More on Takoma Junction

The analysis I summarized in the previous blog post generated numerous responses from the public, the City, and the developer.  One central theme of the responses has been skepticism over my contention that the City is subsidizing the developer, NDC. What follows are my further comments on the debate for the Takoma Park City Council:

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Is Takoma Park Subsidizing NDC?

My preliminary answer was “yes.”  Compared to the lease given to the Takoma Park Co-Op, NDC was getting roughly $4.8 million of subsidized rent in the first 50 years ($1.8 million if a 5% discount rate were applied).

The City is adamant that no subsidy is occurring.  In its most recent “Questions and Answers” on the project (5 April 2018), the city insists: “The City of Takoma Park is NOT providing a subsidy to NDC.  The City of Takoma Park has NOT deeply discounted the lease rate for the property.”

I consider this a good sign, because it suggests that the City and I are on the same page about first principles:  This is a project that should not be subsidized.  As I said in my original paper and elaborate below, it will generate ordinary benefits that almost any redevelopment project on the property would, and therefore does not warrant special municipal financing.

Where we disagree is whether a subsidy is occurring. My argument was that the best data point we have for what the market value of a lease should be is what the Co-op is paying for its portion of the property.  Given that the Co-op is currently paying $21,800 for a fifth of an acre, the implied lease rate for the entire lot is $158,000 per year. A simple spread sheet (download here) comparing NDC’s actual payments with this implied market rate, shows that over 50 years NDC is underpaying $4.8 million ($1.8 million if the payments are discounted).

Keith Kozloff, a resident with some background in economics, dismisses this argument: “When trying to price a house for sale, real estate agents look for ‘comps’, that is, dwellings with the same number of bedrooms, etc.  The rent paid by the Co-op is not a comp.”  The problem with Kozloff’s argument, as I pointed out to him in private correspondence, is that there is no reasonable comp in the area. The City owns no other pieces of undeveloped land remotely approximating the size and location of Takoma Junction.  Given that, the best indicator of property value is what one real-world business—the Co-op—actually is paying for its portion of the property.

But if you’re skeptical, let’s undertake another calculation.  The City says now that the appraised value of the property in 2018 is $2.2 million.  What would an appropriate annual lease be for a generic $2.2 million piece of property in our region?   As a renter, Zillow says the property I live in nearby Silver Spring (2203 Quinton Road) has an estimated value of $543,392 and estimated monthly rent of $2,550.  A year of rent is $30,600 or about 5.6% of the valuation.  If we apply this standard to Takoma Junction, the fair market lease rate should be $123,000 per year.

There’s a difference, of course.  My lease is just for a few years, not 99 years.  Shouldn’t a 99-year lease lower the rent?  In fact, economists say just the opposite.  A 99-year lease is effectively ownership and should command a higher lease rate.  As real estate guru Kundan Bhaduri explains, “[I]n order to gain access to the 99-year lease period, you pay a lease premium up front to the freeholder [the landlord].  This is to compensate the freeholder for the ‘loss’ arising from not having his freehold property back for the next 99 years.  This premium is calculated based on the current freehold value of the property, what ground rent the landlord might earn over the next 99 years, and potentially what capital growth the property might see over the next 99 years.”[1]

I won’t speculate on what the “capital growth” of the Takoma Junction project could be over the next 99 years, except to note that my subsidy calculation assumes that the current market valuation of $158,000 stays constant over the next century.  In other words, my calculation significantly understates the likely capital improvement and the likely size of the subsidy.

The City’s explanation – “the initial lease rate of $10,000 is within the range of market rents in the DC region based on the assessed value of the property” – defies logic and the evidence.

After a long, barely comprehensible discussion of subsidies, Keith Kozloff’s missive to the City Council suggests that because NDC will be doing more with the land than the Co-op, it deserves a lower rate.  That also seems to be the logic of the City, as well as one Council Member with whom I’ve spoken:  NDC deserves a lower rate to compensate it for the investment its making in the property.

