Ten questions as developers begin to respond

The Takoma Junction city lot up for development. Photo by Bill Brown.

BY BILL BROWN

Who will own the city lot?

It’s a question with no answer, yet. Though 4 developers submitted proposals to develop the Takoma Junction city lot, their financial proposals have not yet been addressed, only the building plans, said the Takoma Park city manager.

At the Oct. 6 Takoma Park city council meeting councilmember Tim Male asked who would own the space, the city or the developer? “Will it cost us or gain us,” he asked, to develop the site?

Takoma Park city manager Brian Kenner said “we have not really delved into the process of conveyance.” He said “It would be one of the last things we’d consider.”

The developers’ financial statements and proposals are being kept under wraps until then.

Ten Questions

The council and staff discussed a set of questions to ask the four finalist developers. City staff reviewed hundreds of resident-submitted questions and distilled them down to 10. See questions below. The public’s questions are also available to the developers, and the city continues to solicit questions and comments.

City Manager Brian Kenner said some developers have already submitted changes based on public questions and feedback. The Ability Project has submitted a revised proposal stripped of  residential housing.

The 10 questions deal with broad issues, which are more relevant to the current phase than those asking about smaller details. Those questions will be posed later.

City staff also prepared a chart that compares proposal details: the height and number of stories, facade materials, proposed tenant mix and square footage, plans for the wooded slope, number of parking spaces, and so forth.

That document, and the proposed 10 questions are available on the city website at this link.

At the meeting, the council revised some questions, and proposed others.

They also took the opportunity to comment on the development proposals, the co-op’s proposal, and the process over the past two weeks.

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The TPSS Co-op in Takoma Junction, next to the city lot. Photo by Bill Brown.

Unsophisticated co-op

“I don’t think the co-op is sophisticated enough to do a deal with any of the developers” said councilmember Jarrett Smith. He said he was afraid the co-op doesn’t have the expertise to deal with the legal and financial issues involved in partnering with the developers.

“Does the city staff have to stand up and walk the co-op through this process?” he asked. Not that he wanted to set the precedent, he said, but he feared that without assistance the co-op would return to the city with new troubles a few years later.

Mayor Williams said “No, we don’t want to go there.”

City staff spoke up for the co-op and against giving them business advice. City manager Kenner said “I’m not a grocer, they’re a business and they have to know how to expand, and how to survive.” The co-op is going to expand regardless of the city’s actions, he said. He said he didn’t want the city to be blamed if the co-op failed after following the city’s advice. The city could offer help in other ways, he said.

Roz Grigsby, the city’s community development coordinator, said the co-op has tapped into expertise offered by a national co-op coalition. The county runs a small business center that offers business advice, too, she said.

Councilmember Tim Male said that a business’s size is no indication of success and survival. He said he believes the co-op is viable, based on the co-op’s financial reports and how much money they have set aside for expansion.

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Co-op representatives at the Sept. 29 public hearing on the city lot development. Photo by Bill Brown.

Fragile

Councilmember Fred Schultz said he sees the co-op as fragile. He’s observed, he said, successful businesses expand and fail. If the co-op doesn’t succeed, it will be bad for the city, he warned.

He worried that the process will stall unless the city and developers deal with the co-op’s need to stay open, unimpeded by construction throughout the development process.  and the immediate neighbor’s concerns.

Schultz came close to presenting his own development plan. He proposed temporarily moving the co-op into a new building on the opposite side of the parking lot while construction is underway on the other side. He speculated that one option might be to raze Turner building where the co-op is now housed.

Mayor Williams wondered if there was a way to move the co-op as Schultz suggested. “I’d like to hear what professionals have to say about that,” he said. Developers should be asked how they plan to stage their building materials and equipment to ensure the co-op’s continuity, he said.

Councilmember Terry Seamens said that there was a related question on the list of 10; “Neighboring businesses will be impacted during construction of the anticipated development. Describe what you have done at past projects to ensure business continuity, manage traffic flow and address parking demands during construction. Provide specific examples.”

Councilmember Tim Male Male noted that that one proposal does require moving the co-op into a new building. He wanted specific answers from developers about how to address the co-op’s loading needs.

Ms Grigsby said it was difficult to ask that because the co-op has not provided all the developers with their exact requirements. She said city staff has asked the co-op to provide that information so the bidders can give precise answers.

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The Keystar development group presents its plan at a Sept. 23 public hearing. Photo by Bill Brown.

Task Force disagreement

Councilmember Kate Stewart urged adding a question that would push developers to use the Takoma Junction Task Force report as a guide. The report was presented to the council in 2012.

The city staff put up some resistance to the suggestion. The task force report had a lot of useful research, said the city’s Roz Grigsby, but not many solid recommendations.

