Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Bradley Heard

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George's County. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Brad spent most of his adult life in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Prince George's County in 2007. Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 

Prince George's zombie subdivisions need to die

Prince George's County has a backlog of suburban-style subdivisions that were approved for construction years ago, but never built. Now, the county faces a choice: Let those projects live on and sap up demand, or cancel them so more urban developments can rise.

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr.

Ever since 2009, the Prince George's County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George's, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway.

Instead of extending them for two more years, through the end of 2017, it's time for the council to give up the ghost on these long-dead projects.

Zombie projects are clogging the county's pipeline

About 80% of the development projects approved but not yet constructed in Prince George's County are low-density single-family homes. Over 13,000 of them are planned for outside of the Beltway, away from transit. This chart from 2011 shows just how widely spread out these projects are:

Image from M-NCPPC.

But the county already has more single-family units than it knows what to do with, and developers seemingly haven't found it to be in their financial interest to pursue more of these projects for years.

Everyone but the council seems to realize these projects are effectively dead. It simply makes no sense to keep trying to bring these zombie projects back to life.

County planners have already concluded that such scattered sprawl development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it "difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan."

Moreover, the county's continued lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."

When approving the current General Plan last year, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude that the county actually had "too many" Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

But if the council would instead allow these old projects to die a natural death, developers and planners could reorient their efforts to smarter projects. Even if the market later shows there's still demand for single family homes, starting over would give officials a chance to design them with more walkable streets.

Ideally, the county could direct some much-needed attention towards its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near DC.

The council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. If the committee votes to favorably recommend the bill, the full council will then consider it at a later date.

Residents can attend the PZED meeting in person, or submit written comments. Use this link to address comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Prince George's is way behind on smart growth. Courts are helping it catch up.

For decades, Prince George's County has seen less commercial and high-density residential development than its peers in Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax, particularly around its 15 Metro stations. That could begin to change now that Maryland's highest court has smoothed the path for new development there.

Maryland court image from Shutterstock.

In a game-changing decision last month, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the Prince George's County Council cannot deny approval of new development projects after the county's planning board approves them, except in extreme circumstances.

Previously, the council's ability to overrule planning board decisions made it nearly impossible to predict which developments might ultimately win approval, and which might never see the light of day.

With such uncertainty hanging over every proposal, developers stayed away. Now, with much less threat of a last-minute council veto, developers may become more likely to build quality projects in Prince George's.

Details of the court case

The court ruling states the council cannot overrule decisions of the planning board in development review matters unless those decisions lacked supporting evidence or were otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

Maryland law gives the Prince George's County Planning Board broad authority to review and either approve or deny development proposals.

The county council, on the other hand, has more discrete, but nevertheless significant, powers under state law when it comes to development. It appoints members of the planning board, sets zoning, and rules on appeals from the planning board. But the council cannot, according to this court ruling, overrule the board's decisions on individual development cases, unless the board committed some sort of legal error.

Before this decision, the county council always purported to exercise "original jurisdiction" when it reviewed the planning board's decisions. This allowed the council to decide cases however it wanted, as long as there was evidence to support their decision.

The court, however, said that approach was incorrect. The county council does not have original jurisdiction. Rather, like an appeals court, the county council only has "appellate jurisdiction," meaning it has to assume the planning board's decision was correct, unless the board's decision was legally wrong or wholly lacked evidence.

In other words, the council can no longer simply take development review into its own hands and overrule the planning board's judgment whenever it wants.

Importantly, the court's decision does not eliminate public input from the process. The public still has a full right to argue before the planning board, and can still appeal to the council and then to the courts if they are aggrieved by the board's decision. However, appeals must be based on a legal error, not simple opposition to the project.

The CVS that started it all

This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a CVS in Adelphi.

A CVS. Not the one in Adelphi. Photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

The case began in 2004, when the county rezoned the property to allow retail. In 2011, a developer submitted a site plan for the CVS. The planning board approved the site plan, saying it met the rules of the retail zone.

No one appealed the planning board's decision, so everything seemed a go. Until the county council called up the case. They wanted changes, so they sent it back to the planning board with instructions to reconsider a few issues.

In 2012, the planning board approved the site plan again, this time with a few modifications in response to the council's requests. Again, no one appealed.

But once again, the council called up the case for review. This time, they denied the application altogether, after the council member in whose district the property lay spoke against it.

The council listed 14 reasons for its denial, none of which related to the original issues the council had first raised in its 2011 call up.

The developer sued, and three successive courts found the county council in the wrong.

A win for smart growth

A suburban-style CVS in Adelphi may not be the kind of development smart growth advocates usually hope for. But this case will ultimately make approval of genuine smart growth projects easier, by reducing the role of politics in development review.