This, however, is the textbook definition of a subsidy.  The City is lowering market lease rate of its property to induce construction and development.

But Isn’t the Subsidy Worth It?

In its recent “Questions and Answers,” the City provides a long list of benefits that the Takoma Junction will provide.

Some are exaggerated.  Sure, the project will stimulate some commercial activity, but it also may drive out the district’s anchor tenant, the Co-op.  It will add a tiny number of offices and retail establishments.  As I noted, even if the Plan fully realizes all the benefits NDC claims, it will expand the City’s job base by 2.3% and its tax base by 0.8%. If the Co-op goes out of business and other businesses shut down because of rising rents, these gains will evaporate.

The claim that these new businesses will be “locally owned” is wishful thinking, as I pointed out previously.  The vague terms of NDC’s agreement with the City still allow national chains to be tenants.

Ditto for the small amount of public space provided, which is still under negotiation.

The other benefits – better aesthetics, stormwater management, environmental cleanup, etc. –would be generated by any responsible tenant of the land.

Some have misread my previous analysis as suggesting that the project carries no benefits.  What I said—and still maintain—is that the benefits are real but unextraordinary.  And certainly not worthy of a $5 million subsidy.

But What About the Tax Benefits?

If the City were being dispassionate about this project, it might acknowledge that NDC’s original claim of generating $200,000 of taxes per year was inflated by at least a third. Instead, the City and NDC won’t admit to the simplest of errors.

Take personal property taxes.  I pointed out that NDC’s suggestion that the project would generate $57,838 in personal property taxes each year could not possibly be true.  Why would a project expanding jobs by 2% increase the City’s personal property tax base by 17%?  To provide a sense of this mistake, I suggested that the City consider what the average contribution of the tax is per local employee, which would lead to a more reasonable prediction that NDC’s tenants would pay $7,580 per year.

The City takes me to task for suggesting that the personal tax is legally based on the number of employees —something I never wrote.  What I did write, and maintain, is that there’s no evidence that NDC’s project would generate eight times more tax dollars than other businesses in the City.

The Bottom Line

As I suggested previously, the City would be smart to rewrite its development agreement with NDC to include five provisions:

  • Insist that NDC provide more event space, so that the City can draw some public benefit from the project.
  • Charge a price for use of public land commensurate with what you are charging the Co-op.
  • Require that all NDC tenants be locally owned businesses or locally controlled nonprofits (and not franchises of national chains).[2]
  • Place reasonable rent restrictions on NDC, to prevent the project from raising commercial rents in the City.
  • Ensure that the Co-op parking and loading needs are fully met during and after construction.

While I applaud the City for striving not to subsidize NDC, I encourage you to be honest about the subsidy you seem committed to providing.  The hallmark of good government is transparency about government spending.

If you continue to insist that the market rate for leasing the property over the next ten years is $20,000 – instead of the $158,000 implied by the Co-op’s lease and other evidence – let me add a sixth recommendation.  Give the Co-op tax breaks over the next decade equivalent to what you apparently have overcharged it over the past two decades.  If NDC can lease the property over a decade at the same rate that the Co-op paid for one-seventh of the property, basic fairness suggests that the Co-op should receive several hundred thousand dollars in rebates from the City.



[1] 5 August 2016, .

[2] Some readers were uncomfortable with my recommendation that NDC only lease to companies owned by Takoma Park residents.  If that’s the case, then simply put explicit language in agreement that NDC is prohibited from leasing to national chains.


32 thoughts on “More on Takoma Junction”

  1. If you’ve got all kinds of great methodologies that you’ve found, why don’t you apply just one to the current context and tell us what you think the lease rate should be.

    As I’ve said, NDC and the City thought a fair AVERAGE rate was $200,000. I thought it was $158,000. What does David Daddio, the transportation planner, think and why?

    The real debate, however, is on the SCHEDULING of payments. Tell us why you think heavy discounting of the early years of a lease to incentivize construction does not constitute a subsidy.

