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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Even the developers of the proposed Westphalia town center project in Prince George's County realize that it's a fool's errand to build a sprawling edge city on a rural greenfield that's disconnected from transit. But will county leaders figure it out?
William Doherty, CEO of Canadian firm Walton International Group, recently spoke to local business leaders about the proposed 480-acre development in southern Prince George's, which will have 4.5 million square feet of office, 1.4 million square feet of retail, 600 hotel rooms, and 5,000 homes. Walton wants to lure the new FBI headquarters as well.
Doherty acknowledged that Westphalia's location was a problem. "There will be 15,000 jobs at Westphalia…and there is no [transit] service," he said. He wants the county or state to build a $75 million bus rapid transit line to the Branch Avenue Metro station and a $150 million new interchange at Pennsylvania Avenue and Suitland Parkway. Doherty said Walton is even "willing to" pay a portion of the cost.
County and state officials have shown no willingness to back away from this ill-advised project. In fact, they're planning to help the developers out by building expensive new infrastructure at public expense, even as the county's 15 Metro stations languish from underdevelopment.
Westphalia was born of bad policy and corrupt politics
Former county executive Jack Johnson and former council chair Jim Estepp first conceived Westphalia with former District 6 county councilman Samuel Dean and two developers, Patrick Ricker and Daniel Colton. In 2007, they worked to secure the approval of an elaborate master plan that upzoned this rural area into a major regional mixed-use center.
Five years earlier, the county had adopted its 2002 Approved General Plan, which stressed transit-oriented development around Metro stations and revitalization of existing communities inside the Beltway. The 2005 Countywide Green Infrastructure Master Plan identifies most of Westphalia as an area of countywide environmental significance, given its vast forest lands.
Although the 2002 General Plan had identified Westphalia as a "possible future" community center, it in no way suggested that the area should be prioritized for development ahead of the county's existing Metro stations and its existing inner-Beltway communities. Indeed, developing at Westphalia at that juncture seemed to be contrary to all of the county's stated development goals and priorities. Nevertheless, the 2007 Westphalia Sector plan sailed through the Planning Board and the County Council.
Then came the Great Recession, which pretty much stalled all significant development projects across the region, good and bad. And if that wasn't enough, toward the end of 2010, the FBI arrested county executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, bringing to light the long-running federal corruption and bribery investigation of the Johnson administration, arising out of a series of development-related schemes. The Johnsons, Patrick Ricker, and many others pled guilty and went to prison, while Colton still awaits sentencing.
Walton swooped in to resurrect a failed idea on the cheap
The Great Recession and the corruption scandal had left the Westphalia project all but dead on the vine. Ricker and Colton had defaulted on their loan, and Wells Fargo had foreclosed on the property. This would have been a perfect time for the county to reevaluate the Westphalia plan and the suburban sprawl strategy that undergirded it.
Unfortunately, a bad idea doesn't die that easily. Shortly after Rushern Baker's election as county executive in 2010, his administration signaled that Westphalia would continue to receive significant county backing. In June 2011, Baker's spokesperson Scott Peterson said, "the [Westphalia] development is important to the residents of the community and the county, and we'll be working hard to keep the project on line."
In February 2012, Walton purchased the property from Wells Fargo for $29.5 million, with the full blessing of the Baker administration. Aubrey Thagard, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development, stated that the administration was "encouraged by [Walton's] approach in terms of the quality of development that would come to Prince George's County."
Walton has already secured a $150 million commitment from Governor Martin O'Malley to build the Pennsylvania Avenue/Suitland Parkway interchange. While the county leadership supports Greenbelt over Westphalia for the FBI headquarters, it still enthusiastically supports the creation of a new edge city that District 6 councilmember Derrick Leon Davis hopes will one day rival the county's largest city, Bowie.
The county's support of Westphalia will continue to stifle real TOD
At a groundbreaking ceremony in June, Councilmember Davis stated that Westphalia represented a "new era in Prince George's County." But it's really just a continuation of the same "business as usual" approach that has resulted in the county having 15 of the least developed Metro station areas in Greater Washington and virtually no transit-oriented walkable urban places.
