Friday, October 20, 2017

A small business uses its patrons to threaten a Takoma Park development project more than 20 years in the making

Over the past couple of years, the city’s staff and its chosen developer have endured pushback on this project by a small grocery store and some of its patrons.  As Takoma Park now reviews the developer’s initial concept plan, the grocery store has asked its patrons to petition Takoma Park officials yet again in an effort to kill or stall the project.

A grocery store with a story

Back in 1981, the Takoma Park - Silver Spring Cooperative grocery store opened for business.  According to a local historian, residents of Takoma Park and Silver Spring founded the Co-op as a vegetarian storefront in a community that shares the values first laid out by the cooperative tradition.  

The Co-op store today.  Image from the Takoma Voice.

In 1998, the Co-op moved into a single-story building in Takoma Park at the confluence of two major roadways that share the road for one block: Carroll Avenue (MD-195) and Ethan Allen Avenue  (MD-410).  

These roads are both owned and controlled by the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the commercial area around this busy intersection is known as Takoma Junction.  The Co-op is located about 7 blocks from the Takoma metrorail station and is serviced by multiple Metrobus and Ride On bus routes in a very walkable area of Takoma Park.

For the uninitiated, a cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.  

In this case, it’s selling groceries and, as of the autumn of 2015 beer and wine too.  The Co-op expanded in the autumn of 2001 by opening a second location on Grubb Road in Silver Spring, which closed in November of 2013 due to underperformance.

According to their latest annual report, the Co-op has adopted the values and principles of the International Cooperative Alliance from 1995. It claims that it subscribes to ethical values of “honesty, social responsibility, and caring for others.”  

While the Co-op sounds like a egalitarian or even aspiring socialist movement, it is in fact a for-profit corporation that grossed more than $3 million dollars in revenue last year and has over $1.4 million in cash reserves from sales.  As an aside, I asked the Co-op’s Board of Directors for a list of all the Co-op’s shareholders and/or members, to which they responded they could not provide it to me “due to privacy and confidentiality issues.”

Development was planned before the Co-op arrived

In September of 1995, the City of Takoma Park paid $483,000 for two parcels of land near the Co-op.  One of the parcels is a triangularly-shaped wooded area that is residentially zoned and slopes heavily towards Columbia Avenue.  The other parcel is a paved parking lot that is commercially zoned and directly adjacent to the west of the Co-op.  The development site has been recently expanded to the west by the developer who has a contract to purchase the Takoma Auto Clinic, which is closing.  The full development site and its position relative to the Co-op is shown below.

Satellite image of the Takoma Junction site from Google Maps with the development boundary in yellow and the TPSS Co-op’s leased building and parking lot in red.

For a while now, the Co-op has rented some of the surface parking lot in order to facilitate deliveries that they claim cannot be scheduled and must be done with 18-wheeled trucks.  According to one source, the Co-op’s deliveries cannot be fulfilled by these large trucks on their dedicated parking lot east of their store.  

In January of 2014, Takoma Park issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop the surface parking lot in accordance with many recommendations made by the citizen-led Takoma Junction task force. According to the RFP, Takoma Park acquired these parcels of land “for purposes of stabilizing this small but important historic neighborhood commercial district and facilitating the redevelopment of the area in furtherance of the City’s master plan.”

The RFP’s guidance to developers encouraged them to create proposals that will “act as a stimulus to the commercial district and locally-owned, independent businesses; improve the aesthetic appeal of the district; and be contextually sensitive and environmentally sustainable.” The Co-op’s own market research showed there is demand for their expansion.

Despite not having any experience in development, the Co-op responded to the RFP with their own proposal to double their store size and offered Takoma Park $0 for the purchase of the Junction site. Not surprisingly, in September of 2014, when Takoma Park selected four finalists the Co-op was not among them.  In April of 2015, Takoma Park selected Neighborhood Development Company to redevelop the Junction site.  

