Photo by bradleygee on Flickr.
In our region, in 2014, shouldn’t building housing on top of Metro stations be an uncontroversial idea? To many people and elected officials in Takoma Park, that’s only tolerable as long as you add a very small number of residents and don’t build anything larger than surrounding buildings.
This attitude ensures that housing costs stay high and many communities remain off-limits to many people who would like to live there. Montgomery Council candidate Tom Hucker, gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, congressman Chris Van Hollen, councilmember Marc Elrich, state senator Jamie Raskin, and delegate Sheila Hixson all reinforced much or all of this exclusionary attitude last week.
They were writing about the planned 200-unit apartment building atop the Takoma Metro station. It will cover what’s now the Kiss and Ride parking lot and a patch of trees. The site is inside the District of Columbia, but is across the street from some houses in Maryland. The WMATA Board held a hearing last week on the proposal.
A group of people, led by Takoma Park councilmember Seth Grimes, have been fighting against the project. They want the project to preserve some open space, be shorter, have fewer residents, and include fewer parking spaces. And they say that the developer, EYA, has not listened to them enough in the process.
Image from EYA.
Plan has a lot of good, some room to improve
The current proposal isn’t perfect. It probably does have more parking than is necessary. Some elements of the current design aren’t as attractive as they should be.
On the other hand, it’s not an unreasonable size for the area and for the fact that it’s atop a Metro station. In fact, EYA has already shrunk it down from the first iterations of this apartment building plan, which had 225 units. WMATA and DC worked out a deal to keep the other half of the site as a park.
This building will be more compact than a 2006 proposal to construct townhouses. Neighbors also fought against that plan, and successfully delayed it into oblivion.
The plan may get even better in the future. WMATA wouldn’t be approving the final design for construction. Rather, this project is what’s called a Planned Unit Development, where the DC Zoning Commission has extensive input into its design. That part of the process hasn’t even begun, and so there will be a lot of opportunities for people to ask for changes.
Maryland residents will be able to testify at Zoning Commission hearings on the project, and especially with two federal representatives on the Zoning Commission, there’s every reason to believe that board will listen to any reasonable arguments they make.
However, Raskin, Hucker, Hixson, and Mizeur, who are the sitting state legislative delegation for the area, argue in their letter that Maryland “has limited formal involvement” in the PUD process. They therefore ask the WMATA board to delay approval until there can be yet another process, where a neighborhood working group with members from DC and Maryland get to push for more changes (surely including reducing the amount of housing even further).
“More dialogue” is a smokescreen
That letter also states that neighbors haven’t been involved enough. So does at-large councilmember Marc Elrich’s letter. Perhaps the developers have listened as much as they could; perhaps not. In countless development disputes, however, opponents say that they are just looking for “dialogue” and haven’t been listened to, when in fact they are demanding a substantially smaller project with less housing, and that is not a realistic request.
Years of delays and battles killed the 2006 townhouse effort. Maybe if opponents can just delay this project enough, nothing will get built, or only a very small amount of housing will end up going at this site. That would be an enormous loss to the region. There are limited developable parcels around Metro stations, and those are best places for new housing and jobs. This building may be larger than many around it, but it’s not really that big.
Hans Riemer, another at-large member of the Montgomery County Council, confined his letter to making specific recommendations to improve the project. That’s a good approach and the developer should heed his suggestions. Opponents, unfortunately, have responded to his more constructive approach by campaigning against him in tomorrow’s primary.
When other elected officials like Hucker (who hopes to win a primary contest tomorrow to represent the district on the council), Raskin, Elrich, Van Hollen, and the others ask in letters for delay and more consultation, they aren’t standing up for good civic process. They are just strengthening obstruction.
Building apartments at the Takoma Metro means more customers to support Takoma’s thriving local businesses, fewer people who need to drive everywhere, and the ability to meet the demand for housing, resulting in lower or at least more stable housing costs. That’s the truly progressive thing to do, not trying to keep new people out in favor of those who came here first.