GRANOLAPARK: 2016 in review

By Steve Loya.

IMAGE: Drawing by one of several artists at the Politically Inclined live-drawing session at the July 28 city council meeting. The session was hosted by the city’s We Are Takoma program. Illustration By Steve Loya.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

2016 sucked, according to most people who managed to survive it.

But, for the Takoma Park City Council it was not so sucky. Their year had accomplishments and progress and, … ok, some suckage. Such as….

Takoma Junction Development/Co-op

It was the year’s cliff-hanger.

For those who aren’t familiar with it Takoma Junction is an awkward intersection prone to bad traffic and struggling shops – except the successful TPSS Food Co-op.

The city owns the big parking lot next to the Co-op and wants to redevelop it. The Co-op wants to expand and the city lot is the obvious place to expand into.

Those were the days: sign at Co-op thanking city council last April. Photo by Bill Brown.

The city requested development proposals in 2014. The Co-op and others made proposals – all of which included a Co-op expansion. The city chose Neighborhood Development Company’s proposal.

This year the city and NDC signed the necessary agreements to go ahead with development as soon as the Co-op and NDC signed a Letter of Intent. We’re still waiting! The letter is not a contract, it is not even legally binding. It is an acknowledgement that both parties generally agree on the plan.

LOI deadlines in March, November and December were all missed. The final deadline is January 6.

Drawing by Art Hondros from the Politically Inclined live-drawing session July 28, 2016.

The delay is due to a disagreement between the Co-op and NDC over where to unload 18-wheeler trucks. The Co-op feels that they’ve been suckered. They want NDC to stick by its original concept drawings which showed large-truck delivery to a loading dock in the rear.

But on June 16 NDC’s more complete plans showed large-truck delivery in the front of the building. NDC said when they looked closer at the site and at how much commercial space they would have to give up to make the rear loading dock with enough room to swing an 18-wheeler around, they concluded it was a huge waste of space. There were other problems as well. For example, the underground parking lot would have to be sturdier to bear the weight of the trucks.

Co-op representatives show the lay-by option. Photo by Bill Brown.

Their solution to put a “lay-by” for large trucks in the front was called creative by the city council, but it drew ire from the Co-op. The Co-op cited the much longer distance they would have to haul delivered goods, difficulties timing deliveries with only one large-truck parking spot, and other concerns.

NDC came back with proposals that still included the lay-by, but addressed another big Co-op concern – continuity of business during construction. They proposed moving the entire Co-op into a new space in the development. Another proposal involved buying the Turner Building in which the Co-op resides.

The Co-op said they couldn’t do that, it would break their lease. And the owner doesn’t want to sell, they said.

Most recently the Co-op presented an alternative LOI Dec. 29. The two party’s positions still seem far apart, but we have not seen a response from NDC.

NDC representative talks to city resident about the project at a July public showing of development plans. Photo by Bill Brown.

If an LOI is not signed by Jan. 6 the contract with the city requires NDC to begin seeking a new anchor tenant; or the city can terminate the development agreement.

If NDC finds another anchor tenant, they are not allowed to bring in a competing grocery store. The Co-op will continue to exist where they are, but unable to expand. They will lose their current loading dock, which is accessed via the city lot.

And, the Co-op will be stuck with the lay-by anyway. Or they can start to take deliveries in the tiny side parking lot on the other side of the building. In that case big trucks would have to exit onto residential roads.

Montgomery College

This issue, the Montgomery College Takoma Park campus expansion, has been unfolding mostly outside the city council chambers. Early in 2016 College Provost Brad Stewart came at the council’s bidding to present the plans. The college does not legally have to get city approval for the plans, even though it affects the surrounding residential neighborhood.

The city council, particularly Ward 1 councilmember Peter Kovar has been working on this, writing letters to county administrators, speaking at hearings, etc. College president DeRionne Pollard addressed the City Council in late October. The president did the usual Montgomery College thing – a lengthy description of the college’s “mission” to its beloved students. Then a lot of heartfelt could-mean-this/could-mean-that answers to questions. The result may be “a series of community conversations” with the college in the early new year.

