Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Takoma Metro Development Proposal and its illustration of gaps in planning and participation processes

This piece discusses general learnings, the follow up piece will address more specific matters around intra-neighborhood engagement, identity, neighborhood "preservation", urban-city growth, and change.

There is a proposal to build housing on part of the Takoma Metro site, which has a parking lot and some "unintentional" park space-unintentional in that WMATA, the transit operator, isn't in the business of providing park space.

The current proposal, to build an apartment building, follows a different proposal in 2006, not acted upon because of the 2008 real estate crash, to build rowhouses on most of the site.

The rowhouse proposal was really bad, but WMATA was inclined to support it, because it conformed with the zoning and kind of fit in with the neighborhood's prevailing residential character of single family houses.

I wrote testimony opposing that proposal, and in fact, it's probably my best sum up ever of why we should do "transit first" transportation and land use planning ("Comments on Proposed EYA Development at Takoma Metro Station, Washington DC").

This time around, it's as if WMATA and EYA read that testimony and followed it to the letter in terms of the current proposal.

Hearing.  Last week, there was a hearing on the matter, which was written about in GGW ("Maryland elected officials choose exclusion at the Takoma Metro") and the Gazette ("Takoma Metro apartment plan draws opposition from residents: A few speakers support current apartment proposal").

As can be expected, there is virulent opposition to the proposal, in part because it is seen as contrary to neighborhood character and takes away some green space, but mostly comes at the expense of a parking lot, and an agreement between DC and WMATA preserves the major open space section of the transit station site.

The back and forth about the project has helped me see some real gaps in planning processes, and part of the problem with the process is so far is the lack of planners and the DC Planning Office stepping in to provide "assistance."

But probably the assistance wouldn't be appreciated, because it wouldn't give people the "answers" or "results" that they want.

1.  Planning processes often fail to do a good job delineating parts of neighborhoods where change is appropriate, and neglect to emphasize that most land uses will remain unchanged.  One of the things that the hullabaloo made me realize is that we don't do a good job demarcating every block in terms of whether they are to be preserved, improved, or intensified.  Even though the DC Comprehensive Plan does exactly that, defining four different land use intents:

- Neighborhood Conservation: most land has been developed
- Neighborhood Enhancement: a significant amount of land is not developed
- Land Use Change Areas: usually large parcels that will be redeveloped
- Commercial/Mixed Use Districts: with various types defined (but over-defined in ways that can constrain taking advantage of certain kinds of opportunities).

and showing this in the Future Land Use Policy Map.

Somehow it doesn't trickle down to involved residents. Although I do think that the Nashville Community Character Manual does this somewhat better than DC, because it focuses first on general density and then calibrates specific types of land use within the broad density category.

Nashville Community Character Manual: T4
The Nashville Community Character Manual uses the New Urban Transect to do this.  The manual defines three different land use intents, which aren't mutually exclusive:
  • preserve -- keep pretty much as is
  • enhance --  improve quality of life/improve areas on an as needed basis and in response to new conditions
  • create -- construct new buildings and complete places
I think the NCCM outlines land use policy better than the DC Comp Plan because rather than focusing on the different types of land use somewhat irrespective of density, it focuses on density first "as a lens" and fine tunes use recommendations, which vary according to certain spatial conditions and characteristics, in that context.

In other words, while the DC Comp Plan defines "neighborhood center" generally, in the NCCM it's defined in the context of the transect type, so a "neighborhood center" in a denser zone will have different urban design and height conditions than "the same use" in a less dense zone.
Illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette (resized)
This illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette illustrates the idea of the transect.

With regard to the Greater Takoma neighborhood ("'Right size' development protest sign, Takoma Metro"), virtually all of the residential blocks would be categorized as "preserve" with no changes (in most of these zones, at this juncture, even accessory dwelling units are legal, even if there are very few of them).

However, the land in the commercial district, which would be termed an "Urban Neighborhood Center," especially because it is where the Takoma Metro Station sits, would be designated "create" because there are opportunities for new development, while still recognizing there is a historic preservation zoning overlay which limits changes and addresses design, but doesn't preclude new development on certain kinds of parcels.