Bottom line: No longer will developers have to work for years on a seemingly-approvable project, only to have the council yank the floor out from beneath them at the eleventh hour. Rather than leaving development up to the political whims of the county council, this court decision will hopefully allow objective law to rule Prince George's County development review.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to raise real property tax rates by 16% to increase funding to public schools. The real way to boost Prince George's economy is to develop around its gateway Metro stations near the DC line.

The area around the Capitol Heights Metro station is underdeveloped. Image from WMATA.

Prince George's is home to the lowest median home values and highest property tax rates in the region, largely because of the low home values in its older, deteriorating communities that border the District of Columbia. Seven of the county's 15 Metrorail stations are in these gateway neighborhoods, but they all are devoid of any substantial transit-oriented development (TOD).

Improving existing home values will strengthen the tax base

Like many other suburbs, Prince George's County has historically been a bedroom community. The county's largest source of tax revenue comes from real property taxes, and 61% of taxable real estate is residential property.

It stands to reason, then, that even small increases in existing home values in the county would go a long way to raise revenues even without any major large-scale development.

Currently, median home values in the five Prince George's county subdivision areas bordering the District of Columbia fall 10-31% below the countywide median value of $269,800. If existing home values in these areas simply rose to that level, the county's taxable real estate base would increase by approximately $2.47 billion. That would add approximately $23.7 million annually in revenue to the county.

Of course, if the county got serious about developing the seven Metro stations located in these struggling communities (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and West Hyattsville), real property revenues would soar much higher than the median.

Undeveloped transit station areas undermine economic growth

Shockingly, Prince George's current General Plan doesn't recommend any substantial growth around six of the seven Metro stations near the DC border over the next 20 years. (The Suitland station, next to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the exception.) Indeed, the county's planners believe there are currently "too many" Metro stations in the county and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

More specifically, planners say that the six gateway Metro stations bordering DC, plus the four stand-alone MARC stations, plus all the planned stand-alone Purple Line stations should only account for 15% of the county's future growth in the next 20 years. That equates to fewer than 600 new housing units per transit station.

By contrast, the General Plan recommends putting 30-40% of the county's projected growth and development over the next 20 years—or up to 25,000 new housing units—far away from transit and mostly outside of the Beltway. This recommendation appears despite county-funded research that concludes that failing to focus on TOD puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors."

Prince George's has continually squandered opportunities to focus its attention on revitalizing its neighborhoods inside the Beltway. Continuing to encourage scattered development away from transit has crippled the county financially, environmentally, and aesthetically.

Gateway communities can't wait 20 more years to redevelop

The close-in Prince George's neighborhoods and Metro station areas near the DC line are likely the first thing the region's current and prospective residents think about when determining whether they would like to live and work in the county.

Until Prince George's County improves its gateway neighborhoods, it will be difficult for it to attract the region's best and brightest. The county can't wait another 20 years for that transformation to happen.

County executive Baker is rightly concerned with diversifying the county's revenue base, creating more jobs, and expanding the county's commercial tax base. To that end, he has advocated strongly for developing the end-of-line Metro stations at the Beltway's edge.

For example, he's called for the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt Metro, for the state housing agency to relocate to New Carrollton Metro, and for a new regional medical center to come to Largo Town Center.

Likewise, the General Plan's strategy to direct 50% of future growth to the seven largest Metro stations (including the three mentioned above) plus National Harbor, and to create three "downtowns" at Largo, New Carrollton, and Prince George's Plaza, is sensible.

Still, the county's economic development strategy should also reach beyond downtown, and deeper inside the Beltway, to the neighborhood Metro stations near the District's edge. Most of the new development that the General Plan currently contemplates for outer-Beltway suburbia should instead go toward these gateway areas.

Prince George's County cannot simply tax itself out of last place in the region. Instead, its leaders need to become better stewards of the public's trust and the public's resources. The county's transit-rich gateway neighborhoods are economic engines ready and waiting to be fired up, but county leaders have to ignite the switch.

Prince George's must get serious about revitalizing its old streetcar suburbs. These vital neighborhoods can't be left to languish for another generation.

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

Prince George's adopts "Sprawl Plan 2035" over community objections

It was supposed to be different this time. Prince George's County's new general plan was supposed to embrace a bold new vision for a more sustainable and transit-oriented growth strategy. Instead, the county chose to cling to its old, failed approach of mouthing platitudes of support for walkable urban development around transit while actively facilitating suburban sprawl far from transit.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County residents and smart growth advocates feared this when planners released a draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the updated countywide comprehensive plan for long-term growth and development, last fall. The draft placed too much emphasis on sprawl.

It ignored the revitalization needs of most inner-Beltway communities and downplayed neighborhood Metro stations. At the same time, the preliminary plan supported massive greenfield development outside the Beltway—both at mixed-use "suburban centers" like Konterra and Westphalia, and also in scattered single-family residential subdivisions.