Synchronized voting

Through the year every vote on election day synchronization passed by 5-2. It was always the same two nay votes from Councilmembers Jarrett Smith and Fred Schultz.

Synchronization will re-schedule city election dates to match the state and national elections. Now, city elections are on alternate years to general elections. The next city election is 2017. If synchronization is enacted, the following election will be in 2018.

Counting ballots in the July 2012 Ward 5 special election. The multi-candidate vote triggered Instant Runoff Voting system. If the city elections are synchronized the state will run the city’s special elections. Photo by Bill Brown.

“Synchronization” makes it sound smooth. Actually it will be more like pounding a square peg into a round hole – as the square peg insists the hole change shape.

The city Board of Elections has been working hard on this, even though they initially opposed it.

As they outlined early in 2016 there were two choices: Plan A; a combined national/state/city ballot,, or Plan B, separate ballots. Plan A would take years to change local and state voting laws to match Takoma Park’s. Plan B could be implimented by 2018. The council went for Plan B.

They have already made changes to city code and are planning to revise the city charter

Library expansion

The newly installed council started shaking things up from the start. In January they voted 6 – 1 to delay the library renovations a couple of months. They were being asked to approve plans vetted by the previous council majority so the architect could move on to the next phase.

Veteran councilmember Tim Male was joined by freshmen councilmembers Rizzy Qureshi and Peter Kovar in his misgivings. They questioned whether the process had included enough constituent feedback. They saw options the architect hadn’t taken and wondered why.

Architect’s drawing. 

The plan looked unambitious, too small, and not forward-looking to council member Rizzy Queshi. “This is a renovation when it should be an expansion.”

The saintly architect patiently folded up his plans and returned for a new round of hearings, a tour of the existing facility and the creation of several new plans.

The last set had some striking designs. The council could not resist the expensive beauty.

Despite earlier qualms about the increased cost, the council went for a twice-the-price city library expansion, from $2.5 million to $5 million. Or is that $7 million and does it include the interior design?

Who wouldn’t fall in love once they’ve seen those smooth curves? See the new plans.

Some on the council were nervous about the increased cost – and suggested a ballot referendum to cover the council’s butt for taking on this expense.

But less was said of that as the year ended. Instead the library renovations were included with the Flower Avenue Green Street and Ethan Allen Gateway projects – to be funded by bond loans.

Budget – the New Era

The annual spring budget season was scarier than usual for taxpayers. The county and the city both planned property tax increases. Fortunately both both county executive Ike Leggett and City manager Suzanne Ludlow backed down a bit, though taxes still went up.

“The additional funds are needed to meet city obligations and address council priorities,” said the city manager’s budget introduction. Property assessments went up in 2016, and that’s what the tax is based on. By keeping the same tax rate the city would have netted $912,682 over last year’s tax revenue. The proposed budget was $32,600,185. The adopted budget is $33,382,134.

Ludlow’s proposed tax rate – a boiling hot .585 – was lowered to a simmering .5675.

Budget meeting, May 2016. Photo by Bill Brown.

The city manager’s introduction the budget reflects the city’s “New Era” with a new council, mayor and priorities. In other words, “you folks and your constituents want all this stuff, but you gotta pay for it.”

This new era features, according to the introduction, “expanded affordable housing opportunities, improved police/community relations, support for older teens and young adults, and increased economic development efforts in Takoma Junction and along New Hampshire Avenue. In addition, the changing demographics of our community have led to overcrowded schools and the need to consider adjusting city programs and services to meet changing needs.”

The council thought affordable housing vital enough to flop $400,000 down for an undefined affordable housing policy.

Resident Arthur David Olson at a 2013 public hearing. 

Committed city council observer Arthur David Olson studies and understands the city budget more than just about any other resident.