It's also the reason that the county now has more than 2,000 miles (and more than 5,000 lane-miles) of roadways that it is responsible for maintaining. Many of these existing roads lack sufficient lighting, sidewalks, and pedestrian signaling, even around Metro stations, which often leads to deadly results.
Westphalia will require scores of miles of additional roads that the county will have to maintain. And a project as large as Westphalia would siphon away most of the development opportunities around nearby Metro stations, like Largo Town Center and Branch Avenue, for decades to come.
Westphalia is also fairly close to the former Landover Mall site, which has been shuttered for more than a decade and is now in need of new investment. While the Landover Mall site is also not Metro accessible, it is at least inside the Beltway, already has the roadways and other infrastructure to support dense mixed-use development, and doesn't require developing farmland.
Councilman Davis suggests that it's possible for Prince George's County to "walk and chew bubble gum" at the same time: that is, to support suburban edge city projects like Westphalia while simultaneously supporting TOD at places like Largo Town Center, both of which are in his district. But the hard truth is that the county cannot successfully pursue sprawl development and transit-oriented development at the same time.
County planners note that growth in the wrong places causes the county to "miss significant opportunities to better utilize our transit infrastructure and capture forecasted regional demand for new housing and jobs." Furthermore, sprawling development patterns put the county in an economic bind by causing it to expend crucial resources "to expand, duplicate, and maintain new infrastructure, in addition to maintaining the existing infrastructure in mature communities."
I suggested in my recent policy paper that the county should rezone Westphalia to a rural or very low density zone and focus its attention on bringing true high-quality transit-oriented development to its Metro stations, in keeping with its stated development priorities. It will take an incredible amount of political courage and will for county leaders to do so, given their previous full-throated support of this project.
Likely the only way they would even consider doing it is if there were a significant response from the community for a new direction. Knowing my fellow citizens, that's a very tall order indeed.
At a recent town meeting, Prince George's County planners asked where the county's downtowns are. That meeting inspired me to think more broadly about where and how the county as a whole should grow in the coming years, which I look at in a new policy paper.
Titled "Plan Prince George's 2035: Thinking and Growing Smartly Downtown and Beyond," my paper is a response to Plan Prince George's 2035, an ongoing update of the county's General Plan. County planners envision most future growth taking place in a few "downtowns" around the county. Over the past year, they've hosted a town hall meeting for community members and released two reports of their own, Where and How We Grow and Typology and Prioritization.
But have planners selected the right areas for new downtowns, and should we focus on them at the expense of other areas? And will emphasis on "new towns" in greenfield areas undermine the plan's goals? These are the issues I look at in my paper.
After reviewing the project team's two reports and attending the town hall meeting at the University of Maryland along with 300 other community members, I initially had some questions about the criteria that the planners used to rank potential downtowns.
Their quantitative analysis tool gave a higher priority in the top 10 list to places like Cheverly, Suitland, and Riverdale, which aren't really suitable for intense development, than to places that are, like Greenbelt and Largo. Other stations previously recognized as prime development opportunities, like Morgan Boulevard and Addison Road, didn't show up anywhere in the top 10. It didn't make sense to me that certain site-specific factors, such as the presence of available land for development and re-development and the absence of steep slopes, flood plains, and other barriers like railroad lines and highways, did not factor in more prominently in the diagnostic tool.
More broadly, though, I was concerned about what appeared to be a near-singular focus on the county's "downtown"-capable Metro station areas, to the exclusion of other station areas. I was also concerned that the preliminary recommendation to include a "new town" center typology in the General Plan Update seemed to be tacitly endorsing the troubling concept of non-transit-oriented, outer-Beltway greenfield developments like Westphalia, which are contrary to the county's stated land use priorities and basic smart growth principles.
Focus on the whole county, not just downtown
In Thinking and Growing Smartly, I attempt to more fully examine the questions posed by the M-NCPPC project team's earlier two policy papers: where and how should we grow, and how should our transit stations interact with each other to form a coherent growth strategy? To reach those threshold questions, I explore a number of issues:
Change the classification of land: Today, Prince George's County uses an amorphous, three-tier system to classify different parts of the county as either "Developed," "Developing," or "Rural." The project team has sensibly indicated that it intends to adopt and implement the place categorization guidelines developed by the Maryland Department of Planning in connection with PlanMaryland, the statewide development plan.