Each subsequent revision of the plan only made matters worse. When the Planning Board adopted its version of the plan in March, it added hundreds of acres to the exiting suburban Bowie Regional Center, which was already too disconnected from transit.

Likewise, when the County Council approved its version of the general plan earlier this month, it removed hundreds of additional acres of woodlands from the rural preservation area and placed them into the "established communities" area, making them eligible for further sprawl development. The council also added language specifically endorsing automobile-oriented suburban "town centers," stating they "help[ed] fulfill countywide goals."

Planners and council members rebuffed calls for TOD fixes to plan

When planners held their first town hall meeting about Plan Prince George's last June, they appeared committed to a strategy of picking 3 Metro station areas as "downtowns" and focusing most of their energies at those stations.

But when the preliminary plan draft finally emerged, it did not seriously put weight behind directing more growth to those downtowns and less to areas far from transit.

When the preliminary draft plan went before the Planning Board for review in March, more than 100 citizens and public officials from across the county signed a petition urging county officials to reconsider the land use priorities in the preliminary plan.

Among the petition's signatories were Maryland State Senator Joanne Benson, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant, Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, and a host of civic leaders representing all 9 council districts. The Planning Board ignored these pleas and forwarded its sprawl-enhanced version of the plan to the County Council for approval on March 6.

Led by council members Ingrid Turner (District 4) and Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), the County Council chose to maintain the build-anywhere-you-want culture that has left the county with the least-developed and least-profitable Metro station areas in the region. The lone dissenter was outgoing District 3 council member Eric Olson.

In the end, Plan Prince George's 2035 embodies the same undisciplined, sprawl-centered approach that planners cautioned against. While the plan says many good things about why the county should focus on developing its transit stations and reinvigorating its older communities, it ultimately allows and encourages uncontrolled growth away from transit and outside the Beltway. As such, it does not improve much upon the previous 2002 general plan.

Fortunately, the county does not have to wait another decade to right this wrong. Any future master plan or small-area sector plan can amend the general plan as it relates to that specific planning area. But to realize that opportunity, the county needs council members who are serious about focusing on smart growth.

A version of this post originally appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Prince George's new general plan places too much emphasis on sprawl

Last year, Prince George's County planners kicked off a bold effort to revise its general plan and direct most future growth to transit stations inside the Beltway. But a continuing focus on sprawling suburban development on the county's fringes could thwart those worthy goals.

Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

The Planning Department has been working on "Plan Prince George's 2035," an update of the county's blueprint for long-term growth and development. It proposes directing most growth to a few "downtown" areas at major Metro stations inside the Beltway. Planners stressed the need to revitalize older communities and preserve natural resources.

Throughout the process, planners urged the county to be "bold and forward thinking" and to reject the "business as usual" approach of supporting sprawl development. But the County Executive's and County Council's continuing enthusiasm for big greenfield developments like Westphalia and Konterra, will only continue this pattern by directing growth away from downtowns.

Preliminary draft plan reflects council's desire for more "business as usual"

The preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, released in September, is graphically impressive and chock-full of data. Planners have spent the past several weeks reviewing, digesting, and responding to public comments received in November and December.

In many ways, the preliminary draft plan lays out the right overall vision and framework for how the county should "live, work, and sustain" over the next 20 years. It says that 50% of the county's growth should go to one of eight "Regional Transit Centers": Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, Prince George's Plaza, Branch Avenue, College Park, Greenbelt, Suitland, and National Harbor. Of these, only National Harbor is not Metro-accessible, and all of these areas are either inside or adjacent to the Beltway.

In many other ways, however, Plan Prince George's 2035 is at odds with the planners' stated vision. It's too permissive of allowing growth to continue in the sprawling areas of the county that lie outside the Beltway and away from transit. Inside the Beltway, the preliminary plan misses the mark in identifying existing neighborhoods most in need of capital investments to catalyze revitalization and redevelopment.

Photo by Magnus D on Flickr.

New "Suburban Centers" and sprawling subdivisions away from transit encourage growth in the wrong places

The plan identifies five "suburban centers," all located outside the Beltway and away from transit: Bowie, Brandywine, Landover Gateway, Westphalia, and Konterra. Planners envision that these centers will be "larger in size" than development around Metro stations and will "rely more on vehicular transportation."

According to the plan, 6,300 new homes should be built in these areas, representing 10% of the county's growth over the next 20 years. But Konterra and Westphalia alone are already approved for 9,500 homes, or 15% of the county's projected growth. Add the approved and planned development at Woodmore Towne Centre and the old Landover Mall (both at Landover Gateway), as well as Bowie and Brandwine, and Suburban Centers could easily be responsible for more than 20% of Prince George's projected future growth.

