“Sure, the People’s Republic of Takoma Park,” said Andrew Strongin, a 54-year-old attorney who buzzes over to the co-op on his bumble-bee-yellow scooter. “It’s who we are.”
They’ve marched and chanted for peace, for the environment, for justice, for women’s rights, for Black lives and against war, nukes, racism.
So how in the world did the residents of this sandal-friendly utopia find themselves taking to the streets this month to save — of all things — a parking lot?
“Oh, this is not a parking lot story,” said Dorothy Lee, 64, who has been shopping at the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op for a quarter of a century.
The controversy, she explains, is about saving the parking lot that helps the little brick store keep functioning. And, writ large, it’s a lesson in community organizing for any town in America.
The co-op is what you would imagine. It’s got local tomatoes and kelp noodles, spelt flour and teff flour, a wide selection of seitan, sea-beet kraut and rennet for all your cheesemaking needs. Like every self-loathing Whole Foods shopper, I am a sucker for places like this.
The charming store, as it’s celebrating its 40-year anniversary, filed a lawsuit this week against the city and a developer, the Neighborhood Development Co., because of that ugly parking lot, which is owned by the city and leased to the developer.
The developer — surprise — wants to develop it. NDC, as the company is known, won the bid when the city decided the parking lot should be something more. Like a building to house local businesses, the kind to complement the yoga place, bakery and kinetic art shop at the intersection. There was even talk of affordable housing apartments, words that should be ambrosia to this crowd.
That happened in 2014. Then negotiations went back and forth. For years. The fate of this land — just over an acre — has been debated almost as long as the SALT talks. Plans have included a rooftop community space, a cutout for deliveries, housing, retail. The latest features a 72-car underground parking lot, which would devour a wooded hill.
These are the kind of urban, insta-community developments that have been popping up all over D.C. and the nation. The compressed grocery, the underground parking, condos, an eyeglass place, (another) bank and some version of the of-the-moment fitness craze. Yuck.
It’s the kind of urban development I cheered at first but have come to resent. They’re all over D.C., they all look alike, and in each of them, residents had little say. Who has time to fight them all?
Takoma Park is showing everyone how.
“Takoma Park already has an image,” said Karen Elrich, 67, a city matriarch as one of the founders of the co-op. “And it doesn’t include a large, boxed piece of crap.”
In this case, the liberals are conservative.
A good chunk of the 11,000 members of that co-op have been vocal about rejecting each plan the developer has presented, even the images of community-oriented spaces and shops, a rooftop space, a parking garage to fit everyone, a cool, urban-community vibe that’s artsy but contemporary. They were always wary of the city’s plans for the space.
“It takes a lot of time,” said Cynthia Mariel, 69, a resident who is known as the “bulldog” in this fight. “I’m retired and this is what I do now.”
She runs around that parking lot — which is the site of two charity food distribution programs, the town’s Christmas tree sales, Halloween celebrations, pop-up beer gardens — and explains to anyone who will listen that the parking lot is crucial to the co-op.
The store uses the land for parking and, most importantly, for deliveries from 18-wheelers, which cannot safely negotiate the messed-up, fakakta intersection of several streets at weird angles in front of the store without that big turnaround space.
The developer seized on a report issued in March by city manager Suzanne Ludlow that said there have been unsafe deliveries on the parking lot. With that in hand, the company ordered the co-op to stop using the parking lot on safety grounds, essentially evicting it.
Baloney, said the co-op folks.
City officials later said the report was all wrong after the co-op folks went after it, going against their own city manager. A little more than a month later, the city took that report off its website and wrote in its place that the report “is hereby retracted in full and is without effect.”
The co-op’s lawsuit asks for an injunction against the developer, seeking to ensure deliveries can continue.
This has been a mess.
Strongin, the attorney on the scooter, agrees.
“This process is broken,” he said. He should know — he’s a labor arbitrator. “I do dispute resolution for a living.”
And he dislikes the “false binary” that suggests there are only two options — a parking lot or a huge, ugly development. He and so many residents want compromise, like a smaller building that allows a chunk of the parking lot to remain and the co-op to keep operating.
The issue brought more than 300 public comments to Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, where the Takoma Junction project took over a good chunk of the four-hour meeting.
“The divisiveness of this project including, but not limited to, this latest attack on our co-op has caused a rift among Takoma Park residents unlike anything I have experienced in almost 30 years of activism here,” resident Paul Chrostowski said in his comments to the council, which were read out loud. “The wounds are deep and ugly and yet the City has taken no action to heal these wounds and bring people together. . . . Takoma Park’s reputation as a liberal, progressive community forever will be tarnished.”
It’s too easy to make fun of how earnest the activists are over an acre of land — one of the first to be developed in decades here. But that would be missing the point that this — this messy, exhausting, divisive fight — is what democracy looks like.
You keep being you, Takoma Park. You’re showing America how to fight for your beliefs, the right way.
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