The co-op presents its plan

The public lined up to speak.  David Zuckerman, co-op board-member at center. Photo by Bill Brown.

NEWS AND ANALYSIS • BY BILL BROWN

The project manager had the two most dramatic moments in the long and often emotional city council meeting last Monday.

Fax in hand, Marilyn Berger, TPSS food co-op project manager announced deep into the Sept. 29 Takoma Park city council meeting that the co-op landlord had just offered a 20 year lease, confirming the co-op as a lead player in the Takoma Junction development process.

Earlier in the evening the audience was shocked when Berger revealed that two developers had used dirty tactics in the development process, resulting in their expulsion from that process.

The meeting was exclusively devoted to the city lot development issue. The co-op was invited to present it’s rejected development proposal.

Most of the 4.5 hour meeting was taken up with public statements to the council. The attending public, about 160 people, included many co-op supporters, board members and employees.

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Marilyn Berger, TPSS Co-op project manager at the podium with landlady’s fax in hand. Photo by Bill Brown.

Public comments were followed by a somewhat defensive city manager’s statement explaining the process and correcting several misunderstandings.

The co-op presented it’s proposal and gave an account of it’s sometimes troubling experience in the process, including attempted manipulations and fears for their future existence. The co-op’s proposal doubles the co-op’s space, creating more storage, a kitchen for food preparation, a community space and a beer and wine section.

The counclmembers and mayor all made comments assuring the co-op supporters that though their plan wasn’t picked, the co-op was still highly valued and its concerns would be met.

Some hard truths came out as the meeting devolved into a more informal give-and-take between the public and the council. Co-op supporters complained that, though they’ve asked, nobody told them why their plan was rejected. The council told them why – at point-blank range.

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The presentations by the four finalists for the redevelopment of the City Lot at the Takoma Junction – The Ability Project, LLC, Community Three, LLC, Keystar LLC/ Eco Housing and Neighborhood Development Company – are now available online. Also find links to the evaluation criteria, the original Request for Proposals, and the Council meeting discussion.

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The public speaks

Of the 45 people who lined up to speak during the initial public comment session, 20 of them spoke in favor of the co-op’s plan. Three spoke in favor of the Ability Project plan – one of the four finalists selected by city staff. No one spoke in support of any other specific developers, though 7 encouraged city lot development in general. Five were for “option 5” – i.e. no development. Several commented that the developer’s proposals were “too big.”

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The public lined up to make statements. Photo by Bill Brown.

Eight people urged the council to re-start the process with different criteria. Six people mentioned the Takoma Junction Task Force, whose report, some of them felt, was not taken into account as much as it should have been. Five urged more attention be paid to traffic and parking, One supported a roundabout at the complicated and traffic-bound Takoma Junction intersection, another passed out a map showing how a more efficient “X” intersection could be created. Two were worried about preserving the wooded slope behind the lot. And 2 people presented their own development plans.

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Historic Takoma strongly objected to this proposal to create an “X” intersection in Takoma Junction.

Three people spoke about other matters.

The criticism amounted to a pile-on, especially on city manager Brian Kenner, whose development process the city is following. It was also on the city council, who, following the meeting rules, do not respond to citizens during the citizen comment period. They responded after the co-op presentation.

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Byrne Kelly’s proposal presented at the meeting.

City manager responds

City Manager Brian Kenner cited his professional experience developing publicly-owned lands. “I’ve done a few of these in the past,” he said, understating his years of real-estate work with the federal and District of Columbia governments.

“I recognize Takoma Park is different,” said Kenner, “so I made some parts of the process different,” creating several opportunities for public questions and feedback – such as last week’s public hearing and the meeting at hand. There will be several opportunities for public feedback which, he says, will drive development plan changes and revisions.

He explained that all seven development proposals, including the co-op’s, were judged equally on a set of criteria. The three rejected were each for different reasons — from proposing too much density to not having enough financial experience. The entities chosen had to show they had the experience and backing to see the project through to the end, he said.

The staff appreciates the co-op, he tried to assure the audience, and the city requires development plans to include the co-op’s concerns.

Co-op presents

At first, co-op manager Berger said, the co-op was excited by the city’s request for proposals (RFP), and it expected to partner with other people and groups. They were shocked and upset when a developer asked them to partner with them exclusively – which would have torpedoed all the other potential developers. Then another developer lied to their landlady in an attempt to buy the Turner building. The developer told her the co-op was planning on vacating the premises, offering a low price for the building, said Berger.

When the co-op reported these unethical acts to the city, the staff kicked those developers out of the process.

The presentation emphasized the co-op’s financial and professional standing and approach.

Berger said the co-op first hired feasibility and marketing studies. The city’s resident survey supported their findings, she said. Residents want a local beer and wine, restaurants, and a wider selection of produce. A co-op expansion would address these, she said. Expansion would allow the co-op to offer some foods at lower prices to bring in a “wider set of customers.”

