Takoma Junction: Addressing Some Confusion & Misinformation Regarding the NDC Project

               As many of you know, for at least 4 years the Takoma Park City Council has been working on a plan for the development of the city-owned parking lot next to the TPSS Co-op. Given my professional background and interests I have chosen to work as closely as possible with all the stakeholders in this project. I’ve been connected to this project for much of my 8 years on the Council.

I won’t go into the history here; that would be too long, and all of it is on the City of Takoma Park’s web site anyway.

Here’s where we are right now . . .

•  City Council will hold another Work Session on the proposed Concept Plan this Wednesday, October 11

Two weeks ago the City’s chosen developer, NDC (Neighborhood Development Company), presented its latest iteration of its Concept Plan for the site. This past summer NDC secured a purchase contract with the adjacent property owner (because of retirement) who operates Takoma Auto Clinic. This acquisition increases the size of the project and provides design flexibility.

      (1) The Concept Plan remains subject to many changes within the basic concept. The Concept Plan is an artistic sketch plus scaled drawings of the lower level parking garage, the ground level retail space and outdoor public space, and a 2nd story for small offices. There’s a possibility of a 3rd level for a green roof with views and maybe some community space. It could be a fun place for quiet functions (with some sound barriers), but it’s not essential to the project.

The Concept Plan is “sketchy” as this point and does not show important details. But it does depict overall scale, gross floor space, occupancy type (public spaces, retail, small office), likely parking capacity, structure height, possible set-backs, pedestrian and automobile access and delivery truck off-loading, plus an overall “feel” for the project. NDC is sharpening all these aspects now and anticipating additional input from the Council and residents.

     (2) The TPSS Co-op is, however, continuing to oppose the Concept Plan more or less in its entirety. The Coop’s board writes to the community and its members that the project is too dense or too big, unimaginative, lacks required green space, off-loading space will be inadequate, and the lay-by will threaten traffic flow. Their communication asserts that the Co-op’s existence is threatened and even to imply that the Council does not care. In truth, Co-op leaders in other conversations this past week have been more frank, saying they want the project stopped.

Some of these assertions are flat out wrong and others have little or no basis of support. Here’s what I mean:

     A) The City Council is not going to stop and undo its work over the past four years. We will not violate the terms of our 99-year lease with NDC or our Development Agreement with NDC, which imposes legal obligations on both parties. Doing any of this would be a waste of taxpayers’ money and a betrayal of our commitments we’ve made to our constituents across the City. Furthermore, doing something bizarre as this would send a devastating message to every housing and commercial development company in the region just when we are readying to launch a new economic development program for the City.

When done, I believe the project will honor many of the objectives of the Takoma Junction Task Force’s recommendations.

     B) The City Council surely does care about the Co-op’s survival and success. We care about a lot of our businesses. From a narrow fiscal perspective the Co-op’s presence is a big piece of the puzzle, not just for NDC’s project, but for our overall vision for the larger Takoma Junction business area. At no time can I recall any Councilmember speaking other than positively about the value of the Co-op. To imply otherwise is unfair and wrong. Personally, it’s just plain nonsense.

     C) The Co-op’s existence is not at all threatened. As of now, it apparently will remain the same size in the same spot it has operated in successfully for many years. It has a 20-year lease. Its most recent financial statements for the year ending 6/30/16 show annual sales of $9.2 million (not unusual for food coops). This works out to annual sales per square foot of about $1,544, which is quite high even for food coops. (This is close to what Trader Joe’s does, which is among the highest in the nation.) The Co-op has been profitable every year since 2012 with annual sales ranging from $8 to $10 million. This achievement is reflected in its equity position which has grown from $1.6 million in 2011 to $2.6 million in 2016.

Most revealing is that most of the Coop’s equity is in the form of cash, which was last publicly reported at $1.7 million in 2014. It may be lower or higher today. Last fiscal year the Co-op received a $500,000 grant from the State of Maryland to make improvements. What does all this mean? The Co-op is well capitalized, has sustained profits over a period of years and has good liquidity, all of which are good things for the future of the Co-op.

