees or manmade things. Our old growth tree canopy is disappearing because it’s aging out. Even indomitable white oaks poop out after 150 years. Apartment buildings that were 40 years old in 1981 when rent control took hold are now about 80 years old. For apartment buildings that normally receive above average wear and tear, that’s a much a bigger challenge. Factor in, as well, the expectation of central air conditioning, more stringent life safety laws, ADA standards and energy conservation requirements that did not exist in the 1980s, much less in the 1930s and 1940s when these structures were built. 

The Cloudburst consultants summed it up nicely: “Takoma Park has leverage to control property value increases, through rent stabilization programs, but it creates the risk that new construction, combined with stagnant rental incomes when property values and taxes are rising, would initiate a cycle of disinvestment. Aggressive use of rent stabilization will reduce the interest of developers in building mixed-use, mixed-income projects in Takoma Park.”

The rent stabilization ordinance is not the only thing discouraging redevelopment for more and better housing. One landlord/developer who owns properties both within and outside the city, explains, “The City property tax burden on individual property owners in 50% greater than for similar properties located outside the city.”

Another significant reason applies to the whole county. It is the time it takes for most any development — even retail, office and mixed use projects — to gain Montgomery County’s approval. This is the opinion of experienced developers I’ve spoken to. As one developer told me, this challenging process is causing developers to leave the county. As currently organized, the development review process enables a handful of opponents to stymie the normal process over and over again, even if the objections are insubstantial or misinformed, and even when the great majority of nearby residents support a project. 

Still, it remains important that opponents, no matter how few their numbers, have the opportunity to be listened to. But once opposing views been taken into account and validated, there’s no reason not to speed the process forward. 

Considering Takoma Park’s smallness (2.4 square miles), it is easy for a potential developer to read the tea leaves and decide to look not too far away in order to build housing to avoid dealing with the peculiarities, uncertainties and delays in Takoma Park and Montgomery County. 

We see this, of course, all around Takoma Park. The stark reality includes major projects just inside the D.C. line near the Metro station; surrounding the Prince George’s Plaza Mall, and on New Hampshire Avenue just one block south of Eastern Avenue in D.C.

So How Do We Address the Rent Control Problem?

Just as the problems with our Rent Stabilization Ordinance have emerged over the years, Adjustments to rent control have to be instituted gradually. Outright cancellation is neither called for nor necessary. Abolishing rent control would create chaos for tenants and landlords alike, such as mass dislocations.

A first step would not be to quickly hire an outside consultant. Instead, we have the expertise and experience among many capable landlords in our city. So the city council can appoint a “select” committee or task force comprised of landlords representing both large and small building owners and developers, tenant representatives, and some residents at large. Let that group bring in the outside experts to talk about possible changes and how other jurisdictions do it.

Multiple solutions are at hand. Here are just a few ways to modify rent control:

(1) Consideration of household income limits for tenants. Once a tenant’s annual income exceeds a certain limit, they would have to move out, thereby freeing up a unit. (2) A city-run housing voucher system could provide a subsidy to poorer households so that they could afford a larger inventory of units; (3) rent control can apply to designated units within a building; not necessarily to the entire building.

(4) The City could establish two or three tiers of controlled rents (including outright exemptions) depending on the age of the building, the number of units and the condition of the structure. That makes more sense than superimposing one rate of increase for every rent-controlled building. 

(5) The city could set rent increases for periods of two or three years on a rolling basis so that landlords can plan ahead more easily.

(6) Landlords could receive certain financial benefits from the city for having rent controlled units. This would effectively provide compensation for a “partial taking.” The “taking” is the loss by the landlord of the right to set rents. It’s like eminent domain. But under national laws, a government’s right to take property (for a public good), must be accompanied by compensation. Rent control in Takoma Park does not do this. 

(7)  In order to revive developers’ interest in constructing new housing, the city needs guarantee the developer that rent controls of any sort will not be imposed for a period of, say, twenty to twenty-five years.

