Dear Readers,

Imagine battling the Hydra- the mythical monster which grew its many heads back as fast as they were lopped off- with a small nail-clipper.

That’s what the work of the city council seems like. Rarely can the council make a sudden, decisive move. Every issue requires a long series of public discussions, council discussions, staff discussions, and ordinance readings – a process which stretches on for weeks. When at last one Hydra-head issue is nibbled off, one pops up in its place. For instance, shortly after the council made its final disapproving vote regarding self-storage business proposed for the New Hampshire and Eastern Avenues gateway intersection, another developer presented his proposed 71 unit residential/business project up the street in Old Town.

This developer is a lot slicker than the self-storage one. Mr. Stylianos C. Christofides of the Infrastructure Capital Group (ICG) has purchased the “Talianos building” fronting Carroll Avenue and the land behind it, now a parking lot (not the central one accessed from Carroll/Laurel, but the one further down the hill accessed from Westmoreland Ave.). This creates an “L” shaped footprint. Most of the building, except for the art-deco facade, will be torn down and replaced with a larger structure. A deep underground parking garage will be dug under the parking lot and a row of detached houses will be built on top of it, like a set of big teeth. These are picturesquely called “the mews.”

ICG has taken a sophisticated approach – early on they sought community feedback and incorporated it into their plans. Their architect is classy and obsequious, never failing to mention with a teary eye that his business’s very first office was in this block.

The council, unified in the face of an outside threat, pack-attacked, though not as fiercely as in the cases of the self-storage project and the county attempt to remove our hook-and-ladder fire truck. They are not opposed to development in Old Town, most said, but they were very clearly against some aspects of this proposal.

All of these aspects had to do with the impact on the residential neighborhood behind the project: additional traffic, the “massing” of the big structure which would loom over the neighborhood, and the close proximity of the first “mews” unit to the street and adjoining house. Loss of retail space was also a concern. The council made it clear they want to see a different solution to the parking garage entrance, the location of the first “mews” unit, and the size of the low corner of the big building.

The traffic problem could be mitigated if the adjacent owner John Urciolo could be persuaded to cooperate. Parking garage access to Eastern Avenue would reduce traffic onto narrow, steep Westmoreland Ave, where the current sole entrance/exit is proposed. The grim-faced developers reported that though they had approached him, Mr. Urciolo had been completely uncooperative. Their lawyer spoke up, asking the council if it had the power of eminent domain or to create a right-of-way.

This make the council uneasy, Councilmemeber Terry Seamens explaining that Mr. Urciolo has been a contributor to the community, and they couldn’t force him to do something with his property he didn’t want to do.

The developers, looking slightly fed up to here with “community feedback”, said that though they were SO pleased to present to the council and SO interested to hear what they had to say, they were proceeding with the project, applying to Park and Planning for permits.
Constant Readers will know that the council is taking a long, slow look at rent control reform, starting with a series of presentations by staff on various aspects of the subject. Most recently (March 6) they had another session on rent stabilization capitol improvement petitions. BOO! Sorry, but it looked like you were glazing over. Pay attention!

A capitol improvement petition is the process a landlord uses to raise rent – as long as it is to recoup costs for certain kinds of improvements to the rental units or building. The discussion was heavy going Defining what kinds of costs are allowable or reasonable is tricky, and filing petitions is in the words of Councilmember Bruce Williams, “a messy process.”

Councilmember Marc Elrich, the defender of rent control, helped write the current law, so he was more than ever acting like the father of a young teen-age girl in a room full of teen-age boys, questioning the motives and actions of everyone in sight.

For a moment it looked like there would be another exchange of opposing, well-informed views on rent control between Elrich and Councilmember Colleen Clay. Mayor Porter had just explained that the purpose of rent control and the capitol improvement petition process was to encourage landlords to keep their units in good, affordable condition, but discourage owners from turning them into luxury, pricey units.