The Co-op strikes back

Notwithstanding being passed over to develop the Junction site, the Co-op managed to marshall its most vocal patrons to lobby Takoma Park’s elected leaders to protect its business from the “encroaching” development.  Passionate local residents and other patrons showed up in droves at many city council meetings and spoke about the Co-op’s special status and how it is part of the very fabric of Takoma Park.  

And it worked. Takoma Park’s elected officials were swayed to intervene on behalf of the Co-op.  After selecting NDC to redevelop the Junction site, Takoma Park crafted a development agreement that required NDC to negotiate in good-faith with the Co-op to expand its existing store somehow as part of the development and provide the Co-op with reasonable accommodation of certain parking and/or access areas located at the Junction site.

Even more significant, Takoma Park officials included a clause in the development agreement that prevents NDC from leasing any of the future Takoma Junction space to “another food co-operative (meaning a food distribution outlet organized as a co-operative) or grocery store (meaning a retail grocer or supermarket selling a large variety of food and household items).”  This amounts to providing the Co-op with a government-sponsored monopoly at the Takoma Junction as there is no other commercial space large enough to accommodate a grocery store.

Over the course of many months NDC and the Co-op tried to negotiate a Letter of Intent over the Co-op’s expansion into the new development.  The Co-op publicly stated that they wanted to expand their store, but they signed a 20-year lease in 2015 for their current building that not only needs major upgrades but does not provide any expansion opportunities.  Of note, the City of Takoma Park is retaining ownership of the Junction site and is providing NDC with a 99-year ground lease.

Even with Takoma Park officials providing the Co-op with additional time to get a LOI in place, NDC and the Co-op could not come to an agreement. The major sticking point appears to be that the Co-op’s rent in their current building ($28 per square foot) is much lower than what NDC is asking ($45 per square foot) if the Co-op wants to expand into newly-built commercial space at the Junction site.  
What’s noteworthy here is that the Co-op itself identified the desirability of moving into a new building back in 2011.  Using the data from the Old Takoma Business Association’s recent area rent analysis, it appears that the Co-op’s current rent is the lowest in the Junction area and NDC’s proposed rent is within the normal range for new construction.

In addition to their demand for a custom-built, new construction addition tied into its existing building at (or near their) below-market rent, the Co-op included other questionable demands from NDC, such as exclusive, non-compete agreements within 50 feet of the Co-op for coffee shops, wine/liquor stores, and, oddly, educational facilities.  As stated in a letter from NDC to the Co-op, “these exclusions would materially increase the value of [the Co-op] while lowering the value of the rest of the project.”  Unsurprisingly, the parties were unable to come to terms.  

Stall, delay and make it go away

After the failed LOI negotiations between NDC and the Co-op, Takoma Park passed a resolution that permitted NDC to secure a new anchor tenant, so long as it is not another food cooperative or grocery store that would compete with the Co-op.  NDC was also cleared to begin its required community outreach with the assistance of a citizen advisory committee.  NDC held four community meetings and conducted two surveys to gather input.  Disclosure: I served on this committee.

After almost four years since Takoma Park issued its initial RFP for the Junction site, many local residents have attended numerous public meetings, listened to countless hours of testimony and read hundreds of neighborhood emails from Co-op patrons and advocates that have tried to derail this project. Thanks to an intrepid group of neighbors that want to revitalize the Junction, Takoma Park officials have stayed the course in a deliberate, but cautious manner.

What’s just plain maddening is that it has taken Takoma Park so long to get to this point, and even though the timeline shows the groundbreaking in May of 2019, city officials said it is likely to be pushed back again!  For perspective, the Empire State building was built in just over a year.  

If the Co-op gets its way, this timeline will almost certainly be extended again.  All this effort for a grocery store that some people have observed is very expensive and does not serve the middle or lower socioeconomic classes.

