IMAGE: The Washington McLaughlin property in Takoma Park, a former Prince George’s public school. Photo by Seth Grimes.
ONE TAKOMA • SETH GRIMES
Our shared goal of maintaining diverse, prosperous, inclusive Montgomery County communities hinges on creation of new affordable housing, with reliable transit, neighborhood amenities, and good schools. We seek to welcome new neighbors without forcing anyone out, to allow seniors to age in community, and to foster economic opportunity and job growth. How can we make this happen? The challenge is complex.
Government must play a role; developers aren’t going to build if the rules and financial conditions aren’t right. We have zoning regulations and master plans – the City of Takoma Park has a housing and economic development strategic planning effort underway – all important elements, but ability to react quickly to opportunity is also key. Quick reaction, as in coordinated Montgomery County and City of Takoma Park response to the pending tax sale of the Washington McLaughlin property in Takoma Park.
Apartment conversion of the existing buildings – or replacement with new, site-sensitive construction – is a perfect opportunity to remake a problem property as new affordable housing while preserving current beneficial uses.
The site is close to home for me, but really just an example of the type of in-fill opportunity, begging for creative reuse, to be found county-wide.
The Washington McLaughlin Property
The Washington McLaughlin property consists of the former J. Enos Ray Elementary School, now largely vacant, on a 5.12 acre parcel, street address 6501 Poplar Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland. (See Diana Kohn’s Voice reporting, TALES OF TAKOMA: Who was J. Enos Ray anyway?) It is privately owned, by Dr. Pauline Washington, who formerly operated the Washington McLaughlin Christian School on the site. The site currently houses an adult daycare that serves approximately 50 people and is licensed for 9 residential units, the Washington McLaughlin Apartments for Senior Citizens. The latter construction was financed by a federal HUD loan under the National Affordable Housing Act. The senior housing uses win Dr. Washington a 50% property-tax abatement.
The site is bounded by Poplar, Gude, and Conway Avenues and an unimproved former “paper street” extension of Circle Avenue. The other side of the paper street is Dorothy’s Woods, a 2.68 acre, mostly wooded parcel that the City of Takoma Park acquired in a 2015 tax sale.
Dr. Washington is significantly behind on tax payments. The City of Takoma Park is owed around $68,000, and Montgomery County is also owed back taxes. Mortgage holder Fairview Investment Fund II, LP claims a total amount due, as of March 31, 2017, of $266,744.56 and has filed a civil action that would lead toward foreclosure. But based on outstanding tax liens, Montgomery County is including this account in its annual tax lien sale, scheduled for June 12, 2017. (The county will publish sale details four weeks prior to the sale date, on May 15. The tax sale will be cancelled if the property owner timely clears the tax debt.)
Perfect for Redevelopment
To me, the site is perfect for redevelopment as moderately-priced apartments with the aim of retaining the current senior housing and adult daycare uses. This is a fantastic opportunity for Takoma Park and Montgomery County – the council, administration, Planning Board, and Housing Opportunities Commission – working together, to broker rehabilitation (or replacement) of a mostly vacant problem property as affordable housing.
(I don’t wish to dismiss an alternative possibility, one that would also deliver enormous community benefit: Rehabilitation or reconstruction as a public school, a permitted use within the site’s R-60 zoning. Schools in the Takoma Park–Silver Spring corner of the county – along with many up-county and East County areas – are over-crowded. Montgomery County has struggled to match school capacity to population growth. Yet I see this site as space-constrained given Montgomery County’s approach to school construction. Nonetheless, I know that community members would very much welcome the county’s consideration of the site for a new public school.)
The site is close to a major arterial, New Hampshire Avenue, that is well served by public transit including express buses between the Fort Totten Metro station and Takoma-Langley Crossroads. The city has been working for years to revitalize the New Hampshire Avenue corridor, between Eastern Avenue NE and University Blvd. The New Ave initiative envisions redevelopment that will welcome new businesses and residents, provide community amenities, and boast an attractive, pedestrian and environmentally friendly streetscape.
This site is a carve-out from a neighborhood of single-family homes. The site’s direct access to New Hampshire Avenue should allay any neighborhood traffic concerns, and its separation from adjacent homes would allow spot rezoning as needed, via a Local Map Amendment that would alter the site’s zoning. Apartment housing at this site could jump-start New Hampshire Avenue commercial revitalization with the plus that we wouldn’t be isolating affordable housing away from higher-priced neighborhoods. Remember our diversity goal!
Could the City or County Buy the Property?