(8) For landlords who have performed (or plan to perform) major improvements to their properties, and need to increase rents above the stipulated increase to cover the costs, the paperwork is complex. This burdens city staff to review the work and rent increase justifications. Approval is not always assured. An easier process would benefit both parties and facilitate improvements.

(9) The CPI-U index for setting rent increases could be discarded and replaced by a different method that is more sensitive to Takoma Park. The property assessment process and the County and City tax rates are completely out of the control of landlords and the annual property payment has little to do with a regional CPI index.

There are doubtlessly many other methods that can be researched and considered.


If the City fails to address this issue on a city-wide basis, two outcomes seem probable. Neither is good. First, very little, if any, new rental housing will be built in our city for the foreseeable future. This, notwithstanding the City Council’s earnest desire to encourage construction of affordable housing. The city’s coffers are not big enough to financially incentivize new construction. There might be some sort of special subsidies or agreements worked out for the Recreation Center site that the city owns and can thus control. Otherwise, every prospective developer that is not a non-profit will know that “that dog has fleas.”

Second, at some future point the City may find itself standing alone before the state legislature or a state court, defending its ordinance brought by frustrated landlords who see unfairness in the city’s out-dated rent control mechanism.

On October 16 of this year the City’s Council formally adopted its long-range Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan. To read it, click here.  The Plan does not dwell on the rent stabilization policies, but the Plan references the importance of dealing with it in its very first “Strategy” on page 5, Objective #1, Strategy A:  “. . . Assess the existing rent stabilization program and consider modifications to enhance its effectiveness.”

This is an important policy statement and bodes well.

Preservation Versus a Parking Lot

A story of how a local government historic preservation commission has run amuck with its power

“Takoma Junction” is an important intersection near the geographic center of the City of Takoma Park. Two of its busiest roads converge here, Carroll Avenue and Ethan Allan Avenue, both designated as State roads. It gets a lot of traffic. The area is part of an historic preservation district designated in the 1990s by Montgomery County. It’s not part of the nearby National Register Historic District. 

The principal “actor” in this story is a 0.6-acre parking lot that the city of Takoma Park acquired in the 1980s and has never known what to do with. (An additional half acre is a steep, tree covered slope at the back of the parking lot.) Lying at the visual center of the Junction, the black swath of asphalt – as small as it is – rather defines the Junction. The lot is usually not very busy. Immediately adjacent is the durable and popular Takoma-Silver Spring Food Co-op, which uses the parking lot with the city’s permission for parking and big truck deliveries to its back door. The Co-op is effectively the anchor tenant for the Junction district. There’s a dozen or so retailers across the street, two auto repair shops (one to be added to the site), a large modern fire station and an isolated park no one uses. As a city councilmember, I once stated the obvious: there is no “there” there, which met with faint boos.

Sadly, around town the Junction is mostly recognized for its 3 traffic signals, perplexing traffic delays and risks to pedestrians. While within an historic district, the parking lot and the adjacent properties on both sides are nevertheless classified as “Non-Contributory” meaning nothing prevents any of the buildings on that block face from being torn down. (So much for historicity.) It makes one wonder why the block of properties was included in the historic district in the first place. They could easily be removed or exempted which would give the city more flexibility. 

After a prior failure to attract a developer many years before, the city decided to try again. The  city wants to give the Junction a sense of place worthy of its name: to provide focus and economic activity to the Junction, strengthen the existing business, and help its tax base. Just as important: to help show future developers that redevelopment is do-able in this town.

Montgomery County, Md., like most major localities, has laws intended to regulate new construction in designated historic districts and to protect the integrity of designated historic buildings. Historic preservation itself has over the past 50 years become a recognized field of professional study. 

To implement its law, Montgomery County created the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to review alterations to structures within its designated purview and to prevent bad things from happening to historic buildings and historic districts. HPC’s review is just part of the county’s development approval process; owners and developers know they have to undergo HPC’s review and basically have to comply with its recommendations. For historic property modifications the HPC has the power to deny a permit.