  2. We’ll have to agree to disagree here. There is a lot of great literature online about how 50 and 99 year ground lease rates are valued and set in the industry. I did not find a single reference that suggests you would take the area lease rates for existing retail space and apply them to a ground lease for an unimproved property.

  3. As I said, I reviewed the lease rates of all the surrounding properties, including the auto shop. But none of these other leases are for 99 years or for undeveloped pieces of land–so “comps” are not available. That’s why I employed other methods.

    The value of the property, currently undeveloped, is a little over $2 million. That’s what the City appraiser says.

    You ask: “I’m having trouble understanding why any developer would pay more than the fair market value of a property they won’t own.” The answer is–development rights. A 99 year lease effectively gives the lease holder the ability to use its building until it fully depreciates–and then some.

    Again, NDC is actually paying MORE than what I’m saying the annual lease should be. I’m arguing that NDC should be paying $158,000 per year or about $16 million over 99 years. In fact, NDC has committed to paying $20 million over 99 years–so we’re in the same ballpark. And NDC is happy to commit to more than $2 million (the property value) because: (a) the City isn’t interested in selling the land, and (b) it gets full development rights for a century.

    But NDC is getting something else as well — the benefits of the time value of money. By having tiny lease rates in the early years and large lease rates in the latter years, NDC is effectively robbing the City of what it should be collecting in lease income. The extreme discount that the City gives NDC over the first 50 years or so is what constitutes a subsidy.

    We can quibble over the size of that subsidy. But no one can argue with a straight face that the market lease on that land should be $10,000.

    I respect many things the City staff have done, but hiding the fact that they are subsidizing NDC is not one of them. It disserves democracy not to be transparent about how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

  4. Sorry Michael, I don’t see the deep analysis of the value of the property that you are referring to. I was suggesting an analysis that benchmarks other commercial ground (emphasis) leases in the region. I don’t have access to this information since I’m not in the real estate industry. I understand you looked at lease rates in general for retail space…

    I agree with you that a 99 year lease is tantamount to purchasing the propety, but I’m having trouble understanding why any developer would pay more than the fair market value of a property they won’t own. I could see them paying something close to the fair market value via a stream of lease payments.

    It would be interesting to know what they are paying for the auto shop as one reference point.

    All that said, I would be surprised if the 1.5 acre Takoma Junction property, with the various restrictions imposed on it by the city, would be anywhere near even the $5 million subsidy you are estimating. That would be an astounding price tag for a small, unimproved property where they can only build a 2 story building…

    Personally I am impressed by the city staff and council for following through on a complex process despite being such a small, Maryland municipality. They have been very open and forthcoming.

  5. David, please go back and read the original report I submitted to the City Council. That report — all done with zero compensation — involved several months of work. I did study lease rates across the City, with particular attention to the Takoma Junction area. I interviewed real estate experts, civil servants, and elected officials, both at the City and County level. I conducted reviews of property values posted at the County level. If there’s a more thorough effort to assess the property value, I’d like to see it.

    In light of that, your call for “deeper study” and your suggestion that I not speak until I do even more work–just because you don’t like my findings–exemplifies the bureaucratic stonewalling that residents are so upset about.

    I agree that the City Council is likely to approve this project and continue to deny that it’s giving NDC a huge subsidy. But in the process it has deeply damaged itself, the City, and the integrity of Takoma Park politics.

  6. No, I don’t think you need a real estate appraisal license. What I suggested was deeper study. For example, you might try to acquire a copy of an appraisal for a unimproved commercial property. You’ll see how they identify similarly zoned properties that have sold in the past year around the region. Then they adjust for different atributes that make each property more or less desireable from a development perspective. The requirement to build 70 underground parking spaces for a 2 story building makes this property particularly challenging to develop while getting a reasonable rate of return needed to finance the project. I think you’ll find the property is worth a fraction of what you might expect.

    You could also look at rates for similar lease arrangements across the region. For example, I believe UMD recently did a 99 year lease.

    Just my 2 cents. It appears the city council will be moving forward with this project this summer or fall. Best of luck.

