Council goes slow on hot topic

City Council hearing on Takoma Junction development in September, 2014. Photo by Bill Brown.

BY TERESA LO

The Takoma Park City Council did not make any decisions about the redevelopment of a city-owned lot at Takoma Junction before they took their December break.

The council is considering four developers for the lot, each with their own blend of retail, housing, parking, school, co-op expansion and community space. Takoma Junction is located at the intersection of Carroll Avenue and Route 410, and it is currently a parking lot for customers of the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, a natural grocery store next door, and other businesses in the area.

The city had a developer open house at the city hall Nov. 18, Residents were able to speak with the developers and give them feedback on their designs. The city council also met on Nov. 24 to discuss the redevelopment before their December break.

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The November 18 Open House event. Photo by Bill Brown.

When they return

Mayor Bruce Williams said once the council members return from break, they will discuss the development plans and narrow down the finalists. Councilmember Fred Schultz said they will also consider whether the developers would be willing to buy the lot at market price and other financials of selling the lot.

Schultz said that the council has tried to make the process public and to let the residents know they will take their time making a decision. The council will be taking a step back and considering all options for the junction in January, said Councilmember Kate Stewart.

“We’ll be looking at all the options, not just the four concepts, but everything else that could happen at the junction,” she said. “I think everything is still on the table.”

A final decision on which developer the council chooses, or whether or not the lot will ultimately be developed, won’t be made until the end of February, said Williams.

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The city-owned Takoma Junction lot. Photo by Bill Brown.

No winners so far

The developers that the council members are considering are the Neighborhood Development Company, Community Three Development, and Keystar & Eco Housing, which all propose a mix of residential homes, retail stores, parking, and community space.

The fourth finalist is the Ability Project, which proposes a building and program to assist disabled young adults and their families. It would allow for these young adults to socialize with each other and the community, and to be more independent, said John Bogasky, a representative for the project.

“I don’t think any of us has a preconceived winner, I haven’t seen or heard any of my colleagues say, ‘this is the one I’m going to favor.’ ,” said Schultz.

Although one of the options is to not do any sort of development, Stewart said they are pretty sure they will do something with the lot. She described the parking lot as an “eyesore”, and said she doesn’t think it helps the businesses there thrive, and that it is not environmentally friendly.

“People may not agree on what we should do, but there’s a strong sentiment that we should do something with the lot,” Stewart said.

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Residents crowd the city council auditorium to hear the initial development proposals Sept. 23, 2014. Photo by Bill Brown.

Unfair advantage?

The city has owned the lot since 1995, said Rosalind Grigsby, the Community Development Coordinator. The city council tried unsuccessfully a few times to redevelop it, she said, because no developers were interested or the development’s main tenant pulled out.

Colleen Clay, a former council member and 11-year Takoma Park resident, said she agrees with Stewart that the lot needs to be developed. However she thinks the parking lot is helping nearby businesses in an unfair way.

“In the Junction, the city owns a piece of property there, and it’s essentially a subsidy to the businesses in that area that we don’t provide to any of the other areas of Takoma Park,” said Clay, explaining that other stores in Takoma Park need to provide their own parking or be restricted to street parking for customers.

Clay said she does not want the city to “accidentally support” the businesses in that area. The city also leases part of the current parking lot to the co-op for parking space for their customers and allows the co-op to use the lot to access its loading dock.

“We don’t allow other businesses to access city property in order to make their building more valuable,” said Clay, “and it’s not fair for the city to favor one business.”

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Some of the businesses opposite the city lot on Carroll Avenue. Photo by Bill Brown.

Co-op contention

The city council members are taking the needs of the co-op seriously when considering the next step in development, said Stewart. All four developers have also already incorporated some sort of co-op expansion into their designs.

Marilyn Berger, Director of Administration for the co-op, said the developers appear to be paying attention to the needs of the co-op, such as business continuity during construction, but they are not putting a lot of design effort into it because the city council members have not yet made a decision.

Even though the co-op had previously submitted their own development design, the council members will not add the co-op’s design to the list of finalists, Schultz said in a phone interview at noon on Nov. 24.

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The TPSS Co-op’s presentation outside the Nov. 18 Open House. Photo by Bill Brown.

However in the Nov. 24 city council meeting that night, Councilmember Seth Grimes suggested that the co-op be added in as a fifth finalist. Many residents have shown support for the co-op’s involvement in the development process by speaking at the public comments portion of previous city council meetings and lobbying the city council members, which enabled the co-op to present its development ideas at the Nov. 18 open house, despite not being finalists.

Gary Weinstein, a 25-year resident of Takoma Park, said he is supportive of the co-op and Ability Project working together to develop the lot. Weinstein has a developmentally challenged son, who would benefit from the Ability Project, he said.

Although Howard Kohn, a 32-year resident of Takoma Park, said he supports an expansion of the co-op, he admits “the co-op does not have universal appeal.”

Clay said that it’s expensive to shop at the co-op and the co-op is “not everyone’s solution to buying groceries.”