Those guidelines classify land into one of five categories: Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas, Established Community Areas in Priority Funding Areas, Future Growth Areas, Large Lot Development Areas, and Rural Resource Planning Areas.
I recommend that Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas should cover only areas that are within: a 1/2-mile radius around around existing Metro and MARC rail stations, designated 1/2-mile districts along General Plan-designated transitways, and transit-accessible areas in designated Maryland Sustainable Communities and Maryland Enterprise Zones. Future Purple Line stations that aren't in one of those areas already would become Future Growth Areas. All of those areas should be built under the county's new form-based zoning requirements.
Define the place typologies: I generally agree with the planners that different place types belong in a hierarchy that describes the desired land use mix, housing and employment types and targets, and densities. However, the densities that county planners initially proposed are generally too low to support heavy and light rail. They also don't distinguish between areas within 1/4 mile of a transit station, where densities should be highest, and areas within 1/4 and 1/2 mile.
I propose five distinct place typologies, each with their own recommended densities, most of which are higher than those originally proposed by the project team. In descending order, they are: Central Business Districts, Major Urban Districts, Neighborhood Urban Districts, Special Use/Employment Districts, and Transitway Districts.
Rethink greenfield sprawl: Rather than endorsing greenfield sprawl projects like Westphalia and Konterra by according them their own "new town" category, the county should rethink and rezone those areas before major development occurs there, which would further undermine the county's transit-oriented development goals. Those land areas are not in a Priority Funding Area, Enterprise Zone, or Sustainable Community; therefore, they should be classified as either Large Lot Development Areas or Rural Resource Planning Areas.
Use Transitways to connect and revitalize the county: I also recommend 17 "Transitways" where the county should provide frequent bus service to connect major population centers to existing rail transit stations and major commercial and government centers.
Through the master planning process, the county should designate various Transitway Districts as focus areas for revitalization and intensive infill development. This would be a good solution for aging or deteriorated automobile-oriented commercial sites like Penn/Mar Shopping Center, Iverson Mall, and Langley Park Shopping Center.
Incentivize private sector development: I recommend that the county take a two-pronged approach to encourage more high quality jobs and development. First and foremost, the county should implement the necessary structural reforms that will foster a more sensible, faster, and less politicized development process. That includes placing appropriate restrictions on growth outside of targeted areas, streamlining the development review process, rewriting and simplifying the zoning ordinance, and eliminating the dreaded "council call-up" review of individual site plans.
Secondly, the county should focus public investment on those high-potential stations most in need of infrastructure improvement to catalyze private sector interest. Three good places to start would be New Carrollton, Addison Road, and Capitol Heights, which are older and less-prepared for new development than their counterparts on the Green Line and the Blue Line extension to Largo. They've also received less interest from public sector institutions, like the FBI or the University of Maryland Medical System's new regional hospital, which could bring jobs that stimulate the local economy.
The planners need to hear from us
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with the M-NCPPC project team to discuss an earlier draft of my Thinking and Growing Smartly policy paper. Kierre McCune, lead coordinator on the Plan Prince George's project, was happy to receive and discuss the paper, and noted that he was particularly pleased to see that at least someone outside of the Planning Department had taken the time to read through the project team's prior materials and provide thoughtful feedback.
Similarly, planner Sonja Ewing remarked that citizens often don't realize the value in providing this kind of feedback to the planners. She said it is helpful for the team to hear and be continually challenged by an outside-the-bubble perspective. And Planning Supervisor Kipling Reynolds said now was a good time for people to give input, since county planners are still refining their first draft of the Plan Update, which goes to the Planning Board in September.
What are your thoughts as to how Prince George's can think and grow smartly? You can let county planners know by emailing them or following them on Twitter @PlanPGC2035. Even after it's released, the public will still be able to offer suggestions. I hope that many of my recommendations will find their way into the draft as well.
Yesterday, I talked about how Prince George's County planners want to create "downtown" areas around 2 or 3 of the county's Metro stations. But will the county direct growth to the right places, and will this new policy actually discourage suburban sprawl?