  7. You really believe that only a real estate expert can comment on the Takoma Junction Project? Sorry, my view of democracy is more expansive.

    Your going after my credentials is not new information–except that it reveals you’re unable to engage in a substantive debate about the right lease rate.

  8. Michael, I can’t say what did or didn’t happen in the negotiations between the city and the developer. I wasn’t there. Personally, I prefer to give our public servants the benefit of the doubt. I don’t like to see their reputations sullied and valuable time absorbed by outside “experts” peddling books and obscure economic development theories.

    You’ve repeatedly stated I have not provided new information. Apparently you’ve missed that the new information is that you are not a real estate developer or property valuation expert. These are complex fields that are completely independent from your economic training.
    You’ve started with your conclusions about economic development and worked back to find that facts that fit the narrative.

    I appreciate your interest in this development and your work supporting local economies, however, I have not submitted testimony to the council or written for the Washington Post. The onus isn’t on me, but on you to do deeper study before entering the public sphere in the way that you have.

  9. Of course they didn’t pick it out of thin air. The City just caved in the negotiations and acceded to NDC’s demands, probably convinced of the same argument you were: That a low ground lease reduces the risk and increases the return for the developer. And let’s agree, mutually, not to call it a subsidy.

    Is there more risk on City land than private land? That’s an interesting question, but one for which there is no clear answer–because there are so few parcels of City land being leased out. But this underscores the initial point of my blog: Public land should be used for public purposes, not to enrich developers like NDC. And that’s where this whole project went off the rails from the very beginning.

  10. I find it hard to believe that the city staff picked the lease rate out of thin air. Possible, but hard to believe. Perhaps they are not wanting or able to reveal their analysis during an active negotiation?

    As demonstrated by the process this far, there is significantly more risk associated with trying to develop a piece of city-owned land vs. a privately owned parcel. For the latter, the developer would primarily need to focus on a predictable county process. In this case, they have not even entered the county process.

  11. My point is that the City has not performed a serious analysis. In the absence of that information, I developed two estimates — one based on the Coop and one based on inference from the property value. I’d welcome your estimate, and we can debate the pro’s and con’s of our methods.

    You’ve given the typical justification for corporate subsidies: If we don’t bring down the risk, the developer will not proceed. But why shouldn’t any resident be given the same right to increase his or her property value and get a break in property taxes or some other benefit? Yes, NDC is taking a risk, but it’s no different than the risk ANY developer in Takoma Park takes for any other project. Why should NDC get gifts no one else in the City can even apply for?

  12. I don’t have access to the city’s analysis or a real estate comp database. You could be right that the lease is too low, perhaps even way too low, but you are missing the same info I am….

    One thing to keep in mind is that NDC will start paying the lease (and take on substantial risk going into the county process) beginning w/ the city resolution. They could pay 3 or 4 years of lease payments before realizing any revenue.

  13. But David, you have presented no new information whatsoever.

    And I have talked with the City’s professional staff as well. No one can present a coherent argument why the ground lease should be $10,000 per year for the first five years EXCEPT to argue that they want to incentivize construction–that is, subsidize.

    Lay out what you think the ground lease should be and why, and we can have a serious debate.

  14. Michael, the fact that each new piece of information you gather further confirms your position should give you pause…

    You’ve cited a random explanation of UK ground leases from and an off-hand conversation with an unnamed city councilmember. Instead, you should be talking with the city’s professional staff. Presumably the lease rate is informed by an appraisal that draws from similarly situatied properties in the region. Your claim that the co-op is the only “reasonable comp” reveals your extremely limited understanding of property valuation. I’d encourage you to do a bit more digging.

  15. David, you clearly did not read my two blogs carefully, which include citations from a number of real estate experts.

    You’re right about building rentals and ground leases needing to be separated. My argument is that the best estimate of the GROUND lease on the property is $158,000 per year. If the City built an office complex on the property, it could collect significantly more.