County planners may have felt they had to include the suburban centers because they're already reflected in existing master plans. Additionally, County Executive Rushern Baker and many County Council members continue to vigorously support growth and development in these areas. But the point of the General Plan is to provide a blueprint for the county's future growth, not to ratify the bad growth decisions of the past.

The preliminary plan also recommends directing another 20% of the county's growth to so-called "Established Communities," which refers to every place in the county that's eligible for public water and sewer connections. But such an overarching designation, which includes many areas that are currently undeveloped, turns the whole concept of "established" on its head and does virtually nothing to control sprawl.

Last fall, the County Council extended the validity periods for several previously approved but still-unbuilt projects dating to before the housing bust. Eighty percent of those projects are for single-family subdivisions in undeveloped areas outside the Beltway.

With the "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," as contemplated in the preliminary plan, over 40% of the county's projected growth will occur in outer-Beltway suburbia, away from transit. This can hardly be the "bold" direction that planners originally envisioned.

Plan doesn't direct enough resources for inside-the-Beltway communities

In contrast to the massive growth planned for "Suburban Centers" and "Established Communities," the draft plan only anticipates 15% of the county's growth going to the 20 Metro, MARC, Purple Line, and other transit stations inside the Beltway that are designated as local transit, neighborhood, or campus centers. There's little mention in the plan of public funds for capital improvements, like new streets or public facilities, and other catalytic investment in these areas, meaning even that tiny amount of growth is not likely to materialize.

The draft plan focuses its "Neighborhood Reinvestment Area" priorities solely on the six neighborhoods that County Executive Baker designated in his 2012 Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) program, which provides educational, public health and safety resources to communities particularly plagued by crime.

In her public testimony, Lillie Thompson-Martin, mayor of the town of Fairmount Heights, rightly criticized the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 for "starving the older established communities," refusing them any meaningful revitalization assistance.

State-designated revitalization opportunity areas like this, across from the Addison Road Metro Station, get little attention in Plan Prince George's 2035. Image from Google Earth.

A better approach would have the plan focus on those areas that county and state economic development officials have already identified as most in need of revitalization. Maryland has designated several Prince George's communities as either a Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone. This would encompass most of the inner-Beltway Metro station areas designated as Local Transit Centers or Neighborhood Centers, like West Hyattsville and Addison Road, and many other older communities, like Brentwood, Mount Rainier, and Capitol Heights.

Tell Prince George's it's time to change directions

Although the public comment period has passed, the final draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 has not yet been adopted. The Planning Board and the County Council still have to meet and vote to adopt the final plan.

If you believe that Prince George's needs to make developing our Metro stations and revitalizing inside-the-Beltway communities a priority, you should write to them and urge them to hold another public hearing. For the Planning Board, send your emails to the Public Affairs Department, with copies to Planning Director Fern Piret and Deputy Planning Director Al Dobbins.

For the County Council, send your emails to Council Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to the Clerk of the Council and Ingrid Turner, chair of the council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development committee.

Cross-posted on Prince George's Urbanist.

Speak up

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Street:    City/state:

To:Public Affairs Department, Prince George's Planning Board
Mel Franklin, Chair, Prince George's County Council
Cc:Firn Piret, Planning Director, Prince George's Planning Board
Al Dobbins, Deputy Planning Director, Prince George's Planning Board
Ingrid Turner, Prince George's County Council
Clerk of the Council, Prince George's County Council


Enter your comments here:

TOD in Prince George's can reduce pressure on Metro

Development around Metro is putting pressure on the transit system, especially on the region's west side. Building around Prince George's County's 15 underused Metro stations could help bring Metro into balance, but only if county leaders are willing to do it.

Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

In a recent Washington Post article, Jonathan O'Connell details how a flurry of new office and apartment development is causing congestion on the Red and Orange Lines and in the Rosslyn tunnel. While Metro is planning $6 billion worth of system upgrades, that won't completely solve the problem.

What needs to happen, says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is that Prince George's needs to step up to the plate and start developing its 15 Metro stations. Today, Metro has to "run largely empty trains to those stations in the mornings and back from them in the evenings." By attracting large employers like the FBI to the county's Metro stations, Metro can fill those seats, increasing fare revenue and easing congestion.

O'Connell notes that there is exceedingly low demand in the DC area for office and multifamily residential development in locations far from Metro. There are at least 25 "major apartment projects" being built near Metro stations right now, and approximately 84% of the 5.5 million square feet of office development currently under construction in the region is within a five-minute walk of Metro. Nearly all of that TOD is occurring outside of Prince George's County.

By focusing major office and residential development at its Metro stations, Prince George's County has a huge opportunity to help restore balance to the regional transportation network, dramatically increase its tax base, and improve the overall quality of life for its residents. But to realize this opportunity, the county must put the kibosh on sprawling edge city developments like the proposed Westphalia Town Center. How can we make this happen?

