Shady Deal

Dear Readers
There’s some shady business planned at the community college. If the proposed expansion goes the way some fear, they say the new buildings will be so big and tall they will cast the student common area, the local streets, and the surrounding neighborhood into perpetual shade.
This is not what the neighbors nor the Takoma Park city council want to happen, of course. They would like the Montgomery College Takoma Park branch to expand in another direction. The original college campus occupies a few city blocks in a residential neighborhood. The newer part of the campus with recently built or under-construction larger buildings occupies an adjacent area across the railroad tracks in commercial Silver Spring.

* * * *
A panel of college representatives presented their draft plans to the city council at the July 14th meeting. Different options are still being considered, not all of which are acceptable to the surrounding community. The more agreeable plans tend to be more expensive, as they involve purchase of new property. The less expensive plans involve building on land already owned – such as the original campus next to the residential neighborhood.
Much of the presentation and the discussion had to do with the “Burlington property” on Burlington Avenue [see NOTE 1 below].
What is the Burlington property, you ask? If you are Montgomery College, it is a plot of land owned not by them but by the Montgomery College Foundation slated for mixed-use development that would generate income for the college. If you are the Takoma Park City Council it is a pilot of land owned by the college (college, foundation, same difference), that is the obvious place to expand the college campus where it would shade the railroad tracks, not voters’ yards and gardens.
College provost Brad Stewart admitted that he wouldn’t mind having that space for academic use only, but he made no promises whether the foundation would cede the property or not.
The college reps made no promises at all, other than to keep “listening” to the city. Instead they made excuses why they couldn’t make promises: it is too early in the process, their options may be limited by costs and factors known and unknown, architects can’t give them details yet, and so forth. The process is driven, they say, by requirements from the county to quickly come up with an expansion plan, any plan that provides for the projected increase in students by 2016. For that reason they show ugly “boxes” on the plans and sketches that are alarming to the community, but the nondescript boxes are shown only because the college has no architectural plans, yet.
The neighborhood associations and residents weren’t buying it, They complained that some of the options show inappropriate massing and height of projected buildings in the city section of the campus, even to the point of overshadowing the campus’ own common area.
Your Gilbert pulled out the salt shaker and poured himself a few grains to take with the statements from past and present directors of Historic Takoma. Historic preservation is all well and good, but they have a habit of advocating “no change!” while overlooking other important issues [see NOTE 2 below].
So, Your Gilbert was just a tiny bit sympathetic when, after the Historic Takoma and residents had roasted them, one of the college reps complained that the city says “we love you” on one hand, but on the other tries to push the college away. After all, when people say they don’t want to have to look at buildings when they sit on their porch, we want to give them a reality check. Hello? This is the inner suburbs, where for a host of good reasons we want to encourage people to live, work, go to school, take mass transit, bike, and walk. Urban and inner suburban density is the alternative to outer suburban sprawl.
BUT, it is overly generous of us to show even that much sympathy. These college reps are a slippery school of fish, darting away from commitments and hard facts to swim in the water of platitudes, vague statements, and excuses.
It reminded us of the process with the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital leading up to its announced departure. The hospital’s rep had the same mournful, concerned expression, the same statements about how he was there to listen and understand the community’s concerns, the same professions of love and caring for the city, and the same underlying plea: please cooperate in the process of making it look like we’re working together while we shaft you.
What is it about the city council that makes them go along with this false cordiality? The residents were not fooled. When it was their turn to participate, they kicked shins. We pine for former city (now county) council member Marc Elrich (who made a report to the city council at the July 7th meeting) who has a finely tuned BS meter, and who does not hesitate to apply fire to feet.

PS. For some background on this see our February post “Chillin.”
Do you know where Burlington Avenue is? You’ve probably driven on it frequently. Here’s a hint, it is one of the many streets that are part of East-West Highway (Rte. 410). It is not in Takoma Park, but it is close.
The more knowledgeable of you, and those who went immediately to Googlemaps, know that Burlington Avenue is that one block stretch of road, most of it a bridge, that crosses the railroad track between Georgia and Fenton. This is where the Burlington property lies, the piece of land just over the bridge, between the tracks and new Montgomery College building on Georgia Avenue.
[We stand corrected on this, see comment from Sabrina Baron, President of Historic Takoma. The institution which did this was the county historical preservation commission, not Historic Takoma.] For instance, it was their concerns about not letting any portion of a proposed new residential development in Old Town to be visible over the historic downtown facade which drove the developers to shift the mass of the proposed new building so it crowded into and loomed over the presumably less historic residential neighborhood behind. The concerns of residents. and the desires of the developer to orient the project toward Old Town and Metro were trumped. That development did not go through.
In another instance, Historic Takoma objected vociferously to turning the infamously snarled Takoma Junction (where their new office is located) into a traffic-circle. Traffic circles, once people get used to them, are more efficient, faster, and waste less gasoline than traffic lights or stop signs. But, the “no change” edit trumped those concerns, too.


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.