In late September 2017, NDC, partnering with Streetsense, finally presented its concept plan for the Junction site.  The concept is a mixed-use development that provides 72 underground parking spaces, along with three levels of retail, office and community space as shown in the concept drawing below.  

Whatever one’s view is of the design, NDC’s concept is transformative and could turn an otherwise neglected commercial district into another third-place for the Takoma Park community (with Old Town and the Takoma/Langley Crossroads being others).  

NDC’s concept plan for the Junction site.  Image from NDC and Streetsense.

But now that NDC has presented its concept plan, the Co-op has doubled-down on their “special status” and encouraged more anti-development rhetoric.  You can read their latest rally cry to their 9,000+ members here.  Below I will address the Co-op's points against NDC's concept plan.

Festivus (i.e. airing of the Co-op’s grievances)

We have reviewed NDC’s concept plan as presented to the Council on September 27, and we believe it could seriously harm the operation of our 36-year-old food market. …  As submitted, your Co-op leadership believes the development gambles with the future of the Co-op and is a danger to the safety and character of our neighborhood in Central Takoma Park.

The Co-op first claims that NDC’s concept plan threatens its survival, despite the fact that Takoma Park officials gave the Co-op a 99-year monopoly to sell groceries at the Junction site.  What other local businesses may be wondering is if Takoma Park officials are also going to provide them similar protections against competition?  Without this protection, NDC could very likely convince one of the Co-op’s competitors (e.g. Yes! Organic, Mom’s Organic Market) to become the anchor tenant at the Junction site.  

Some people say that it’s ok for Takoma Park to provide this protection to the Co-op from competition because it’s a local business that provides jobs, but the data shows that Republic restaurant and a few other local businesses employ more people than the Co-op.  I think the Co-op should be humbly grateful that it’s been provided with this tremendous gift at taxpayer expense - but instead it has the audacity to ask for even more special treatment.  

In addition, by arguing that NDC’s concept plan development is a danger to the “safety and character” of the neighborhood, the Co-op has aligned itself with anti-development opponents, who are alive and well in Takoma Park.  It’s ironic for sure, but not unprecedented, to see a private, for-profit business use this strategy.  Let’s hope that Takoma Park officials recognize this statement for what it is - a typical NIMBY argument.

The latest design by NDC is too large for the available space. Although earlier discussions centered on an environmentally friendly, low-density building with green space, the new version is not that.

I find it odd that the Co-op is making judgments about the concept plan after it chose not to be part of the development, but I’ll analyze this assertion nonetheless.  It’s true that NDC’s prior rendering was slightly smaller than their proposed concept, but that concept isn’t all that different as shown below.  

What the Co-op also fails to mention is that the prior concept was based on NDC’s offer to build the Co-op an entirely new, larger space and to either acquire or have the Co-op sublease their current building.  In other words, the Co-op is comparing “organic” apples and “conventional” oranges here.

Previous rendering of Junction development site.  Image from NDC.

As explained in Takoma Park’s FAQ handout on the Junction site, NDC’s concept plan is only 3,000 square feet or 6.4% larger; moreover, let’s not forget that NDC’s current concept is … well … a concept.  Anyone who works in development knows that concepts are often changed at least a few times before shovels start digging.  

Takoma Park officials have already indicated that they will likely ask NDC to refine their concept, but instead of being patient and letting city officials do their job the Co-op sent alarmist signals to its members and they came out swinging.

In addition, according to OTBA’s recent market analysis, gross demand for commercial space on its main street corridor in 2017 is 195,000 square feet and there is it currently 115,000 available square feet.  By 2022, OTBA predicts that total gross demand for commercial space on its main street corridor is estimated to be 211,000 square feet.  

On the question of massing, a 3-story building is hardly a high-density one for a development less than a mile from a Metrorail station and arguments against it sound more like a case of “height-itis.” Plus NDC’s proposed concept provides a rooftop community green space that is set back from the second story.

