As development fights go, a plan for a two-story building on a 1.4-acre parking lot in a Maryland neighborhood might seem too small to amount to much of a controversy.
Some office space above three or four stores, a coffee shop and a couple of restaurants — all atop an old parking lot that most residents seem to agree is an environmentally unfriendly eyesore.
It certainly doesn’t compare to the 30-story high-rises under construction in some Washington suburbs.
But in Takoma Park, a hotbed of liberal activism, the proposal has sparked a fury over a central question: How to repurpose a parking lot in a “progressive” way.
In the Montgomery County city of about 17,700 residents, the debate has spawned shouting protests of “No to gentrification!” and six-hour City Council meetings — one recently drew bleary-eyed yawns at 1:30 a.m. — amid threats of political recalls and civil disobedience.
“I think it’s about change,” said Jeremy Dickey, a city spokesman. “Change is hard. Takoma Park is a little city with big opinions, and people like to be engaged.”
Activists on both sides say the project has rekindled a long-simmering debate about how Takoma Park can remain economically viable without losing its funky charm.
Proponents say it will provide more jobs and shopping within walking distance of surrounding neighborhoods and is the kind of dense, transit-oriented development that would reduce driving and limit the city’s carbon footprint. Replacing an impermeable parking lot with a LEED-certified building also would help the environment, supporters say.
Opponents say the building would be too big, generate too much traffic, leave too little public gathering space and attract upscale stores and restaurants where many residents couldn’t afford to shop or dine. They say they’re also concerned that the project would drive up commercial rents in the area, force out the local businesses that give the D.C. suburb its unique vibe, and complicate deliveries for the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, a natural-food store and local institution next door.
“We’re all looking for something to be built there,” said Sue Katz Miller , an activist for the opposition. “We’ve been characterized as cranky old, white hippies, but look at the letter [opposed to the project] from 50 young people — no one is older than 23 — and they’re concerned about racial equity and public land for the public good.”
The debate over the proposal, which dates to 2014, has heated up this summer, as the City Council plans to vote Wednesday on whether to submit it to county planners for review.
City officials say they sought ideas for the parking lot in the quiet, two-block commercial strip called Takoma Junction to generate tax revenue and provide more walkable places for residents to work, eat, shop and gather. The parking lot is on Carroll Avenue between a fire station and the co-op, a half-mile east of the Takoma Metro station.
Mayor Kate Stewart said the city needs the revenue from the building’s 99-year ground lease and future property taxes to provide services such as affordable housing, the library, and summer and after-school programs for children.
“The truth is, it’s revenue we can use in the city to address affordability in our community,” Stewart said.
Of course, the question of how quickly communities should grow has long framed local politics, particularly as more inner-ring suburbs seek to redevelop into denser, more walkable areas.
But in Takoma Park, some also see a battle over the community’s character and the private use of public land.
Opponents say they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the project as planned, saying it should be smaller and reworked to provide more public gathering space. The parking lot now hosts festivals for Halloween and Earth Day.
“All of it will be gone,” said Denny May, an activist for the opposition, during a recent protest outside city hall. Residents “won’t be able to do anything on public land except shop in expensive stores.”
The developer, D.C.-based Neighborhood Development Co., referred questions to the city.
City officials say the development agreement would prohibit another grocery store from competing with the co-op, encourage local or regional businesses, and require any chain stores to get council approval.
The project’s stated goals, they say, include “maintaining the unique character of the community.”
Carter Dougherty, a resident who favors the proposal, noted that the developer recently shrank the building from three stories to two in response to community concerns. The Takoma Junction area could use some sprucing up, he said.
“It’s ugly,” Dougherty said. “Takoma Park has a nice Old Town, but Takoma Junction doesn’t quite measure up. It’s like a nice smile with a gap tooth — there’s just a gap in the facade.”
Dougherty said he thinks the building’s potential negative impacts have been overblown. Gentrification is already well underway in a city, he said, where houses can sell for $700,000. Even so, he said, he believes the development would jibe with the city’s progressive values by being close to transit and generating public money for affordable housing.
“To me, these are things you do to adapt progressive values to changing times,” Dougherty said. “It’s not about the essence of Takoma Park. It’s just not big enough to materially affect the trajectory of this town.”