Opinion: A Development Plan That Never Belonged

A controversial development proposal for the parking lot next to the iconic Takoma Park Silver Spring Food Coop may be jettisoned by the Takoma Park City Council this week. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Last Wednesday night, the Takoma Park City Council decided to craft a resolution to disapprove of the current plan to develop Takoma Junction. The decision was unanimous. A vote on that resolution will be held this Wednesday, June 23.

This is terrific news and Mayor Kate Stewart and councilmembers deserve credit. However, it’s important to keep the context of this decision in mind. The council appeared to lean heavily on the State Highway Administration’s (SHA) repeated rejection of plans for the turn-off. With no approvable plan on the table, the council now seems willing to turn the page on this saga. But things never should have gotten this far.

Like many others, I had reservations about the project for years – about racial and economic segregation, public space, traffic and the environment, among other worries. Do we really need high-end retail at the junction? Do we really need to disregard the concerns and interests of local business owners to get this project done? How many people are still willing to condone the Neighborhood Development Company’s (NDC) highly aggressive behavior against the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, the quintessential Takoma Park institution?

More generally, the project has always been too big and too busy. The current plan just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit logistically. It doesn’t environmentally. It doesn’t fit culturally. It’s never fit, and it’s never going to fit.

NDC’s actions have been appalling. I remember during last fall’s mayoral election campaign, when people were saying that it’s possible to support the development and support the co-op. I found that unconvincing at the time, but now making such a statement seems totally false.

The inconvenient reality is that the council should have dumped NDC long ago.

I remember watching the first vote for this project go through in 2018. I was at my parents’ house in North Carolina. That night I went to bed feeling really down because the project got approved. Yet I also went to bed feeling somewhat hopeful because I saw what Councilmember Jarrett Smith did and I saw what Councilmember Peter Kovar did.

It was especially moving to see Mr. Kovar vote the way he did because my sense and understanding was that he changed his mind about the plan that evening. Those votes now look prophetic, and both deserve recognition for their farsighted approach.

The bottom line is that a project that was a bad idea in 2018 looks like a far worse idea now. Thankfully, it looks like it’s not going to happen at all. Last month, some supporters of the project were claiming that it was a done deal, culminating a sustained campaign of distortions and misinformation about the current plan.

The city never should have put up with this developer. It never should have been bullied into a bad deal that became increasingly indefensible and impracticable. And, I worry that, by framing the current decision on largely technical grounds, major mistakes will be overlooked. There’s nothing to prevent another developer from bringing a similar project. We don’t know if NDC might try again at the junction.

The debate on developing Takoma Junction is far from over. However, for those keen on building a more thoughtful and more inclusive Takoma, Wednesday night’s news was very welcome indeed.

–TAYLOR DIBBERT

The author is a writer based in Takoma, D.C. He served as a volunteer on Roger Schlegel’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Takoma Park in 2020. This piece is based on testimony he submitted to the Takoma Park City Council last week.