    I did speak with a Council Member about how the City came up with its lease rate, and his argument was that to induce the developer to build the desired structure, they decided to reduce the ground lease rate to practically nothing in the opening years. He was oblivious to the fact that this constitutes as a subsidy–as you are apparently as well.

    I agree that “false information” is unhelpful. Please heed your own advice.

  16. Did you consider asking the city how they came up with the ground lease rate before publishing your analysis in the Washington Post? Economics and real estate appraisal are two distinct fields. Rent on a building and a ground lease are not comparable. Your arguments demonstrate a striking lack of knowledge about how land is valued.

    False information does not help the community work through this complex development dispute.

  17. Adam, this is a good point and is something I puzzled over as well. I wouldn’t go so far to say that the Co-op occupies the only usable part of the land — the footprint of the building NDC proposes is significantly larger — but the Co-op clearly occupies a prime part of the lot. Adjusting for that suggests a lower rental than $158,000 for the whole lot. But also remember that the Coop entered this agreement many years ago, when the appraised value of the property was significantly lower, and adjusting for this would increase the lot rental rate significantly.

    It’s irrelevant, by the way, what NDC or the Coop or any other tenant does with the land. The City owns the land, not the building. If the City discounts the lease to encourage building, THAT’S a subsidy.

    We can quibble over details like this, but one fact is crystal clear. Charging NDC in the first five years less than half what the Coop is paying today is an outright public gift.

  18. The co-op is paying $21,800 to use the paved lot, which is available for parking and loading. Although technically the c0-op may only be leasing a portion of the lot, it effectively has use of the entire lot as the entire lot is available for parking. The back, wooded portion of the lot will not be developed, so that can’t be included in the potential rent calculations. That said, it would be interesting to compare rent for a parking lot with rent for land underneath a multi-story building. It seems hard to fathom that the City will charge the same for both uses. The latter is clearly much more valuable.

  19. The economic school of thought I subscribe to is called capitalism. And if an owner wants to limit how his or her land is used, that’s his or her right. The City is limiting the uses on ITS OWN land, not other people’s.

    I just testified to the City Council on Tuesday on the many other things the City could do with the land: an affordable housing land trust; a public market; a food hub; a public gathering space. All of these projects, I would argue, would generate greater economic benefits for the City and wouldn’t require an embarrassing $5 million subsidy.

    If saving the taxpayers of Takoma Park $5 million is my legacy, I can live with that. But how will you feel when your advocacy of profligate city spending made it necessary to increase taxes on all your neighbors?

  20. Michael,

    I’m not sure what economic school of thought you espouse or embrace, but non-compete clauses are certainly not part of the lexicon of modern economic theory. Heck, I’m not even an economist and I know that from reading Freakonomics.

    So for you to say that a non-compete clause for the most desirable form of tenant (i.e. a grocery store) has “very little on the lease price” is astounding to say the least. To me, it calls into question your entire mathematical calculation as you seem to discard the most basic rules of supply and demand.

    If NDC pulls out of this project it will send a ripple effect to all DC-area developers that Takoma Park is a “no-go” zone. If that happens, I expect you and the many other “experts” to donate your time and money to Takoma Park’s taxpayers in order to make something good of this land. But since you don’t even live in Takoma Park I imagine you’ll move on and forget about it soon enough…

  21. I couldn’t agree more. The City needs a reboot, institutionally and politically, to ensure that genuine public purposes get enunciated democratically and implemented rationally.

  22. Tony, context is important here. If the City Council believed that the Takoma Junction Redevelopment Project would put the Coop out of business, there wouldn’t be a single vote in support of it. Everyone understands that if the City is to gain net benefits from the Plan, every effort should be made to ensure that the Coop is not adversely effected.

    In that context, a non-compete clause in the development agreement is not only a no-brainer–it was absolutely essential to the Plan being approved.

    How does that effect the subsidy? Generally, the more conditions that the City puts on the development agreement, the more in subsidies that the developer will demand to proceed. But in this case, I also think NDC realized at the outset that leasing to a competitor grocery store is off limits. Unless NDC had a secret plan to destroy the Coop (which I think is absurd), this condition has had very little impact on the lease price.

