IMAGE: Neal Cohen and Susan Schreiber seek middle ground at the Takoma Junction Open House, Monday, July18. Photo by Bill Brown.
BY BILL BROWN
JUL 21—UPDATE: It was confirmed by city staff at the Takoma Park city council meeting July 20 that the TPSS Co-op and Takoma Junction developer NDC will enter mediation.
JUL 20—There are indications that the Co-op and the development company will enter a mediation process to work out their differences holding back Takoma Junction development.
TPSS Co-op expansion director Marilyn Berger, at an open house to discuss the development project, said the Co-op was “looking into the possibility” of mediation.
Today, the pro-development community group Revitalize Takoma Junction reported on its website that “We have been informed that NDC [Neighborhood Development Company] has accepted the idea of mediation to resolve the negotiation.”
The group also released documents received through the Freedom of Information Act, two written negotiation updates from the point of view of each party.
NDC’s account, addressed to Sara Daines, Takoma Park’s community development director, stresses NDC’s extra expenses and effort, hiring outside consultant firms to address the Co-op’s concern’s and questions. It implies the Co-op’s position is intransigent. It confirms, however, the Co-op’s claim that NDC’s site plan relocating the store’s loading area for big trucks to the front – with no loading dock – was indeed presented as the only solution, as the Co-op charged.
The Co-op’s account, in the form of a letter from their attorney Edward West and entitled “Apparent Impasse in the TPSS Co-op’s Negotiations with NDC,” describes the many practical questions and concerns raised by each new NDC proposal, and NDC’s failure to squarely address all of them – creating the Co-op’s rising level of worry.
The letter characterizes as particularly onerous NDC’s solutions for parking and unloading during construction. NDC’s provision for 65 foot-long truck deliveries, according to the letter, would be – for an eight month period – to have them deliver to off-site warehouses. The goods would be transferred to smaller delivery trucks. NDC left unaddressed, according to the letter, who would pay for warehouse and truck rental, how to deal with frozen produce and the matter of staffing the warehouses.
At the July 13 city council meeting, the council urged the two parties to enter mediation. The council is reluctant to be drawn into the dispute.
Sara Daines, community development director and Jason Damweber, deputy city manager, welcome participants to the July 18 Open House at the Takoma Park fire station.
An open house held Monday evening, July 18 gave the Co-op, the developer, the city and community members a venue to talk informally about concerns and differences. Also, the developer, Neighborhood Development Company, laid out drawings and photos showing more details about their development concepts and options.
As well as expanding the TPSS Co-op to twice its present size, the development would include more commercial space and an underground parking lot. NDC proposes an “open retail concept” for the commercial space similar to the Union Market building on 5th Street, NE, Washington, DC.
It would have an open, flexible floor plan, offering variable-sized spaces to independent entrepreneurs and what NDC representative Juan Powell called “small format vendors.” A variety of goods, household items, food and beverages could be offered.
One eager tenant is already lined up. Tebabu Assefa plans to rent a space for his long-awaited Blessed Coffee Ethiopian coffee shop. He is anxious to start after six years of building his business and trying to find an affordable location.
The TPSS Co-op, he said, is getting the lion’s share of attention and is slowing the process down. “Where do little businesses fit in this process?” he asked.
The process is stuck on two related document signings. One is the Takoma Junction Development Agreement between the city and NDC. The other is a letter of intent between the Co-op and NDC. The city council is set to vote on the Development Agreement July 27. Significant changes to the draft agreement could delay the vote until after the council’s August break.
The Co-op and supporters object to Development Agreement language that would allow NDC to find another anchor tenant if the letter of intent is not signed within 120 days of the Agreement signatures. The agreement allows a 30 day extension, as well.
Their suspicion that NDC seeks to oust them from the development was deepened when NDC submitted a new site plan with a significant change from their original proposal’s site plan. The original shows a truck loading dock at the back – roughly where it is now. The newer plan shows a dock at the back for small trucks, but an unloading area (not a dock) on the pavement in front of the store.
The original proposal showed a loading dock at the back and a truck (indicated with black boxes, maneuvering the turn.
The Co-op also says NDC has not provided them with a sufficient plan for parking throughout the construction period.
Marilyn Berger, the Co-op’s director of expansion, said the Co-op is being asked to “make compromises that will kill us.”
The site plan cited by the Co-op – which they presented at last week’s weekly council meeting – was one of 16 NDC sent the Co-op, said Dee McKinny, NDC representative.
Plans are at a “very preliminary stage at this point,” he cautioned, especially since they have no letter of agreement.
NDC’s updated site plan. Click to see larger image.
However, the June 24 letter from NDC CEO Adrian Washington to the city’s community development director says, “The site plan we provided showed a front-loaded building, which s the only option presented by our traffic engineer that would accommodate a 65 foot, 18-wheel tractor trailer.”
