Photo: Sunset over the Takoma Junction city lot, April, 2013. Photo by Bill Brown.
BY BILL BROWN
One advocate group accused another of “foot-dragging” and trying to “torpedo” development. The other group said the city’s process was at fault.
A third faction made it’s strongest presentation yet in favor of “magic” public green space rather than commercial development.
Individuals called for walk-ability, a community gathering space, and a legacy the city council could be proud of.
One resident, trying to sound a warning, said “I hope someday before I die, I get heard.”
It was the second Takoma Park city council “listening session,” held Feb. 3. The council heard about 20 citizens state opinions and questions. It was a smaller and shorter meeting than the Jan. 21 listening session. The first lasted an hour and forty-five minutes. This one took just over one hour.
The speaking and listening is all about Takoma Junction redevelopment. The city owns a parking lot and a steep, wooded slope at the Junction. Last year, the city made a public request for proposals (RFP) and chose four they considered the best. City council and staff are in the process of thinning four development groups down to one, using a series of public meetings.
There are complications, however.
The TPSS Co-op is the “anchor” store next to the parking lot. The Co-op wants to expand, preferably into the city lot. They submitted a plan, but it did not make the final cut. The Co-op was not one of the 4 finalists.
City parking lot, with TPSS Co-op in background. Photo by Bill Brown.
Co-op supporters turned out to public meetings in scores, urging the council to reconsider the Co-op’s plan. All of the finalists’ plans include a Co-op expansion, but the Co-op says those plans don’t adequately address their needs.
Residents near the Junction, though interested in both Co-op expansion and development of the unsightly lot, were alarmed by possible traffic and parking problems. Many wanted smaller development. Some wanted plans to include more public green space.
Many neighbors and Co-op supporters complained that developers had not followed the recommendations made by the Takoma Junction Task Force. Those included keeping future development to 2 stories tall, giving Co-op expansion priority, and community use such as a pavilion, garden, playground or park. The city council was under no obligation to follow these recommendations. There was no council vote on them when they were presented in February, 2012.
Sticking with the process
The latest group to coalesce are “pro-process” residents. They favor moving forward with the four finalist developers. They were well represented at the two listening sessions, outnumbering co-op supporters. This group includes many, but not all, of the former Takoma Junction Task Force members. They have a website and a letter urging the council to stay the RFP course.
Without specifically naming the Co-op, pro-process advocate Carter Dougherty called on the city to monitor negotiations between “major tenants” and developers, “so no single potential major tenant can torpedo the development.”
“All tenants should understand that foot dragging and disorganization when it comes to dealing with the developers gets them less of what they want, not more,” he said.
He urged the Co-op to engage in a conversation with developers to work out problems together, rather than “dictate solutions.”
The Co-op manager and a supporter rose to respond. Lorraine Pearsall said the charge of foot dragging was “frustrating to hear.” The co-op is not foot-dragging, she said, it is bringing up issues, issues that the city never properly addressed in the RFP. Those issues are the co-ops three big concerns: continuity of business while construction is ongoing, the location of a functional loading dock, and accessible parking.
Co-op project manager Marilyn Berger rose to tell the council she’s met with developers and “tried to get them to work cooperatively with us.” she said. None of them, she said, came back with an adequate answer.
There was a third point of view – though it overlapped with Co-op supporters. These advocates wanted no development other than a Co-op expansion. They asked the city to keep the lot and turn it into a green public square.
Karen Lu* described the public space around the Chapel Hill, NC Weaver Street Market food co-op, which, she said, is “like our co-op on steroids.” She said there’s a half-acre lot in front of that co-op. It is a meeting, performance, play and hang-out place. Such a space could have playgrounds, open sky, music and community festivals, and open-air markets. “Why settle for some plans thrown together by a developer, when we could reach for magic?” she asked.
Karen Lu* addresses the city council, Feb. 3, 2015.
Thirty-five year long resident Karen Collins was another against what she called “dense development.” She said the lot, which is on one of the city’s high points is a great place to see sunsets. She said it would be suitable for a park, garden, meeting place – a town square for the entire city. Development projects adding 500 new living units, she said, are already planned for lots near the Takoma Metro Station, a few blocks southwest of Takoma Junction on Carroll Avenue.
She said the city should wait to see how that development affects traffic before developing the Junction lot.
Roger Schelgel, community activist and former candidate for mayor and council, noted that he was one former Takoma Junction Task Force member who had pointedly not signed the pro-process support letter. He advocated the town-square suggestion.
His strongest point, however, was to question whether the people who have spoken up so far “do truly represent a cross section of Takoma Park.”
“What kind of community are we trying to build at the Junction?” he asked. The city, he said, should think about making the Junction a place everyone feels like they belong.
He reminded the council that the Junction task force reported that senior citizens requested a five-and-dime store, and people on Maple Ave. said they wanted affordable dining.
“If you want magic,” he said, “remember that enclaves are not magic.”
You said people need a place they can socialize for free. He stressed “free.”
He didn’t want to stop the RFP process, he said, but he’d like to pause it.
“Do true outreach,” he said. “Reach out actively to all corners of our community and through that clarify a vision for this space. And then move forward.”
Byrne Kelly, local environmental engineer and landscape architect, had a new design to show, an update to the one he presented in the community center hallway last November.
Byrne Kelly presents his first plan in the hallway at the Nov. 18, 2014 Open House. Developers and the Co-op (which also set up their presentations in the hallway) discussed their plans with the public and city officials.
Though never part of the formal RFP process, Kelley, owner of Greenfields Company, was trying again to direct attention to issues he says the developers and the city are ignoring.
Chief among them is the fact, he says, that the ground below the parking lot is filled with rubble, which on one hand will not support heavy structures and on the other hand will make it easier, he says, to create an underground parking area.
He also said traffic issues must be addressed. His solution would be to create a traffic circle, moving an existing pavilion to the center of the circle.
Kelly said that years ago when the city was planning to expand the municipall building, turning it into the current community center, he and community activist Brian Robinson tried to tell them there was a stream underneath the building. They were not listened to, said Kelly. Later the presence of the underground stream caused cost overruns.
“Now we’re saying there’s rubble underneath the parking lot, and again we’re not being listened to” Said Kelly. “I hope someday before I die, I get heard.” he quipped.
Mayor Bruce Williams noted that he had an appointment to meet with Kelly next week.
Screen-grab from streaming video of Byrne Kelly’s new plan, (© Byrne H. Kelly).
“Walkability” was mentioned by several speakers across the spectrum of opinion. As was the catch-phrase “bump factor,” meaning the sense of community created in a place where people “bump” into friends and neighbors.
One resident said that a dialog would be better than a listening session, suggesting a design charrette.
Jeff Trunzo, Sherman Ave resident, advocated “bumping” room, suggesting a wide sidewalk to create a public space. He cited Takoma Central, a new development near Takoma Metro. Planners thought a 17′ sidewalk would be wide enough for such a space, but, said Trunzo, now that it is built, it seems barely wide enough.