So far, so good. The historic review process gets carried out by 9 “commissioners” appointed by the county executive and approved by the county council and supported by a professional staff. Commissioners don’t get paid and generally convene twice a month. They serve 3-years terms, but can be reappointed without limit, and some have served long time. There should be no doubt they take their volunteer duties seriously.

All of the current members are either architects, planners, historians, preservationists or they espouse an interest in these things. They all happen to be white, too.

As a side note, it helps to understand that historic preservation is about enforcing a standard of aesthetics. The idea that the municipal police power can encompass this rather squishy subject has resulted in many a court case for decades. (But that’s another subject.) At the heart of historic preservationists’ viewpoint are two words: consistency and compatibility, which one hears in every other comment made by the panel or its staff. Something either is consistent (or compatible) with something else, or it isn’t. What do these two words mean in practice? The answer is: it depends. Like obscenity, the commissioners apparently just know it when they see it, or don’t.

As a side note, it helps to understand that historic preservation is about enforcing a standard of aesthetics. The idea that the municipal police power can encompass this rather squishy subject has resulted in many a court case for decades. (But that’s another subject.) At the heart of historic preservationists’ viewpoint are two words: consistency and compatibility, which one hears in every other comment made by the panel or its staff. Something either is consistent (or compatible) with something else, or it isn’t. What do these two words mean in practice? The answer is: it depends. Like obscenity, the commissioners apparently just know it when they see it, or don’t.

A county ordinance does set some boundaries. One criteria for approval of a project is if: “The proposal is necessary in order that the owner of the subject property not be deprived of reasonable use of the property or suffer undue hardship [chapter 24A-8(b)(5)]. Further, “It is not the intent of this chapter to limit new construction, alteration or repairs to any 1 period or architectural style.” [24A-8c]

Unfortunately, the nine commissioners seem to have, or think they have, veritable carte blanche authority to delay or deny the right of a property owner — in this case the City of Takoma Park — to develop its property in complete conformity to the County’s Zoning Code. None of the commissioners are elected. Thus they do not represent anybody other than themselves. The HPC does not have final authority on site plans; that falls to the Planning Board; nor of the organization of the two state highways that comprise the Junction. 

In 2014 the city issued an RFP to find a developer. Back in 2012, the citizen-based Takoma Junction Task Force had issued a lengthy report to the city council with 56 recommendations on possible uses and amenities for the site. Not surprisingly, a number of these were mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, the city council took it to heart and relied on the task force’s report to guide its decision making. City officials, myself included, were dubious any developer would respond to the RFP, but lo, seven did.

That’s when all the fun began. Of course the Co-op clearly has a legitimate stake in the parking lot’s future as it was hoping to expand into it and otherwise fearful of possibly being forced out of business, assurances to the contrary.  

It seems everyone within a quarter mile of the site, not to mention the historic preservation buffs, has been ready to spill blood over the lot’s future for as many reasons as there were opponents, including people actually who preferred the empty lot. There was too little of this or not enough of that. (But, heh, I wanted a public fountain and I lost on that score.) 

The task force said the site should be “transformative,” while others shook with anger over the probable “Bethesda-fication” that would doom Takoma Park’s image. In turn, others trotted out gentrification’s evils and claims of racial inequity. The anti-gentrifiers ignored the fact this horse had left the barn 5 years ago when just down the way “Republic”, as au courant a restaurant as you’ll find in the DC area, opened its doors amidst much applause.

Later that year the city council selected Neighborhood Development Company (NDC), a DC-based, minority owned developer experienced with mixed-use, urban infill projects. For fiscal and site control reasons, we (the council) chose to lease the land for 99 years rather than sell it outright. A formal development agreement and lease were executed in 2016 (now in force) while NDC attended a series of resident-organized listening sessions. Eventually Co-op members gave up their opposition to the awardee and reached an MOU with the NDC. Notwithstanding, a fair number of remaining opponents have rallied in their vehemence and diligence. 

In 2018 NDC began submitting its site plan application to the county for approval and began soliciting commercial tenants.

