City Paper is not for tourists
On a warm April Saturday on the grassy knoll in front of the Takoma Metro station, you don’t have to worry about getting beaned with a frisbee. You don’t have to worry about picnickers blasting their boomboxes. And you don’t even have to worry about stepping in any dog poop. In fact, there are no benches or swing sets, no picnic tables or jungle gyms. And definitely no people.
Lately, though, that hasn’t stopped locals from gushing about the 4-acre spread, which sits entirely in the District of Columbia, spitting distance from the border separating D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood from Maryland’s Takoma Park. “It’s just a lovely piece of open space,” says Historic Takoma President Lorraine Pearsall. “Even if you just want to people-watch.”
“The park has always been an important part of this community,” adds Sara Green, a D.C. resident active in the community group Takoma United. “It’s one of the more beautiful spots we have near the Metro.”
Green and Pearsall can be excused for venerating the subway-station lawn as if it were a Frederick Law Olmstead masterpiece. The activists learned in February that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which owns the space, has been negotiating to sell it to Arlington-based developer Eakin/Youngentob Associates. The developer aims to turn the space into 106 new town houses and a two-story parking garage—a scheme locals say suits their crunchy community the way a Humvee might suit a bicycle rack.
Metro bigwigs say the sale will generate tax revenue for D.C. and operating revenue for the transit agency. But some residents say the development violates an agreement dating back to the early ’70s, when D.C.’s subway was first planned. Sale opponents claim that Metro promised to preserve a “buffer zone” between the station and the neighborhood. “They must think all of us who were around back then are dead, but we aren’t,” D.C. resident Ruth Foster said at an April 6 community meeting at Takoma Park Baptist Church.
“Takoma thought it was different and special,” Green says. “Now, we are just going to have this boxy, probably ugly, group of town houses right in front of the Metro. That’s hardly something to look forward to.”
Like good community activists, Green & Co. are also livid about process. Activists say they learned about the proposal just two days before Metro initially planned to sell the property. “The only reason we even learned about this is because a reporter called,” Green says. “It’s a public agency, and it’s public land. Can’t they at least hang up a sign?” The Metro board’s vote on the sale was eventually rescheduled for April 20.
Metro officials say that they solicited bids for the project on the transit agency’s Web site and in the classified sections of various business newspapers. But in politically active Takoma Park, the perception of an underhanded deal is enough to set people off.
And Metro didn’t exactly make it easy for those locals who don’t happen to spend their time scouring the classifieds to find out about the sale. According to a Montgomery County Gazette report, Metro board members and officials from both D.C. and Takoma Park were asked to sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from talking about the project until it came before the board.
“It would have been inappropriate for us to share the contents of that confidential proposal before it goes to the board for consideration,” explains Metro spokesperson Ray Feldmann. “People feel that this has been a closed process, but in fact, because the proposal is sealed until it goes before the board, there’s technically not anything for people to comment about.”
Of course, say opponents, after the proposal goes to the board, the property will be sold—and it’ll be too late for their park. Activists want Metro to further postpone, or even halt, the vote on transferring the property. “They are telling us to go to hell, that we don’t have a right to ask Metro to act like a true public agency,” Green says. “It’s shocking.”
If you want to oppose anything in Takoma Park, just invoke Sam Abbott. The legendary mayor, who died in 1990, built a reputation in the late ’60s and early ’70s through successful opposition to the North Central Freeway—a project that would have bulldozed several historic D.C. neighborhoods and also wiped out much of historic Takoma Park.
As disagreement simmers over the Metro station development, Abbott’s name is being bandied about once again. “Sam was as critical of the development of Metro as he was the highway,” says Francis Phipps, a Takoma Park resident who was involved in the ’70s-era debates over the Metro’s construction and development.
According to Phipps, Abbott was especially concerned about plans to zone D.C. land surrounding the station for high-rise office buildings. “They wanted to develop Takoma into a Silver Spring-type area, with lots of commercial development,” Phipps says. “Sam wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, and in doing that, he began battling Metro to preserve the green space around the station, saying it was important for preservation of the neighborhood.”