The county is currently updating its comprehensive General Plan, which defines its long-range policies for guiding future growth and development. The preliminary draft of that plan recommends a divided growth strategy that relies both on transit-oriented development at Metro, MARC, and future Purple Line stations, and automobile-oriented development inside and outside of the Beltway.

Of particular concern is that the draft plan contemplates additional automobile-oriented mixed-use development at existing outer-Beltway locations like Bowie and Brandywine, as well as at new suburban greenflied sites like Konterra and Westphalia. None of these locations is connected to transit. As Jonathan O'Connell explains, such a drivable suburban growth strategy doesn't make sense for Prince George's County or for Metro.

By adding mixed-use neighborhoods to inside-the-Beltway stations in Prince George's, Kirby says Metro can "sell the same seat twice." For example, let's assume that the new regional medical center comes to Largo Town Center, as expected.

Now-empty trains headed to Largo could instead fill with hospital workers; when they get off, commuters heading into DC could take their place. And if Prince George's were to build another mixed-use center at a closer-in Blue Line station, such as Capitol Heights or Addison Road, Metro could earn revenue from a commuter coming from Potomac Avenue or Benning Road, and also from a different commuter going out to the medical center in Largo.

Such a coordinated growth strategy is far cheaper, more sustainable, and frankly more realistic, than building new Metro stations to reach the new sprawl. Yet, Prince George's County stubbornly clings to its sprawl past. I continue to believe that the county's leaders can change their ways if they pay attention to and learn lessons from other jurisdictions that have successfully implemented TOD. But the county's actions over the past few weeks suggest that they simply lack the political will or courage to change.

Short of "voting the bums out" of office, what strategies would you use to get Prince George's current leadership to make the dramatic shift from sprawl to TOD?

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

Four lessons Prince George's County can learn from Atlanta

Prince George's County has stubbornly stuck with sprawl, preferring development outside the Beltway and away from transit. Could it learn a new way to grow from Atlanta, which is swiftly metamorphosing from "Sprawlanta" to new urban paradise?

Photo by beardenb on Flickr.

A recent study from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger finds that most of metropolitan Atlanta's growth now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. Close-in walkable neighborhoods, especially those near rail stations, are now home to 60% of Atlanta's office, retail, apartment, and institutional development.

But how did Atlanta get there, and how could Prince George's do the same? By creating plans and sticking to them, coordinating people and resources, making the case for smart growth to developers, and embracing the possibilities.

Talk is cheap, actions matter

In Atlanta, city officials are fully committed to carrying out a bold vision for transit-oriented development. It centers around the Atlanta Beltline, a comprehensive revitalization effort that will turn a 22-mile historic and virtually abandoned railroad corridor surrounding the city into a network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit. In addition, the city has partnered with MARTA, the regional transit agency, to redevelop more of the areas around existing transit stations and also to augment regional rail transit with local streetcar and bus routes.

As Cheryl Cort discusses in her review of M-NCPPC's Where and How We Grow policy paper, Prince George's County lacks a unified vision and growth policy. While county officials talk a great deal in the abstract about the need to focus on TOD and Metro station development, their actions reveal that they have very little understanding of or concern for what it would take to do so.

M-NCPPC staff is in the process of revising the county's General Plan, the official road map that is supposed to guide the county's growth and development through 2035. However, it remains to be seen whether the County Executive and County Council will actually commit themselves to carrying that vision forward, instead of just paying lip service to it.

Proper coordination of personnel and resources is essential

In Atlanta, the planning, building, and housing offices are organized within one department, Planning and Community Development, with a single commissioner. The commissioner's office provides leadership, policy direction, and centralized staff support for all three offices. A single quasi-independent development authority, Invest Atlanta, promotes the revitalization and growth of the city and serves as the city's economic development agency.

The staff of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Photo from the agency's website.

Invest Atlanta created a separate entity to implement the Atlanta Beltline vision called Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Atlanta's mayor and appointees from the city council, city school board, and Invest Atlanta serve on its board. These organizations and offices coordinate extensively with the public.

In Prince George's County, it's unclear who is responsible for developing and carrying out any TOD priorities. The planning, redevelopment, housing, and economic development functions are scattered across various independent agencies, including M-NCPPC, Economic Development Authority, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Authority, and the Revenue Authority, each of which has a separate board of directors.

Two different division heads within the county executive's office interact with these agencies. None of the agencies have any meaningful engagement with the public, except for M-NCPPC, the bi-county planning agency established by state law.

Encourage the development community to embrace smart growth

In Atlanta, city officials appear to have leveraged their good working relationships with the development and real estate communities such that they have become willing partners in the city's smart growth transformation. Take a look at Mariwyn Evans' fascinating account of how the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors (ACBR) worked to educate its fellow members and community leaders about the benefits of transit-oriented development, and also to promote smart growth as one of its top legislative priorities.