3 Comments on "Shady Deal"

  1. I would like to correct several mischaracterizations that you have put forward in your blog about Historic Takoma’s positions on development or re-development in Takoma Park, particularly in Old Town and in the Junction.
    Let me also say that I am the current president of Historic Takoma, and I did NOT speak in the work session on Montgomery College this past Monday night (I spoke briefly in public comments). Lorraine Pearsall did speak in that work session. She is the immediate past President and current Vice President of Historic Takoma.
    BUT she did not speak for Historic Takoma at the Council meeting. She is also a resident of North Takoma and shares a property boundary with Montgomery College. She and her husband and their property would PERSONALLY and directly be very impacted by certain development on the historic core campus of the College. This situation is also true for a number of other residents of North Takoma, and the North Takoma Residents’ Association supports the College moving density off the core campus and on to Burlington Avenue.
    Let me also say generally that Historic Takoma is committed to appropriate development and re-development in Takoma Park. Our position is not, nor has it ever been, one of no change.
    In fact, we HAVE supported every new development that has been put forward for regulatory approval in Takoma Park MD and DC, except for the development at the Metro site, which is neither appropriate for our community, nor true SmartGrowth development. We have worked with developers to try to find compromises that are win-win situations.
    With regard to the development project that was proposed for an Old Town property that you mention, Historic Takoma does not have jurisdiction over requiring setbacks on historic facades. That authority derives solely from the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission who administers historic preservation in all Montgomery County historic districts. So it was the County that determined what could or could not happen with the facade of that property on Carroll Avenue. Historic Takoma did not force the mass of the proposed development to the rear. That happened because of County requirements and because of the developers’ refusal to lower the square footage of the project.
    Historic Takoma was opposed to having an 85 foot tall building looming over the adjacent residential neighborhood, which is indeed of historic value and as much so as the Carroll Avenue business district. We fought to preserve the quality of life for that neighborhood by asking for the development to be lower and smaller in scale. No one was more surprised than Historic Takoma when it fell by the wayside. Our position was build it lower and build it smaller, not don’t build it. Historic Takoma was by no means alone in this position. The HPC hearing was filled with residential neighbors, neighboring businessmen, members of the City’s Facade Advisory Board, and others who thought the proposed development was too tall and too massive. The HPC and the County Planning Board also thought it was too tall and too massive.
    With regard to the traffic circle at Takoma Junction, we are opposed to that proposal, as are the residential neighbors immediately adjacent to that intersection and a number of the business owners in the Junction neighborhood.
    Traffic circles have their place, but this is not one of them. There are many, many things that can be done to improve the situation for both traffic and pedestrians in this intersection WITHOUT a major reconstruction of the infrastructure. There is a lot of concern that school children be able to safely cross this intersection on their walk to school. At a recent public meeting, I heard a great solution for this concern–hire a crossing guard to work at the intersection of Carroll and Ethan Allen.
    A circle at this intersection would offer, according to the study commissioned by the State Highway Administration, a 4 SECOND increase in the speed of traffic flow at this intersection. Lots of the concerns raised about this intersection center on pedestrian safety, and traffic circles are most pedestrian unfriendly. In fact, traffic circles in the state of Maryland will soon be required to have traffic SIGNALS installed in them because vision-impaired pedestrians, for example, cannot cross traffic circles because the traffic never stops.
    Moreover, hidden in the fine print of the consultant’s study was the information that a traffic circle at Carroll and Ethan Allen will REQUIRE the installation of another circle at Carroll and Philadelphia. That, for your information, is directly in front of the fire station. How would fire trucks and ambulances get out of the fire station in a hurry if there is a traffic circle directly in front of the building? County fire officials testified recently in front of city council that such a circle would have to be “mountable” for a fire truck or ambulance to drive right over the circle. But what about the unceasing flow of traffic around the circle? How would emergency vehicles avoid collisions with that traffic when leaving the building in a hurry? And this second circle would require the destruction of a number of privately owned residences on Carroll and Philadelphia Avenues.
    We also oppose this traffic circle idea because it would destroy B. Y. Morrison Park at the Junction, and because it would require destruction or relocation of the pavilion (once a gas station and other businesses, with its original mural by Jim Colwell) that currently sits in the park, and also because a traffic circle at this location would require the destruction of the neighboring privately owned residence at 208 Manor Circle, and perhaps the destruction of other privately owned property as well.
    Destruction or relocation of this park and its pavilion would also be detrimental to the businesses along Carroll Avenue. Relocating the park to the other side of the street, for example, would effectively put a barrier between these businesses and their customers.
    I will offer one further correction: the building we own at the Junction will serve a number of functions in the community; it is not simply an office for our organization.
    Our building will house and exhibit our archival collections of photos, documents, and other artifacts. Our collections will be open to the community and to the general public for research. It will provide one of the largest meeting spaces in the community where lectures, community meetings, educational seminars, and a whole range of activities may be hosted.
    Sabrina A. Baron
    Historic Takoma, Inc.
    PO Box 5781
    Takoma Park, MD 20913

  2. alain Thery | July 16, 2008 at 6:13 pm |

    Wow! Gilbert, you certainly know how to get the Holy Institution of TP excited! From the parsing of who is in position in Sacred HTP (except this one does not contribute to speed) to the spin on everything else (all the countries in Europe that have had successful traffic circles obviously do not know what they are doing!), I bet that that is the most extensive response that you ever had to any of your blogs. Maybe that is the way to get TP out its torpor?

  3. We are impressed! Comments are not usually as long as the article.
    We stand corrected on the distinction between Historic Takoma and the county Historic Preservation Commission re: the Old Town development.

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