At a town hall meeting last Saturday, county planners presented 3 Metro stations, College Park, Prince George's Plaza, and New Carrollton, that could be sites for potential "downtowns." They would become Priority Improvement Districts (PIDs) which would get extra public investment to encourage private development. 3 other stations, Greenbelt, Largo Town Center, and Branch Avenue, were dubbed "game changers" that could become downtowns in the future.
This is a welcome step toward steering the county's growth toward transit sites and away from greenfields in distant, car-dependent areas. However, there are still questions about whether the county is picking the right centers, what to do with the other Metro station areas, and how the county will handle development away from Metro.
Are we using the right methodology to identify the best "downtown" locations?
How should we decide where a downtown goes? Historically, cities grew from areas with some geographic asset, like a confluence of rivers or an important rail junction, but Prince George's County has used very different criteria.
Planners developed a PID Diagnostic Index to analyze the county's 27 "activity centers" and decide which ones were best suited for a downtown. They gave the most weight to dynamic conditions, like current population demographics, the presence of large employers, and crime rates, while downplaying static features that could provide opportunities for growth, like undeveloped land, the lack of steep slopes or flood plains, or proximity to transit, including Metro, bus, and MARC.
While the 6 places they came up with make sense, it's strange to see Metro and MARC stations like Suitland, Riverdale, and Cheverly also ranked among the county's top 10 "highest performing" areas. M-NCPPC's 2010 Subregion 4 Master Plan said these areas weren't suitable for private investment, citing low household incomes, and a lack of existing private investment and developable land. Instead, planners recommended focusing on places like the Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard Metro stations, which offered "the best market opportunities for near-term development" in central Prince George's County. Yet, Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard appear nowhere on the top 10 list. This doesn't instill confidence in county planners' current analysis.
Largo Town Center: A promising high performer underrated in the PID Diagnostic Index. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
It's also strange that Largo Town Center wasn't rated more favorably than College Park, Prince George's Plaza, or New Carrollton. Largo is centrally located, is on the Blue and eventually Silver lines and major highways, has significant commercial activity, reasonably high income and education levels, and a large number of government offices. Matt Johnson recently called it the prime location for the new county seat. Unlike New Carrollton, Largo has lots of land available for redevelopment that isn't constrained by flood plains.
It's likely that, had M-NCPPC considered other models that weighted each factor differently, other stations may have come out on top in some of those alternate models. It might be a good idea for the planners to rethink some of these models and rankings, in an effort to arrive at a more realistic ranking of stations.
What about the other Metro stations?
While 2 or 3 downtowns would receive extra help from the county, the rest of the 27 activity centers would have to fend for themselves in the private market, according to the strategy proposed at the town hall forum. This logic flies in the face of previous M-NCPPC studies and findings, which indicate that there isn't enough of a market in the near term to spur development at most of the county's Metro stations without public help.
It's also unclear that a singular focus on creating "downtowns," as opposed to other station typologies, is the best strategy for the county. Previous M-NCPPC planning efforts called for a "corridor strategy" that pursues coordinated development and planning of several transit station areas along a major transportation route. Planners are working on two such efforts now, along the Blue Line and the southern end of the Green Line. The development of non-downtown station areas along these corridors may likewise require public commitment, focus, and financial support.
Representatives from M-NCPPC and the county haven't clearly explained why they've changed their focus, nor have they provided any data showing that the private market will be organically motivated to redevelop existing station areas in the short term, with no financial incentives or strategic support from the county. While it's not realistic to expect that all 27 centers or even the areas around all 15 Metro stations will be redeveloped at once, it may be advisable to pursue more of a middle-ground approach.
The county could still direct a lot of public investment to the downtowns, while providing some additional, targeted aid to other Metro station areas, like the "game changers" or other high-potential urban neighborhood sites like West Hyattsville and Addison Road. This could include building street grids where they don't exist, filling in the sidewalk and bike lane network, and assembling land for private development.
Other stations, like Morgan Boulevard, might need fewer public infrastructure improvements, since there's a lot of vacant and developable land around the Metro station and it's owned mostly by the county and WMATA. But they could use marketing and branding support from the county and WMATA to encourage private development.