Plans for TOD at a MARTA station. Image from the City of Atlanta.

ACBR even helped create an extensive redevelopment action plan for the Edgewood-Candler Park MARTA Station, which is located in an older, formerly distressed neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Both before and after the plan's creation, ACBR worked with city, MARTA officials, and community groups to ensure that the plan would become a reality.

MARTA, in turn, worked with a developer to acquire and develop the Edgewood-Candler Park station in a public-private partnership. Once the new development is finally built, ACBR's members will again play an integral role by brokering the various leasing deals.

Unfortunately, Prince George's County has a long and tortured history of corruption that discourages many good and honest developers from doing business in the county. Additionally, the county's development review process is overly-politicized as a result of the council's discretionary "call-up" procedure, which allows the council to delay or demand changes to projects previously approved by M-NCPPC.

These hindrances make it cost-prohibitive and otherwise undesirable for reputable developers and real estate professionals to bring quality transit-oriented projects to the county. Instead, developers pursue the easiest, cheapest option: greenfield sprawl development.

Embrace the possibilities!

The biggest lesson that Prince George's County should learn from Atlanta is that it is possible within a relatively short amount of time to effect fundamental change in the county's growth and land use policy. And that can change the way ordinary citizens, political leaders, developers, and real estate professionals alike see the future of their communities.

Prince George's County's political leaders can decide that they are going to embrace and follow a true smart growth strategy. They can decide to reorganize the various agencies and departments in a way that maximizes accountability and unity of vision and purpose.

County leaders can decide to stop funding, focusing on, and advocating for suburban sprawl projects. They can decide to invest heavily in the revitalization of the county's established, economically distressed inner-Beltway communities, so that they can become more attractive to prospective residents and economically viable to prospective developers and retailers. That includes improving the county's public schools as well.

Revitalization areas along Metro's Blue Line in Prince George's County. Image from M-NCPPC.

Prince George's can take meaningful steps to cultivate positive relationships with the development and real estate communities. This includes de-politicizing and eliminating any appearances of impropriety, unfair dealing, and corruption in the development review process.

In the current climate, it's hard to imagine the Prince George's County Association of Realtors or the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association taking an active role in facilitating TOD in the county. Indeed, as demonstrated just a few days ago, these organizations frequently are among the fiercest advocates of maintaining the suburban sprawl status quo. Yet, the example of ACBR in Atlanta illustrates that such a collaborative, pro-smart growth approach is possible.

Like Atlanta, Prince George's County has all the building blocks necessary to develop thriving, transit-oriented, and sustainable walkable urban places that could rival any other jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region. The only thing the county has to fear is itself.

Will Prince George's County's leaders be bold enough to embrace a new way, or will they continue with business as usual? Will the county's citizens demand accountability from their leaders, or will they continue to elect and reelect individuals who are committed to replicating yesterday's vision of the county as a sprawling bedroom community?

The answers to these questions will determine the county's fate for the next generation.

Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.

Could Atlanta teach Prince George's about smart growth?

Once known for sprawl, Atlanta has become a bastion of smart growth and transit-oriented development. In our region, it could be a model for Prince George's County, which struggles with the same issues.

Photo by Counse on Flickr.

New research from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger reveals that most of the Atlanta region's office, retail, and rental residential construction now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. The study, The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta, is a follow-up to previous research of the DC area and reveals several fascinating facts about Atlanta's development landscape during the most recent real estate cycle, from 2009 to the present.

Leinberger, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission, said it was as significant as the announcement of the closing of the American frontier after the 1890 census. "This is indicative that we're seeing the end of sprawl," he declared.

The study generally follows the same methodology as the DC study, and found similar results. Like in the DC area, Metropolitan Atlanta's 36 established and emerging WalkUPs are located on less than one percent of the region's total land area. 29 of them are located within the I-285 Perimeter, Atlanta's version of the Capital Beltway. And they're 16 times more densely developed than the rest of the region, in terms of gross floor area ratio (FAR).

More than 60% of the Atlanta region's income-producing property, which includes office, apartment, retail, institutional, and all other non-for-sale real estate, is located in the 36 WalkUPs. Meanwhile, 73% of the development in established WalkUPs and 85% of the development in emerging WalkUPs occurred near MARTA rail stations, the region's transit authority.

Multifamily rental housing drove real estate growth in established WalkUPs, which captured 88% of the region's multifamily units. And established WalkUPs are home to 50% of the Atlanta region's newly constructed office space.

Leinberger describes the Washington and Atlanta metropolitan areas as "peas in a pod" and "as comparable as any two large metropolitan areas in the country," in terms of population, character, development form, traffic, rail transit, and status as government and regional capitals.

