Thursday, December 3, 2015

Planning, Or the Lack Thereof

I sent the following letter to Neil Braunstein, the relevant Planning Department staff Planning Coordinator,(neil.braunstein@montgomeryplanning.org) and Casey Anderson, Planning Board chair (mcp-chair@mncppc-mc.org) regarding the proposed Taco Bell with drive-through at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane.  We'll see what Mr. Braunstein recommends, but approval with the condition of removal of the drive-through would be consistent with the stated criteria of evaluation of need provided by the Planning Department.  The Planning Board hearing is January 7, so I assume that Mr. Braunstein is currently preparing his recommendation.

                I am writing to ask that the Planning Board reject the application for a Taco Bell fast food restaurant with drive-through at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane in Takoma Park (Plan #820150150).  This action is well justified given that the proposed development with automobile-oriented drive-through is inconsistent with the adopted Takoma Langley Crossroads Sector Plan and that the traffic-congested Crossroads area is already saturated with an excessive number of fast food restaurants with drive-throughs that contribute to traffic congestion.  This decision is particularly needed by the Montgomery and Prince George’s County communities, given that the Crossroads area has the highest number of pedestrian accidents and fatalities in the state.

The county’s relevant zoning provisions and stated criteria for evaluation of these provisions require rejection of the proposal.  Section 7.3.4.E.3 of the Zoning Ordinance states, “To approve a site plan for a Restaurant with Drive-thru, the Planning Board must also find that a need exists for the proposed use due to an insufficient number of similar uses presently serving existing population concentrations in the County, and the uses at the location proposed will not result in a multiplicity or saturation of similar uses in the same general neighborhood.   Gwen Wright, Director of the Montgomery County Planning Department, has affirmed through letter to the City of Takoma Park regarding this proposal that Planning Department staff and the Planning Board will consider all relevant aspects of saturation of similar uses including traffic conditions and compliance with the standards of adopted development plans.  She wrote on October 16, 2015, “Ensuring that public streets are not overburdened by traffic generated by a proposed drive-thru helps answer the question of a saturation of uses.  Ensuring conformance with the master plan will help answer the question of the sufficiency of the number of existing similar uses and saturation of those uses, by comparing the existing conditions with those envisioned by the master plan’s future land use and urban design goals.”

                The proposed development with automobile-oriented drive-through is thoroughly inconsistent with the area’s Sector Plan, which was approved and adopted by the county in 2012.  The Plan states, “Takoma/Langley Crossroads will be a transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly community that celebrates and builds on the cultural diversity of the Crossroads community. Smart growth and transit-oriented development support the integration of mixed land uses into communities as a critical component of achieving a better place to live. This Plan reduces automobile dependency by locating a mix of uses convenient to homes and adjacent to transit, and by providing alternatives for walking, cycling, and transit within a physical environment that meets the community’s needs” (page 17).  Simply put, an automobile-oriented restaurant with drive-through represents the antithesis of the county’s stated vision of pedestrian- and transit-oriented smart growth development for the area.  As such, the proposal should be rejected.  

                The proposal should also be rejected according to the provided criteria given that a drive-through is inappropriate for the Crossroads area due to existing traffic congestion in the sector.  New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard are already heavily trafficked and densely congested roadways.  Such congestion will only intensify with the imminent construction of the Purple Line along University Boulevard, which will involve the permanent removal of two lanes of automobile traffic.  Allowing another drive-through will only direct more traffic to the area and exacerbate traffic congestion.  Such an outcome is highly undesirable, especially given that the Crossroads area already has the highest levels of pedestrian accidents and fatalities in the state, a situation due in large part to residents who rely on public transportation crossing busy and congested roadways.  Adding another drive-through will only worsen this condition.

                The revised needs analysis submitted by the applicant supports these objections.  It points out that there are already 6 fast food restaurants with drive-throughs on University Boulevard and another 3 on New Hampshire Avenue in the immediate vicinity of the proposed development.   It notes that several of these existing restaurants serve authentic Latin American cuisine, in contrast to the proposed development, in the highly diverse Crossroads area, which has a large Latino population.  The report also repeatedly notes existing problems with traffic flow and congestion caused by the presence and design of automobile drive-throughs at these restaurants.  

The applicant’s proposal is thus inconsistent with the relevant zoning provisions and the stated criteria for their evaluation.  Planning staff has confirmed that compliance with the adopted sector plan and contribution to good traffic flow and safety are essential for approval of the proposal.  The sector plan specifies redevelopment to promote pedestrian- and transit-oriented uses.  Construction of yet another automobile-oriented fast food restaurant with a drive-through would only undermine and delay such much-needed redevelopment.  The applicant’s own analysis has already demonstrated that there is an excess number of restaurants with drive-throughs in the Crossroads area, and the excessively high number of pedestrian accidents and fatalities in the sector attests to the results of this type of automobile-oriented development.  As a result, the Planning Commission should reject the submitted proposal.

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