Note that industrially zoned land along the railroad tracks would also be designated enhance and create. That type of spatial condition isn't covered in the NCCM, and neither is development at transit stations, because Nashville doesn't have a fixed rail transit system.

So that means that of about 200 blocks in the Takoma neighborhood, about 25--in the commercial district including the transit station and along the railroad tracks--would be targeted for change, leaving the rest of the neighborhood untouched.

2.  Sometimes plans are old and out of date: which is the case for the Takoma neighborhood plan.  Much of the opposition to the proposal is justified by opponents as being contradictory with the Takoma Central District Plan.  The problem is that the TCP was approved in 2002 and is based on "current conditions" dating to the 1990s, when the city was still losing population.

From the standpoint of the land use intent categories used in Nashville, the Takoma Central Plan was focused on "preserving" "the neighborhood" and didn't address opportunities for growth in a forward looking manner, especially in terms of the soon-to-present-themselves opportunities unleashed by a renewed interest in living in center cities, a positive trend which seems to have achieved critical mass in the 2000s.  (Note that urban living has been an attractive choice for an increasing number of people starting in the 1960s.)

In 2014, the Takoma Central Plan is seriously out of date because the state of the city is much different today than in 1999.  The city isn't shrinking in population, it's growing.  And places that didn't experience development--especially at transit stations--because of the city's growth are experiencing heightened interest in new development, business openings, etc.

Today, more people want to live in the city and we don't have enough housing to accommodate them. And we want to add population for a variety of other positive reasons.  Takoma isn't an exception to this general goal.

The opportunities and need to accommodate growth is addressed in the Framework Element of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, which defines the 21st century conditions that the city faces and must address.

Note that DC's current population is ahead of the 2006 forecast in the Framework Element, which indicates that the Comp Plan was on the right trajectory.
Pirnciples of Growth, DC Comprehensive Plan, 2006
Principles of Growth, DC Comprehensive Plan, Framework Element, 2006

3.  But sometimes the Comp Plan gets it wrong too.  The Comprehensive Plan recommends pushing development, especially housing, to underutilized sites, primarily in commercial and industrial zones.  It also recommends intensifying development at transit stations specifically.  (IT DOES NOT RECOMMEND tearing down single family dwellings and replacing it with multiunit housing.)

However, according to the Future Land Use Policy Map, despite the recommendations for intensification, the area around the Takoma Metro Station wasn't "upzoned" (neither was Brookland).

Maybe this was because the current commercial zoning allows for multiunit housing and in fact many such buildings, generally topping out at four stories, have been constructed, are being constructed, or are planned within a couple block radius of the Takoma Metro Station and all, as it happens, in DC.  (There are a couple of development possibilities in the Old Takoma commercial district, if two parking lots were to be made over.)

A different zoning procedure, "Planned Unit Development," allows for more density and height beyond the standard "matter of right" zoning, in this case about 50 feet, in return for the provision of "community benefits."

I think this lag reflects the state of real estate development practice at the time, when center city transit stations located farther out from the core were not where developers were focusing their attention.

This was starting to change around the time the Comprehensive Plan was passed, but with the reboot after the 2008 real estate crash and depression-recession, real estate developers have focused primarily on sites with high quality transit access, making vacant sites around subway stations, especially in high income areas, much more attractive.

At the same time, for revenue and other reasons, WMATA has moved to develop more parcels on transit station sites, when those parcels are immaterial to the transit function.

-- Joint Development Solicitation - Metro

4.  In general, people don't seem to understand the planning process for this site and project and if they do, they misrepresent the process to support oppositional positions.  A big problem with this particular proposal is that it involves different public agencies, different institutions, is located on the border of DC and Montgomery County, Maryland and Takoma Park, Maryland, an incorporated city, and the different stages of the process haven't been sufficiently outlined and delineated.