“[Abbott] was involved in just about everything we did, fighting us, saying we should save money and land,” remembers Cody Pfanstiehl, a former Metro executive who led meetings on development of the Takoma station. “He had an opinion on everything.”
And a 1974 compromise that resulted in a low-key development plan for the station area, activists say, proves just how much locals influenced the transit agency. “It shows how much Metro depended on community input for developing the station,” Green says. “They really wanted our input. Whether we lived in the District or Maryland, it didn’t matter.”
Unfortunately for Green, Metro never signed any legal documents promising to keep the area undeveloped forever. And the transit agency’s current business plan relies on deals just like the one for the front of the Takoma station. With a portfolio of properties whose ready subway access makes them real estate gold mines, the agency aims to become a major real estate player.
The Takoma project is just a small part of Metro’s expanding joint development operation, which sells or leases land around stations to private developers. According to Feldmann, at least 25 joint development projects are in the works; an additional 500 acres of land will go up for grabs in coming months. “Right now, we generate an average of $6 million a year in revenues from our joint development program,” Feldmann says. “By 2003, we are hoping to up that number to at least $15 million a year, if not more.”
Alvin McNeal, who runs the transit agency’s Joint Development Office, won’t quote a specific figure for the Takoma land. Eakin/Youngentob’s Toby Millman says only that there’s a “reasonable asking price.” And that price should seem even more reasonable if the firm can duplicate the success of its town-house development near 13th and V Streets NW—where 50 new houses sold for at least $300,000 apiece within the first month of sales.
“It’s our first project with Metro,” Millman says of the Takoma project. “And I am pretty sure we’d work with Metro again.”
That’s just what make Phipps fume. “Sam would be rolling in his grave to see what’s happening today,” Phipps says. “Back then, we thought Metro was arrogant, but now, when the community has no say in what happens in its own back yard, it’s just unbelievable.”
No matter how many kisses anti-sale activists blow across Eastern Avenue, any controversy along the District line is bound to eventually devolve into city-vs.-suburb rivalry. According to Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, the real issue is that Marylanders—whose state has profited from Metro-related development—now want to deny the District its fair share. Though Green and Foster live in D.C., Graham claims, most sale opponents live in Maryland.
“It’s finally our turn to sit at the table, and the people in Maryland don’t seem to want that to happen,” says Graham, who sits on Metro’s governing board. Graham dismisses idyllic visions of the park as “folklore” and argues that the town houses will revitalize the Takoma area of D.C. “There’s this small minority that seems to be grasping for straws,” Graham says. “What this really is about is Maryland trying to usurp local District rule.”
David Nicholson, president of the neighborhood group Plan Takoma, says there are more residents in favor of the development than against it—at least on his side of the border. “The issue has really ignited some hostilities in the neighborhood,” Nicholson says. “There’s lots of people who think this would be good for the District, by generating tax dollars and raising property values, but they are afraid to speak out.”
Opponents of the plan—no matter where they live—will have a few more chances to sound off. Metro and Eakin/Youngentob insist that citizens will have their chance to voice their concerns after the sale vote, when the development plan comes before the D.C. Planning Commission. Metro officials say Maryland officials also have the right to a “jurisdictional veto,” which would block the sale of the land.
But Graham says he’ll be watching to make sure suburbanites don’t unfairly scotch a plan that might help the District. “Something like that could come back to haunt Maryland,” he says. “Especially when we take up similar border developments, like, for instance, in Friendship Heights.”
In case you were wondering, that’s a threat. Metro board members last month agreed to sell a slice of Maryland near the Friendship Heights station that should translate into millions in new tax revenues for Montgomery County. McNeal says that the Friendship Heights sale could be the most lucrative joint development project yet, surpassing last year’s Gallery Place/Chinatown deal. A Washington Post account said that development rights for the Chinatown project fetched the agency $22 million.
That kind of bottom-line motivation, say opponents, leaves them little hope of help from state officials in blocking the Takoma project. “I guess we are the sacrificial lamb,” Phipps says. “Nobody wants to lose their turn at the trough.” CP