Tanya Whorton, Co-op Board President stressed the co-op’s financial stability, lack of long-term debt, annual audits, and $8 million yearly sales. The co-op has 40 employees with health benefits, and could add 25 more with an expansion, she said.

Council comments

This was the first time since the four “finalist” developers’ presentations the previous Tuesday that the council had a chance to publicly react. So, they addressed not only the co-op presentation, but the whole process.

“You might think we might feel put upon” councilmember Fred Schultz told the audience in response to the relentless criticism heard during the public comment session. To the contrary, “This has been exciting!” he said.

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City council and public. Photo by Bill Brown.

The RFP did what the council wanted to accomplish, he said  “to kick start this conversation.”

“We’re a community in here. My job is to represent you as best as possible,” said Schultz.

Councilmember Seth Grimes said “I have little dispute with any of you,” He said he has the same concerns and interest as other residents,  ” It’s strange to sit up here because we are you.”

Councilmember Tim Male observed that public comments showed no clear consensus. “We have disagreement. In every project there are people who are for or against it.”

“The problems of the Junction are hard,” he said, citing a few difficult aspects he’s noted so far in all the presentations: the viability of businesses in small historic buildings elsewhere in the Junction, traffic from a proposed day care center, the fact that the co-op does not own it’s building.

The process, he said, is a long one. The selection will not be made until 2016.

Councilmember Smith supported the RFP process. “It gives us an opportunity to see how other people envision the area, doesn’t mean we have to follow them . But we can see what professionals would do,” he said. He assured co-op supporters that “the co-op is going to be the anchor of this project.”

All the other councilmembers made the same assurance.

Back-and-forth

What angered and perplexed the co-op supporters was, they said, that they could not get a straight answer about why their proposal was rejected. As the meeting format gave way to informal back-and-forth between residents and the council and staff on the dais, they got some frank answers.

Councilmember Kate Stewart cited the criteria set for financing structure and experience, “Your proposal did not have that experience spelled out.” The co-op needs, she said, to work with experienced people. She gave an example, “When I did work on my house I hired an architect and electrician and they worked together”

“This is a big undertaking,” she said.

Councilmember Seth Grimes said “You don’t own the building, you rent!” He saw deficiencies “without even getting into the finances” in the the co-op’s architectural plan: the build-out of their loading dock over the rear slope and a deck “built on huge pillars.” Their plan called for constructing around an old building in a manner that reminded him of the Takoma Park’s Community Center, which, he said ended up costing 13 million. It would have have been cheaper to raze the old building, he said and start over.

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Mayor Bruce Williams speaks. Photo by Bill Brown.

“I don’t see the experience,” said Mayor Bruce Williams, meaning the lack of development experience. He saw no evidence that the co-op could carry through the entire process. The co-op has, he said, no property management experience.

The co-op’s time lines were unrealistic, said the mayor, who owns a construction company. “One month to get work permits?” he scoffed.

The plan itself did not address the co-op’s own needs, he said. The co-op’s priority is to stay open through construction, yet their plan calls for building on both sides of the existing store. Their proposed loading dock takes most of wooded slope’s green space behind – that other developers left.

Worst of all, their plan includes the next-door auto clinic lot. Yet, said the mayor, when he asked him about it, the auto clinic owner said “Hell no, the co-op didn’t talk to me!”

“You needed to partner up” with one of the more experienced developers, advised the mayor.

The rest of the council generally agreed. They and the city manager assured the co-op that the store was central to the Junction and to city lot development. They also urged co-op supporters to consider the advantages of partnering with an experienced developer.

Co-op supporters did not seem swayed. Many stayed to the bitter end seconds shy of midnight, arguing their case.

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Co-op Board President Tanya Whorton at left, next to project manager Marilyn Berger and general manager Abdi Guled. Photo by Bill Brown.

The co-op’s architect Michael Johnson said that the city lacked a “quantifiable matrix” for assessing developers – as used by the federal government. If this were a federal process, he said, the city “would have been sued.”

A resident said she used to work on federal RFPs. “We learned to go to the community first” to find out what the community would like to happen, and then go write the request for proposals “with more specificity.”

Kenner reminded them that “I’ve been part of the federal process. The city did have a matrix, and the criteria they used “was exacting.”

“I’m more than happy to have a debriefing with the co-op.” said Kenner.  “We’ll put the matrix up.”

Despite the presence of a few people experienced with RFPs, it was clear from the public’s statements that many do not understand the design process. Their angry objections to various details, and their calls for traffic studies and to re-start the process suggest that some think their choice is limited to one of the four finalists’s proposals as they exist now. But, as council member Schultz said, the proposals are at a “broad brush conception” stage.  As the city manager explained, the developers will change their plans according to public feedback.

About the Author

Bill Brown
Bill Brown moved to Takoma Park in 1982. He has been involved in journalism in one way or another since he co-published an underground high-school newspaper in the late 1960s.