NDC's concept is not out of scale with the neighborhood, as the nearby fire station, apartment buildings, and many houses in Takoma Park are also 3-stories.  Let’s hope that Takoma Park officials are open-minded and creative about a third-floor and do not fall victim to the narrow viewpoints of a small, vocal minority.

The latest proposal does not leave adequate room for the big-truck deliveries that are necessary each morning to supply our grocery store (and future tenants) and keep it operating, nor for proper handling of our (and future tenants’) waste and recycling. Pushing these trucks into the street to wait their turn at a cramped loading facility will impinge on our business and upon residential neighbors and create traffic bottlenecks.

To me this is what the Co-op is fighting most.  The Co-op has had the luxury of using the adjacent parking lot for their deliveries since 1998.  The Co-op claims that it is not a normal grocery store in that it cannot control the arrival and/or size of their delivery trucks and that most of its deliveries is with 18-wheelers.  The Co-op currently rents much of the surface parking lot so that these 18-wheelers can drive head-first into the parking lot and do a U-turn to facilitate deliveries, which takes up a lot of space.  This ties into their next concern.

NDC’s proposed lay-by on Carroll Avenue is a serious safety concern, situated adjacent to pedestrian and biking lanes, a bus stop, emergency lanes for fire trucks and trash pickup, and near cross walks at an already too-busy intersection.

Since the Co-op has decided against expanding into the Junction site, NDC’s development agreement with Takoma Park only requires that it “provide reasonable accommodation to the Co-op’s operation of its business in the Co-op Existing Premises, which accommodation shall include access for loading of deliveries and Co-op customer parking, provided the Co-op is operating in the Co-op Existing Premises.”  

Lay-bys are a fairly common urban development tool used in many cities to provide parking space for buses and other large delivery vehicles.  Below is a sketch from NDC that shows how the lay-by will look in context to the Junction site.

Sketch of ground floor plan for Junction site showing the “lay-by”.  Image from NDC.

I will agree that the lay-by concept is less than ideal.  NDC’s current concept shows restaurants and cafes along Carroll Avenue and -- while most of the Co-op deliveries are in the early dawn hours -- nobody wants to be sitting outside for dinner or having a drink with friends when a loud 18-wheeled truck shows up and has to unload boxes of produce for 1-2 hours.  

As an aside, I think any restaurants on Carroll Avenue should be located closer to the ramp in NDC’s concept and away from the lay-by, or why not move all dining al fresco on the 2nd or 3rd floors away from the noise and smell of car exhaust?

My own reading of the development agreement makes me believe that NDC doesn’t even have to provide the Co-op with the lay-by and could instead require the Co-op to figure out deliveries on its own parking lot or any of the three sides of its building over which it exercises control.

The Co-op doesn’t consider that while the lay-by concept is being done for their benefit it’s an eyesore and traffic headache being done solely for their business operation.  It’s reprehensible that the Co-op is playing the “safety” card in an effort to convince its members to lobby Takoma Park officials on its behalf - and it’s another example of their rent-seeking behavior.

There is too little parking planned for the site – forcing our customers and those of businesses at the new building to look for parking in adjacent residential and business areas. Frankly, we fear that many of our customers will give up on parking and go elsewhere to shop. The proposed 72 spaces are simply not enough.

According to the original RFP, the current surface parking lot has 56 spaces, of which the Co-op currently rents 16 spaces.  I also count 16 spaces on the Co-op’s own parking lot to the east of their building.  NDC’s concept plan replaces the current 56 parking spaces with 72 underground ones, and despite no expansion plans the Co-op has requested to reserve 25 of these parking spots (for an increase of 9 spaces).  NDC's concept adds 14,600 square feet of retail space, 19,800 square feet of office space, and 9,500 square feet of community/event space on the third floor.

The task force report and the RFP make it clear that Takoma Park wants the Junction site to be a neighborhood gathering space that provides people with options as to how they arrive at the Junction site (i.e. walk, bike or drive).  It’s the same reason that Takoma Park located a Capital Bikeshare station at the Junction (despite being a terrifying place to ride on the road - something this project could rectify by simply removing one driving lane and replacing it with bike lanes).