Small food stores like the Co-op require frequent deliveries; more so than big supermarkets that have huge inventory capacity. The proposed lay-by will require the Co-op to alter how it manages deliveries. I expect it may put stress on Co-op operations until internal systems are adjusted. But it will not imperil the Co-op. Customers will keep shopping and vendors will keep on delivering. It is hard to imagine how the Co-op’s actual existence is threatened. There is no question that there are questions still to be explored about the lay-by’s precise location, pedestrian safety, trash removal and parking adequacy.

     (D) The proposed lay-by will allow long trailer trucks to completely pull out of the east-bound traffic lane. Alternatively, it will accommodate two 30-foot flat-bed trucks. Trucks in the lay-by will not add appreciably to congestion, if at all. Fire truck movement shouldn’t be affected. It’s not intended for buses.

Today’s congestion in the Junction is mainly caused by poor traffic signal timing. The SHA has control of the three signals and has procrastinated in fixing the timing as well as releasing them to Montgomery County’s control. The extended back-ups on east bound Carroll have not always existed. The re-timing of signals and automated controls will relieve some of the congestion.

The west-bound congestion sitting at the Sycamore signal has been chronic seemingly forever. This problem and the infernal delays in all directions require a comprehensive look at the entire Junction and quite possibly will involve significant redesign of the Rte 410 and Carroll Ave traffic lanes; not just minor curb adjustments. I have long advocated installation of a traffic circle in front of the Co-op that would eliminate two of the signals and shave off a piece of the park. There is abundant research that shows traffic circles generate big reductions in congestion, wait times and accidents, and big increases to pedestrian safety. Honestly, if you tried to, one could not design a more dangerous and scary intersection to cross on foot. But, until a study is done we don’t know what will work. I would want this study to look at all possible solutions and take nothing off the table.

My main point here is that scaling back the Concept Plan is not the solution to future traffic problems in the Junction. Traffic delays are already a monstrous problem.

Meanwhile, NDC is required by the County to perform its own study of the impact of its project on traffic and pedestrian flow. This is an integral part of the final site plan approval process. NDC cannot undertake this study, however, until it has completed it’s preliminary site plan so that it knows what the project’s functional capacity is. Thus, if the traffic impacts were to create concerns, the Montgomery County Planning Board can require NDC to make changes to its plan.

     (E) At no time has the Council seriously considered a “low density building with green space” per se for the site. It was not an objective in the RFP issued in January 2014. However, public community space was stipulated and still is. The Co-op’s own submission in response to the RFP did not include green space; rather two small retail buildings and the remainder of the land devoted to parking and turn-around and backing-up space for tractor trailers. Although the floor area and number of stories was not stipulated in the RFP, most people in the city have recognized the practicality for a two-story structure to sustain a viable project.

In Summary

The City has never opposed the expansion of the Coop. The City recognizes that the Co-op is a private enterprise. Whether an expansion happens is purely a business decision between the Co-op and NDC. Both entities are profit dependent. Both entities have other important objectives. The Development Agreement between the City and NDC allows for the Coop to expand onto the City-owned lot which is under lease to NDC. It is my understanding NDC still has the ability to do this because no leases have been signed with future tenants.

The Development Agreement signed in July 2016 by the City and NDC imposes performance requirements on both parties. Principally these constitute stipulations that each party will do certain things within certain time frames. Obviously they protect both parties so they can work together in good faith. Therefore, the City Council must continue its forward movement with decision making on this project. We are not at liberty to simply toss aside this project. Those decision points are long since passed. We are at liberty to listen to residents’ voices and to work closely with NDC to refine the project’s various components including all those aspects named above and many more to come.

 

Frederick Schultz
Councilmember, Ward 6
Takoma Park, Md

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The Problem With Election Synchronization in Takoma Park

 The Problem With Election Synchronization in Takoma Park

In last November’s city election a strong majority of Takoma Park residents voted in favor of an Advisory Question on whether to hold our city elections at the same time as the county, state and Federal election on condition that the City’s special unique regulations governing our elections could be preserved. These include the 16 year-old voter, the instant run-off vote (IRV), non-citizen voting, our early voting locations and schedule, and our rather simple and easy nominating gathering.

