The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Preservation versus taxidermy in Takoma Park

On the post about dwelling density, Alex B. writes,

The idea of preserving an evolving thing (a city) is somewhat troubling to me. We preserve things that are dead (like animals taken to the taxidermist, for example). Preservation gets caught up in the idea of one sudden snapshot of a city that's suddenly worth preserving - an inaccurate perception, in my mind. All I can think of is little cities (almost as if they were snow globes) encased in jars of formaldehyde.

Cities ought to be alive. I much prefer the term and concept of adaptive re-use. How can we keep the historic elements intact, maintain that connection to the past, and still adapt the structure and the neighborhood to a modern use?

This dynamic is at work in Takoma Park today. Activists there cut their teeth blocking the North Central Freeway, which would have run right through the neighborhood. Then they fought to preserve beautiful Victorian houses from being torn down and replaced with bland, square apartment houses, winning historic districts in both DC and Maryland.

That freeway was worth fighting because it would have created vast expanses of concrete devoid of humanity and ruined the street life. Now, the same activists, "caught up in one snapshot of a city," want to retain the large, bland WMATA parking lot that separates the Metro station from the neighborhood. Where once that parking lot was a lively commercial street, WMATA proposes to build a village green and a few blocks of townhouses without taking away the existing parking or bus loading. That would restore a streets in the area where they once existed. To some, however, townhouses are just as noxious as a 12-lane freeway.

Must we save Takoma Park from this?

Richard Layman writes about the generational difference among activists between those who fought to stabilize their neighborhoods as cities were shrinking, and those who now strive to improve cities as they grow again. The guide who led our tour for WalkingTown DC (a member of the earlier generation) referred to the "small town" feel of the neighborhood, and residents' desire to keep the town small. The City of Takoma Park, Maryland has over 17,000 residents. WMATA wants to build 90 townhouses. Are new residents so undesirable?

Our guide also disputed the value of two-car garages under each townhouse. On that, we agree completely. Transit-oriented townhouses next to a Metro station need one per unit at most; shared spaces and ample Zipcars would be even better. Fewer spaces could alleviate residents' reasonable concerns about heavy traffic. But if residents just oppose more residents, that's neighborhood taxidermy, not preservation.

Below, more photos of Takoma Park from the walking tour.

Formerly the Takoma railroad depot The historic Victorian Takoma railroad depot was torn down. This building now stands in roughly its place.
Cady Lee mansion The Cady Lee mansion. Some plans for the North Central Freeway would have destroyed this building.
Not so historic The houses next to the Cady Lee mansion were not so lucky. These buildings replaced them.
Once a lively street The WMATA parking lot, once a commercial street (the picture she is holding up depicts the original stores).
WMATA parking lot Activists want to keep this parking lot from becoming a village green and 90 townhouses.
Bungalow One of many bungalow-style houses in Takoma and Takoma Park.
Art Deco stores The commercial strip of Old Town Takoma Park, about three blocks from Metro.
CVS still life with cones Between Old Town Takoma Park and the Metro station are a few blocks of generic suburban development, like this non-historic CVS and parking lot. Photo by Susan NYC on Flickr.
David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

Glad you liked my little analogy. :)

by Alex B. on Apr 30, 2008 9:25 am • linkreport

How would shared spaces be of a benefit sometimes its just not viable to use metro or for zipcar. Just because a house or apartment building is right next to metro doesn't mean that your going to take it all the time.

DC is not like the city of new york or seoul, south korea or tokyo, japan where the subway goes just about everywhere within the city borders. There are places in DC where there is no metrorail or metrobus so having garages does have a place.

I can understand the one car garage but for shared spaces that is just stupid. what is the chance of only a small percentage of the people having cars. How many people that you know have no own no cars at all and own a house.

by kk on Apr 30, 2008 5:02 pm • linkreport

I know many people in DC who don't have cars. They get to work by Metro or bus, and visit friends or go out to eat in the same way. They can go shopping downtown, at Friendship Heights, Crystal City, etc. And if they need to buy something big, or load up on groceries, they rent a Zipcar.

For the cost per year of a car, insurance, gas etc. you can rent a Zipcar quite a lot.

Most new development in DC has about 1 space per 2 or 3 apartments. Some people want spaces, other people want to save the money. Putting parking in every single unit is like saying you have to pay extra for a jacuzzi, every single house, no exceptions. Some people want to pay for it, others don't. If every house has a space, then people don't get the choice of deciding to pay less and not get a space.

by David Alpert on Apr 30, 2008 5:09 pm • linkreport

Indeed, KK. Even where I come from (Atlanta) there is a growing carless movement. Now that I live in DC, the number of people who choose to be transit-dependent (or bicycle-dependent/shoe-dependent, etc) is phenomenal.

I think a better way to think about this is bundling. Economists believe that we overbuild parking in America. Most cities and towns have a minimum parking requirement which exceeds that which the market demands.

The solution which is often proposed is called un-bundling. In this case, you buy a parking space separate from your building. The building I live in at present (in suburban Maryland, 7 minutes walking from a Metro station) does this. That way, I don't have to pay for a parking space I won't use (since I am also voluntarily carless), and the developer that built my building can use that real-estate for something more productive.

Believe it or not, shared spaces are the American way. My mom grew up in a mill village in a small town (in fact, the same small town I grew up in). There, several community garages were located throughout the village for residents.

Just because it is a community space doesn't mean that it has to be a far walk. In a community like this proposed development, it is likely that it would be closer than a parking space on-street (since you might not be able to find a space immediately in front of your unit.

