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 keith.anderson@dc.gov and copy Mr. Cohen (michaelcohen5@gmail.com).  If you live in Ward 4, please copy your e-mail to Councilmember Brandon Todd at btodd@dccouncil.us (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.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully, the cycle won’t repeat itself this time. 

Existing conditions at the Takoma Metro station. Image from Google Earth.

What’s the problem?
Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station’s parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was “too dense.” They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.

Some smart growth supporters didn’t think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA’s original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.

EYA’s revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma Metro station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA’s plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.  Complaints about EYA’s proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: “it’s too big and has too much parking.”

The neighbors’ petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA’s proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA’s use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn’t perfect, but it’s not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy. 

Elevation drawings of EYA’s proposed apartment building. Image from EYA.
The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County’s RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA’s proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA’s motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA’s plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. “EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future,” he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood’s business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater - a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma’s historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it’s richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace that is never used. Yet there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more “eyes on the street.” If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let’s stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be “progressive” and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It’s not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees, bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro’s future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you’re really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those “others” to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.
Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.
What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Greater Greater Washington

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Dog owners want a dog park at the Takoma Recreation Center, but not everyone supports it.

A non-profit organization of Takoma neighbors called the Northern Ward 4 Dog Park Group (the Dog Park Group) has been trying since 2011 to build a dog park on land of the Takoma Recreation Center (the TRC).  But another community-based organization - known as the Friends of Takoma Recreation Center (the Friends Group) - is opposed to building a dog park at the current location (3rd and Underwood Streets) and anywhere else around the TRC.

Satellite view of proposed location of dog park

Last week the Friends Group, established in 1997, held a quarterly meeting and opposition to the Dog Park Group was on their agenda.  Because the Friends' Group meeting was public, some members of the Dog Park Group attended to listen to concerns.  I was in attendance too.  The Dog Park Group is composed of neighbors from Takoma, Brightwood, Manor Park and Shepherd Park.  The Friends Group meeting was initially cordial when the focus of the meeting was on providing equal access to the tennis courts at the TRC and other administrative matters to manage the TRC more efficiently.

But the Friends Group cordial attitude changed when it turned its attention to the Dog Park Group's application to build a dog park at the TRC.  At this point John Stokes, the Deputy Director for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), was also present to listen to the discussion.  Mr. Stokes obviously knew the issues well and was mostly there to listen to the Friends Group.  The Friends Group was critical of DPR's process; specifically that DPR's process was flawed.

DPR's Dog Park Process - Input or Comment?

As argued by the Friends Group, DPR's current application process provides local residents with 30-days to comment on an application to build a dog park but this occurs after DPR receives an application and selects a site to build the dog park.  Despite the fact that the Friends Group were able to organize an opposition petition during the comment period, members of the Friends Group complained to DPR that they should be given the opportunity to provide input for the site selection of any proposed dog park at the TRC.  As noted by Mr. Stokes at the meeting, DPR's process has worked well for every other dog park application in DC (12 and counting) since the rules were written in 2005, but apparently the Friends Group felt the process is flawed and unfair.

At this point some members of the Dog Park Group noted that the Friends Group repeatedly refused to engage with the Dog Park Group when offered the chance to provide input.  The Dog Park Group allegedly has proof of their attempts to engage the Friends Group.  The Dog Park Group also delivered info sheets to neighbors surrounding the TRC.  In addition, the Dog Park Group noted that the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC-4B) held a special meeting about the Dog Park Group's proposed application and included members of ANC-4A, DPR, the DC Department of Health, the Washington Humane Society and representatives from the Brightwood and Manor Park community associations.  DPR's regulations do not require that applications have a formal letter of support from their local ANC per se, but such a letter of support is persuasive to DPR.  ANC-4B ultimately provided a formal letter of support based upon a vote of its members.

Does Takoma need a Dog Park?

As noted in its application, many of the Dog Park Group's members live up to three miles away from the nearest dog park.  The Dog Park Group was able to garner the largest number of signatures for any dog park application that DPR has ever seen, and the TRC zip code has the second-largest number of registered dogs in DC.  The Dog Park Group also stated in their application that the TRC has over six (6) acres of unused or underused space, which is quite a luxury in DC but not surprising since the TRC is about 17 acres in size.  The Dog Park Group asked DPR to build a dog park that would be around 10,000 square feet in size, which is not terribly large when compared to other dog parks throughout DC (e.g. the Shaw dog park is 13,500 square feet in a much more dense neighborhood).

It would seem that there are plenty of reasons for DPR to build this dog park.  There are lots of nearby registered dog owners, strong community desire as evidenced by the Dog Park Group's petition, a formal ANC resolution of support and a DPR site that can clearly provide the space needed to build the dog park.  So why is the Friends Group opposing it?  Is it really about the DPR process?  I spoke with a few people after the Friends Group meeting and heard a few comments that suggested otherwise - for example, that dog parks smell, that they're noisy, and one long-standing local resident said this opposition was really about gentrification.  Nobody I spoke with from the Friends Group suggested that there are better locations in Takoma - just that a dog park is wrong for the TRC.  But there's no denying that the current proposed site location is directly across the street from a group of houses on 3rd Street, NW.

Closeup view of proposed dog park location and nearby houses.