An “Advisory Question” under Maryland law vote does not mandate that the City Council make any particular decision. It simply indicates how residents feel about the proposal and effectively requires the City Council to consider it.

The premise for synchronizing Takoma Park’s election with the State / County / Federal election is to boost turnout. A lot more people vote in the big elections and this logically means there would be a spill over effect.

I have made my position known in opposition to synchronization since Councilmember Tim Male first broached the idea more than a year ago.

What’s wrong with this idea?

Let’s ask the question as to why don’t more people vote in City elections. Inconvenience is certainly not one of them. There are basically two reasons. One prominent person proposed to me that most people are entirely satisfied with how the City is run and how services are delivered. (Or perhaps they are indifferent.)

The second reason is the more serious one: there are usually no seriously legitimate choices on the ballot. Last November, the winners of all seven races for Mayor and the six wards were all pretty well foretold before the election.

In the 2015 at-large mayor’s race, Kate Stewart got 2,169 votes. Her nearest competitor got 264. The ward races went like this between the winner and the nearest competitor:

Ward 1, Kovar 631 to 86.
Ward 2, Male 443 to no opponent
Ward 3, Qureshi 532 to no opponent
Ward 4, Seamans 241 to no opponent
Ward 5, Smith 149 to no opponent
Ward 6, Schultz 206 to 86

In the 2013 election it was much the same. Mayor Bruce Williams and the 6 incumbent councilmembers had no opponents except one and that opponent got 10 votes.

In 2011, there were two close races in Wards 2 and 6 where the outcomes were in doubt, and no opponents in 3 other races. Tim Male won by a whisker against Lorig Charkoudian 351-317. In Ward 6 Schultz won his race 134-111.

In 2009 only two races were contested, of which one was somewhat close with Mayor Williams getting 60% of the vote and Roger Schlegel at 40%.

In 2007, only one race was contested and it was not close.

The pattern is the same election after election. Why should residents vote when there is rarely anyone to choose between? Well-contested elections are the exceptions that demonstrate the problem.

The problem that needs to be addressed is not when the city election is held, but how to make the races competitive so that folks will want to vote.

Synchronization requires amending the City Charter. If we were to do this, without tackling the far more troublesome problem of uncontested races, here’s what will happen. Voters will stand in line to vote in the county, state and presidential races, and then each of us will have to decide whether he or she needs to go to another location to vote a second time for a race that is not likely to mean anything.

In Maryland’s April primary race, voters stood in line for 30 minutes to vote. Who will take the time to repeat the process?

If so many city races are uncontested, why do people vote in such numbers. The reason? Our city election is a big social event. We all come together at the Community Center. All the candidates are there from 7 in the morning to 8 at night. Volunteers set up tables of food. Residents and all the candidates greet each other and talk. While the question of who will win is often not so important, the mere fact of the election and the way it is conducted captures the spirit of Takoma Park. It’s a Takoma Park “thing.”

If we synchronize the election, the spirit of the occasion will be snuffed out. Voting will be scattered to 4 different polling places. Many of the people standing in line with you will not be residents of our city. Ballot counting will be done elsewhere. Mayor and city council candidates may not be around as they may be scooting between polls, especially the mayor. Forget the bonhomie among friends.

Advocates of synchronizing say research shows synchronizing municipal elections boosts voter turnout. But research hasn’t ask these questions: Are the races in other cities strongly contested? Ours rarely are. Are there divisive substantive issues that cause people to vote? Rarely in Takoma Park. Are these partisan elections? Ours are not.

Synchronization may or may not increase the total number of ballots cast. But what would it gain us? If you have no real choices, all the ballots in the world do not prove anything. Is it so we can boast of a fabulous turnout, just like they do in autocratic nations?

The real challenge that we need to address is getting more and better qualified candidates to run in the Council elections. This would be a surefire way to get people to vote and actually make voting meaningful.

