ONE TAKOMA: Affordable Housing Opportunity: Takoma Park’s Washington McLaughlin Property

The Washington McLaughlin property in Takoma Park.

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 Washington McLaughlin property, seen from New Hampshire Avenue.

The Washington McLaughlin property, seen from New Hampshire Avenue. Photo by Seth Grimes.

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.

About the Author

Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes is a twenty-one year resident of Takoma Park. He served on the city council from 2011 to 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @TakomaSeth.

10 Comments on "ONE TAKOMA: Affordable Housing Opportunity: Takoma Park’s Washington McLaughlin Property"

  1. Ginny Myers | May 11, 2017 at 4:13 pm |

    Great to read about this, thanks for publicizing it, Seth. I agree with some of what you write, with an important caveat. The idea of public/private funding of projects most suited to the community is a good one, yes, and I am all for affordable housing to keep Takoma Park economically and racially diverse (especially with the recent influx of a high-income demographic). Your description of this property as “isolated” is incorrect, however. It really is part of an existing neighborhood; people use the open space there and interact with the senior residents, who walk our neighborhood daily. The school property is slam up against the (very small) backyards of neighboring residences. It is essential that the people who have lived in this neighborhood for decades have a primary voice in any conversation about development, as they will have the most informed opinions about what would work best in what is literally their (our!) own back yards, and of course we also have the most at stake. Having the school there was, in my opinion, great — but that is hardly the final word on what the “community” would like to see there,as you imply. I don’t know what my neighbors would think of having another school there, I only know I’d like to explore the possibility. I also know that high-density apartments would strain the neighborhood — far from being a high-rise on New Hampshire Avenue, this would be a high-rise in an otherwise low-rise, low-key community. Again, my opinion only. In fact, there are many, many elements to consider moving forward, but one thing is sure: Local residents must be aware of the project moving forward and have a central role in its evolution. I will share this info with neighbors and hope for more opportunities to discuss/explore the possibilities together.

  2. Elias Vlanton | May 11, 2017 at 11:20 pm |

    I would agree with Ginny on almost everything she says. I am glad that you are proposing and raising the discussion on using the property to advance the city’s social objectives. Ginny is also correct that is property abuts many small yards which needs to be taken into account when considering development. Have the school planners who are proposing Piney Branch Elementary considered this site for a new school?E

  3. Thoughtfully and well researched article. Thank you Seth! Lots of new info.

    Let’s hope it does not get us into another “coop” battle?

    Any chance we can get space for emergency housing/shelter?

  4. Ummm, isn’t Seth the person who led the disastrous fight against incredibly reasonable and necessary transit-oriented redevelopment at the Metro site, thus severely limiting the city’s ability to work productively with developers? Our area has a tremendous amount of affordable housing, in many respects more than our fair share. No substantive effort has been made to update much of this dilapidated housing, in part because of a reactionary impulse to institutionalize poverty to provide a ready supply of cheap labor and in part because of the childish belief that all developers are inherently evil. Seven people died last summer because of these issues. It’s a shame that nothing changes around here.

    • Seth Grimes | May 14, 2017 at 6:37 pm |

      Brian, thanks for an opportunity to discuss development done wrong. Back 12-15 years ago, developer EYA proposed to put two-car garage townhouses, with added streets and alleys, next to the Takoma Metro station, a bus and rail transit hub. It was the design antithesis of transit-oriented housing. WMATA’s board approved that design in 2007, but the developer never went to permitting. When WMATA renewed the contract several years ago, the developer came up with a far, far superior plan although once again, the project was insufficiently transit-oriented, having a .66 parking ratio: Too much parking! Also the building was way outside zoning height limits because, unlike ALL newer nearby apartment buildings, the design did not place the parking under the building. These mis-design points contributed to a fight with the neighbors. In any case, WMATA approved the project in March 2014, but the developer has yet to go to permitting. Really the developer has been the problem! It’s a shame that aspect hasn’t changed, as you observe. Still, when the city has been in the driver’s seat, as in Takoma Junction, where I have championed development going back to 2009, we do make progress, slower than I like, but still progress.