City manager Brian Kenner said that while the report had a lot of information, it would be impossible for a developer to implement the long list of ideas.

Community development coordinator Grigsby said that many of the ideas conflict. There was, she said, a months-long, “very heated” discussion on roundabouts. As a result the report gave both sides of the argument, but made no recommendation.

Steward said that she disagrees, and that the report “represents a lot of what the community thinks.”

Mayor Bruce Williams stepped in with a suggestion, to ask the developers what task force report’s important points are. Stewart and staff seemed satisfied with that.

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The four development proposals as presented Sept. 23.

No go unless low

Councilmember Set Grimes said he would not support any developer who continues to propose a 3 story building. He would not consider them unless they reduce the height.

He said he had no issue, as many do, with “Bethesda-like” architecture, referring to Bethesda, MD’s upscale development. The finalist Community Three Development group touted its popular Bethesda Row development. Quibbles with the proposal drawing facades, he said, were largely irrelevant, as the facade plans could easily change without affecting the overall building design.

Steep

One of the 10 questions deals with the steep wooded lot behind the co-op – which city residents want to preserve as green-space.  The developers proposed preserving portions of it, but most wanted to construct a residence on the most level portion at the slope bottom.

Grimes wanted to ask “yes or no,” would the developers go forward if they were told they could not build there?

Councilmember Male wanted to know what the post-development view would be from the Columbia Avenue hill. He wanted to see architectural drawings of that view. The city manager said developers would likely not be able to provide more drawings at this stage, but Male insisted.

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The wooded lot behind the Turner building which houses the co-op. Photo by Bill Brown.

What they hear

Grimes and Male described the opinions they’ve received from the public.

Councilmember Grimes said he’s seen a range: against any development,  favoring the city’s course, distrusting outsiders and “corporate” involvement and urging the city go with the co-op plan.

Councilmember Male said he’d had about 100 community responses. They are divided, he said, evenly for or against development. All of them express support for the co-op, and all of them want the wooded slope preserved as green space, he said.

Push them together

Councilmember Terry Seamens said the letter should stress that the co-op has a long-term commitment to the site – a 20-year lease and first option to buy the property. He said it should emphasize the council and public interest in the co-op’s expansion needs.

We pushed the co-op to work with developers, he said, now we should push the developers to work with the co-op.

Similarly, Mayor Williams said that city should incentivize the co-op and the developers to talk to one another.

Blessing sought

Seamens also wanted to mention Blessed Coffee, a coffee-house long planned by local resident . Assefa has been at public hearings, protesting that though all the proposed developments show a coffeehouse, he has not been approached to partner with any developers.

City manager Kenner said that city can’t require any developer to partner with a business, but he was happy to encourage people to contact the developers.

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Tebabu Assefa and family kicking off a fundraising campaign for Blessed Coffee November, 2013.

Staff nixed other council concerns: traffic and turning lanes, pedestrian access from Columbia Avenue, the re-location of the co–op entry way. Grigsby said such details come later in the process.

The revised questions will go out Friday, Oct. 10 said the city manager.

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This is the city staff’s draft prior to revisions.

Takoma Junction Redevelopment Proposals: Concept Plans
SUGGESTED CLARIFYING QUESTIONS FOR FINALISTS

1. What makes your proposal for the Junction unique?

2. To what extent can the project be scaled back in terms of building height/square footage
and still be financially viable? If the project were scaled back, how would this impact other
elements of your proposal?

3. What environmentally sustainable and net zero features have you incorporated in previous
projects? What green features are proposed for this project?

4. Describe how your vision for the site encourages the use of alternative modes of
transportation (i.e. biking, car share, live/work space, etc.).

5. Explain how you will solicit public input and engage the community during the design
process and finalization of your proposal.

6. How have you addressed potentially conflicting traffic patterns and parking demands of
your tenants in other projects?

7. Could the vehicle access identified in your proposal be moved closer to the existing
intersection of Carroll and Ethan Allen? What impact would this have on your proposal?

8. How much of the existing slope / wooded area would be required to accommodate your
proposal? Identify generally the location of any required retention walls or footings and
their estimated height. What will the view from Columbia Avenue look like?

9. Neighboring businesses will be impacted during construction of the anticipated
development. Describe what you have done at past projects to ensure business continuity,
manage traffic flow and address parking demands during construction. Provide specific
examples.

10. The City has entered into a land license agreement with the TPSS Co-op which provides the
Co-op with access to their current loading dock, space for containerized storage and
dumpsters, and parking for employees. If selected, how would you accommodate their long
term need for a loading dock and the delivery of goods?

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.