Prince George's today looks like Atlanta yesterday

As comparable as the Washington region may be to metropolitan Atlanta, Prince George's County most resembles Atlanta in its sprawling past. The county has just three of the region's WalkUPs, even though it has 15 Metrorail stations, more than any other suburban jurisdiction.

Blighted conditions at Prince George's Addison Road Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) reports that over the past decade, more than 60% of Prince George's non-residential, income-producing development has occurred outside of the Beltway, in automobile-oriented locations far away from transit.

Additionally, nearly 80% of the approved-but-unbuilt residential development in Prince George's County consists of single-family homes planned for automobile-oriented outer-Beltway suburbia. Only 11% of the nearly 17,000 housing units in the pipeline are of multifamily homes, and only one-third of those, or 616 units, are planned for inside the Beltway.

Rather than revitalizing and developing around Metro stations and inside the Beltway, Prince George's County prefers to tout greenfield edge cities like Westphalia, or to promote elaborate automobile-oriented venues like a proposed billion dollar Bellagio-style casino or a Tanger Outlets center. M-NCPPC has long warned that unless the county reverses course, it will be ill-equipped to handle future market demand and get left behind.

Glimmers of hope for smarter growth

That's not to say that there aren't occasionally glimmers of hope for smarter growth in Prince George's. In recent months, the county has voiced support for two significant proposed transit-oriented developments: a new regional hospital at Largo Town Center and an FBI headquarters building at Greenbelt. Unfortunately, the county's overall approach to TOD tends to be unfocused and haphazard.

Additionally, as M-NCPPC has noted, the county's occasional TOD successes are vastly overshadowed and undermined by its continued support of massive sprawl projects, which thwart the county's ability to concentrate growth in the right places. It is the proverbial problem of "one step forward, two steps back."

There are lots of local examples of how Prince George's could grow differently, notably Arlington County, which has become a national model for how to embrace TOD. But Atlanta's burgeoning TOD transformation may hold even better lessons for the county. In my next post, I will talk about what Prince George's could learn from them.

This article is cross-posted on Prince George's Urbanist.

Prince George's doubles down on sprawl

Prince George's County has a backlog of approved, but unbuilt sprawl developments that will soon expire. Planners recommended cutting that backlog, because homebuyers increasingly prefer more compact types of housing near transit. But a council committee recommended letting the sprawl get built anyway.

Photo by FadderUri on Flickr.

80% of the approved residential development in Prince George's pipeline consists of low-density single-family homes outside of the Beltway and far from transit. Project approvals normally expire after 3 years, but lawmakers extended these validity periods several times during the housing bust. Last week, the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) committee recommended moving these deadlines back for another two years.

County planners warn that this is the wrong type of development, in the wrong place, and that it puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors." They urged lawmakers to recalibrate county development priorities to focus on compact, mixed-use development near transit. Sadly, county council members weren't listening.

Developers lobby for more time to build

As originally drafted, bills CB-70 and CB-71 would have granted only a one-year extension to unbuilt projects approved as far back as January 2003. But the bills' sponsor, Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis, whose district includes suburbanizing communities like Westphalia, moved to amend the bills to grant a two-year extension to those projects, making them valid until December 31, 2015.

While the Coalition for Smarter Growth and I submitted written comments in opposition to the bills, it's likely that Davis was responding to the parade of developers' representatives who showed up to last week's PZED committee meeting to testify in favor of the bills. According to the committee minutes, seven developer attorneys testified, including Thomas Haller, Larry Taub, Norman Rivera, Ed Gibbs, André Gingles, Mike Nagy, and Chris Hatcher. Two lobbyists from the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, Marcus Jackson and Kenneth Dunn, testified as well.

Gingles, one of the attorneys, raised eyebrows this past December by suggesting that council member Eric Olson, who was in line to become the next council chair, was "too Arlington" for Prince George's County. And one of the lobbyists, Marcus Jackson, was a longtime legislative liaison for disgraced former county executive Jack Johnson, as well as a former policy analyst to District 8 council member Obie Patterson.

Ultimately, 4 of the 5 PZED committee members voted in favor of Davis's amended bills: committee chair Mel Franklin (District 9), vice chair Karen Toles (District 7), council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5), and council vice chair Obie Patterson (District 8). The committee's lone dissenting vote was from council member Eric Olson (District 3), who expressed concern that the legislation did not provide any incentive for developers to move forward with their projects.

Alternative bill would place requirements on extension

Olson proposed an alternative bill, CB-75, which would grant an extension of not more than 6 months to any dormant project that applies for and obtains required grading or building permits prior to the expiration of the existing validity period. The 6-month period would run from the date the building or grading permit is issued. The PZED Committee voted unanimously to forward this bill to the full council.