Experienced developers and their land use attorneys know that the site plan approval process is a bit byzantine. Partly that’s because so many county and state agencies get to have a say. It’s an iterative process requiring patience, good will, creativity and negotiation skills. On the positive side, the back and forth among skilled attorneys, an experienced development team and professional county and city planners can produce great outcomes. The process is a bit like watching eleven football players execute complicated plays requiring constant adjustments. When it works, it’s beautiful. 

On the negative side: even then there’s frustration, setbacks, and costly delays because time is money. In NDC’s case, for example it learned it had to downsize the floor area because its team had misinterpreted the county’s zoning code.

This is how it works in most large urban jurisdictions. Unfortunately lay people (regular residents) rarely know any of this. In Takoma Park itself, there has been, in actual fact, no significant new construction since the 1970s. So peoples’ naiveté and anxiety can be forgiven. There’s been lots of new construction around the Takoma Metro stop, but this all lies in D.C.

The HPC plays its part by conducting “preliminary consultations”, which are really public hearings, where commissioners can hear applicants’ presentations and deal with questions and answers from the applicant and the public. 

Going into the initial “preliminary consultation” (May 21, 2019) HPC had in its hands a copy of NDC’s 38-page Historic Area Work Permit (HAWP) application, which included an extensive narrative, 17 color photos and a set of drawings presented by Colin Greene, Senior Director of Planning for the architectural firm, Streetsense. HPC commissioners also had access to the entire site plan application if they needed it.

[In the following commentary, the names of speakers are missing on the audiotape because the chair often failed to identify the individual speaking]

For its part, HPC staff had prepared in writing a litany of criticisms. At the meeting HPC’s commissioners all endorsed staff’s numerous findings without exception. Among them, the first one sets the tone:

“The overall size, scale, massing, height, and architectural expression of the building are incompatible with the historic district.“  [My comment: Other than that the project looks great.]

“Staff asks that the applicants demonstrate why two elevator/stair towers to the underground parking are required.” [Grocery shoppers use carts. If the one elevator is out, then what?]

The entire building should read as one, no more than two, buildings, [emphasis mine] as staff finds that three to four differentiated architectural expressions are not a successful method for breaking up the facade and achieving compatibility with the surrounding streetscape.” [In the upcoming August hearing this will be reversed.]

But then: “The applicants should consider breaking up the long mass of the building by providing a break. Successful examples include a complete break, resulting in two above grade structures . . .” [Let’s make up our minds.]

“The façade of the building should be pulled back to the south, allowing at least a 12′-15′ of clear sidewalk width. This could also better accommodate outdoor dining or other activities to enliven the street.” [What is the historic precedent for outdoor dining?]

“Any offsite improvements, including the proposed lay-by, must be reviewed and approved by HPC as part of the HAWP.  [In the olden days, 67-foot long, 18-wheel semis hadn’t been invented. So why is this part of the conversation?]

“Any proposed road realignments may be incompatible with and detrimental to the historic district and inconsistent with the Guidelines for new construction/public improvements . . . The location of the roads date to the platting of the subdivision and moving or substantially realigning these roads would have an adverse effect on the historic district.” [Being a state highway, I’d hazard the SHA makes the decision. There’s nothing historic about curbs, gutters and storm drains unless we are discussing Williamsburg or Pompeii.]

For the August 14 hearing, the architects brought with them a complete set of new elevations and floor plans showing two slightly different facade renditions and more open space. Additionally the city resubmitted its 2018 City Council resolution (12 pages) approving NDC’s proposed plan. 

This session turned out to be virtual repeat of the May hearing, nine commissioners awarding a thumbs down. One commissioner (Haines) said the architect’s presentation was “a wasted effort.” 

Streetsense had reduced the parapet height from to 42 to 37 feet, the elevator tower from 45 to 35 feet, eliminating the roof as a possible activity space, the first floor height by 3 feet, lowered the canopies, simplified materials, removed almost all facade adornment and created more open space. 

