The City of Takoma Park has spent the better part of two decades trying to develop a publicly-owned parking lot in Takoma Junction, a prominent but downtrodden commercial area adjoining what is now one of the city’s most posh neighborhoods. The project is nearing final approval, but not everyone is happy.
City elected officials and staff have tried and failed numerous times to make use of the empty 50-space parking lot and to breathe new life into the Junction, but local activists have repeatedly resisted it. Their most recent attempt to halt the project: arguing it will contribute to gentrification and exacerbate inequality.
Research shows that racial and economic inequality in our area is rooted in legacy county land use, lack of affordable housing, and education policies that segregate many of the area’s disadvantaged families into degraded rental units and overburdened schools. A small retail and office building in Takoma Junction seems unlikely to have much of a negative impact on these complex and deeply-entrenched issues.
Shrinking diversity and affordability amid pricey single-family homes
This latest and most serious effort to reinvigorate the Junction began four years ago, culminating in a proposal for a 34,000 square foot, two-story, mixed-use building with office space above small format retail, a green roof, public plaza, and underground parking. But for some local activists, this latest iteration is still not “Takoma Park” enough.
Sensing defeat in a likely summer city council resolution, opponents’ latest line of argument is that the project will accelerate gentrification. However, this reasoning confuses cause and effect in an area of the city where nearby affordable housing is protected, the average home price already exceeds $750,000, and more than half of the Junction’s mostly boutique retailers own their own storefronts.
Popular imagination holds that Takoma Park is a white, upper middle class suburb with tree-lined streets full of Victorians and Craftsman Bungalows, but a recent city analysis paints a more complex picture. Less than half of the city’s 18,000 residents are white, and one-third are foreign-born. Takoma Park is somewhat more white, less Hispanic, and more black than surrounding census tracts. It includes more than 1,000 residents from Ethiopia and the city’s hispanic population, while relatively small when compared to neighboring Langley Park, is growing.
Slightly over half of the housing units in the city are owner-occupied. As the value of Takoma Park’s single-family homes have escalated dramatically during the two decades of debate over Takoma Junction, the city has seen an alarming 20% decline in market-rate rental units.
This drop is primarily attributed to the consolidation of accessory apartments and group houses back into single family homes and the conversion of small multi-family buildings to moderately priced condos. Of the remaining approximately 3,100 rental units in the city, 90% are either rent-stabilized (by city ordinance) or publicly subsidized. Many are falling into disrepair.
Successive waves of higher and higher income households have bid up the price of Takoma Park homes, making them inaccessible even to most well-resourced middle class families. Regional job growth and the city’s close proximity to the District and Metrorail, large historic district, and limited developable land created a perfect storm of displacement starting in the 1990s.
Rental housing in single family homes, originally created in the 1940s to capitalize on the region’s World War II population boom, is disappearing. While market dynamics have played a big role, the county is also at fault. For years Montgomery County tried to eliminate these units through its “phase back” program.
Takoma Park hasn’t seen a new apartment building built since 1975, and many of the city’s rental properties need more protection and investment. The protracted debate over Takoma Junction and similar land use disputes don’t bode well for future development projects in Takoma Park. These could include multi-family housing opportunities adjacent to the Purple Line in Long Branch, Takoma/Langley Crossroads, and the New Hampshire Avenue corridor.
Can Takoma Park save itself from itself?
Like much of the region, rapidly escalating home prices in Takoma Park have made it a venue for the 9.9%. While city residents spent the last two decades debating the traffic, inclusivity, and green features associated with the development of a small property in Takoma Junction, a sweeping tide of gentrification made the city increasingly unaffordable to almost every demographic.
Takoma Park has a long legacy of leadership in progressive politics, built on saving itself from monied, outside interests. In the 1960s, the city earned its progressive bonafides by stopping the construction of the proposed North Central Freeway. Advocates pushed instead for a Metrorail station and saved over 400 homes in the process. In the 1970s, citizens protected the community's stunning architecture through a local historic district.
However, by the late 1990s, the monied interests come increasingly from within. The impulse to say “no” now extends to mixed-use development on transit-accessible, brownfield sites like Takoma Junction.
Rising racial and economic inequality is the greatest existential threat to the city’s identity and values. Takoma Park’s activists are genuine in their concern for disadvantaged communities, but their focus on Takoma Junction is misplaced. After the dust settles on this development dispute, hopefully they will refocus their energy and passions on increasing investment in affordable housing and reducing systemic discrimination in county education policy. The county and region desperately need Takoma Park’s leadership on these serious issues.