It’s true that some patrons will avoid shopping at the Co-op if it’s hard to find parking, but the Co-op is a niche grocery store with less than 5,500 square feet and therefore already not competing with normal grocery stores that lure shoppers with the promise of easy, free parking.  

As for traffic, a study will help figure out how much more traffic will result although many experts find predictions to be dubious at best.  And so what if a traffic study does predict an increase.  As noted by former Montgomery County planning director Rollin Stanley, “the best places to visit have the worst traffic.”  

Ask Takoma Park to move forward

When Takoma Park made the decision to develop the Junction site, the Co-op claimed that it wanted to expand and be a part of the project.  When the Co-op wasn’t chosen to develop the site it claimed it still wanted to expand, but it was unwilling to either break its current lease and move into the new development or pay a higher rent to connect its current building with the new development.  

Now that the Co-op is stuck in its current building with no plans to expand, it is relying once again on its special status and using its weight in the community to convince Takoma Park officials to delay and/or cancel the Takoma Junction project altogether. To me, this does not sound like an organization that values “honesty, social responsibility, and caring for others.”  

If elected officials decide to delay or cancel the Junction site it may cause a ripple effect on any future developer to pause when considering to pursue development in Takoma Park, especially in the Takoma/Langley “Crossroads” of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, a less-affluent part of Takoma Park.

NDC’s concept plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a transformative vision that represents the real compromises that Takoma Park officials made when they chose to protect the Co-op’s business needs.  The sad irony here is that a larger, more robust development will benefit the Co-op’s business by bringing more foot-traffic to its doors and the Co-op has instead chosen to see the glass as “half-empty.”  

On October 25th, Takoma Park’s officials will be voting on NDC’s concept plan.  If you want them to see the glass as “half-full” and move forward with the Junction site, you can tell them to vote “Yes” by clicking here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Extension of the Met Branch Trail to Maryland once again highlights the challenge of change in Washington

Ward 4 residents and bicycle riders of all stripes have been waiting for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to complete a missing segment the Metropolitan Branch Trail between Fort Totten and Eastern Avenue for more than two decades. But some residents aren’t happy with proposed designs to make the trail a wide sidewalk in some places, and an on-street route in others.

Overview of DDOT’s plan to extend the MBT to Maryland

At a recent meeting, DDOT planners discussed plans for two segments of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, between Riggs Road and Blair Road, and between Kansas Avenue and Sandy Spring Road.

Riggs Road to Blair Road

DDOT’s proposed route for this segment of the MBT is a real compromise. Here, the trail will consist of sharrows and speed humps for the trail on 1st Street, and a full traffic signal at the intersection of Riggs Road and 1st Street, NE.

The trail would turn from 1st Street onto South Dakota Avenue, where a new traffic signal would also be added at the intersection of South Dakota Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue and McDonald Place NE, along with enlarged curb bump-outs to increase safety and decrease speeding. The trail then takes a left turn onto McDonald Place, where DDOT is proposing to add a contraflow bike lane heading west that is opposite sharrows heading east.

DDOT map showing improvements to intersection of SD Ave, NH Ave, and McDonald Pl, NE

Some local residents spoke out against the trail alignment on 1st Street. A woman representing the South Manor Park Neighborhood Association argued that 1st Street is too narrow to “bring all these bikes there” and that parking is also very difficult. She also alleged that the adjacent DC Bilingual Public Charter School creates additional problems as it generates lots of car traffic and walking kids such that placing the trail here would increase conflicts and could be dangerous.

Bike advocates, including leadership from the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, pointed out that bicyclists can already use these streets without sharrows, and that DDOT’s proposal is reasonable because it does not take any parking spaces or other public space for the benefit of the trail.

