Takoma Park resident Byrne Kelly asked my position on The Coop and their, and our community’s, relationship with [developer] NDC. Byrne asked, Do you support breaking the Lease with NDC based on their failure to meet the original conditions of the Development Agreement?

I thought I’d blog my response, looking at two opportunities: Takoma Junction and the City’s New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center.

TL;DR (summary):

I would pursue a careful approach to Takoma Junction, exploring an NDC exit but also open to a new junction proposal that would bring back a community and Co-op friendly project design. There’s no hurry to act otherwise. Time (and the right leadership) will heal the rifts in our community that opened around this project​, and ​in the mean time, let’s shift our focus to replacement of the out-dated New Hampshire Avenue Rec Center, a project that has been stalled for years. First step is a zoning upgrade that could double the number of apartments at the site — Takoma Park needs new, affordable housing — and boost funding toward a new Rec Center.

The NH Ave opportunity is about amenities (in a part of the city that needs more attention), affordability, and equity; we should similarly work to maximize housing at the former Washington Adventist Hospital site. Done right, these projects will help unify a divided community and rebuilt trust for a Takoma Junction restart.

Here’s my complete response to Byrne’s questions:

TPSS Co-op + Takoma Junction lot
TPSS Co-op + Takoma Junction lot.
(Photo: Josh Kurtz)

My position on the Co-op is easy to state: I shop at the Co-op 2-3 times a week. I’m also a former volunteer. I managed the Web site for several years (a long time ago!) and set up the first e-mail list. The TPSS Co-op has no stronger supporter.

And my position on Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) and the Takoma Junction lot?

I started working on Takoma Junction revitalization in 2010 and subsequently co-chaired the city’s Takoma Junction Task Force. Later, as a council member, I voted to accept NDC’s proposal for mixed-use development of the site, with eleven apartments above retail space, with accommodations for the Co-op including space for on-lot deliveries. The site is walkable and bikeable and well served by transit. Apartments there could be built without residential parking, minimizing traffic impact. But that project wasn’t to be. Developer NDC pulled a bait-and-switch, and a council majority went along.

Myself, I was the only City Council member who opposed NDC’s 2015 replacement of the on-lot Co-op delivery solution with a layby service lane. My council colleague Jarrett Smith OKed this switch. NDC also eliminated the apartments they had proposed. Again I was the only council member who objected.

In 2016, the City Council and NDC moved forward with Development Agreement with a layby delivery lane. And now, after years of contention, the revised NDC plan is dead, repudiated by the City Council and rejected by authorities including the Montgomery County Planning Board.

I’m dismayed by NDC’s failure to meet their obligations under the agreement, however the city is also remiss and may be legally vulnerable. I don’t have access to whatever legal analysis and advice was provided by the city attorney. Given what I know at the moment — and as a general principle — it’s better to find a resolution that keeps us out of court.

Community members who want to see NDC gone may find that time is on their side. If I read the Takoma Park-NDC ground lease correctly, the yearly rent NDC pays will balloon from $10,000 to $29,000 on August 1, 2023. (It will go up 3%/year after that.) Either NDC will be losing money or there’s going to be controversy when they ask the Co-op for much higher sublease rent or they’ll want to walk away from the deal. Why would they walk away? NDC is a for-profit company, and continued Takoma Park presence as a parking-lot landlord will be nothing but a headache for them.

The other possibility is that NDC will propose something new that the authorities would likely approve. We should keep an open mind if they do. But if they don’t propose something new by the time I’m sworn in as mayor, I would carefully, very carefully, explore an exit with them.

What if there is an exit?

I regret the community divisions that opened around this project. My gut feeling is that we shouldn’t rush to reopen lot-development discussion. While I would like to see the lot developed as other than just a parking lot — again, I’ve been working on this since 2010 — I don’t see a compelling need for immediate action. What we do need is space to pursue other housing and revitalization opportunities, in keeping with our strategic goals, that can help us unite the community.

The Takoma Park Recreation Center on New Hampshire Avenue
The Takoma Park Recreation Center on New Hampshire Avenue

Top of the opportunity list is replacement of the city’s New Hampshire Avenue Rec Center. The facility used to belong to the county. The city runs programming there and receives a modest yearly county payment and acquired ownership of the property in a 2019 land swap with the county. However the facility is completely outmoded.

I was a key 2014 City Council voice supporting Rec Center replacement. My council colleagues and I kicked off the process in 2014 by authorizing a Recreational Needs Study and a study to develop a Zoning Analysis and Concept Plans. There was and remains consensus that the building should be replaced and that the most promising route is a developer deal with creation of new apartment housing above a new Rec facility. That could be a nonprofit developer of subsidized/affordable housing; it could be a for-profit developer that would include MPDUs (moderately priced dwelling units) as required by the county, possibly with a higher proportion of MPDUs if we can provide a financial or other incentive. Another route would be government funded housing, if the county and state can be brought to the table. The city doesn’t have the financial capacity nor construction-project expertise to carry off creation of a project of this scale.

(Takoma Park’s financial capacity is limited particularly because of the city’s $7 million borrowing to finance the library project, which was over-expanded by the 2015-22 City Councils beyond the modest renovation and expansion that I and my 2013-5 council colleagues approved with broad community backing.)

Takoma Park should get the stalled NH Rec Center replacement + housing project back on the agenda. As mayor, I will.

The Takoma Park Rec Center on New Hampshire Avenue
The Takoma Park Rec Center on New Hampshire Avenue is an out-dated 1980 building that should be replaced with a new facility and new, affordable apartments.

We can maximize the opportunity — we can create a lot more new housing and boost funding that would be invested in the Rec facility — if we pursue a sensible and doable zoning change.

The zoning for two apartment buildings directly behind the Rec Center site — Hampshire Tower and Takoma Overlook — allows a 130 foot building. However the zoning for the Rec Center parcel limits a building to 60 feet in height. The Rec Center site zoning can and should be changed. The City Council could ask Montgomery Planning and the County Council to rezone the property to allow a 130′ height and a higher floor-area ratio (FAR). A larger building means more money to fund Rec Center construction and affordable housing. We need to, and we can, rezone to take full advantage of the opportunity. 

Keep in mind that New Hampshire Ave is very different from Takoma Junction. The NH Ave site is close to the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center — with plans to add bus rapid transit (BRT) service — and to a future Purple Line station and major retail centers. Housing at the Rec Center site will be green housing and the new residents will boost area businesses. The Takoma-Langley Crossroads area is an area where the city should be investing.

Rec Center replacement, maximizing the housing opportunity, is about amenities (in a part of the city that needs more attention), affordability, and equity, which should also be our focus in land-use planning for the former Washington Adventist Hospital site. (I’ll write more on the WAH site in the coming weeks.) Done right, these projects will help unify a divided community… and perhaps help us find consensus for Takoma Junction.

Bottom line:

A careful approach to Takoma Junction, exploring an NDC exit but also open to a new development proposal that would bring back a community and Co-op friendly project design with a cooling-off interval otherwise — PLUS pursuit of a key opportunity, building a new New Hampshire Avenue Rec Center in keeping with Takoma Park’s strategic housing, liveability, and equity goals — a vision for a reunited community.