GRANOLAPARK: Junction rambunction

Mayor Bruce Williams poses a question to the developers. Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Can we just forget the whole thing?

That was just one of the reactions to the Final Four development proposals presented at the Takoma Park public hearing Tues., Sept. 23.

Four presentations in one meeting, each followed by a question and answer session was overwhelming. By the end the packed-in audience was tuckered out and few had praise for any of the four plans.

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City Manager Brian Kenner starts the meeting.

Most people’s minds seemed turned to envisioning – not the revitalization of Takoma Junction – but the traffic congestion, parking problems, and crowding all the plans would bring.

All the plans included at least lip service to coop expansion. The TPSS Food Coop is the Junction’s anchor store. The development plan the coop submitted was one of those rejected. Their appeals to supporters to attend the meeting apparently worked. When one member of the public called for reconsidering the coop plan, about a quarter to a third of the overflow audience applauded.

So, some of the anxiety and criticism expressed was part of the coop’s lobbying effort.

The coop supporters did manage to raise one of their two big issues in everyone’s minds – where’s the loading dock going to go?

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Only one plan, the Neighborhood Development company’s, addressed that to the coop supporter’s satisfaction. The Community Three group had the least satisfactory answer – they’d deal with it later, they said.

“Deal with it later” is not as cavalier as it sounds. All of the proposals are concepts. The developers expect them to change in response to feedback.They will also change once they’ve had serious talks with the coop. That would include the coop building’s current owner. There might also be negotiations with the auto repair businesses on the other side of the city lot. As the developers each stressed, the situation is fluid. Once the process gains momentum, such negotiations will develop also.

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Community Three’s vision.

As one of the Keystar developers, whose proposal also had no specific plans for the loading dock, they can’t compel the coop or anyone else to do anything. The solution could be a layby, an underground dock or a, change to the building configuration.” We don’t know what they’d be willing or able to do.”

The city did not require the developers to include the Takoma Children’s School nursery-school but most did.

The Ability Project took it a step farther, including a school facility for developmentally-challenged children. They saw both the Ability Project and the coop as “mission-driven” agencies that “should get together.” They call their proposed building The Lodge.

Everyone included a coffee-shop, possibly a coop-run coffee-shop. Everyone included residential space. Everyone said their projects would be environmentally sustainable.

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Ability Project’s plan.

The Ability Project wants to put the school on the steep slope down to Columbia Avenue (currently wooded), but the entrance would be via a bridge from the city lot parking lot.  Community Three and Neighborhood Development plans put a single-family residence in the same spot, but preserved much of the rest of the steep wooded slope.

Their plan includes event spaces and a terrace for art or theatre events. Use of the parking lot would change through the day. In the early morning, trucks would unload at the coop. Then parents would drop off their children. Then the lot would be used by shoppers. Skeptical mutterings were heard in the audience about

Community Three developers, who cited their Bethesda Row project a number of times, emphasized quality and economy. They would build a wooden building, which, they say would be relatively inexpensive to build, but hand-built.

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Keystar/Eco Housing’s drawing.

The Keystar/Eco Housing group stressed their local connections and experience. Their projects include: Gable Takoma, Takoma Central, Cedar Crossing, 7061 Carroll, Trohv, Ace Hardware, Air Show Mastering and Takoma Village, which is a co-housing project. The residential section of their development would also be co-housing, which they defined as a place where residents are active in their community development. The movement started in Denmark. Co-housing communities, they said, tend to be pedestrian rather than car-oriented. They also tend to be green. diverse and inclusive.    70% of Takoma Village’s residents have “workforce incomes” they said.

Their building would be 3 floors, with living and a common courtyard on the second floor, and more residences, a green roof and courtyard on the third.

They would keep the wooded slope behind the coop on Columbia Ave. as a park.

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Neighborhood Development Company’s presentation silhouettes their architect.

In our opinion the fourth presenter, Neighborhood Development Company, had the most thoughtful and promising introduction to their proposal – but the actual proposal didn’t live up to the introduction.