In this particular project there are at least six stages of a complete process culminating in the issuance of permits for construction:
  • selling the land to a developer, which in this case involves WMATA as the local transit agency owning the land, and EYA, a developer seeking to acquire the land, and the reviews that WMATA is required to perform before selling the land, as part of the Joint Development process, the rules of the "Compact" governing the relationship of WMATA to the jurisdictions, and the Federal Transit Administration's interest in WMATA's disposition of assets that have been acquired in part by using federal funds
  • with site control, the developer creates a "final" site and building development plan that can be submitted for consideration and eventual approval by the respective local government agencies that would normally consider such proposals
  • the developer wants a larger building than is matter of right, therefore the Zoning Commission will hear the project through what is called the Planned Unit Development process, which triggers a lengthy public engagement and hearing process that is much more involved and provides significantly greater opportunity for community input than normal processes
  • because the site is located in the Takoma (DC) Historic District, the DC Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Preservation Review Board will have a separate but aligned approval process concerning design specifically, but also other matters concerning mass and height
  • because the site is owned by WMATA, which receives federal funding, changes to the site will trigger a separate level of historic preservation review, designed to ensure that "federal undertakings" don't result in harm to cultural resources.  As it relates to the National Historic Preservation Act, it's called a Section 106 review and as it relates to transportation matters and the National Environmental Policy Act, it's called a 4(f) Review.  In theory, the National Capital Planning Commission could be involved with this in addition to the DC Historic Preservation Office, but for the most part it will be handled by the DC agency, because the building project doesn't relate to Executive branch activity and action
  • Plus, because the site is on the DC-Maryland border and the abutting land in Maryland is in a historic district, either DC will ask the Montgomery County historic preservation office to participate jointly in the NHPA/NEPA review, or Montgomery County will proceed and conduct their own separate review.  Two separate reviews are in order because the two jurisdictions may have different interests, but at some level it is likely that the MoCo Planning Department will respect the jurisdictional prerogatives of DC
  • After all these reviews and final disposition, the developer will be eligible to apply for permits and proceed to site preparation and construction.
One thing to remember is that NEPA and Section 106 reviews don't usually say that development is bad, they focus on accommodation.  This is a fact that escapes most people arguing on behalf of conducting the reviews in advance of the land sale, but in any case, such reviews can't occur until a formal application for the project is submitted.

Section 106 decision options, Historic Preservation Review
Section 106 evaluation-decision options.

The planning reviews commence when the developer has submitted an application for zoning relief, but opponents, especially the Marylanders and the politicians they've rallied to support them (various County Councilmembers, State Legislators, and the US Congressman) are asking for WMATA to make many of the decisions that would normally be addressed by the planning reviews handled by the local jurisdiction (in this case DC).

Note that the Federal Transit Administration does have to weigh in on the land sale, including a certain level of NHPA/NEPA review, but it is difficult to see how the FTA review wouldn't conclude with a decision favorable to the sale of land--it will result in higher transit ridership and revenues for the transit authority, without any substantive negative impacts.

5.  But because the project isn't at the stage where detailed planning reviews are triggered, for the most part the DC Planning Office hasn't been involved in community consultation.  So people are under-informed about how the process works, what the elements are, when it commences, etc., and there is a lot of unnecessary strife and anxiety.  Although there is no guarantee that the "discussion" on the issue would be more measured if the Office of Planning had already been involved.

6.  Although the Maryland element adds a complication.  Normally, the Zoning Commission doesn't deal with projects right on the DC-Maryland line, where affected property owners are also located in Maryland, outside of DC but located within the 200 foot distance from a site that normally triggers public notice within DC building regulation processes and a determination that the properties are potentially affected by the project.

This particular site is within 50 feet of the Maryland border (separated from abutting properties in Maryland only by the sidewalk and street).

The process for defining affected parties is underdefined as it relates to these situations, and Marylanders seem to be particularly worked up about it, not unjustifiably, because there is uncertainty about how the ZC would address "matter of right" participation by non-DC property owners.

In my opinion, the ZC aims to be fair and current practice, for example allowing abutting ANCs to have party status for matters on their borders, but in the boundaries of a different ANC, is extendable to this situation.

Furthermore, in the previous 2006 iteration of "this project," the Zoning Commission did invite the City of Takoma Park to participate directly in the review process ("Council to take part in review of plans for Metro development," Gazette).  There is no reason to believe that the ZC won't make the same determination for the latest iteration of this project.

