Any one of its nearly 18,000 residents would agree that Takoma Park is a special place, but so great is their collective propensity to disagree among themselves as well as with the world out there that each one probably would give a different reason why, and then support the position with the curious blend of idealism and hard-headed invective that has made the little city on the District line locally famous.
This perhaps explains the somewhat mixed results, so far, of Takoma Park's grand experiment in self-determining Metro-related development. It is a story at once inspiring and a little bit ridiculous, noble and a tad tacky. Good definitely triumphs over bad, but since nothing is simple in Takoma Park, it requires some explaining.
Among the battles that Takoma Parkers have fought and won over the past quarter of a century, few are more important than the decade-old victory over Montgomery County planners who wanted to rezone six blocks near the Metro station to accommodate high-density commercial development. Takoma responded with a resounding "No!" In the end, building densities permitted in the area were reduced rather than increased.
Of course, like any community sitting hard by a Metro stop, Takoma Park is changing. But unlike most, Takoma is changing gradually and undramatically. The main issue, according to Sam Abbott, the city's peppery mayor, who frequently and acerbically is right, is "to control this change, to bring some life to this place without having the cure kill you."
"It's incremental change, a la Jane Jacobs," comments Travis Price, an architect who, with his architect wife, Jeanne Price, authored the urban design standards to guide the remodeling of a strip of stores along Laurel and Carroll avenues that has been inaptly christened "Takoma Old Town." Price & Partners also designed the excellent building at 7050 Carroll Ave., the first new commercial structure to go up in Takoma Park in more than four decades -- but more on that in a moment.
In the abstract, Takoma Park did everything right. After thwarting the invasion of out-of-kilter development, the city conducted a long argument with itself over the future of its business "center." In reality, Takoma Park doesn't have a proper center: Its city hall is in one place, its fire station in another, its schools in another, and its business districts are located mostly on the odd-shaped edges of the town. But because of its proximity to the Metro station and to the landmark single-family dwellings that give the city its inimitable architectural character, the string of long-neglected stores along Laurel and Carroll avenues is crucial to the city's sense of itself. So the arguments focused on this strip, producing a string of studies that ultimately produced the city's fundamentally sound, incremental design-development approach.
A key aspect of the Takoma Park strategy was to follow a "conservative rehabilitation" course rather than costly all-new or pure restoration alternatives. Basically, this is a design-controlled fix-up-and-paint tactic that most owners in "Old Town" have adhered to.
A second important element was the expenditure of public funds to give the place a new image. Under the Prices' guidance, and at a cost of nearly $900,000 (a federal community development grant), new sidewalks, benches and lampposts have been installed, a park has been redesigned and equipped with a pink and blue Victorian gazebo, and a median strip with a new town clock (designed by Marc LaPierre) has been inserted in a block-long stretch of Laurel Avenue.
This is an exemplary package, a sophisticated revitalization plan for a Main Street-type commercial district that long ago lost its economic energy to the regional shopping malls. But one has to wonder, at least a little, about the details.
"Takoma Old Town," indeed. It would be hard to imagine a more pretentious moniker for this nice but definitively unprepossessing commercial strip, and the problem, unfortunately, isn't simply with the name. It is a bit Yumpie-cutesy, this new Takoma image, starting with the outlandishly colored Victorian gazebo. The question is, why Victorian? The stores themselves are an odd-lot collection of styles ranging from converted Italianate and bungalow residences to a '20s Tudor gas station to modest Art Deco commercial buildings, and the narrow tree-shrouded streets of the surrounding historic district, though distinguished by the presence of many fine Victorian-era homes, is an equally diverse grab bag.
The image issue is perhaps not terribly important, though there is a certain air of trendy unreality to the new Takoma Old Town. (Employes at the new Takoma Cafe have been known to announce, "A waitperson will be with you in a minute.") You just have to pinch yourself to recall that, basically, Takoma Park is trying hard -- maybe a bit too hard -- and doing well: The scale of the place is right, the idea of saving the old buildings and upgrading them in a sympathetic (though occasionally strident) way is correct, and the notion of making an identifiable place out of a humdrum strip is on the money.
And then there is the issue of new construction -- by definition, in this context, a business of tactfully adding to what is already there. Fortunately, Travis Price did a bang-up job, conducting a lesson in creative circumspection in the new structure at 7050 Carroll Ave.
Price's main problems, besides economic viability, were three: The building had to fit into a stylistically helter-skelter environment, it had to accommodate suburban-style parking requirements on a very small and odd-shaped lot, and it had to be energy-efficient. The last "problem" was, more or less, self-created; Price cut his architectural teeth in the solar-energy days of the 1970s, and the distinguishing feature of his practice is to combine energy and contextual concerns.
Montgomery County parking regulations determined the basic shape of the building, which is, in effect, two buildings connected by a balcony that bridges the two-lane entrance to a parking lot in the rear. By thus making a virtue of necessity, Price created the conditions for a very interesting building, which he then fleshed out by giving the structure a happy profile with sharp parapets at the roof and by making the two-level balcony-bridge, with its nautical screen railings, the key unifying element in the design. Another thoughtful response to the parking issue is apparent only on the inside. Price added to the usable space -- and circumvented legal requirements for extra parking -- by making the third floor a mezzanine.
The building is super-insulated, with four inches of rigid Styrofoam between its pastel-painted stucco surface and cinder-block walls, and even the size and placement of the narrow blue awnings above the operable checkerboard casement windows were calculated for maximum energy effect, allowing in the winter sun and providing shade in the summer. The result is energy-efficient -- the owners, of whom Price is one, will spend about 70 percent less on energy than they would have for a conventional office building of the same size -- and it also is a little feat: a polite building with a colorful personality.
This result also augurs well for Takoma Park, for Price & Partners, with developer John Urciolo, recently bought the Citizens Bank property, which includes the Park Pharmacy building on Carroll Avenue and the humble row of low-rise structures on the east side of Laurel Avenue all the way to Eastern Avenue. This is a genuine gateway location, and Price has a great opportunity to give the whole area a strong, much needed architectural focus. Although design is still in the formative stages, the news already is good in one important respect: The three-story, 75,000-square-foot structure they plan to build on part of the site (which with bonuses could be as big as 200,000 square feet) clearly will be in keeping with the special scale of these streets.
So, all in all, if we forgive the upscale oddity of some of the solutions -- and we expect the occasional oddity in Takoma Park, don't we? -- it looks as if the little Don't-Tread-on-Me city is well on the way to winning another of its famous fights.