Their architect, after showing her work: Cady’s Alley in Georgetown, Kentucky Courts in DC, which featured blending old and new in what she called a “Mannerist” style, spoke about treating the Junction site similarly. She said they’d looked directly across the street and nearby. What they saw was “low-scale” buildings, separated by space in some cases, color of building material in others. Though there were similarities, such as in-and-out projections and details that she claimed “to have captured such details in our architecture.”

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Neighborhood Development’s terracing.

They, more than the others, addressed the steep slope behind the coop down to Columbia as though it were a feature. They proposed terracing their building in the back so it doesn’t loom over Columbia Avenue, and facing a number of windows toward the wooded slope. The Takoma Children’s School could be on the lowest floor, but since it would face trees and the sun on the downhill side, it would not feel like a basement, they said.

Their design, however, looked more modern and uniform than any of the surrounding buildings. It has in-and-outs – but identical ones in an even pattern. We detected no elements that appear to have been picked up from surrounding buildings, other than the brick building material.

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Neighborhood Development drawing.

Theirs was the lowest proposal, at 30 – 35 feet high. Lorraine Pearsall. of Historic Takoma, who at one point urged the city to bring the coop’s plan back into consideration, harangued each group on their project height. The other three were around 45 ft high, which displeased Pearsall mightily. She objected to three-story proposals as being out-of-scale with the rest of the of the Junction.  Even the 30-35 ft proposal didn’t seem to please her. She might have been satisfied with something about waist-high.

The biggest laugh line of the evening was Mike Tabor’s. Tabor’s farm produce is sold at the coop, and he was clearly carrying the coop’s water, bringing the loading-dock issue to the microphone a number of times. He tried to stir fears that such fancy developments would mean “upscaling” of the neighborhood and driving up the coop’s prices, which are now affordable. “Affordable?” The hoots of derisive laughter were loud.

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Mike Tabor in green t-shirt waits his turn to bring up the loading dock.

Neighborhood Development was the group that proposed rooftop hydrophobic vegetable farming and tanks for fish farming. They were partnering with urban farmers Freedom Farms.

The fish farming proposal raised most eyebrows in the room, but Your Gilbert, cynic that we are, pegged it for a gimmick, the sort that is likely to fall to the side of the Road to Reality – next to the city Community Center’s Victorian facade  – which got the public so enthusiastically behind that troubled project.

The questions revealed the public’s deep doubts, even the public that didn’t turn out specifically to champion the coop’s plan. Sycamore Ave. residents were particularly worried, suspicious that the solution to the coop’s loading dock dilemma will mean semi trucks on their street. The evening’s most raucous moment came when a Sycamore resident tried to shout down the proceedings to make the point that when the coop first moved in there had been protracted negotiations with the neighborhood to keep big trucks out. The crowd shouted her down, “Wait your turn!”

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Keystar’s presentation.

One question – do we need to do this or can we leave it like it is – seemed to resonate with many in the audience.

A number of Takoma Junction Task Force members were there, and were unhappy that most of the developers had not taken their report recommendations to heart.

One of them, Roger Schlegel, who like Historic Takoma’s Lorraine Pearsall, thought most of the projects were out os scale with the area, was particularly worried about traffic and parking. The developers all seemed to ignore the fact that the current parking lot is used by patrons of other neighborhood retail. What will those patrons do if the parking lot is reduced and there is more retail drawing in auto traffic, he said. Ideally, patrons would not drive, but a car-free society is decades away at best.

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Brian Kenner, city manager, flanked by city councilmember Terry Seamens and his wife Joyce Seamens.

None of the politicians we grilled stated a favorite, of course.

So, submit your questions to the city, Dear Readers, and on to the next meeting – which is the city council meeting Monday, Sept. 29. The entire meeting will be devoted to the development proposals and YOUR submitted questions.

Here’s the questions Your Gilbert submitted:

The city’s original purpose of requesting proposals was to see if the city could get a better deal than the one the coop was offering. This was the correct thing to do. However, that criteria – which proposal is the best deal for the city – is impossible for the public to determine because the monetary details are still under wraps. How can we judge these proposals without knowing what the city gets out of each?

Without this criteria, the public can only judge the proposals based only on the amenities they offer, rather than which is the most financially advantageous to the city.  Does it give developers a bargaining advantage with the city if they get public support based only on the goodies they offer?

– 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.