It is possible that provisions in Takoma Park City Code and in Montgomery County Code would come into play here, given that the property currently houses rental apartments. City Code § 6.32.040-A states, “The owner shall provide a written offer of sale to the following before going to settlement on the sale of the rental facility to another party:… 3. To the City of Takoma Park, Maryland.” County Code § 53A-4 Right of First Refusal to Buy Rental Housing grants similar rights to Montgomery County and to the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission.
I note that under Takoma Park City Code § 6.32.070, “the City may exercise rights under this chapter in conjunction with a third party or by assigning or selling those rights to any party, whether private or governmental.” If these code provisions apply, the city is in the driver’s seat here.
A Partnership Approach
This project would be expensive. There’s the fair value of the land and building. Conversion, or new construction if the building can’t be reused, will be very costly. The project could not be undertaken without a developer partnership, regardless of the level of city involvement. I do not see that the city could afford to buy the property – perhaps Montgomery County or the Housing Opportunities Commission would – but we could create a package of financial and tax incentives that would interest area developers.
Government involvement of this sort is necessary. Researchers looking at experiences in Denver concluded that “the private market just can’t build housing at a cost people can afford,” reports Emily Badger in Wonkblog, and Denver is nowhere near as expensive as the Washington area.
I note that Barbara Goldberg Goldman and co-organizers of the recent Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County summit included developers in the conversation – they of course emphasized that projects must make financial sense – alongside consultants and government officials. We don’t live in a command economy.
The consultants and officials speaking at the summit presented stats that project demand for 4,000 additional Montgomery County housing units each year for the next ten. They described demand at both ends of the area median income (AMI) range, households earning above 130% of AMI and those living on 80% of AMI or less. We need to build for the high end and middle of the range and not just the low end, in order to avoid allowing lower-income residents to be outbid and displaced.
According to Erika Poethig of the Urban Institute, quoted by Badger in Wonkblog, “Building affordable housing is truly a public-private partnership, and the private only takes you so far.” Badger’s conclusion: “Most of these [affordable] properties will require some kind of aid for both the renter and the developer. To the extent that government should step in when the private market can’t, affordable housing is a prime example.”
Zoning as a Tool
Zoning is key tool, a county function. But the City of Takoma Park is an advantageous position due to a special provision in Maryland law. State code § 24-202 says that a two-thirds majority vote of both the district council and the county planning board is required to take any action relating to land-use planning or zoning within the City of Takoma Park that is contrary to a resolution of the Mayor and City Council.
I am certain that the Montgomery County Council would react favorably to a city request for a Local Map Amendment, if needed, to allow new, appropriately scaled affordable housing construction on the site. And the city could create a significant impediment to uses it disfavors.
Consider that while the parcel is zoned R-60 – R for residential and 60 for 6,000 square-foot (or greater) lot size – a proposal to build single-family homes on the site would entail subdivision. A negative city council vote would force a supermajority Planning Board vote in favor of subdivision. The city council could – should in my view – signal that it will object to subdivision, to discourage developer purchase of the parcel for redevelopment as low-density single-family homes with displacement of the current senior apartments and adult daycare, that is, if it proves infeasible or impossible to exercise rights of purchase.
Housing for All
I urge Montgomery County and the City of Takoma Park to work together to promote reconstruction of the Washington McLaughlin property for affordable housing, preserving the limited current uses. We can deploy financial incentives necessary to make this project work. (And again, the community would be quite happy, were Montgomery County Public Schools to rehabilitate the property as a new elementary school.)
The Washington McLaughlin opportunity is not unique. I’m all for the planned conversion of the former Silver Spring library on Colesville Road, and discussion around the former Eagle Bank office building at 850 Fenton Street is promising. Montgomery County has a variety of tools at its disposal, which it has deployed as appropriate to different situations, as described, for instance, in a December 2014 Department of Housing & Community Affairs Moving Forward presentation.
Some situations could require special zoning treatment. The Planning Board and Montgomery County Council could consider creating an Affordable Housing Floating Overlay Zone that would allow greater density – a larger than other-wise allowed number of units, via greater lot occupancy and higher floor-area ratios (FARs) – and low or no minimum parking requirements, for new affordable-housing construction and conversions. (An overlay zone refines the building and land-use rules set by the base zone it overlays, and a floating zone facilitates spot application of special zoning rules. Here’s Montgomery County Zoning Code on floating zones, and an interesting Smart Growth America paper providing a model ordinance for a Neighborhood Development Floating Zone.) We’d hope to encourage mixed-use development that includes businesses and amenities in projects, as appropriate.
We’re moving forward. Montgomery County’s Five-Year Consolidated Plan for Housing and Community Development and Action Plan are well worth a look, but let’s focus on the word Action. The Washington McLaughlin property presents a very significant opportunity. Let’s make the most of it.