Guest Blog: City Council Consultant David Cronrath's Views on the Takoma Junction Site Plan
David Cronrath is the Associate Provost and former Dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland. Mr. Cronrath has been serving as an independent, third-party advisor to the City Council as they consider the site plan design for the Takoma Junction Redevelopment project.
Town building is almost always a difficult task. The possibilities seem endless because the variables to consider are exceedingly numerous as are the wide array of constituents’ concerns. These combine to make the process to arrive at a resolution complicated and, more often than not, unpredictable. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the proposed development at Takoma Junction would foster lively discussions. In fact, the alternatives and discussions is the hallmark of a positive process, even if it is painful at times. What is often at the center of these discussions are different definitions of the problem – differences that arise because of competing visions for the future and often disagreement over the limits of context that define the situation. While I cannot begin to make a calculation of the ideal future, nor unambiguously define the circumstances within which town planning is to be conducted, I can offer an assessment of the proposed design by NDC – pointing out positive features and suggest some considerations that could enhance the proposal.
If one accepts the proposal as a plausible future, then there are several positive features that are noteworthy in the design and resulting townscape it creates. The following are the assets, and some additional opportunities that I see in the physical design:
1. Keeping the new building aligned with the Co-op’s front façade makes for a stronger and mutually reinforcing streetscape for the new retail and the existing Co-op. The Co-op is set back from the curb. Holding this setback for the new development integrates the existing and the new to make a continuous facade that does not make the Co-op feel removed or hidden from its neighbors. This configuration also means a wider pedestrian area where sidewalk seating will not decrease pedestrian flow. With plantings and street furniture the wider space will make a comfortable pedestrian experience, keeping pedestrians closer to shop windows which is more pleasant for them and advantageous to retailers. It is the continuous street façade, albeit of different buildings, that helps make this part of Takoma a positive townscape. Replicating this idea for the Takoma Junction development is a good idea.
2. Providing a canopy overhanging the sidewalk and extending along the length of the proposed development enhances the pedestrian experience by giving a sense of intimacy and protection. Making the height of the canopy match the height of the Co-op building is a strong asset for the new design. Obviously, the canopy provides a dry place to walk during a summer shower, the “eyebrow” also keeps visual interest lower and at a consistent height. This design device further bridges the existing with the proposed while making a pleasant scale when walking along the entire streetscape. If the underside of the canopy were to be lit at night the result would be a well-lit and safe environment without source light bleeding into neighboring properties. Such a lighting strategy would reduce the need for multiple, brightly lit internally illuminated retail signs – making a better pedestrian environment. The canopy is an architectural device to make sure the proposed development is a good neighbor as well as integrating the development into a quality pedestrian experience.
This canopy does not have to align with the first floor ceiling height. It can just as easily skim along the bottom of the second floor window sills.
3. In addition to a wide sidewalk the site design has a deeper set back from the curb at the southern end of the complex. Here the building’s front recedes a bit more to enlarge the public realm and make a space where people can congregate to watch a juggler, hear a musician, or sit watching the world pass. It is an asset to the townscape, but such a place is difficult to correctly design. Set back the retail too far from the pedestrian flow and the store becomes isolated and removed from those walking by, it is a dark recess. If the recess is not set back far enough, the resulting space is gratuitous, under utilized, and accumulates trash and leaves. My judgment is the design team has struck the right balance. When this outdoor expanse is combined with an open retail façade it permits patrons to feel as if they are sitting outside while still inside the confines of the building. The result will further activate the space yet not detract from the mini-plaza’s public nature.
A positive feature is that the mini-plaza is defined on all sides. This will contain the space and discourage children in the space from darting into the access way to the parking garage. The need for a watchful eye is still required, but a careful design on landscaping along the edges will define a pleasant place for activity that is not retail.
4. In recent years designers have presented a wide range of sidewalk fronts for retail that blur inside and outside and make the pedestrian experience richer — garage doors that open the interior to the sidewalk, windows that disappear in nice weather, super clear all-glass storefronts are all part of this vocabulary. These exterior devises make the sidewalk livelier and increase the sense of public activity and social ambience. The proposal has incorporated these window options depending on the nature of the enterprise behind. As the design progresses, and tenants become known, these options need to be preserved.
5. One of the weaker aspects of the proposed design is the current strategy for servicing the new functions. In a townscape that features a positive pedestrian environment it is not odd to have a small walkway off the sidewalk that leads to trash pickup. However, wheeling small dumpsters out to the curb for truck pickup requires considerable on-site management and a consistent clean up to make the public sidewalks respectable. Add the need to retain the food waste from a restaurant and the situation can present additional challenges – like a refrigerated cold box to store waste until pick-up. There may be other strategies, like storage at the end of the ramp to the parking garage that could be explored and might provide an easier alternative. In any case, should other options prove insufficient, it does seem that the current plans will need to expand the service area. No matter what option is finally pursued a well-managed maintenance plan should be incorporated to keep the area neat and tidy for the public.
6. The wooded area at the rear of the site and along Columbia Avenue is being preserved, and if carefully nurtured can serve as a useful buffer to the residences near the site. With modest investment the wooded area can become a habitat for birds and an asset to neighbors. Construction will disrupt some of this area so it is important to replant the area with trees and undergrowth to protect this natural buffer.
7. Placing the parking garage entry at the far western edge of the site and away from the intersection is a good decision – it maximizes the opportunity for cars leaving the garage to make turns and continue on their way. Make no mistake, it will be a challenge for people leaving the garage at rush hour … it’s always a challenge at rush hours at this intersection! However, given the size of the development I do not believe it will add appreciable rush-hour traffic to the intersection of Carroll and Ethan Allen Avenues.
Another advantage to the garage access way is that it permits cars leaving the garage to be on level ground before entering traffic. This is important because it provides the driver better visibility of traffic and pedestrians when exiting. The additional setback in the plan to the east of the garage entry will also make it easier for drivers to see pedestrians. Cars achieving a level ground and drivers having good visibility of the sidewalk when exiting the garage should be guidelines for the design as it moves forward.
The placement of the garage has several other positive design features. Making the parking garage open air to the South will create greater personal safety and security since people in the garage will be less isolated, unlike in a completely underground and buried garage. Having it open across the South is an advantage, providing care is taken during design to offset potential negative features: a) The height of the sill of any opening should be sufficiently high so headlights do not shine directly out. b) A good planting buffer should be maintained between the back of the garage and down the hill to Columbia Avenue. This will also help mitigate noise from the garage. c) The interior lighting in the garage should be indirect and light should be directed at the ceiling rather than the ground. This will mitigate the light from the lamps shining outside the garage through any openings.
8. A loading zone is created at curbside for the proposed development. It is one of the more controversial aspects of the proposal. Of course, curbside loading zones are not out of the ordinary. We see it often in more developed areas that follow early 20th century development patterns. Given the debate I do wonder if the controversy would be as vigilant had the loading zone been set aside for the incidental panel or step truck servicing retail shops? From what I understand, the large tractor-trailer trucks required to service the Co-op has most people concerned. These large trucks require considerable space to maneuver if brought onto the site, and should this alternative be pursued any development of the site is likely either impractical or implausible. There is a trade off calculation that needs to be made here – accept the periodic large truck in the loading zone and a more lively retail development, or keep large truck access to the site.