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.
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.
Councilmember, Ward 6
Takoma Park, Md