Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Open Forum: New Hampshire corridor is boulevard of dreams

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by Doug Barry

It has been nearly three years since I last reported on the redevelopment efforts for the New Hampshire Avenue corridor, a populous multicultural raceway that runs from the District border to University Boulevard ("Is a hardscrabble part of Takoma Park ripe for redevelopment?" Dec. 7, 2005). Like last time, I make my observations from a mobile pupuseria.

First, the bad news. Someone removed the plastic green chairs, leaving we community busy bodies to digest the cuisine and discuss traffic flows not only al fresco but standing up. No matter; there's plenty of good news.

Recent but still inadequate sidewalk improvements give the area's abundant public transit patrons sufficient space to wait for and safely board their buses. Gone are the piles of rubble where the more able-bodied passengers once teetered, trying to avoid falling into oncoming traffic.

Inexpensive additions such as trash cans at bus stops have reduced litter. An anti-shabby campaign begins soon with the help of state grants awarded to the city of Takoma Park. Sprucing up business facades should attract more patrons to small businesses that previously gave very literal meaning to the term hole-in-the-wall. Chairs are mostly provided.

There are still too many empty and dilapidated commercial properties in the area, bracketed by gas stations and mini strip malls. But new businesses are coming and the place remains a bargain for developers who are good at spotting diamonds in the rough and can see beyond the current slump.

The corridor and nearby environs host clusters of business and residential areas looking for a transportation and design solution that will stitch them together into a coherent whole. This solution is now in sight, centered in the Langley Park-Takoma Park crossroads, and propelled by three main drivers.

Toward a sense of place

First is the sector plan, now in development, which includes planners from the state, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and the city of Takoma Park who have locked themselves in a room, spinning out design options until construction begins, hopefully before 2012. The visioning underway now, including plenty of community input, is sprinkled with green spaces, Mexican-style zocolas or public squares, Spanish-style ramblas dotted with ethnic food restaurants, places to stroll, and places made convenient to encounter those different from yourself. This is a radical and welcome departure for a place that is less a community than a victim of car-enforced segregation.

Second is the proposed Purple Line that will zip people from east to west connecting together the area's mini centers and potentially bringing in new development.

We recently pitched the Crossroads to a University of Maryland official who helps lead the College Park campus's effort to expand research and community development efforts. Whether light rail or dedicated lane express bus, the state of Maryland has dedicated $100 million for planning.

The third driver is a transit center to provide shelter and safety to our bus dependent population and link to the Purple Line, which will have a station at the Crossroads. The sector plan assumes a central role for these transit facilities in creating the mélange of color and vitality that one day could be Maryland's most enviable example of the power of dreaming.

Will it actually happen?

To build the transit center and improve traffic around and pedestrian access to it, the state must acquire the property on which presently sits a franchise restaurant in a shopping center. The owner so far refuses to sell, setting up a protracted battle that may end with the state forcing the owner out — possibly years down the road.

I'm a nobody who enjoys eating pupusas outdoors. But as a resident of the area, I call upon the owner to "Think outside the bun," accept the state's reasonable offer, and relocate your restaurant to another fine parcel in the corridor (I'll help you find one). I'll even propose that the new transit center be named after you. And many, many people will thank you — in the 42 languages spoken here.

Doug Barry is a Takoma Park City Council member and mayor pro tem.