It’s time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won’t repeat itself this time.

The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What’s the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it’s a logical idea and part of Metro’s development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station’s parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was “too dense.” They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.

The Takoma Metro station today.  Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn’t think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA’s original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.

EYA’s revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA’s plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA’s proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: “it’s too big and has too much parking.”

The neighbors’ petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA’s proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA’s use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn’t perfect, but it’s not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County’s RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA’s proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA’s motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA’s plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. “EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future,” he remarked.

You can’t always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood’s business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma’s main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you’ll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma’s reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma’s historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it’s richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a “New York venture capitalist” who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more “eyes on the street.” If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let’s stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be “progressive” and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It’s not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro’s future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There’s an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you’re really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those “others” to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn’t be interested if they couldn’t find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against “developers’ greed” and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.