  23. Michael,

    Have you read the development agreement? Paragraph 4 states: “NDC will not lease any portion of the Project 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,”

    So yes another grocery store can technically be built elsewhere in Takoma Park, but where else does a sizeable plot of land exist in the heart of the city to do so? Nowhere, especially since most of the center of TP cannot be changed due to the historic district (another failure in economic policy).

    So, I would appreciate it if you show your work as to how you might change your valuations of NDC’s subsidy to reflect its limited ability to contract with whatever tenant is wants to bring to the Junction.

    Here’s the link to the development agreement:

  24. Absolutely. And it also might IMPEDE the City’s legal action if, for example, it complains about renting to a national chain retailer (which the City, incorrectly, believes is forbidden under the terms of the agreement).

  25. I appreciate this analysis. With the city thus (and repeatedly) notified of, and inadequately responsive to, its errors (at best) or its obfuscation (at worst), it should make it easier for plaintiffs once the lawsuits get launched.

  26. I’m unaware of any City measure that proscribes other grocery stores in or near Takoma Park from setting up shop, so the Coop’s presence can hardly be deemed exclusive. If you find the groceries there overpriced (especially after taking into account annual dividends), then simply don’t shop there.

  27. Michael,

    Interesting analysis and I agree that the City is giving a subsidy in this development. but you missed the forest for the trees. The subsidy given by Takoma Park is to the Coop itself in the form of a 99-year monopoly from competition. Certainly an economist would agree that the Coop’s protection from competition is worth quite a bit, right?

    If you disagree, then please explain how you would value the Coop’s exclusive right to sell us overpriced groceries at the Junction for 99 years.

  28. Michael- You mentioned that you do not live in Takoma Park. Are you being compensated by any third parties for your analysis regarding the Junction?

  29. What Michael clearly points out is that our city government is not in the business of land development or Building redevelopment. And, apparently should not be in it now
    Let’s return to The scene of the first fiasco known as the Community Center in which the City government failed to Build a new community center. The mayor at the time and the city manager at the time, ignored facts which presented to them by Brian Robinson and myself,pertaining to the underground stream and the prohibitive cost of building on top of it. Costly Stormwater management mitigation took away a couple million dollars from the project to deal with that issue. The result of ignoring the facts that were presented to the city staff (which included our now city manager Susan Ludlow), is that we had no budget for the number one polled priority; Which was a new gymnasium! Instead, magically, the entire city staff offices got refurbished instead .
    It’s not that, that did not need to be done, what matters was and is again, now, the ignoring the physical and economic realities of developing land and buildings and rushing to judgment without considering all the facts and ramifications, which we the people continue to present at every city Council meeting only to be dismissed or ignored.
    What Michael here has done is to demonstrate that they rather put the idea of a grandiose development ahead of the will of the people, and the benefits of OUR city for some strange personal reasons, which can only be political, because there are no practical reasons to allow the NDc development to go forward it as it is proposed .
    We must stop our government from ripping us off, and out of a good deal. We must get something that will really Satisfy the Coop, supports the city budget, and help reduce our property taxes m. And keeps Takoma Park what it is, and should stay as, a small walkable livable, Affordable, mix demographiics Village of diversity!

  30. The City of Takoma Park should accept that it’s subsiding NDC and, if they think it is justified, then defend the subsidy based on the benefits. If they would simply acknowledge the obvious, which Michael convincingly argues in this analysis, diminishes the City’s credibility. One is led to question whether they beholden to the developer in some way…why are they so determined to defend the NDC development plan when it doesn’t make sense on so many levels: economics, safety, local business, diversity/equity? Chiming in to thank Michael Shuman for lifting the veil on the economics behind the Junction development!

  31. Great piece. Captures my thoughts and feelings on this issue. I use this to show to folks to give them an understanding of the broader issues of this development.
    Thanks Michael

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Michael H Shuman