Clay said that this speaks to the very nature of rent stabilization, and that the public should have an ample opportunity to weigh in on just where the line should be on what landlords are allowed/encouraged to do. The stated purpose of rent control, she said, is to provide a base of affordable housing.

She then climbed out onto a speculative limb which almost sounded as though she thought that the market should decide what rents could be in order to bring in a higher economic strata. An incredulous Elrich asked “Wouldn’t that be a bad thing?”, saying that no other area rents are within reach of the working poor .

Clay clarified that she wasn’t saying she supported that, she was just stating the basic question before the council – do they want to keep it as it is, or do they want to allow upgrades to bring in a higher economic strata?

Nothing was decided, of course, this was just a fact-presentation by the staff and council discussion. Revision on rent stabilization law comes later. Simmer, simmer!

Another Hydra-head issue, though until the March 13th council meeting, has not a very contentious one, is the transfer of land to the county for the soon-to-be-built fire station. There have been the prerequisite number of hearings and readings over the last few weeks, and JUST when the last snip of the nailclippers was to be made, the council caught wind of a e-mail going around (but not to them) that described changes to the firehouse design.

The design of the firehouse was a particularly large, tough-necked Hydra-head issue a few years back. It was, and is, a county project, so the county officials’ response to the sort of citizen input we Takoma Parkers expect to be listened to was “huh?” Their plans called for a cookie-cutter modern, outer-suburb-style design, completely out of step with the older urban, cramped location in Takoma Park.

After a long battle, we thought that was settled. Now, apparently, without informing the city council or staff, the firehouse design has been revised. The changes are not “structurally significant” as Councilmember Seamens put it, but the new design eliminates dormers so that it would look like a “monolithic wall” according to Councilmember Marc Elrich. Finishing materials have been changed. The clock tower is now to be covered with a synthetic stucco material. A back wall that was supposed to be finished in brick is now Hardy Plank – a concrete fiber siding.

A miffed council voted to inform the county their high level of “concern,” and to postpone the vote on the transfer of property until the matter was settled.

Onward and upward with the gym! The mayor and city manager went to the annual “beg-a-thon” in Annapolis to seek a 4 million dollar bond bill to add a gym to the community center. At the March 13th council meeting they discussed how to proceed, joined by Howard Kohn chair of the Community Center Liaison Committee. Kohn has been a major supporter of the community center from the beginning.

Curiously, hardly anyone alluded to a need to survey citizens about the matter, as has been raised in the past whenever this comes up. Joy Austin-Land did say that “contact” should be made with the public via newsletter articles and other forms of outreach, but that’s as close as it got.

It was the same sort of discussion you might hear around many Takoma Park kitchen tables as homeowners discuss what sort of addition they might like and how much of it they can actually afford. The idea of including shower facilities was quashed as likely too expensive to build and staff. Some opined that though including bleachers would make the building bigger, therefore more expensive, they were essential.

The council seemed to agree that the city should proceed with soil borings, and then hire an architect to do a feasibility study. This should include an engineers report on the ground conditions. Everyone wanted to avoid the bad experience they had with the community center excavation.

Readers, do you have a big room? Is it handicap-accessible? Do you have lots of chairs? Due to renovations the city council will have to vacate their chambers for 3 weeks, April 11 – May 5. They are seeking an alternative meeting place. They are looking at renting space at a local school, or the meeting room at Victory Tower, the NH Ave. recreation center, and so forth. So, if you have a big sofa and room for a few onlookers, give them a call.

– Gilbert.

About the Author

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.

1 Comment on "Hydra-Foiled"

  1. Tom Gabriel | March 21, 2006 at 11:42 pm |

    Re the Council’s need for temporary space during renovations, a place with lots of chairs, and, you suggest, “a big sofa and room for a few onlookers.”
    Saw that after reading the 13 March meeting described elsewhere as “3:30 hrs of pure drudgery (I am glad Gilbert is masochistic enough to do it and write about it)”. Hey, how about no chairs, nothing comfortable at all on which to rest those Council bums? Far less space will be needed, and surely for a shorter time.

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