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Want a Whole Foods? Add residences, or face traffic

A mixed-use development right on Route 1 in Riverdale Park turned into a giant strip mall with a Whole Foods, after residents opposed the initial plan. But now residents fear the new plan will bring in too much traffic.

A proposed mixed-use development at the Cafritz Property in Riverdale Park will now be a strip mall.

If residents want a more sustainable growth pattern in the area, they need to help the county step away from its history of suburban sprawl, such as by supporting walkable mixed-use projects like the original proposal. That's the only realistic way to attract upscale amenities that residents crave without drawing even more traffic.

Despite being a haven for the black middle class, Prince George's County has long struggled to attract the kind of high-end amenities found elsewhere in Greater Washington. Now, upscale grocer Whole Foods wants to locate in the county as part of a development called the Cafritz Property, located on a wooded, 35-acre site on Route 1 in Riverdale Park, between College Park and Hyattsville.

In an editorial yesterday, the Washington Post stated its support for the project. "It would be a grave mistake for the county to turn its back on precisely the sort of progress so many county residents say they want," said the editorial board.

The store, located within a mile of a Metro station, and even closer to a MARC station and a future Purple Line station, would join an office building and a health club in a giant parking lot. Architect Jim Voelzke of Bethesda-based MV+A Architects, who designed the original plan, told Riverdale Park Patch that the new proposal's "unique design" would reduce traffic.

According to the Patch, "A slew of parking will surround the Whole Foods ... which [Voelzke] hopes will alleviate some of the traffic issues expected along Route 1." There's no explanation how multiple parking lots laid out in typical suburban strip-mall-style would alleviate traffic issues.

Though this might seem like an inefficient use of land at a site in an established, inside-the-Beltway community, Riverdale Park mayor Vernon Archer wishes there were even less there. "If it were simply Whole Foods coming into town, I think there wouldn't be that much debate," he told the Examiner. "But the Whole Foods is an anchor for a larger mall and ... a substantial number of new housing units. The size of it is what is causing second thoughts."

Four years ago, Cafritz proposed a much larger development on their property, saying they wanted to "[create] a point of pride" for the community. The project would have contained up to 2,000 apartments, 286,000 square feet of office and retail space, a 120-room hotel, and community space in buildings up to 12 stories high.

A new grid of streets would have tied the project in with surrounding neighborhoods, while creating a "comfortable and lively pedestrian experience," in the words of the developers. The public would have gotten a new community building and series of parks and squares, and a wooded buffer along Route 1 would have separated the development from the single-family homes across the street in affluent University Park.

Cafritz 2007 Plan
2007 plan of Cafritz Property.

Cafritz 2008 Plan
2008 plan of Cafritz Property.

2011 plan of Cafritz Property.

Unfortunately, community response to the Cafritz Property development was negative from the beginning. In 2007, neighbors complained the project would be too dense and that the presence of a Whole Foods would create more congestion on busy Route 1, while the Riverdale Park Town Council has expressed concerns that it would create competition for their town center, a small block of mostly-vacant shops adjacent to the Riverdale MARC station.

In 2008, Cafritz returned with a less ambitious plan, containing half as many homes, a smaller grocery store, and buildings no taller than 7 floors. Where the original proposal could be seen from Route 1, the new plan made the initial move to make it nearly invisible to passersby, ensuring the difficult proposition of selling the site to retailers.

It's ironic that residents of Riverdale Park and surrounding towns have been so opposed to any development at the Cafritz Property, given Prince George's County's long-standing struggle to attract upscale amenities. As one of the county's more affluent sections, the Route 1 corridor has drawn a fair amount of development in recent years. A slew of student apartment buildings have been built in College Park, while work is beginning on a subdivision of luxury homes in adjacent University Park. At Arts District Hyattsville, trendy local restaurants including Tara Thai and Busboys and Poets have opened alongside hundreds of new rowhouses.

There have been struggles as well, however. A lack of foot traffic and visibility has already killed some businesses, like Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier, while luxury apartments sit empty at the massive University Town Center complex in Hyattsville, part of which was recently sold at auction.

If a store, especially an upscale one, is to locate survive in an area like Riverdale Park, it has to have a sufficient number of customers. Those customers could live within walking distance, if there are dense enough communities on site or nearby. Or, the store can draw customers from a large area by car, which would generate significant traffic.

In other words, a Whole Foods means either more buildings or more cars (or both); neither is not an option. The community would be better off going for the buildings and pushing for a design, and non-auto transportation choices, that minimize the associated traffic.

As Richard Layman pointed out yesterday, there are some legitimate concerns about traffic at the Cafritz Property. The site is located close to transit, though many visitors are likely to drive. The market's weak enough that a mixed-use project here could cannibalize existing development at Arts District and University Town Center.

It's possible that Cafritz will build the entire site out as originally planned, as articles in the Examiner, the Post and Patch all describe the larger 2008 proposal, but challenges remain. The developers still face major community opposition (with some exceptions) and a local retail market that's reeling from the recession. They also have to change the zoning, which currently allows 220 single-family homes to be built on the site, to allow for commercial development.

Yet a strip mall is still an inappropriate and wasteful use of land in this location. Even if people drive to a site, clustering more stores and offices together allows one car trip to serve several needs. The classic suburban strip mall development pattern forces drivers to exit and re-enter a major boulevard multiple times in a single shopping trip. That's one of the biggest sources of congestion.