DDOT officials say that they couldn’t get approval from the National Park Service to build the trail on land it owns between the railroad tracks and 1st Street NE, which is why they propose routing it on the street. Both bike advocates and trail opponents agree that DDOT should work with NPS to get approval to align the trail on their land, but put the trail on the street in the meantime.

nps map.png
DDOT map of MBT showing proposed alignment in red and possible realignment on NPS land in blue. The dotted green line will be discussed in the next segment.

Kansas Avenue to Sandy Spring Road

The other segment of contention was regarding DDOT’s proposal to build the trail as a shared use path  along Blair Road between McDonald Place and Rittenhouse Street, essentially replacing the sidewalk on the eastern side of Blair Road.

However, this layout simply preserves space for cars at the expense of making the trail worse. For example, when the trail transitions from McDonald Place to Blair Road, Blair Road has four lanes, but one of the southbound lanes is also available for parking except during peak commuting hours (7:00-9:30 am and 4:00-6:30 pm).

Both of Blair Road’s northbound lanes are open to traffic all of the time with no parking allowed. One of the northbound lanes could have been turned into a protected bike lane while leaving the same amount of space for cars as in the southbound direction.

Instead of creating a protected trail similar to the MBT further south that bicyclists can safely use for commuting, this design puts cyclists at risk of getting “doored,” colliding with people using the nearby community garden, or shopping at the dozen different businesses that line this section of Blair Road.

blair to ritten.png
DDOT street layout on Blair Road with a rendering of the future shared trail

In fact, DDOT is already proposing an on-street trail along Blair Road further north, reducing Blair Road’s northbound lanes from two to one. At the meeting, DDOT planners shared that its traffic forecast estimates for removing one northbound lane on Blair Road will add 0.9 minutes of additional travel time during the peak PM travel period. One can imagine that removing the second northbound lane on Blair Road beginning at McDonald Place would not add more than 1 or 2 minutes at peak times for car trips, yet provide immense safety benefits for cyclists and pedestrians in this area.

DDOT’s current plan has the trail turning right onto Aspen Street before going north on Sandy Spring Road, which some residents say will add to traffic congestion. ANC subcommittee head Faith Wheeler said Aspen Street is already busy and about to get busier with all of the construction that is underway on the former Walter Reed site.

She and some residents implored DDOT to consider putting the trail on Van Buren Street, but DDOT noted that Sandy Spring Road is too narrow there for the trail to fit. Bicycling advocates countered that putting the trail closer to the new development at Walter Reed will encourage new residents to bike rather than take more trips by car. Building more bike infrastructure in order to relieve car congestion is a paradigm that seems to get lost in the discussion sometimes and this meeting was a good example of that problem.

A new MBT trail idea

At least one ANC Commissioner has her own concept for the MBT that could bring trail users closer to the Takoma Community Center, which has a pool, playgrounds, and a spray park. ANC4B Commissioner Tanya Topolewski, asked DDOT to explore whether the trail could or should be realigned along North Dakota Avenue and 3rd Street NW..

DDOT’s analysis says that North Dakota Avenue is too narrow for an on-street, protected trail, and would increase the number of intersection crossings (i.e. conflict points) from 3 to 10. But her innovation was acknowledged, and bike advocates asked DDOT to analyze building a MBT spur that would connect the MBT to Takoma’s amenities, but only after the MBT is actually built.

Commissioner Topolewski went so far to suggest a catchy name: the “Rec Loop.” DDOT would not comment on the feasibility of building the Rec Loop, but, given how long it’s taking to extend the MBT to Maryland, I wouldn’t place any bets it will be done before 2037.

ANC4B will be voting very soon to write a resolution in support or in opposition to the MBT alignment proposed by DDOT. Click here to contact ANC4B and register your support.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lots of people want a dog park at the Takoma recreation center, but since a few don't, it isn’t happening

In December 2015, dog owners across Ward 4 submitted the largest petition ever to build a dog park in DC.  But a small group of neighbors put up a big fight, and last week the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) made it official: no dog park. Here’s what happened.

