Battle over Metro site development heats up

By Bob Guldin
Takoma Park July 2014 Newsletter

The long-running battle over what kind of development should occur next to the Takoma Metro station has entered a new stage, with the developer and many Takoma Park neighbors advocating different visions for the land.

If you walk to the Metro these days, you'll see signs of the controversy on many neighbors' lawns. They read "Right-Sized, Not Super-Sized, Development."

The land in question is the 6.8 acres that sits between the Metro station on one side, and Cedar Street and Eastern Avenue N.W. on the other. It's currently occupied by commuter parking lots, bus bays, bus lanes and a 1.8-acre open space covered by lawn and trees.

The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro or WMATA) has long seen this land as under-utilized. For more than 30 years, WMATA has been trying to get housing and businesses built there, to generate revenue for WMATA, and to support the planning goal of smart growth, which calls for high-density housing near Metro stations. WMATA has chosen the real estate firm EYA to develop the site.

Neighbors enjoy the green space and would like to retain most of it, while conceding that some housing can and should be built there.

The current EYA-WMATA plan calls for one large rental apartment building, containing about 200 units. The building's height will be "stepped back," from about 47 feet near Eastern Avenue to 77 feet near the train tracks. The building will partially wrap around a seven-level parking structure, to be visible from the tracks but not from the street, says Stan Wall, WMATA's director of real estate and station planning. There will be 0.7 parking spaces per housing unit, a total of 140 spaces. About 85 to 100 commuter parking spaces will be at the street level of the parking structure — down from 140 now.

According to Wall, a minimum of one acre of green space is guaranteed to be retained, probably as a developed park. More open space may be left at first, but WMATA retains the right to use that space for transit in future years. The housing development will occupy 2.8 acres of the site, which will also include what is now a wooded buffer area next to apartments on Eastern Avenue. Opposition

WMATA held a hearing on the matter June 18, which drew hundreds of residents from the nearby neighborhoods. About 60 people spoke, with close to three quarters of them testifying against the current plan. Those included Mayor Bruce Williams, on behalf of the Takoma Park City Council, Ward 1 City Councilmember Seth Grimes, Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, and, by written statement, U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen. "Maintaining easy access to the Takoma Metro station is critical to the City of Takoma Park. And, because of its location, so is ensuring that any development on the property is attractive and welldesigned," said Mayor Williams.

The development sits right on the Maryland-D.C. border, which complicates decision making. Arguably the people most affected by the building will be Takoma Park, Md., residents, hundreds of whom cross the green space on their way to the Metro every day. But key decisions are in the hands of D.C. government.

According to Wall, Metro staff will compile a report based on the June 18 hearing, and will forward it to the WMATA board this fall. The board will approve a "compact hearing report" and a new plan for transit facilities. But the process doesn't end there. Because the apartment house requires a change in zoning, it must be approved by the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), the D.C. Office of Planning and the D.C. Zoning Commission. In addition, because the proposed development is in a D.C. historic district, building plans must be reviewed by the District's Historic Preservation Commission.

"The main point is the building is too high" and exceeds the current zoning limits on height, said Councilmember Grimes. But, he added, the number of units planned has been scaled down already and may well be further reduced. "In general, Takoma Park is concerned with the massing and design for the proposed building along Eastern Avenue and with maintaining green parkland on the property," said Williams. "We are also concerned about traffic congestion on Eastern Avenue." Williams also said pedestrian, bicycle and bus access are essential, and wide sidewalks, benches, sufficient bike parking and short-term vehicle parking are necessary to serve the community.

Sara Green, a member of D.C. ANC 4-A, which has jurisdiction over the site, says that WMATA and EYA have been misrepresenting the size and scale of the project. "The big thing is the size and the density – it's wrong for the site," she said. "The ANC is opposed to this project as it has been described."

If the process is perceived to favor too much development, the issue could eventually wind up in court. "Historic Takoma is concerned because the scale, mass and density are not compatible with the historic district," said Lorraine Pearsall, the secretary of Historic Takoma Inc. and a longtime neighborhood activist. "We have hired two attorneys to help the community, including a specialist firm that focuses on historic preservation." For more information on the project and the controversy it has stirred, see for the perspective of neighbors opposed to over-development, and for the view from EYA.