In a nutshell, here’s what he said about last spring. Taxes went up, yet the proposed budget is SHORT by a freekin’ $2.8 million! The problem here is conservative budgeting! We’re too scared of underfunding stuff, so we pad all the budgets to be safe.

We end up with surplus money – which we didn’t need to take from taxpayers in the first place – but the city says “Oh, look, we found this money just lying around!” and they spend it on non-essentials.

What this city needs, he said, is “moderate budgeting,” less padding, but not down to the bone.

Affordable housing

Another campaign promise – to develop that affordable housing policy – has been harder to accomplish.

There was a big affordable housing workshop early in 2016 where lots of speakers presented many ideas. Expensive ideas.

And there’s the problem. The city reserved $400,000 for affordable housing, which is a lot of money except when you are talking about housing. In that case, $400,000 is almost nothing.

Finally, at year’s end they proposed some affordable housing initiatives. The council shoveled through a field of thick proposals.

Downpayment assistance for low-ish income first-time homeowners was discussed. It’s not much use to the truly low-income, because they would not be able to afford, even with assistance, the cheapest housing in town.

Rent stabilization and retal licensing policy recommendations from Community Health and Empowerment throgh Education and Research were discussed, as were proposed revisions to the city law allowing tenants the right of first refusal if their landlord puts their building up for sale.

They also talked about tiny houses. Apparently, yes, they are legal, as long as they meet certain requirements. No word on tiny house boats. Wouldn’t those look cool on Sligo Creek?

Trump, Trump, Trump

Donald Trump’s election win brought the sound of marching jackboots to the council’s ears.

At the Nov. 9 city council meeting, just a day after the election, the council fretted that Takoma Park’s sanctuary city status might soon bring the city into conflict with the new administration.

Cutting federal aid from sanctuary cities is number three on Mr Trump’s first-day-in-office list. Councilmember Terry Seamens said it would behoove the city to discuss options and make contingency plans.

City Manager Suzanne Ludlow said city doesn’t get much direct federal aid. She said she’d check with the city attorneys. Whatever advice she got, the council seems less concerned with the issue as the inauguration approaches. The subject was not on the city council agenda through November and December. It is not on the January 11 agenda.

Accomplishments

Just as Takoma Park city manager Suzanne Ludlow announced at the Wednesday Oct. 19 city council, work started on the long awaited dog-park early the next day.

The city’s Noise Control Board has been revived and the noise ordinance has teeth. Police can enforce it if they get complaints. They no longer have to take decibel readings.

Unity in the Community, by Eric Bond

The city got fully behind the Unity in the Community Initiative, a grassroots effort to create understanding between police and youth. It blossomed from one block-party event to become a series of forums with police, schools, the community – especially youth-of-color- and city staff. The goal is to prevent racial profiling and unnecessary violence to either youth or police.

The city banned plastic bags in commercial establishments. The farmers markets tried to get an exemption Councilmember Tim Male swore he would vote against it if they did. In the end the farmers got a one year grace period.

In April the council voted to establish the Vacant Properties Registry. The object of this is to create a list of all the city’s vacant houses and buildings so the city can pressure the owners into maintaining, fixing and occupying, renting or selling them.

Senior planner Erkin Ozberk compiled a 168 page Takoma Park Streetscape Manual. Ozberk made clear the manual is a set of guidelines, not a strict policy. And it does not make any new policy, if just puts all the established policies and guidelines in one handy place. This is a relief to those who feared the Aesthetics Police.

A significant number of city council meetings ended at a reasonable time!

More to come

The mayor assures us that the city totally supports the Piney Branch Pool. BUT the city knows that the school system wants to demolish it to make way for much-needed classrooms.

With that in mind, the city council requested the county to build an aquatic center on the nearby Washington Adventist Hospital campus to take its place.

Mayor Kate Stewart, WAH President Erik Wangsness, Washington Adventist University Dr. Weymouth Spence and Montgomery College TPSS Campus vice-president and provost Dr. Brad Stewart made that request in an Oct. 25, 2016 letter to Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.

