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. 

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.)

Westphalia developers admit it's a bad deal for Prince George's

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?

Photo by Walton Group.

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.

Councilman Derrick Leon Davis at Westphalia groundbreaking. Image from YouTube.

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's proximity to 6 Metro stations. Click for interactive Google map.

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.

How can Prince George's grow in the right places?

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.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Wikipedia.

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.

A map of 17 proposed transitways from the author. Click for an interactive map.

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.

Image from M-NCPPC.

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.

Support Us