It’s a big challenge. Why? The pay is lousy. The hours are long. There is the pressure of responsibility and showing up. Running for office deters some people. The job constitutes a steep learning curve that really never ends. Many people don’t see themselves in a public role; they know they are cut out for other things in life.

On the plus side, it is not a thankless job. I get plenty of thank-you’s and occasional compliments. You do feel like you are making a difference. With the responsibility comes the satisfaction when progress is made. Working with the professional staff is a reward in itself. You meet lots of people you’d never otherwise get to know. You learn a ton of stuff. A certain degree of respect comes with the title. And it can be an ego trip at the same time.

Personally, my biggest satisfaction is being able to actually help constituents with their problems.

How do we get more people to run? Tough question. We can educate residents why the job is interesting, challenging and exciting. We need to aggressively reach out to newcomers and minorities. We could double the pay.

We must avoid synchronizing our election with the big elections because doing so will make it harder to run and more costly. Why? To start with the campaign period will be much longer. A city council candidate will be competing against all the other state, federal and county candidates for yard sign space. Her or his signs and literature will get buried in the shuffle. With all the house parties, election forums, door-knocking and fund raising efforts, and tons of mailers clogging our mailboxes, residents’ focus will be on the big elections, not ours.

In my four elections in Ward 6 I have never spent more than $300 to $400 dollars. That will never be possible again if we synch our election. And good luck in gaining more minority candidates and newcomers to run.

The cost to the city of running our elections will go up because more election judges will need to be hired and trained and more equipment will be needed and transported.

Most worrisome, synchronization means ultimately ceding control of our election processes to the county and/or the state. As Councilmember Jarrett Smith has ably pointed out, the very nature of county and state government is to garner more and more power, money and authority to themselves. The opposite rarely is the case. Former Mayor Bruce Williams who knows about these things, also strongly concurs.

Our city that prides itself on forging its own way and laying down markers for other municipalities to follow, risks voluntary giving up control over its own elections: all for the well-intended but misguided grasp at boosting its total vote count. This goes contrary to Takoma Parks’ character and tradition.

April 26 Primary: How important is it?

Candid Commentary from Takoma Park Councilmember Fred Schultz 

How important is this primary election?  Who should I vote for?

The answer to the first question is VERY. 

The importance of this upcoming primary for Takoma Park residents lies in the choice we make for our next U.S. Senator and our Congressman for the 8th Congressional District.

By now you have received your sample ballot and voting instructions in the mail. You will see 10 candidates listed for Maryland’s Senate seat and 9 for the House. 

I am offering my guidance as to who to vote for. Why me?

Having served for over 6 years on the Takoma Park City Council, I’ve met a lot of elected people and those running for office. Some I’ve gotten to know well enough that I trust my judgment as to their strength, character and ability. Of others I have learned of their reputation partly from those whose judgement I value. Through observation and off-the-record conversations in the world of Maryland politics, one gleans a lot about who is effective and not effective, who shows up, who follows through, who is admired and respected.

Because the April 26 primary is so important, I want to share my views on who I endorse and why.

Senate Race

I have endorsed Chris Van Hollen and strongly support his candidacy. Donna Edwards is the other highly competitive candidate. Aside from many good qualities, Chris is best known for his effectiveness in getting things done in Congress and for his responsiveness on constituent services. Chris returns my calls and emails and he’s followed through on stuff I’ve asked for his help with; most recently on problems with the US Postal Service. This matters!

Chris is a guy who is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. He chaired the Democratic National Campaign Committee. He is a frequent guest on TV political shows. He’s represented us in Congress since 2003 and is recognized as someone who reaches “across the aisle” to get legislation approved. 

Even though Chris Van Hollen is a national figure, none of this has gone to his head. He is very approachable. You don’t hear pontificating, political BS and ideological nonsense coming from him. He has tremendous upside as a leader in the Senate, not unlike Barbara Mikulski who is giving up her seat after 30 years.

I’ve never met Donna Edwards, to be fair. She campaigns on the prospect of being Maryland’s first Black women in the Senate. She hopes to pick up Barbara Mikulski’s mantle in the Senate. Mikulski was an effective, personable community leader and social worker in Baltimore when I lived and worked there as a community planner in the 1970s.

