A basic mantra of progressive economic development should be to deploy public land for public purposes. This has become clear to me as I’ve watched the nearby City of Takoma Park, Maryland, struggle to move ahead on a controversial development project on a 1.4 acre site called Takoma Junction. The site is largely undeveloped except that the neighboring Co-op grocery store leases part of it for parking and deliveries.
In many ways, this project is like thousands of others around the country. To expand jobs and the tax base, the City commissioned a developer to create a pretty building with offices and retail outlets. Some neighbors are excited by the development, while others are irate.
What’s unusual about this story is that Takoma Park it not your typical City. It has long been on the cutting-edge of progressive policymaking. I can’t do any work for the City, for example, if I’m involved with nuclear weapons. I briefly lived in Takoma Park in 2008-9, maintained an office there for a few years more, and today I live close by in Silver Spring, Maryland.
I decided to write a memo to the City Council and Mayor to express my concerns, and tou can read the full text of it here.
I begin by pointing out that cities always get in trouble when they intermingle public and private purposes. Jane Jacobs made this argument in her book Systems of Survival, when she warned that a healthy economy must operate two different systems — a commercial system (the private sector) and a guardian system (the public sector). Each system has a distinct set of ethical practices. When the systems intermingle, “monstrous hybrids” erupt with inefficiency and corruption.
Truly progressive communities should aspire to do creative public projects on public land: They might create a public market akin to Pike’s Place in Seattle (WA). They might anchor a community land trust, like Burlington (VT) has, to promote affordable housing. They might establish a business incubator, an impact hub, and a maker space, such as the Propeller in New Orleans (LA), to support next generation businesses in the City. They might site a food hub, which would augment the Co-op next door and dozens of burgeoning food businesses in the City. They might build a meeting place such as the commercially successful Veterans’ Plaza in Silver Spring (MD). Or they might set up a center for local economic-development initiatives, as exists in Sonoma County (CA), providing offices for a variety of organizations and companies promoting local purchasing, local investment, and local entrepreneurship.
Note how all these projects do more than support tenant businesses. They serve other public purposes like housing, tourism, food security, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship. These are the kinds of purposes that are missing from the Takoma Junction Plan. The City basically commissioned a big building to provide commercial space for a handful of tenants. The evolving Plan has a few features that are attentive to the public interest: a meeting space, gardens, nice aesthetics. But in the end, it’s basically a private office building with some retail space and an underground parking lot.
There are other aspects of this project that are problematic:
- The City is charging too little for use of its land and effectively giving the developer a $5 million subsidy over the next 50 years.
- The developer has overstated the tax benefits the City will likely receive from the project by a third.
- The City will lose significant remaining benefits from the project if it does not insist that all tenants be locally owned businesses.
- The Plan does nothing to slow, and may well nudge upward, rising commercial lease rates in Takoma Park that are harming locally owned businesses.
- The Plan may put the Takoma Park Co-op, a great grocery store, out of business.
I conclude my memo by suggesting that many of these problems can be mitigated if the City Council charges the market rate for the land, requires that tenants be locally owned businesses, puts reasonable commercial rent restrictions in place, and ensures that the Co-op’s needs are protected.
But in the end, none of the suggestions fixes the fundamental mistake of squandering a precious public resources on a private endeavor. We are in an era in which our president conflates his private business interests with public purposes on an almost hourly basis. We need to reclaim the value of having truly public spaces for the benefit of everyone, starting in our own backyards.
I’m hopeful that this memo convinces my friends in Takoma Park to shift course, every so slightly. I’ll let you know what happens next.