In any case, the organization Historic Takoma, which is incorporated in Maryland, but represents the historic districts in both Takoma Park, Maryland and Takoma DC has a strong case for being accepted as an interested party in the case.  It would be hard for the ZC to deny such a petition, and in the historic preservation elements of the review process, Historic Takoma will be able to participate in a relatively unfettered position regardless of the ZC.

Still, the uncertainty has escalated and oscillated the agitation on the part of Takoma Park residents and the various elected officials they have engaged to support them.

7.  And because WMATA is a government agency, citizens demand and expect more involvement than would be afforded to them if the land were privately owned.  This is another complication.  It accounts for why the various Maryland elected officials have weighed in on the project at this point.  And why the process is drawn out.  People believe, rightly, that public agencies "have to listen to them."

The problem is that when the decision doesn't go their way, citizens exclaim that "we weren't listened to" when they were, it's just that after analysis and evaluation, a different decision was made.

Conclusion.  In short, this is another example of a planning iteration that is set up from the beginning to promote and stoke contention, rather than to ease it.

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At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the basic problem overall in DC are the car driving NIMBYs often operating under the guise of HP who do not want any positive change- and yet they do NOTHING to speak up against freeway enhancements that might have the potential to create noise or disruption- because freeways make life easier for those who own and drive cars who live in the city. Same goes for TP- which has real potential for adding more livable space and retail near the transit/metro station. As usual- these people are committed to their same regressive stances. i wish they would all leave the city for Centreville or Spotsilvania where they can find plenty of free parking and leave us alone here in DC.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't think "maintaining parking" is motivating the Takoma people exactly, but they do think that everyone drives, and frankly, most of the dwellers of single family housing do drive.

Plus they have a certain identity and image of what Takoma is and has been, and rightly they see the addition of higher density multiunit housing as a challenge to that identity.

The question is whether or not the addition of this kind of housing is a fundamental incontrovertible challenge to the quality of life in Takoma or can it be accommmodated in a manner that not only doesn't diminish quality of life, but enhances it.

One of the relatively young speakers at the hearing was incredibly eloquent about moving to Takoma, living in an apartment, and he and his wife are getting involved in various initiatives, including the hopeful creation of a community radio station (ironically sponsored by Historic Takoma, which is generally against the project).

I believe that for a variety of reasons, needing to add housing to the city generally, and the fact that more residents are required to support a healthy commercial district, contribute to a more active and vibrant community, pay income and sales taxes, etc., that this project, if done right, will be a positive for the community and for the city, and for the Metro station site.

The "opponents" do not have the same take on the matter.

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

two things here- it is generational- in that the boomers are the NIMBYs and are car centric whereas most of the people under 40 are more open to change. second- I am against bad architecture- and especially the incredible obsession our builders have with ugly flat roof Bauhaus garbage that relentlessly uglifies our skyline and makes our cities look so awful from the approches . If our builders could just put up a decent looking tile roof every sooften I think you could bring more people around to being in favor of high density- buildings like those found on old Kalorama with the Spanish and European colonian style rooftops- it alliveiates the institutional and brave new world look of Crystal City and K street that have done so much to disfigure the image of DC to those around the world. I am in favor of the highest densities around transit stations. We are making mistakes by not doing this and we will wind up paying for our negligence down the road if not sooner by letting NIMBY numbskulls ruin our city with their car- centric parking minimums and anti-streetcar phobia.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

among other things, the follow up entry will discuss design issues. The "placeholder image" for the rendering for the project isn't particularly inspired.

I know it's tough to work with wood for fire code reasons, but a large wood structure would fit in with the area's architectural history. and there are some other style antecedents that could be relied upon as well which would result in a more distinctive and complementary design.

At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

..If the builders actually cared they could always make the core of the building out of fire resistant masonry or concrete and place decorative / ornamental wood sheathing on top of this- it has been done before and can happen again. It is only a matter of imagination. Sadly- most 'architects" and builders no longer exhibit seem to be capable of this faculty. Neither do they seem to be able to improvise.

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