This is the first in a series of occasional stories about proposals for managing growth in communities throughout Montgomery County.

What should Takoma Park look like in the next 20 years?

Please, no massive commercial development for this small city of charming neighborhood shops, cozy residential areas and verdant parklands. No big street widenings, either. Residents prefer rebuilding the sidewalks and carving out new bikeways.

Takoma Park wants more of what it already has, and that position comes through clearly in the draft of the city's master plan--a document for guiding public and private development in the community for the next two decades. The plan avoids urban overhaul, saying Takoma Park's mix of people and neighborhoods, served by small commercial centers, is the kind of community that newer, pricier developments try to emulate.

"People like their community and want to preserve the good things about it," Mayor Kathy Porter said.

One of Washington's first suburbs, Takoma Park grew from farmland that sat at the end of Washington's early railroad and streetcar lines. Incorporated in 1890, it is now a compact city of shaded yards, front porches, skinny streets and blocky apartment buildings. Within its borders are the campuses of Montgomery College at Takoma Park, the Seventh-day Adventist Columbia Union College and Washington Adventist Hospital.

It has Montgomery County's largest historic district, covering about a third of the city's area and including many wood frame and brick houses and commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Takoma Park's population is one of the county's most diverse and international--its residents come from 94 different countries and two of its top five languages are Vietnamese and Amharic of Ethiopia. But the feeling of the city is definitely down-home.

"It's like being in a Midwestern small town that's a 10-minute Metro ride from the Capitol," said John Urciolo, principal developer behind Takoma Old Town, the city's revived downtown area along Carroll and Laurel avenues.

Takoma Park also harbors a thick streak of counterculture populism. Its residents have pushed for city ordinances to fight the spread of nuclear weapons, to free Burma from an oppressive regime, and in a referendum this fall, to ban handguns within city limits. That cherished civic tradition of having one's say carried over to the city's draft master plan, which drew more than two dozen speakers at a recent public hearing before the county Planning Board. While speakers generally approved of the plan, they scrutinized even mundane topics such as sidewalk widths, while county planners dutifully scribbled notes.

Terry Seamens, co-chairman of a residents advisory board, praised the planners' outreach to the community, even though at first, "I was skeptical about how much I would be listened to."

The document, written in consultation with the resident advisers, is midway through a lengthy process of tweaking and tuning by officials. Early next year, the county executive and County Council will begin studying the cost of public projects such as expanding parks and installing street lights. It's likely to be the fall of 2000 before the County Council adopts a final version of the plan. After that, its recommended land uses legally become part of the county zoning map.

It is the first plan developed since residents voted two years ago to unify city boundaries entirely within Montgomery, instead of having the city straddle Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Unification brought Montgomery planners a zoning dispute that dominated debate at the September public hearing.

In the far southeast corner of the city, Silver Spring developer Harvey Maisel wants to build a commercial self-storage facility on seven wooded acres bordered by New Hampshire Avenue and Sligo Mill Road. When the property was in Prince George's, it was zoned for town houses. The land remains undeveloped, in part, because town-house zoning doesn't fit with surrounding commercial uses along New Hampshire Avenue, County Planner Don Downing said.

Residents of the adjacent Pinecrest neighborhood don't want the master plan to endorse commercial zoning for the land, which they say should be used for open space because of its trees and the stream that borders one side. Commercial development, said Pinecrest Civic Association President Jane Holmes, also would intrude on the neighborhood with more noise and traffic.

Maisel remains hopeful a solution can be worked out in the coming months while the master plan undergoes revision.

"I would like to see the entire area lifted up. It helps everybody," said Maisel, referring to the plan's proposal for revitalizing New Hampshire Avenue's faded appearance with new streetscaping, lighting and intersection improvements.

The plan targets several commercial areas for improvement. In these areas, planners recommend zoning districts that would require special review for new developments but also would grant flexibility in standards such as permitted uses and the minimum number of parking spaces. Areas recommended for these special districts include Maple Avenue, Flower Village along Flower Avenue and Takoma/Langley Crossroads at New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard.

Residential areas should be protected through the historic district provisions and code enforcement on deteriorated apartment buildings, according to the plan. It also proposes that the county should help Takoma Park acquire more recreation space by purchasing land for soccer and baseball fields and a playground in the Pinecrest neighborhood.

Though master plans try to shape a community's future, they sometimes miss the mark. Takoma Park's previous master plan, developed in the 1970s, envisioned tearing down buildings near the community's Metro stop and building bigger ones. Developer Urciolo planned to do just that in the 1980s after buying up a couple blocks of rundown storefronts along Laurel Avenue.

On closer inspection, he found the buildings were still sturdy, and their handsome tin ceilings intact. He renovated, and a "new" Takoma Old Town emerged. This town center celebrates its revival each fall with an October street festival that's a spicy blend of "potters for peace," tarot card readers, babies with balloon animals and bands that play Petula Clark's '60s hit "Downtown" with a Caribbean beat.

Planners want to extend Old Town's resurgence along Carroll Avenue, beyond city boundaries and into the District in what planner Downing called a "seamless transition" across jurisdictions. The plan recommends that county and District officials form a task force to launch this initiative.

Though traffic on Takoma Park's streets is expected to grow with the redevelopment of Silver Spring's downtown, the plan proposes no street widenings. Instead, it promotes expanding networks of sidewalks and bikeways that link to regional systems such as the Capital Crescent and Metropolitan Branch trails. That fits with city's reliance on mass transit, which is significantly greater than the rest of Montgomery's.

Yet, the mayor said she still sees traffic as one of the principal threats to Takoma Park's future well-being. "The long-term solution is a regional solution," said Porter, referring to a proposed east-west Purple line on the Metro system that would serve Takoma Park along the University Boulevard corridor. That route is one of several being studied by state highway officials over the next two years as they devise regional traffic strategies.

In transportation, as in other aspects of its urban life, the best future for Takoma Park may be a reworked version of its past.

The Takoma Park Master Plan is available on the Internet at www.clark.net/pub/mncppc/ montgom/planning/tp/.

A Look at Takoma Park

Takoma Park, one of Washington's first suburbs, grew from farmland that sat at the end of Washington's early railroad and streetcar lines. It incorporated in 1890.

Population: 34,855

Ethnicity

White 48.2%

Black 36.1%

Asian or Pacific Islander 11.1%

Other 4.6%

Hispanic (all races) 17.4%

Education (persons 25 or older)

Bachelor's degree or higher 51.3%

High school graduate 28.5%

Less than high school diploma 15.2%

Household

Married couple families 50.7%

Non-family households 30.4%

Single-parent families 14.5%

1996 median household income: $44,030

Work trip

Driving alone 55.5%

Car pool 9.5%

Public transit 28.3%

Walk/bicycle 3.6%

Work at home 3.0%

SOURCE: Montgomery County Planning Dept., Research and Technology Center

Statistics are based on a 1997 Census Update Survey