Browsed by
Category: Development

My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

My Thrive Montgomery 2050 Public-Hearing Testimony

Thrive Montgomery 2050 is “a general plan for the county with a 30-year horizon. It sets a vision for the county and encompasses broad, county-wide policy recommendations for land use, zoning, housing, the economy, equity, transportation, parks and open space, the environment, and historic resources.” If you’re concerned with equity and opportunity — for human development, economic vitality, and environmental progress — and believe as I do that land-use policy can advance us in these causes, then you’ll want to look into this plan.

The Montgomery County Planning Board held a Thrive Montgomery 2050 public hearing on November 19, 2020. The following is my hearing testimony:

I like the Thrive Montgomery 2050 initiative and I very much appreciate Montgomery Planning’s work.

The majority of comments you will hear will be high-level and values based. I’m going to be very specific and focus on just three points. The first two are narrow:

1) The document discusses “missing middle” housing, the desirability of changing zoning to enable wider creation of smaller, multi-unit buildings. Cool. However, Action 1.1.4.a calls for housing “particularly in areas located within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of rail and bus rapid transit (BRT).” Let’s develop a robust action plan that will bring housing-diversity benefits to all areas, prioritizing high-promise areas — as you’re doing now with the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan — with others slated to come later.

2) I absolutely love Action 4.3.1.a: “Eliminate motor vehicle parking minimums for new development projects in downtowns, town centers, and rail and BRT corridors to encourage travel by walking, bicycling, and transit,” but it should be extended to adjacent areas as well, perhaps with that same “15-minute walk or bike ride” criterion. I also appreciate Action 5.2.1.b’s language about “redeveloping surface parking lots and underutilized property” but that action shouldn’t be limited to “mixed-income housing at employment centers.” I’m thinking, in particular, about adaptive reuse of office parks such as Rock Spring.

3) Point 10 under Trends and Challenges is “We need to look for regional solutions” (page 23). The narrative states, “we have strong ties to the Baltimore region. We must consider how to take advantage of our proximity to the economic opportunities available in neighboring jurisdictions, including major job centers, colleges and universities, and cultural and recreational attractions. We also should consider regional solutions to the challenges we face and think of Montgomery County as part of a larger ecosystem.”

The 1964 Wedges and Corridors featured 6 corridors in an asterisk design. One of those corridors was along I-95 (and the railway line) in Prince George’s County, paralleling the Prince George’s-Montgomery border, with a direct connection to Baltimore-Washington Airport.

Montgomery County did precious little to take advantage of this corridor, really prior to the last decade’s development in White Oak. Think what we might have gained if Montgomery County had worked with Prince George’s to pursue East County corridor development over the last half century, including lessened development pressure on Bethesda and American Legion Bridge congestion.

Ingredients are in place, or soon will be. The Intercounty Connector, while ill-conceived, is now an underutilized reality connecting points west to I-95. We have our first bus rapid transit on Route 29, and construction has started on another east-west connector, the Purple Line, which crosses the the southern ends of the corridor in Silver Spring and in Langley Park. Yet corridor cities and areas such as Hillandale, Burtonsville, and Fairland remain in sore need of attention.

The only explicit mention of East County I could find in the Thrive 2050 document was a one-liner, “Policy 3.3.4: Create new educational and workforce development opportunities in the East County,” with only one specific idea, “Explore creating a fourth Montgomery College campus in the East County.” I would have liked to see much more than this in the document. I hope this time we will truly plan regional solutions, with special focus on East County revitalization in cooperation with Prince George’s and Howard Counties, pursuant in particular to Goal 3.2, “Grow vibrant commercial centers,” and the policy points under it.

An update on development at and near the Takoma Metro station

An update on development at and near the Takoma Metro station

This is the story of two development projects, at and near the Takoma Metro station, one promising and the other stalled. It’s addressed to my Washington DC and Takoma Park neighbors and very much to WMATA and to would-be Takoma Metro site developer EYA.

Promising: 218 Cedar St NW

Developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is planning a new, four-story + penthouse mixed-use building for the 7-Eleven site at 218 Cedar St NW in Washington DC. The concept plan is viewable online; the image below is a concept-design elevation and the site is shown in yellow in the header image above.