  5. Margot Bass | May 19, 2017 at 11:56 am |

    I concur with Seth that affordable elderly housing is an important community value. I also concur with his additional post that new developments should be location-appropriate and should minimize automobile traffic. However, I strongly disagree that the Washington McLaughlin School property is appropriate for a high-rise apartment building, whether for elderly or others, with attendant massive land development footprint, harsh environmental impact, and heavy traffic implications. This property is nestled between twenty-four (24) Takoma Park residences. Children used to walk to this property for their public school education. Homeowners bought into this neighborhood because it is quiet during the day and at night, has abundant tree cover which protects it from New Hampshire Ave air pollution, has little night-time light pollution, and is a small enough community for neighbors to know each other and care for each other’s stray children and pets. The Washington McLaughlin property has only a tiny south frontage on New Hampshire Ave. On the north boundary lie Dorothy’s Woods, the City-owned cove forest with sizable tulip poplars, box elder, oaks, red-tailed hawks, foxes, deer, barred owl, and the occasional peregrine falcon. In addition to the abutting forest, a wild-feeling active stream runs through here. A long-used wooded path creates walking access between Circle and Gude and on to Poplar Avenue. In sum, this property has important wildlife and watershed value, is nestled in a quiet neighborhood, and has a historic cultural role as a local school and walking path. And the City, and all its residents by extension, are the largest abutting landowner. I recommend that Takoma residents and the City Council rapidly unite on a location-appropriate development plan to stave off any such massive-scale redevelopment. To meet an unfulfilled need, the McLaughlin property could become a small County magnet high school for integrated sciences in environmental biology, chemistry, mathematical modeling, and computer science. The location is a perfect site for these academic pursuits with its abutting natural forest, stream, and close-by Sligo Creek. And inter-disciplinary, collaborative research holds the future for much break-through scientific discovery. Apparently the Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith has already identified a Computer Science high school as a priority need in our downcounty area, envisioning a campus that would not require all of the land-intensive extracurricular facilities of existing high schools. Let’s get behind Superintendent Smith’s idea, and shape it into the perfect Takoma Park version for this property!

    • Seth Grimes | May 19, 2017 at 2:54 pm |

      Margot, thanks for the comment, however I did not and do not advocate a high-rise apartment building on the W-M site. I see rehabilitating the existing building, or if that proves infeasible, replacing it with a building of 2-3 stories, or maybe 4 with the right design. Sorry that wasn’t clearer. And I always advocate community involvement. We had similar discussions in Takoma Junction. Councilmembers and I rejected pretty-much immediately a couple of proposals that would have put a 3-4 story building on the site, which the community simply didn’t want, but 2 stories is a height broadly supported by those who favor building on the site. I’d envision a similar community-involved process at the W-M site, although first we need to ensure that the city, not developers, controls the process!

  6. Margot Bass | May 19, 2017 at 4:28 pm |

    It is helpful to have those additional details Seth. However, while still being concerned that your vision is too high impact both environmentally and neighborhood-wise for the site, I also question how your vision is specifically appropriate for 6501 Poplar Ave as a piece of land and a geographic location? We do need an affordable retirement community in Takoma Park. A neighbor told me she put her mother in a community half an hour away because that was the closest reasonable option. However, wouldn’t the Adventist Hospital site at Carroll and Flower Ave be perfect for that, and a far better option than 6501 Poplar? That site can offer the elderly both independent healthy living and medical support as needed, and it builds directly on Takoma Park resources and businesses, being win-win all around. The Adventist Hospital site (after the hospital leaves) would have: A) Extensive existing parking; B) An on-site 24-hour walk-in clinic apparently to remain; C) An on-site tower of local medical professionals; D) A direct bus route (Ride-ON Bus 25) to the Takoma Park Library and Community Center with their wonderful, diverse, and growing schedule of activities for the elderly; E) A direct bus to the cooperative food market with its healthy prepared food options (Ride-on Bus 18); F) A 10-mile nature-based walking trail separate from traffic on Sligo Creek that would start almost at their doorstep, offering one of the best exercise options to maintain health and longevity; and G) A church right across the street offering social and spiritual opportunities for those seeking it. For location-appropriate planning, the Adventist Hospital site seems like a home run for an affordable retirement community investment, in many ways that 6501 Poplar just cannot compete.

    • Seth Grimes | May 20, 2017 at 10:37 am |

      Margo, thanks for your further comment. I’m advocating use of the existing building footprint (although realistically there’d be some variance); perhaps the current extensive hardscape could be reduced. Further, infill redevelopment on a transit corridor makes smart-growth sense, so I don’t see the environmental impact. Reuse/like-use would have far less impact than a developer’s razing the building in favor of single-family homes on 6,000+ square foot lots, as permitted by current zoning, which would mean new roads and traffic on the nearby streets. I doubt that a private developer would have the neighborhood’s interests in mind.

      In any case, what uses do you favor for the Washington McLaughlin property? And do you favor the CIty of Takoma Park’s evaluating whether the city would have right-to-purchase rights in the current tax-sale situation or in a post-auction resale situation?

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