Image from New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

In late 2014, a group of dog owners that live around the Takoma Recreation Center started meeting regularly to let their dogs play together in one of the fields.  It turns out the closest canine closure was at Upshur Park, which is the only dog park in Ward 4, and is about 2.5 miles away from the rec center.  With the goal of getting a dog park built closer to them, the neighbors organized into the Northern Ward 4 Dog Park Group.  The full list of DC’s 13 dog parks can be found here.

How DPR decides whether to build a dog park

The application to build a dog park in DC is a gauntlet of work.  It requires the applicant to gather lots of signatures of support from their neighbors; it requires a letter of support from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC); it also requires applications be posted in DC Register for a 30-day public comment period.

After the public comment period, a Dog Park Application Review Committee reviews the entire application and provides the DPR Director a recommendation, but DPR’s regulations give the DPR Director the sole authority to decide whether to approve or reject applications.

The criteria for making that ultimate decision? The preamble for DPR’s regulations on dog parks states that flexibility is required when making decisions about where to put them because DC is dense and parkland is scarce.  

DPR’s regulations also state that dog parks should be placed on under-utilized land where possible, but not in areas specifically designated as playgrounds or children’s play areas, including athletic fields and courts.

Neighbors found all kinds of options for a dog park, but they keep getting shot down

In early 2015, the Dog Park Group started talking to DPR and neighbors of the rec center about possible locations for a dog park.  If you look at the map below, you’ll see the corner of 4th and Whittier Streets, NW marked as Site #1, as that’s where the Dog Park Group initially proposed that the park be located.

Satellite view of the proposed sites for a dog park at the Takoma Recreation Center. On this map, north is to the right. Image from Google Maps.

All that sits at that site is an abandoned shuffleboard court and some trees. Across the street, there are a few single-family homes.

Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s first proposed site.  Image from Google Maps.

I interviewed Michael Cohen, a representative from the Dog Park Group, and he said DPR initially agreed to this site. But, he added, after they gathered almost 300 signatures for their petition, a DPR official told him that a few neighbors that lived across the street objected to the proposed site because it was too close to their homes and DPR advised picking another site.  

I asked DPR about this claim, and Communications Director Gwendolyn Crump told me the first site was rejected by the Department of Energy and Environment due to concerns about stormwater runoff.

Cohen told me his group worked with members of the ANC covering the rec center, ANC 4B, to find a better site.  As shown in the map below, the second site was not adjacent to any streets or housing, instead bordering the Takoma indoor pool and was just north of Coolidge High School.

Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s second proposed site.  Image from Google Maps.

Cohen told me DPR again initially supported the site location, so the group again began conducting outreach and collecting signatures. But, again, prior to making a formal application to DPR, he claims that DPR told them that the principal for Coolidge High School objected to the location.

I also asked Crump about this, and she said that a nearby church objected to the site over noise concerns.

Cohen said the Dog Park Group was disappointed but again worked with ANC 4B to find another alternative site.  As shown on the map below, the third chosen site was near the intersection of Underwood and 3rd Streets NW, wedged between a baseball/soccer field and a parking lot.  

Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s third proposed site.  Image from Google Maps.

Again, DPR initially supported this location for a dog park, so the Dog Park Group began to conduct outreach to their neighbors.  The group collected 563 signatures in favor of building at this site -- the largest dog park petition ever recorded by DPR.

The people petitioning for a dog park made a strong case for one

The group’s December 2015 application made a pretty clear case for why northern Ward 4 should have a dog park.  The zip code of the Takoma Rec Center, 20011, has the second-highest number of registered dogs in DC; DPR’s own master plan, Play DC, designated a future dog park around the rec center; and finally, the rec center has more than six acres of unutilized land.