Oh, never mind. Commissioners still complained the building was just “too big”. It reminded a couple members of a “big box” store. It’s still “too high”. It should be split into two buildings. There’s still not enough public open space. Others doubted the lay-by would work and suggested alternatives be looked at. 

Takoma Park City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, speaking for the city, reminded the commissioners that the city, traffic engineers, designers, the SHA and others had looked at every possible idea for making deliveries in the rear, and stated, “There’s no physical way to do rear loading.” She indicated the truck lay-by amounts to an ordinary loading zone common in urban areas. Meanwhile, she said, the SHA has undertaken an unprecedented “visioning process” with residents to figure out how best to reorganize the intersection and cure the delays and improve safety. She concluded by declaring that after years of study and public discussion, “This is what we want.”

HPC commissioners either did not believe Ms. Ludlow or chose to ignore her comments. In their respective summary remarks various commissioners perseverated in stating the lay-by will not work, will cause the project to fail and must be “looked at” again. One said, “the lay-by is considered a problem by everyone . . . both the commissioners and the public find that it’s not feasible and logistically it’s dangerous, and it’s a problem for the use of the public space.”

This is in fact not the case at all. It is nonsense and reveals a complete misunderstanding of the facts on the ground and little regard for the Co-op’s future existence.

Ms. Burditt recommended the first floor and second floor be reduced by one foot each (as though that would make a remarkable difference), and then said this would allow the roof to be put to good use.

It becomes evident that most, maybe none, of the commissioners has visited the location. For all the importance they place on this project, you’d think they would.

They would see, for example, that most of the nearby houses stand 2 and 1/2 stories tall, putting them at 24 to 28 feet, some are 3 stories. In any case, mature trees that dominate the skyline will tower over the proposed project. They’d notice the dense foliage on the rear slope completely blocks a view of the project from Columbia Avenue (contrary to testimony). A walk along Carroll Avenue would reveal the 55-foot tall fire house in the same block, the 12-story Victory Tower, a 40-foot parapet on the building opposite housing Fair Day’s Play and offices, a 3-story rental property next to it adjacent to more structures with very high parapets. Around the corner on Carroll is the Bank of America with high parapets and then the 10-story Takoma Business Center, the 4-story Willow Street building, the 4-story Masonic Center and 5-story Busboys building.

So what “Takoma Park” are we talking about? There’s no fixed pattern of heights; rather an eclectic mishmash of heights and styles that we’re all accustomed to along the length of Carroll Avenue. The city’s charm and fascination have nothing to do with consistency and compatibility. If you want that, head out to Kentlands.

As for trees, NDC’s site plan application details the size, species, health and proposed disposition of 93 trees on the rear slope of the property. The commissioners had not read this data (a site plan requirement) and instead relied on the biased opinions of two residents about the rear slope, one of whom seeks an impractical pedestrian path up the 30-foot slope.

Another resident, boasting of his expertise, asserted he knew better than the developer that the project could be made significantly smaller and still be profitable. Several expressed the need for more open space for community events, “speeches and dancing”. Yet another used his 3 minutes to present his own sketch for the site, which of course has no legal standing and was clearly out of order. Yet this tidbit was enough to captivate two commissioners who thought it should be given consideration.

In response, Mr. Greene countered the commissioners that it is not a big box store because it will be occupied by a variety of retailers and services.

Seeking some guidance from the commission regarding the HPC’s public space comments, Mr. Greene asked,

“Where [do] the precedent elements or other elements from the historic commission come from in terms of the public space along this part of the district?” 

The HPC chair [presumably] answered, 

“The commission does not rely on precedent. We look at each case individually and we are looking at Takoma Park and Takoma Junction; specifically, how to make this development compatible with that part of Takoma Park. It has been used as public space. There’s a need to break it up. I think one of the things you can do is to look at this other proposal. [See above paragraph] We have not reviewed it, we don’t know how compatible it is, but one of the things that’s clear it that it focuses on providing other ways of having pubic space. And I think traditionally Takoma Park has focused on public space .… We don’t have other examples of like, well, here’s someplace else we have approved and here’s how much public space it has and here’s where it is.”