I’ll quote Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (4B01) Evan Yeats’s project summary:

The current plan for the site is 30-35 [actually 37] 1&2 bedroom condos (standard 10% [Inclusionary Zoning] affordable) built above 10-15,000 square feet of ground floor retail with an underground parking garage with ~15 or more parking spots.

  • The building height will be roughly the same as the Takoma Central/Busboys development adjacent and built in a similar “transitional” brick style.
  • The current three curb cuts/sidewalk crossings will be reduced to a single entry/exit for the garage (on Cedar), and the surface parking will be eliminated.
  • They are planning to build it “of right” with no zoning variance requests, but it will require historic preservation review.
  • Tenants are not set yet, but NDC told us they are in talks with 7-Eleven corporate to see if they are willing to stay. NDC also said that they are open to community input on the retail tenants and floated the idea of a small format grocer (think Mom’s or Yes or Streets) if 7-Eleven doesn’t want to stay (they just built a new store at Ethan Allen & New Hampshire).
  • Resident pedestrian entry/exit will be on Carroll St and the retail entrances/exits will depend on whether it remains one retail space or becomes two.
  • They expect to begin construction in 2020, but there isn’t a timeline for the closure of the 7-Eleven, etc.

There will be adjustments and plenty of discussion regarding the retail tenants — and I wish that the plans included more than 10% affordable units — but generally I like what I see!

Stalled: Takoma Metro Construction

The project at the 7-Eleven site is not connected to the proposed Takoma Metro development, at the station parking lot, to the left and up a bit in the header image from the yellow-colored 218 Cedar St NW parcel.

EYA is the would-be Takoma Metro site developer; WMATA owns the property. Different developers; different owners… projects also differ in that 218 Carroll developer NDC is pursuing by-right development, that is, within zoning limits and uses, while EYA’s proposed building far exceeds zoning limits so that EYA will be forced to enter Washington DC’s Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

Washington DC activists have filed a number of lawsuits in recent years, challenging PUD approvals that, they believe, displace long-time, lower-income residents. Click here for an example.

EYA received WMATA board approvals for the project in 2014 and 2015 — the WMATA real estate committee, in its March 12, 2015 meeting, foresaw “Spring/Summer 2015 – Developer begins District of Columbia entitlement processes (Planning Unit Development application, Historic Preservation Review)” — but EYA has not filed a plan. It has been four years. Why not?

I spoke to WMATA project manager Rosalyn Doggett in early January. She said that EYA is holding off until the release of the under-amendment Washington DC Comprehensive Plan. Plan revisions would clarify rules around affordable housing and displacement. The draft plan is currently being evaluated by Washington DC City Council. Click here for a helpful article.

Now quite a bit of time went by, after EYA received approvals and before the lawsuits started and also, the Takoma Metro development would replace a parking lot, with no displacement of current residents. My conclusion is that this project is simply low priority for EYA. Unfortunately, WMATA put nothing in the Joint Development Agreement to incentivize timely EYA filings or penalize for the sort of long delay we’ve experienced. EYA’s proposed Takoma Metro design has serious design flaws — it has four times the number of residential parking spaces that DC zoning requires, which will reduce residents’ transit use, increase local congestion, inflate construction costs (which will be passed on to tenants), and lead to the zoning challenges EYA fears — but those flaws are addressable and the project should proceed.

Delay Vs. Progress

EYA’s delay is a shame. Washington DC and close-in Montgomery County need new housing and the commercial opportunities that make life better for long-time and new residents alike, and WMATA could use the revenue from sales of this underutilized parcel.

Before concluding, I’ll mention that another project is in the works. Developer SGA Companies’ plan for 300-308 Carroll St NW, directly across the street from the 218 Cedar St NW site, including 88 studio and one-bedroom apartments — small apartments tend to be more affordable of course — and five retail spaces, with zero residential parking! Like 218 Cedar St but unlike EYA’s Takoma Metro plans, the 300-308 Carroll St NW design is within zoning height limits, which will ease the path to project approval.

I’m glad that NDC, SGA Company, and other progressive developers aren’t fazed by the complications that attend in-fill development. I hope they’ll invest on the Maryland side of the line as Takoma Park advances other pending and potential redevelopment opportunities!