Ms. Edward’s supporters tout the importance of having a woman and Black person in the Senate because she would be an important symbol here and in the Senate. The Senate indeed needs to have more minorities and women, but I do not want to elect just a symbol, someone whose appearance stands for something. We do not need an ideologue who on principal resists reaching across the aisle. We need someone who can get things done. In Congress she has a limited record of accomplishment.

Ms. Edwards has a reputation of being aloof and ineffective in responding to constituents.  Most of her campaign money comes from the Emily’s List PAC, which apparently wants a woman above all else in the Senate. The PAC’s cash infusion has sustained her campaign. Nothing wrong with that of course, except for one peculiar thing. According to Mr. Van Hollen, he carries a 100% rating from Emily’s List.

House Race

I strongly support and have endorsed Jamie Raskin. If yard signs are any indication, Mr. Raskin will win by a landslide in Takoma Park. The 8th Congressional District, however, extends far from the D.C. line to the Pennsylvania line including much of Frederick County (not the city of Frederick) and a big chunk of Carroll County, rural areas that tend toward conservatism. These are communities where many of the candidates will be striving for name recognition.

This means it may be a very close race and it is really important to vote! 

There are several quality candidates in the Democratic primary: Will Jawando, Delegate Ana Sol Guiterrez,  and State Senator Kumar Barve. Jawando has experience as a Hill staffer, but has not held public office. Guiterrez and Barve have solid reputations as effective and experienced members of the General Assembly.

David Trone, whose advertising is everywhere, is simply an inadequate candidate to run for Congress. He asserts his politically liberal views, but as corporate executive there’s nothing in his background to demonstrate what he knows and why. Founders of big companies are used to handing down orders and  telling people what to do. It does not actually work that way in a legislature. It takes newcomers three or four year to learn the ropes. Believe me, I know these things.

Unlike most professions, we voters somehow place a premium on inexperience in a job as though somehow a virgin legislator is the answer to our prayers. I have a problem with superrich people who in midlife decide they want to become politically relevant. They tend to think that their private sector experience makes them supremely qualified to run for national political office. Because they are superrich they are used to buying anything they want. Mr. Trone intends to buy a seat in Congress and has spent a breathtaking $9.1 million doing so, so far. He says that the tactic of spending only his money and not soliciting funds from voters protects him from “special interests.” (Who are they anyway?). Actually what it does is insulate him from having to talk to voters, now and in the future. His attitude is, “Trust me.” (Where have we heard that before.) We do not need more “1%’ers” in Congress. Let’s not reward his wealth this way.

Kathleen Matthews, an admired former local TV news anchor has name recognition. Being married to MSNBC’s host of Hard Ball, Chris Matthews, is what really distinguishes her from scores of other smart, successful Potomac career women. Apparently for that and her job as public affairs exec at Marriott International, the Post has endorsed her. No doubt her familiarity with Washington’s A-level crowd is a big help to her campaign.

But like Trone, Mrs. Matthews is a political novitiate. Differently from Trone, she’s conflating being a Who’s Who personality and an observer of politicians in action with readiness to start at the top of the political heap. I love watching the Orioles and the Nats, but that doesn’t prepare me to stand in the way of a hard smash down the third base line. If she wants to be true to her ambitions, let her get involved at the Montgomery County level on the County Council or one of its many commissions and boards where she could make a big difference.

At this time in America’s national political stalemate we need a Jamie Raskin. He has a brilliant mind, has a wonderful way with words and is able to make plain sense out of complex issues. He speaks with a rare passion that connects to reality. If you know his parents’ stories, you will know that Jamie was born a progressive. As a constitutional law professor Jamie not only understands the fundamentals of our democracy, but understands how to draft law, make compromises and figure out how to get things done. After all, politics is the art of the possible. Jamie is a past master at it.

I believe Jamie Raskin has the chance to be a significant voice in the U.S. House of Representatives and to become a national leader on issues that matter to us. In this time of political loggerheads in Washington, I’m convinced we cannot afford to not elect Jamie.