The original proposal site plan was the basis for the Co-op’s preference for NDC when the city was choosing between three finalist developers. It was the only one that showed a back-of-the-building loading dock for large trucks, meeting one of their stated “core needs:” a viable loading dock and continuity of business through the construction.
“It was a concept plan,” said Councilmember Fred Schultz in one of the many small spontaneous conversations held throughout the room.
The biggest problem with a rear loading dock for 18-wheelers, said NDC’s McKinney, is that there is only one entrance/exit. That requires trucks to turn around, and that requires a great deal of room.
Too much room to suit council member Tim Male. It would be, he said in another conversation-circle “a huge waste of city-owned land.”
The option to unload large trucks in the front, said McKinney, would utilize a “woonerf “[ˈʋoːnɛrf], a Dutch term meaning a multi-use roadway or passage. The woonerf passes between the Co-op extension and the new building next door. The woonerf entrance would be next to the 65 foot truck unloading area. The loading dock, said McKinney, could be located at any point along the woonerf passage and could be just a few steps away from the truck. The use of mechanical pallet loaders would aid the transfer of heavy loads.
NDC’s Juan Powell, Adrian Washington and Dee McKinney at the July 18 Open House. Photo by Bill Brown
The unloading area would only be in use in the early morning. The Co-op told NDC, said McKinney, that their 18-wheeler, 65 foot long trucks only deliver four days a week from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. The rest of the day, the unloading space could be used for public gathering space with, for example, tables and shade-umbrellas.
Co-op director Marilyn Berger said – in another conversation – that the Co-op was not pleased with the prospect of having to purchase fork-lifts or unload trucks outdoors in inclement weather.
Adequate parking while the site is under construction – an estimated two years – is part of the Co-op’s core need for continuous business. But even they are hard-pressed for a solution. Berger said they don’t expect any plan would achieve the same number of parking spots they now use. There are around 19 spaces in their lot next to the city parking lot – the development site – where they rent additional spaces.
NDC’s McKinney said they are seeking parking spots at nearby businesses to rent for Co-op customer use through the first two phases of construction, which could take a year. Nearby street parking could also be used.
The first two construction phases are excavation and the building of an underground parking job. NDC’s plan is to open the underground parking lot through the rest of the construction phases, which might last another year.
Co-op supporters are skeptical that customers would be willing to park in other lots if it means a long walk, especially across busy Carroll and Philadelphia Avenues. Also, they say NDC’s plan takes away Co-op lot parking spaces for loading and dumpsters.
By the end of the open house most participants were better informed, but rifts remained.
NDC’s Dee McKinney at right, shows his pencil sketch. Photo by Bill Brown.
There did not seem to be much softening of the Co-op’s positions – that NDC to return to its original site plan, that parking be maintained at close to current capacity through construction and that the city force NDC to meet their core needs. They also remain alarmed by language in the Development Agreement that would allow NDC to drop them as the anchor tenant.
City Councilmember Tim Male, in one of the many conversations held throughout the room, said the Co-op has not been creative enough in considering other approaches, and NDC has not been creative enough in it’s negotiations with the coop. He said there have not been enough face-to-face meeting, and no hard challenge to come up with solutions.
NDC’s CEO Adrian Washington said NDC and the Co-op have had six meetings since February. “We are available,” he said.
Few co-op representatives crossed the room to talk to NDC representatives, including a Co-op board member who asked council member Male why the city doesn’t force a meeting between the Co-op and the developer.
Councilmember Rizzy Queshsi in a conversation that includes Paul Huebner to his left and Co-op expansion director Marilyn Berber (on right, back to camera). Photo by Bill Brown.
Development supporters were also present.
Jeffrey Trunzo, city resident and member of the former Takoma Junction Task Force Committee, said “full speed ahead.”
City resident Neal Cohen said he loved the Co-op and wanted it to survive, but said it should not receive special treatment. In a conversation with Co-op supporter Susan Schreiber in which the two sought to find common ground, Schreiber said the Co-op is not just an ordinary grocery store, that it is in the public interest to keep it open and thriving. “Understood,” said Cohen, but he did not agree with Co-op supporters who want the city to “twist arms” to get a desired result. “All businesses should thrive,” said Cohen.
Paul Huebner, who appeared to be in his late 50s, joked with a younger development supporter that his years of experience gave him a more cynical outlook on promises made by corporations.
But, Heubner said, “Everyone here is looking for a solution”
On the other hand, city resident Mike Tabor, whose out-of-town farm provides the Co-op with produce, quipped that Takoma Park is “too obstreperous a community to take care of all the needs” demanded by the various parties.
The city encourages public comments on Takoma Junction development.