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. 

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