BY BILL BROWN
Its development proposal rejected by the city, Takoma Park’s iconic natural food store fears it will lose its opportunity for expansion, its loading dock and its very existence.
The city manager says he is aware of these concerns and urges the coop and the public to trust the process and wait until the four development proposals that passed review are revealed Sept. 23.
The identity of those four finalist developers was revealed last week, but city staff is keeping specific proposal details under wraps. Brian Kenner, City Manager said it is best to allow the finalists to present their own plans, and for them to answer council and citizen questions in person.
The coop’s concerns and others’ will come out in the public hearings and comments, Kenner said. He said the developers will respond to these issues with changes and modifications.
Composite photo of the city lot from the other side of Carroll Avenue. Coop is on the left. Photo by Bill Brown.
The struggling Junction
The Takoma Park Silver Spring Coop rents its current space, the Turner Building, at the corner of Carroll and Sycamore Avenues, at the center of what is called Takoma Junction. The area has been economically struggling for decades. The coop has been one of the few thriving businesses since it located there in 1998.
At the center of this issue is the city parking lot. Two parking lots flank the coop. The small lot is on the Turner Building property. The large lot is owned by the city.
The coop has been considering expansion for years. Earlier this year it approached the city with a development plan that included use of the city lot.
Rather than consider that one offer, the city asked for development proposals from any and all comers, including the coop. The city set some criteria and a schedule.
Takoma Park City Manager Brian Kenner.
Seven proposals were submitted. The coop has publicly released a summary of its proposal here. City staff — with consultation from the county Parks and Planning department — reviewed the proposals and picked four that best met the criteria. The names of those finalists and general details were released to the city council in a closed session Sept. 3, then to the public Sept. 5.
The coop released a public statement Sept. 8. “We are disappointed that the City planners have decided not to share our proposal with the Council.”
The four final developers are: The Ability Project, Community 3 Development, LLC, Keystar LLC and Eco Housing, Neighborhood Development Company.
Marilyn Berger, Coop Project Manager, cried foul, saying the coop’s proposal was rejected because it did not include housing – which was not one of the stated criteria.
She quoted city manager Kenner as saying the coop plan was “not transformative enough.”
Kenner denied saying that. He said the coop’s plan was “absolutely not” rejected on the grounds it didn’t include housing. “There was no housing-based criteria,” he said.
The criteria were: economic stimulation, aesthetic appearance, consistency with surrounding historic architecture and environmental sustainability. The reviewers also rated the plans and the developers on their overall vision and concept, ability to implement, and financial structure and resources.
He would not specify why the coop’s plan was rejected, only that “it did not make it to the next round” based on stated goals and criteria. “It was not just my decision” he added.
Composite photo of the city lot from the coop. January, 2014. Photo by Bill Brown.
Two big worries
The coop’s two biggest concerns are that the plan include access for 18 wheeler delivery trucks, and that the coop not have to close during construction.
Kenner said he was well aware of the coop’s continuity and loading-dock concerns. “I personally wrote those down” as the items the developers should address. He said these and other concerns will come out in the public hearings and comments. Developers will respond to these issues with changes and modifications, he said.
There will be 3 – 5 public comment sessions, said Kenner. The first is at the special Tues., Sept. 23 public meeting devoted entirely to proposal presentations and public questions and comments. That will be followed by a public comment session at the regular Mon., Sept. 29 city council meeting.
The developers will be given a few weeks to modify their designs based on public feedback, and they will present revised plans. That, said Kenner, should bring the council and public to a decision point, either to winnow down finalists to a smaller number or choose one.
Coop manager Berger remains worried. She is “looking at Plan, A, B, C and D,” she said. The coop, she said, still wants to expand to offer seafood, meat, beer and wine, a coffee-shop and other possibilities. But if the city lot is made unavailable the only direction to build is up – adding a story, she said. Or the coop may have to move. Berger said the coop is “looking at survival,” and if it has to close down for construction or lose its loading dock, it would mean death for the store, she said.
Berger will have keep worrying at least until Sept. 23 when the finalist’s details are publicly revealed. Not even the city council members know the details, only a few staff members.
City manager Kenner called the coop “an anchor in the commercial district and a leader in the local food movement,” in the city’s Sept. 8 public announcement. The announcement says the coop is included in all the finalists’ proposals, with options for expansion.
Asked if the process was sufficiently transparent, city manager Kenner said it was “clearly in line with being transparent.” The process is, he said, “much more open than immediately adjacent jurisdictions.”
He was likely referring to the District of Columbia. Kenner’s previous job was as Chief Operating Officer with the DC deputy mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.
Kenner has a strong background in public real estate development. Prior to his DC job, he worked for two private firms: Earnst and Young, and Jones Lang Lasalle, helping federal agencies decide what to do with public land – as he is doing now for the city lot, he said.
Knowing the city’s preference for government transparency, he said, he purposefully made the process more open than other jurisdictions or agencies would.