In the end, however, the Friends Group got the special treatment they asked for - Mr. Stokes not only agreed to extend the comment period for an additional 30-days, he even promised that DPR would hold a special meeting of its own about the proposed dog park.  What do you think?  Is this fair to the Dog Park Group who followed DPR's rules?  Does Takoma need a dog park?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Town and gown are clashing over proposed development in Takoma Park

Montgomery County's rapidly-growing community college, Montgomery College, wants to expand its northern Takoma Park campus. A number of Takoma Park residents don't like the idea, and are pushing for the college to expand in nearby Silver Spring instead.
Montgomery College sits partially in Takoma Park (inside the red line) and partially in Silver Spring.
Image from Google Maps.
With three campuses in Takoma Park, Rockville and Germantown, Montgomery College serves more than 60,000 students a year, a number that's growing quickly. Its first campus was built in northern Takoma Park in 1950, and in 2004 it expanded by adding new buildings in Silver Spring.
The college's board of trustees recently approved a new Facilities Master Plan for 2013-2023. The Master Plan is full of proposals and ideas for the Takoma Park campus, such as a new math and science center building, a new health and fitness center, and a new library. According to the plan, Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus has more capacity constraints and "obsolete or dysfunctional existing structures" than Rockville and Germantown.
The plan notes that enrollment has increased 18% over the past five years and is projected to increase another 27% by 2023. All of those additional students will need space for classes and laboratories. In order to achieve greater square footage without acquiring any new land, the plan calls for taller, wider buildings to replace the current ones, which are mostly smaller, two-story structures built to blend into the residential character of northern Takoma Park.
All of that has the college wanting to expand the Takoma Park campus, to the tune of over 56,000 square feet.

Renovation
New Construction
Demolition
New Growth
Takoma Park/Silver Spring
9,295
170,532
(113,983)
56,549
In the image below, the six buildings colored in yellow are those planned to be demolished and rebuilt, while the orange building is planned for renovation. It's worth noting that the college's daycare center (located on the right side and noted by the letters "DC") will be closed with no plans to reopen, meaning students with kids and some local parents will need to find a new childcare option.
Maps from the Montgomery College Facilities Master Plan.
Neighbors are opposed, but the college says it can address concerns
At a Takoma Park City Council meeting on January 20, 2016, Montgomery College Takoma Park campus provost and vice president Brad Stewart described the draft master plan to both residents and the council.
According to Historic Takoma, a non-profit organization founded to preserve the heritage of Takoma Park, MD and the Takoma Park neighborhood of DC, the college agreed in writing in 2002 to consult with neighbors and the City Council on any proposed plans that could impact the neighborhood. While Mr. Mr. Stewart claims that two neighborhood discussions about the plan occurred (one in Takoma Park and one in Rockville), neighbors of the college claim that nobody told them.
Members of the City Council sided with the college's neighbors and chided Mr. Stewart about what they said was a lack of coordination on the college's part. Neighbors also complained that the larger, wider buildings contemplated in the master plan would be more appropriately located on the western side of its campus, which borders an urban, commercially zoned area on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.
Mr. Stewart tried his best to allay concerns, noting that that Master Plan is not the final document with regard to actual design and construction. He assured the City Council that additional outreach will be done the school hires architects and starts considering building designs.
Regarding the building heights, Mr. Stewart responded that the college's architects heard neighborhood concerns and created setbacks on the top floors of buildings facing neighboring homes.
You can watch residents raise their concerns at the City Council meeting here, beginning around 13:20, with Mr. Stewart's presentation to the City Council starting around 2:02:00.
Residents and the college have clashed before
As noted above, during the January 20th City Council meeting a few local residents alleged that the college failed to conduct adequate consultation with the local community. But deeply embedded in the Master Plan is a section discussing the college's relations with its Takoma Park neighbors that brings into question whether opposing residents' demands about community involvement are reasonable.
Here's the critical part: "New development proposals on the Takoma Park side of Campus are nonetheless still opposed by a vocal minority of neighbors, who insist that the College shift all development to the Silver Spring side of Campus, or acquire new properties along Fenton Street and locate College programs there."

Jokingly referred to as "The People's Republic of Takoma Park," the neighborhood has a rich history as a community that is unafraid to challenge moneyed and other powerful interests. A recent blog post by Granola Park explains that in the 1970s the college sought to condemn and demolish 22 adjacent Takoma Park homes for new school buildings, but neighbors fought and won against the college.
Silver Spring development could be in Montgomery College's future
Interestingly, and perhaps as a result of repeated neighborhood opposition, the Master Plan does gesture towards future development on the Silver Spring side of the campus. The following map shows possible expansion sites:
Three of the four lots above are rather sterile space. The two on the east side of the railroad tracks are a combination of storage buildings, auto body shops and local rental car companies. One lot on the west side of the railroad tracks is a parking lot owned by the college's foundation and the remaining one abuts Jesup Blair Park where the college built a walkway to cross the railroad tracks and connect the campus.
Future expansion into Silver Spring would activate this space and make it more pedestrian oriented, which is great since the college is only six blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station and abuts the planned Met Branch Trail. But all of this would require the college to acquire these lots and then redevelop them, which is more costly and would take longer than to simply redevelop the buildings they currently own.