We also need a strategy for implementing these public investments. County TIF bonds are one possibility. Both existing or future municipalities, like the City of Greenbelt, could take more of a direct role in the redevelopment of non-PID Metro stations. We also need to decide which non-downtown stations should receive priority consideration.
Do "new towns" and other typologies make sense?
Plan Prince George's 2035 continues to designate substantially vacant and undeveloped areas far away from transit, like Westphalia and Bowie (away from the MARC station), as planned growth areas. If the county wants to focus its energy on building 2 or 3 "downtowns," and several other Metro station areas have room for development and a need for both private and public investment, why would we need any "new towns" in the near term?
Even if greenfield communities are fully paid for by the private sector, which is unlikely, the county would still have to pay for the infrastructure needed to sustain them, like roads, sewers, and schools. M-NCPPC should explain how "new town" centers thus fit logically into the county's strategic land use priorities between now and 2035.
If we're going to direct future development to transit, we need to ensure a strong connection between transit and land use. That means allowing more density around Metro, both to incentivize development, support high-quality retail and commercial uses, and create compact, walkable neighborhoods where people don't have to drive. But it also means discouraging development of any density in areas far away from transit, which not only cannibalizes what private investment does come to the county, but further destabilizes closer-in communities.
According to M-NCPPC project leader Kierre McCune, work on Plan Prince George's 2035 should end by next spring. If you'd like more information, visit their website to get updates, and follow the process on Twitter at #PlanPGC2035.
Prince George's County has struggled to attract new development, especially around its Metro stations, but it also lacks a defined center. Over 300 residents and constituents gathered for a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland last Saturday to discuss potential locations for the county's future "downtown."
The forum was the latest in a series of outreach efforts by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) as part of Plan Prince George's 2035, an effort to update the county's General Plan, last updated in 2002.
Over the past 6 months, county planners have worked with residents, business owners, developers and state and municipal officials to craft a vision for the county's future. They've concluded that the county's approach to development needs to change: instead of sprawling farther out, it must focus on a few select areas that have the transit and economic strength to draw private investment.
The problem: the county can't simultaneously develop 27 centers
One issue is that the current vision is too broad. The 2002 General Plan designates 27 growth centers. 15 are at each of the county's Metro stations, and another 3 are at the Bowie, Seabrook and Riverdale MARC stations. 9 other centers are far from existing or planned rail transit, in places like National Harbor, Konterra and Westphalia.
This isn't serving the county well, says M-NCPPC planner-coordinator Sonja Ewing. Virtually all of the centers remain undeveloped, and none have reached their housing and employment density targets.
Each center fits into one of 3 vague categories, "Metropolitan," "Regional," and "Community," but those often lead to competing and disjointed planning efforts. This time around, M-NCPPC proposes to adopt a more descriptive system with 8 categories. Each one comes with its own particular desired land use mix, desired types of housing, height limits, maximum floor-area ratios, and density limits.
M-NCPPC will also designate 2 or 3 of the "urban center" locations as "Priority Improvement Districts" (PIDs), where the county would provide marketing, infrastructure investments and financial incentives to encourage private development.
Planners pick 3 "high performers" and 3 "game changers"
After analyzing and scoring all 27 areas, Planners chose 6 potential downtown sites, all of which are at Metro stations. They say 3 of them, Prince George's Plaza, College Park, and New Carrollton, are "high performers" best poised for the PID designation because of the existing level of activity there.
The other 3, which they dubbed "game changers," need an additional push to make them viable downtowns. These sites are Greenbelt, which could be the FBI's future home, Largo Town Center, where the county wants to see a regional medical center, and Branch Avenue, where WMATA has expressed interest in a public-private partnership to build around the station.
The audience favored New Carrollton as the best "high performer," followed by College Park.
The audience appeared to favor College Park as the best "high performer" due to the presence of the University of Maryland. There was also clear consensus that New Carrollton made sense as a downtown since it is already a major regional multimodal transportation hub. Largo Town Center was the most-favored "game changer" location.
I left the town hall meeting with several questions, which I hope can receive some attention as we move through the Plan Prince George's 2035 process. In the next part, I'll look at those questions.
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