The TPSS Co-op grocery store. Image by Main Street Takoma used with permission.

In September of 1995, the City of Takoma Park paid $483,000 for a surface parking lot and some woods at the confluence of two major roadways in hopes of developing the area down the road.

The spot has a lot of potential: the commercial area around this busy intersection is seven blocks from the Takoma Metrorail station in a very walkable area known as Takoma Junction. 

In January of 2014, Takoma Park finally issued a Request for Proposals to redevelop the surface parking lot, and last month the chosen developer provided a concept sketch showing a mixed-use development that would add underground parking, one level of retail, one level of offices, and a setback rooftop community space.

The site up for redevelopment, with the Co-op on the left and the shuttering auto shop on the right. Image by the author.

However, throughout the RFP process an adjacent business, the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Cooperative grocery store, has been asking its 9,000+ members to lobby Takoma Park’s elected officials to get preferential treatment to either stall or cancel the project. Those elected officials are now weighing whether to move the project forward, or cancel it altogether.

A grocery store with deep community roots

In 1998, the Co-op began leasing a single-story building with its own parking lot adjacent to the City-owned parking lot. For a while now, the Co-op has rented a portion of the surface parking lot in order to facilitate deliveries that they claim must be done with 18-wheeled trailer trucks and cannot be done in their own parking lot.

The Co-op’s own market research shows there is demand for their expansion, so they responded to the RFP with their own proposal to double their store size–but offered $0 to purchase the land.

When Takoma Park selected four finalists, the Co-op was not among them. In April of 2015, Takoma Park selected Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) to redevelop the surface parking lot, but not the sloping, wooded area on the south of the site.

The development site has been further expanded to the west by NDC who is purchasing the adjacent Takoma Auto Clinic, which is closing. The full development site and its position relative to the Co-op is shown below:

Satellite image of the Takoma Junction site from Google Maps with the development boundary in yellow and the TPSS Co-op’s leased building and parking lot in red. Image by the author.

The Co-op lost a development battle, but is winning the development war

Notwithstanding being passed over to develop the Junction site, the Co-op marshalled its most vocal patrons to lobby Takoma Park’s elected leaders to protect its business from the “encroaching” development. And it worked.

After selecting NDC to redevelop the Junction site, Takoma Park officials offered NDC a 99-year ground lease in a development contract that required NDC to negotiate in good-faith with the Co-op to expand its existing store and provide the Co-op with “reasonable accommodation” for its business operations, including its 18-wheeler deliveries.

Even more significantly, the development contract prevents NDC from leasing any of the future Takoma Junction space 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).”

This is a 99-year monopoly from competition.

Over the course of many months NDC and the Co-op tried to negotiate a Letter of Intent over the Co-op’s expansion into the new development, but they could not come to an agreement.

The major sticking point appears to be that the Co-op’s rent in their current building ($28 per square foot) is much lower than what NDC is asking ($45 per square foot). According to a recent area rent analysis by the Old Takoma Business Association, the Co-op’s current rent is the lowest in the Junction area, and NDC’s proposed rent is within the normal range for new construction.

Stall, delay, and make it go away

After almost four years since Takoma Park issued its initial RFP for the Junction site, the Co-op has regularly rallied its patrons and advocates to stall or kill this project. With the help of an group of neighbors that want to revitalize the Junction, Takoma Park officials have stayed the course.

The current timeline, already delayed, slates the groundbreaking for May of 2019 with an opening in late 2020–but if the Co-op gets its way, this timeline will almost certainly be extended again.

In late September 2017, NDC finally presented its concept plan for the Junction site. The concept is a mixed-use development that provides 72 underground parking spaces, along with two levels of retail/office space and a setback rooftop community space. Purely for the Co-op’s benefit, NDC has added a “lay-by” lane for their 18-wheeler deliveries.

NDC’s concept plan for the Junction site. Image by NDC used with permission.

Whatever one’s view is of the design, the plan could turn an otherwise neglected commercial district into another third-place (a type of local walkable retail spot) for the Takoma Park community. However, now that NDC has presented its concept plan, the Co-op has doubled-down on their “special status” and encouraged its patrons to stall the project again.

You can read their latest rally cry here, but the substance of their claims are typical NIMBY arguments such as it’s too tall, it’s too large, it lacks enough parking, and it will make traffic worse. If the Co-op really wants to expand in Takoma Park but needs a larger parking lot for deliveries, there are plenty of other areas that have the requisite space.

Smells like teen spirit

NDC’s concept plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a transformative vision that represents the real compromises that Takoma Park officials made when they chose to place the Co-op’s business needs over all else. The sad irony here is that a larger, more robust development will benefit the Co-op’s business, but they’ve instead chosen to see the glass as “half-empty.”

At two recent city council meetings, the Co-op convinced its most fervent patrons to show up and make arguments against the Junction development. I attended one of these meetings, and it was surreal. It felt like a high-school pep rally, where each Co-op speaker received applause while others who spoke in favor of moving the project forward were treated like social lepers.

While the 50-100 Co-op supporters who spoke at these meetings are quite convinced in their position and claim to speak for the entire community, Takoma Park is a city of almost 18,000 people and the elected officials need to be reminded that one-half of one percent is nothing when compared to the silent majority of Takoma Park residents that support moving forward.

If you want Takoma Park’s elected officials move forward with development, you can tell them by clicking here. A longer, in-depth version of this post appears at Takoma Talk.

Tony Camilli is a federal employee who loves walking, bicycling, public transportation and sometimes driving.  When not busy working and parenting two toddlers, he loves learning about urban planning, mostly on GGWash.  His views are his own and do not represent his employer.  He lives in Takoma Park.