So, why don't we let the market decide.

by Matt' on May 1, 2008 11:18 am • linkreport

Developments attract the type of people they build for. I, for example, live near the green line and don't own a car. I'd say of my 10 closest friends only 1 owns a car. Granted we all live in wards 1 and 2 and rarely need them, or if we do we use zipcar.

A little story, this weekend my friends and I were at a bar and chatted up the table next to us. All form far out VA, the closest person lived in Tysons. They were SHOCKED to learn that we didn't own cars, they just couldn't imagine living a life without one. Yet we all moved to DC from other parts of the nation precisely because we wanted to live lives not dependent on highways and cars. I've encountered this mindset before and I think more than anything the kids who grew up in the DC suburbs don't understand just how many places you can easily get to on the Metro.

by Alex on May 1, 2008 12:57 pm • linkreport

How about a link to my site where you got the scan of the 1964 North Central Freeway mis-routing through Takoma Park (and on a longer, far more destructive route then actually needed!)?

by Douglas Willinger on May 3, 2008 1:15 am • linkreport

FYI- that pamphlet was done in late 1964, in response to the ridiculous 1963-64 NCF study, by TP's Sam Abbott who was an extremely talented artist.

See my blog A Trip Within the Beltway for detailed histories of the CF and other DC freeways built and unbuilt.

by Douglas Willinger on May 6, 2008 9:44 pm • linkreport

I too wish to preserve small-town feel but the reality is that we do not live in a small town. Increasing density is the only way to stop urban sprawl. It is also the only way to make it more likely that we'll get more Metro and other public transit options. People who feel inconvenienced by not having a two-car garage will one day feel lucky they made the choice to live there anyway. No one will be able to afford the gas and carbon taxes for extensive automobile commutes, and anything near public transit will be more valuable than ever.

by Allison S. on May 14, 2008 12:40 pm • linkreport

I'm sure that my response will come off as NIMBY, but you know what it is my backyard and not yours and dismissing the concerns of local citizens and government out of hand and failing to give their side of the debate any mention is disingenuous. Marc Fisher pointed out that you normally do a good job of providing the facts and info before offering your opinions instead of railing on one side or the other, you completely fail to do that here.

I don't have any specific numbers available, but it's worth mentioning, as someone who lives around the corner and frequents the metro, that the development will drastically reduce the totally green space and the general openness of the area. Concerned citizens have already forced an upgrade to the development plans and with luck an even better plan will be forthcoming.

Whats more, we have an empty bulldozed lot a block away that had promised new townhouses for the past several years before going belly up in the subprime mess and finally disappearing. How about we fill that empty, ugly, unused space before we go rushing off to destroy open, green, useful space?

I realize that NIMBYism can be problematic but I find it fascinating that folks think its a great idea to ride in on a high horse and tell other people how they should develop their neighborhoods. Changes often look great on paper and in theory and ever the more so when you are veiwing them from afar.

by hcoppola on May 28, 2008 5:05 pm • linkreport

hcoppola: I've been to Takoma Park. The area outside the Metro is ugly and depressing. "The general openness of the area" is a sprawly bunch of driveways and parking lots punctuated by the occasional berm of trees. General openness isn't a virtue in and of itself to maintain; useful open space is, which this plan would create rather than destroy.

by David Alpert on May 28, 2008 5:14 pm • linkreport

Takoma residents have advocated good transit stewardship that should be emulated by WMATA. It is unfair to mischaracterize as NIMBYism opposition to the shortsighted sale of 75% of Takoma Station land to accommodate individual townhouses with space consuming alley systems for two car garages. Takoma residents overwhelmingly have advocated the construction of an efficient apartment building, with shared parking, planned in harmony with the existing transit facilities. The land sale would leave Takoma Station without land for the construction of additional bus bays to accommodate future transit needs. Ironically, WMATA just admitted that its ridership projections have not planned for increased ridership due to gasoline price increases. The transit agency has just begun emergency contingency planning to determine how the system can keep from being overwhelmed by auto users switching to transit.

by Roscoe on Jun 10, 2008 5:25 am • linkreport

Dave- that ugly depressing area (I presume you mean the area from the 711 to the Maryland line and not TP itself) is where the development belongs.

Building on the Takoma WMATA site is a poor value for driving up the costs of any sort of transportation expansion. The following would be more cost effective.

Widen Carroll Avenue on the 711 side to just before the Mason hall, and then on the other side to the Maryland side at the expense of the CVS parking lot. Replace the inefficient single level CVS building with a multistory building akin in scale to TP's lost 1890s era hotels. That would provide several hundred new dwellings within a walkable area that also should have a supermarket to reduce short auto trips.

by Douglas Willinger on Jul 20, 2008 7:07 pm • linkreport

Douglas: We should redevelop that CVS area as well to create a walkable street (like what I understand was historically there). Smart Growth isn't either/or; both sides deserve it. And I agree about a grocery. As you might expect, I don't favor widening Carroll, however.

by David Alpert on Jul 20, 2008 9:02 pm • linkreport

The widening would be entirely at the expense of parking lots- no building loss, and only for the two one block segments between the WMATA Metro area and the Maryland line. IMHO its desperately needed, and would accomplish a goal to bring the street and the CVS building footprint closer.

by Douglas Willinger on Jul 20, 2008 9:56 pm • linkreport

While I am not against a well done project at this site that preserves most of the 3 plus acre park and 1 acre buffer park created by the DC City Counsil in 1973 I think that accurate pictures of the large and mature trees that might be lost should be shown. A picture speaks a thousand words and I see no pictures of the park and buffer park here. Why is that?

by takoma troll on Feb 16, 2009 1:39 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us