As currently drafted, Olson's bill does not have a sunset provision. Instead, it sets up a new procedure where developers could obtain an automatic 6-month extension of site plan validity periods for any project that is able to obtain a building or grading period prior to the expiration of its then-current validity period. Olson believes this new procedure will properly incentivize serious developers to keep their projects on schedule.

Prince George's needs sustainable development, not sprawl

Although there are nearly 15,000 approved suburban single-family homes in the pipeline, studies show that future homebuyers will be increasingly disinclined to buy them. Data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and George Mason University suggests that to meet future market demand, upwards of 60% (or 31,200) of the 52,000 new homes Prince George's will need in the next 20 years should be multi-family homes.

CB-70, the bill that would extend the approvals for unbuilt subdivisions through 2015, will be introduced to the full council during their October 8 legislative session. It's unclear when the other bills will be introduced, as these do not (yet) appear on the agenda.

According to the council's standard legislative process, once a bill is introduced, a public hearing before the full council is scheduled to occur "not earlier than 14 days after introduction." Therefore, there is still time to let the council know what you think about these bills.

You should direct any written comments to the Clerk of the Council, and copy the individual council members, whose email addresses you may find in the Maryland Manual. You may also make limited oral public comments at the hearing.

The recent housing crisis is not the main reason why many of these approved suburban single-family sprawl developments have gone unbuilt for 10 years. There's simply less demand for the product these days. Instead of simply giving them the green light, county leaders would do well to rethink these projects and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities to build in established neighborhoods and around its 15 Metro stations.

A version of this post appeared in Prince George's Urbanist.

Prince George's can stop validating sprawl

Approvals for many long-ago approved but unbuilt subdivisions in Prince George's County will expire at the end of the year. But for the fifth year in a row, the County Council may decide to extend those approvals for another year. It may be time to stop.

Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr.

Today, the council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider three bills, CB-70-2013, CB-71-2013, and CB-75-2013, that would toll all deadlines for preliminary subdivision, site plan, and design plan approvals. Development plans approved as far back as January 2003 would remain valid through December 31, 2014.

By law, approvals for subdivision plans or site plans are only valid for 2 or 3 years, but some can last for up to 6 years. The County Council began granting extensions in 2009 to give developers flexibility during the economic downturn and prevent developments from being abandoned. But as the housing market steadily rebounds, recent analysis from county planners suggests it might be good to let some of these projects expire.

Prince George's doesn't need additional sprawl housing

Nearly 80 percent of the existing approved residential development in the county consists of low-density, single-family residences located outside the Beltway, far away from transit. County planners warn that this level of sprawl development damages the county's overall transit-oriented development goals and puts the county at a distinct disadvantage for attracting new residents in the future.

Pipeline Development as of December 2011. Image by M-NCPPC.

First, this type of scattered development makes it hard to create high-density development around Metro stations, as the county's General Plan envisions. Second, the construction of additional suburban single-family housing units does not help the county to meet future market demand for new housing.

Relying on two separate studies of housing demand conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and George Mason University, county planners expect that Prince George's will need to add up to 52,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. However, to meet the forecasted demand, more than 60% of these units (more than 31,200 units) will need to be multifamily units located in compact, walkable communities near transit. That means the county will only need about 20,800 new single-family units over the next two decades.

In Where and How We Grow, a recently-released policy paper, county planners warn that "without a recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD and high-quality, mixed-use development, it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."

Letting the validity periods expire may be best

So what should the county do with its current development pipeline? According to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), as of December 2011, there were 14,991 approved single-family housing units in the pipeline.

That accounts for nearly 70% of the projected future need for single-family housing in the county over the next 20 years. 88% percent of those approved housing units, or 13,247 units, were located outside of the Beltway, away from transit. Only 7%, or 1,105 units, were located inside of the Beltway.

I couldn't find any figures from M-NCPPC that detail how many of the pipeline units remained valid only as a result of the various extension bills passed by the council since 2009. However, it's safe to assume that a significant portion of those projects were approved earlier, since there were fewer development projects moving forward in the height of the Great Recession.

The county's land use policies have changed significantly since 2009. New subregional master plans and/or area master plans are in place for almost all significantly populated areas in the county. Additionally, the county has adopted stronger stormwater management standards and complete streets policies. And the county is currently revamping its General Plan. Many of the older single-family developments in the pipeline are not in line with these new and forthcoming land use policies.

By simply taking no further action to extend the validity periods on preliminary subdivision plans, site plans, and design plans, the County Council could significantly reduce the backlog of pipeline development. This is a step that M-NCPPC believes would serve the county well. In addition to helping slow down suburban sprawl, such a move would also allow previously proposed-but-unbuilt developments to be reevaluated under current land use policies.

If you believe the county should not take further action to validate sprawl, please take a moment to urge the PZED Committee to table CB-70, CB-71, and CB-75. You can email your comments to PZED Chair Mel Franklin, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

(A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist on October 1, 2013.)

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