Mr. Greene asked [in part],

 “So with the comment that it be compatible with Takoma Park, what examples can you point to that we can use as an example of that condition that we can understand . . .”

The chair replied, 

“I think you need to listen to other residents of Takoma Park and what they’ve been saying about the use and the availability of public space.”

So what does this mean? Talking to the residents? That phase is effectively over. 

Why the preoccupation with public space? The Commission has been misled to believe that the parking lot serves as a public space. It is and always has been a daily parking lot prior to which it was a land fill. There’s already a park immediately across the street which sits utterly unused. People could dance there if they need to. Besides, what does open space have to do with this site’s history? This is a commercial development, not a town square which neither the city nor the original citizen task force ever intended it to be.

HPC refuses to provide the architects any practical guidance. Instead they duck behind the word compatibility. That’s like saying we need more beauty or more happiness or more truth. Let’s recall Emerson’s words, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

Outrageously, the HPC asks the developer to look at the other unqualified proposal, that has no legal standing before the HPC, the county or the city.

The commissioners seem persuaded that the 9 vigorous opponents who testified on August 14 somehow represent the views of a city of 17,000 people, perforce “everyone”. In truth, the project has garnered the broad support of city residents and the local business community.

It does not matter, apparently, that democratically elected city councilmembers spent four years initiating a public selection process to find a qualified developer, reviewing a multitude of alternative site plans, holding countless public hearings, work sessions and listening sessions, approving several resolutions and gaining the developer’s (NDC’s) cooperation to go back to the drawing board again and again to accommodate residents’ and councilmembers’ preferences. It does not matter, apparently, that NDC and the city have executed a legally binding Development Agreement and a long-term lease, which are both now in force; or that the Co-op with its legions of members and the developer have negotiated a working agreement that assures the sustainability of the Co-op before, during and after the project’s construction.

There must be reasonable limits placed on the amount of time the HPC spends on site plans; more discipline in focuings on relevant historical matters, and far less persnickety-ness regarding recommendations and more weight favoring the common good of getting things built. Indeed, it’s hard to get two people to agree on aesthetic matters, much less nine individuals each of whom feels the need to offer his or her considered views. Oddly, the HPC members in this particular case seem to agree on everything. If everyone in a room agrees on everything, I get worried. Is the project design that horrendous?

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 3½ years; the Empire State Building in 14 months. The Transcontinental Railroad in six years in the 1860s. Construction hasn’t even started at the Takoma Junction. 

The HPC needs to constrain itself to matters related to historical construction. A delivery truck lay-by is not within their province; neither is arguing about a sidewalk’s width regarding outdoor dining (leaving aside whether there will ever be an eatery there); nor is the number of elevators. If the developer wants to waste money on 4 elevators that’s its business. HPC’s job is not to play architect or investor. The HPC needs to mind its own damn business. The commissioners needs to learn the difference between offering unsolicited advice and performing its mission.

At some point, the details do not and never will matter. It’s like a couple arguing over the color of the bedroom curtains. Once the building is built and humming with customers, it will be quickly assimilated into daily experiences. Inevitably, most folks will be hard put to remember what all the fuss was about after a few years. 

Imagine for a moment, it’s 2027 and you’re with friends walking along a sidewalk in the Junction, and one of you looks up at the building and says, “You know I feel really bad that this parapet is 37 feet tall instead of 32 feet; and ya know, it seems like there’s an excess, like, you know, of differentiated architectural expressions along the facade. I am so sad. Let’s not eat here.” 

Not going to happen.

It’s a tiny 0.6 acre plot of land — no bigger than a house lot –  that so many people have loaded up with extraordinary expectations and fears, including the historic preservationists and their preoccupation with perfect compatibility.

It’s time to stop this nonsense. The current project design is good enough. In fact, the city is pretty darn lucky to have found a developer willing to build this project and to hang in there through all the challenges, second-guessing, ill informed remarks and insults. 

Could the current design as presented August 14 be improved? Well, yes of course it could. What then needs to be changed? That depends on who you ask.