Let there be LED! The council voted to hold its nose and work with PEPCO to convert the city’s streetlights to cheaper, smaller-carbon-footprinted LED streetlights. Given the alternatives, this was the best option, the council decided earlier this fall. This vote formalized the the decision.

Takoma Park’s impressive parking study consultant recommends the city make higher parking rates for spaces closer to popular destinations, and lower rates for spaces a block or more away. Also recommended: pay stations that accept credit cards and pay-by-phone as well as cash, doing away with lines marking out parking spaces so cars will park more efficiently, consolidating the city’s five permit districts into two, extending them to 8 p.m., and allowing time-limited non-permit parking between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. (maybe charge for it), Monday through Saturday,

Folks who use the Rec Center would like it to be as nice as the Community Center. But, Park and Planning, not the city, owns the land and facility. The city just runs the programs.

Park and Planning might be willing to swap the land for another land plot on the other side of Takoma Park. That would give the city ownership and the ability to do what it wants there, but the city isn’t too crazy about taking on the expense.

There is pressure from the neighborhood, where the feeling is that they get the crumbs while the wealthier neighborhoods get the cakes.

Utilities and trees

A lot of people all over the state are reeeeeelly ticked off with utilities. This was brought home by a PEPCO tree massacre on Ritchie Avenue this fall.

So, not only is the city council considering revising its tree ordinances, it is plotting to join forces with other Maryland jurisdictions to bring PEPCO and other utilities to heel.

The Ritchie Avenue PEPCO massacre. Photo by Bill Brown.

“It’s like we’re dealing with mini-dictatorships.” said councilmember Fred Schultz.

Tracking the effort is the city lobbyist, Public Policy Partners.

Other legislation they are following would allow free-standing emergency facilities, any legislation that would affect development on New Hampshire Avenue, or affordable housing (such as any matching-funds grants). The lobbyist is also following efforts to override the governor’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.

The mayor asked the lobby partnership to also focus on election legislation that would help the city combine ballots in forthcoming elections.

Bikes on the sidewalk

Safe Roadways Committee will likely push to suspend the law forbidding bicycles on sidewalks. Some roads, such as Ethan Allen Road, are just to dangerous and narrow to fit a bike lane, they say.

The police and some on the city council were skeptical. Your Gilbert developed skepticism when he was nearly knocked off the sidewalk by a speeding bicyclist in August.

They will also request more and better bike lanes and more bike-share stations. They also advocate getting local colleges – Washington Adventist University and Montgomery College – to provide free bike-sharing to students.

Bring out your dead

Many Takoma Parkians wouldn’t live anywhere else, so “why should they be dead anywhere else?” asked “scatter garden” advocate Jennifer Bemen.

Police plans

The Takoma Park Police Dept. has improvements they are making or would like to make. Chief Alan Goldberg went through a list at the Sept. 8 meeting. There’s going to be a lot more crime and criminal data sharing available, thanks to a White House initiative. There are new crime data-sharing programs, some available to the public, such as RAIDS Online. The chief said it was a part of “predictive policing,” which has an ominous, dystopian sound.

One of the items on the chief’s list was “rebranding” the city’s police cars.

Photo by Bill Brown.

New police training will include learning mental health aid, crisis intervention training, de-escalation and disengagement, Constitutional law and peer support. The department is also looking at how rate officer’s performance. Instead of counting arrest and ticket numbers, the chief said, they want to find a way to quantify activities such as school visits.

Arborist drama

City arborist Todd Bolton resigned Friday, Sept. 30. He left the same day, the city manager announced at the next week’s city council meeting. No reason was given.

Then, on Oct. 20, the day work began on the long-anticipated dog park, guess who showed up?
A grinning former city arborist Todd Bolton strolled the cleared property, a large sheaf of construction plans tucked under his arm. Bolton was working as an arborist for the contractor building the dog park.

No Bridge

Carroll Avenue Bridge closed down this summer for an almost complete rebuilding.

Photo by Bill Brown.

– Gilbert

 

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About the Author

Gilbert
Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.