Rethinking The Takoma Junction Redevelopment Plan

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.

The Takoma Park Co-Op

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.

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4 Comments to “Rethinking The Takoma Junction Redevelopment Plan”
  • Adam Bodner
    March 28, 2018 - Reply

    Hello:
    I work in Federal Real Property Management, so i’ve been on the other side of the table from developers, building owners, etc., for years. I’ve found in general that their motivations are pretty straightforward – if they can make money on the project; they’ll do it, and if it is too risky or they cannot make money they won’t.

    So from that perspective I have some basic questions about your analysis. Primarily, or fundamentally, these types of situations seem to come down to the economics of the deal for the developer. He is obviously the one taking the risk, getting the construction loan, etc. So if there is more open space versus interior space; wouldn’t that mean he’d need to charge a higher rent on the reduced amount of rentable space? So if we as the City have too many ‘requirements’; at some point he won’t be able to get a loan, or to safely risk making any money on the deal, and the parking lot will remain. Am I correct in this, or is there so much value in the land that he can pay substantially more, and create so much more open space, etc., and still find it worthwhile to continue? Assuming i’m (mostly) correct, this just becomes a series of trade-offs for the City – i.e., it wants some development, it feels the time is now, and thus it is getting whatever the best deal it thinks it can. I’m just concerned that there isn’t a viable middle ground between the City’s (and the community’s) desires and what a developer realistically needs to earn to do the project.

    I would add parenthetically that the neighborhood always has been a bit leery about the City’s general wherewithal to negotiate these types of deals, particularly after the Community Center debacle. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. Adam Bodner

    • Susanne Lowen
      April 16, 2018 - Reply

      Adam,
      I saw your post here and wanted to mention that I have seen alternative plans for smaller scaled development in circulation since before the RFP, some of which included underground parking and some of which include a combination of small buildings and surface parking. It’s also worth noting that the proposal that won NDC the RFP was much smaller than the Site Plan the City is now considering.

  • Adam Bodner
    March 31, 2018 - Reply

    hello – i commented earlier. I failed to mention that i live a few doors down from the Junction. I’m not sure how to see if you’ve replied to my comment/questions.? Or would you email me? thank you for your time. Adam

  • Adam Bodner
    April 4, 2018 - Reply

    Sir – will you be presenting and/or testifying at this evening’s council meeting? Thank you, Adam Bodner

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