Also in December 2015, the group managed to secure a written endorsement of support from ANC 4B.  As required, the application was published in the DC register from February 26 - May 1, 2016 (even though DPR’s regulations only require 30-days of public comment).  

DPR was not required but held community meetings in July and October of 2015 and March and April of 2016. The Dog Park Group is opposed primarily by a small, opaque organization known as the “Friends of the Takoma Recreation Center”. That group is one of many community advisory groups created under Mayor Anthony Williams to help DPR manage its facilities.

The Dog Park Group made repeated attempts to work with the Friends of the Rec Center toward a compromise.  I attended a public Friends meeting in March of this year to observe the discussion and wrote about it on my blog, but here’s what they put in writing to the Dog Park Group as their bottom line:  “Our mission is to support a clean, safe and fun environment at our park.  The Friends' focus is and has always been programs and activities for children. We hope you find a community that is interested in supporting your cause.”

Despite opposition, on September 12, 2016, the Dog Park Application Review Committee voted 5-3 in favor of the third chosen site.

Map showing some of the addresses of the Petitioners seeking a Dog Park at the Takoma Rec Center.  Image from Google Maps.

This month, the dog park effort received a formal “no”

On October 16, 2016, DPR Director Keith Anderson formally denied the Dog Park Group’s application.  Mr. Anderson noted that he considered the application, community meetings, the public comments and various letters and emails in support and opposition.  Despite a positive endorsement from the DPARC, Mr. Anderson’s denial rested on three reasons:  

(i) Its too-close proximity to nearby residences' front porches;
(ii) Its failure to streamline with the existing use of the open space where adults and children play, walk, and rest; and
(iii) Its location between two heavily used athletic fields.

Mr. Anderson ended his denial letter with the following statement: “Please note, however, this does not foreclose the possibility of a dog park being located in an alternative site within the community.  DPR is committed to collaborating with the community to ensure the needs of dog enthusiasts are met.”  

Dog owners need a place to let their dogs play

I have reviewed Mr. Anderson’s stated reasons for denying the Dog Park Group’s application and find them to be curious when you consider that DC’s other dog parks are mostly on DPR parks and adjacent to housing and athletic fields.  The larger issue, however, is that DPR completely ignored the preamble to its own regulations, which requires flexibility and compromise.  Playgrounds can and already do co-exist for both kids and dogs.

According to some reports, there are now more households with dogs (43 million) than with kids (38 million), and urban dog parks are the fastest growing.  That’s because urban dog owners usually lack the outside space needed to let their dogs exercise and play with other canines.  

dogs playing.jpg
Image from Pinterest.

The Dog Park Group proposed using unutilized land at the Takoma Rec Center to let their dogs exercise and socialize.  They followed all of DPR’s rules, made multiple attempts to find a site that DPR would support, conducted extensive outreach with the opposition group and received a positive recommendation from the review committee.  What more could they have done?

Where do we go from here?

I contacted Keith Anderson and posed a few questions to better understand his denial letter.  DPR’s communications director politely responded to some of my questions, although I was told to submit a Freedom Of Information Act request to answer others.  

My final question to DPR was "is Director Anderson willing to reconsider his decision?" DPR responded basically no, but that they have already contacted Mr. Cohen and plan to collaborate “to find an area within Takoma that is best situated to handle a dog park while not impacting use of the park by those without dogs.”

I confirmed that DPR did indeed contact Cohen to discuss an alternative site.  But the entire experience is ponderous - why is building this dog park on unused land so controversial?  Could the Dog Park Group have done more to alleviate concerns by the Friends group?  

If you think DPR’s director should support the Dog Park Group application, you can let him know by sending an e-mail to and copy Mr. Cohen (  If you live in Ward 4, please copy your e-mail to Councilmember Brandon Todd at (I contacted Brandon Todd to get a comment for this post and he did not respond).

Full Disclosure:  The author lives in Maryland and has no “dog” in this fight, but has a dog that loves to play with other dogs.