The Cafritz Property developers should pursue a phased development, building the entire site as originally proposed in 2008 over time. Whole Foods alone isn't enough to revitalize this area. But as the anchor of a new town center, it could improve the way people live and shop along Route 1.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 
Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 


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Well said. As a teaching assistant for an urban studies class at UMD last semester, I had my students score the 2008 Cafritz proposal under LEED-ND. They calculated that it could earn LEED-ND Silver and maybe even Gold with some tweaks. The 2011 proposal is a joke and an insult to our community (even if there are some who don't realize the problems, as you articulated well). I wish my class was still in session so the same students could learn about how NOT to design new development.

by Phil LaCombe on Aug 17, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

A great reminder that when we're dissatisfied with our built environment, we should point our fingers at ourselves before we try and find blame in others.

by Bossi on Aug 17, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

Guarantee the project ends up not being built due to opposition of a few loud individuals. There is a reason the county is a good 20-30 years behind DC, MoCo & Fairfax in terms of high quality development. Also lets not forget the high crime, poor schools, and twisted politicians that scared away the big developers that had chosen to locate their projects in western part of the region

by mike on Aug 17, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

I would be pretty happy if there was a Whole Foods near College Park but at the same time I believe that the strip mall idea is a joke especially considering the failure that the mixed-space development at University Town Center and I am personally ashamed at the state of Downtown College Park. We already have a pretty run-down strip mall in College Park and we can't be thinking of adding another one down the road. I would agree though that traffic has to be held at a good concern since Route 1 has to deal with all the commuter traffic during the weekdays. Well let's see how this all should go and hopefully responsible and useful mixed-use development can come to PG county that is successful and useful as its neighbors to the west.

by Roddy on Aug 17, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

Worth noting - we have a follow-up post discussing the design of the project coming tomorrow (hopefully).

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 17, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

Man that regression is sad. The 2007 plan looks best by far.

by NikolasM on Aug 17, 2011 10:38 pm • linkreport

You know, it's at the point where I can't really even care any more-- if people want crappy design and development, and they want to be downscale and have ugly strip malls, let them. It keeps the mixed-used development and dense areas with nearby commercial amenities more limited in the region and more expensive, guaranteeing higher returns on my own investments.

Prince George's County is the way it is because the people who live there want it to be like that. Let them have it. But at least consider saving WMATA money and cutting off metro service there-- all that infrastructure is obviously wasted and a drain on public resources.

by Tyro on Aug 17, 2011 11:18 pm • linkreport

I think the big issue is where this development is being proposed is inside a largely poor immigrant community, not the traditional more wealthy areas of the county. Put it simply the people using this Whole Foods will largely be people outside of that community, clogging their roads, and impacting their quality of life.

by Joseph on Aug 18, 2011 5:20 am • linkreport

Joseph, the development is in University Park, which is a wealthy, not immigrant community. It will be used by the people of Hyattsville, Riverdale, University Park, and College Park.

by Edward on Aug 18, 2011 8:18 am • linkreport

These assertions about "a largely poor immigrant community" and related complaints about certain "demographics" makes one wonder how much of this is driven by prejudice or race.

by Nick Provolone on Aug 18, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

The median household income in University Park is over $120,000 a year, comparable to Chevy Chase and Bethesda. College Park, Riverdale Park, and Hyattsville (and even Adelphi and Berwyn Heights - I could go on!), while not as affluent as a whole, are still solidly middle-class. And all of them are home to U-Md. students and faculty, who are likely to shop at Whole Foods. MOM's Organic Market already has a location in College Park as well.

This area may not be as prestigious as Woodmore or Lake Arbor, but it's not a stretch to imagine people there shopping at an organic grocer.

by dan reed! on Aug 18, 2011 10:19 am • linkreport

I'm increasingly finding that my two DC social worlds of urbanism & theatre are beginning to merge...

I think pretty much all the arguments are right...

First up, demographics:
University Park is quite an affluent enclave, but on its own likely not enough to support a Whole Foods. The University sits a short drive / bike ride north, but admittedly it's a bit of a stretch for many students in downtown or on campus to make it a regular car-free grocery trip.

On the other hand, Riverdale (Park) and areas south, east, and west are all certainly lower-income areas with residents unlikely to be regular Whole Foods customers.

On the whole (ha ha... pun) I'd say that yes, by and large the customer base would be driving... while there's plenty of transit that could be within reach if the right ped/bike connections are built, the fact of the matter is that grocery trips aren't generally suited toward such longer-range ped/bike trips.

That brings me to traffic:

I absolutely agree with the locals: this development would bring traffic. It would do this in its original urbanist-style form & it would do this in its current sprawl-style form. And US 1 while UMD is in session is certainly no picnic to drive along.

But the kicker is that the Whole Foods will bring more traffic no matter what form it takes on -- if it's covered in parking lots, it'll still pull in more cars regardless of how the parking lot is oriented.

And if it's denser: I'd wager it'll still have a garage, so now you also have the additional traffic of new residents and offices... residents & workers whom might be able to take transit; whom could shop without driving; but on the average would certainly add traffic.

Some governments move forward with the urbanist-style government: it brings more options, more services, and greater revenue to the public.

Others choose to decline it: they want to preserve neighborhoods as-is, make-do without additional services, & don't feel that their governments give them anything for the revenue they'd have gained, anyway.

Prince George's County continues to choose the latter path. That's not to say it's wrong, but it's a route that they should question when so many in their government & of their constituency look west and wonder why they can't be like that.

by Bossi on Aug 18, 2011 10:31 am • linkreport

One question I would ask is how many people use transit to get to the new rockville wholefoods, which is a much more heavily used station. Iam willing to bet it's under 10%. So calling the whole foods smart growth is a joke.

by mike on Aug 18, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

Nice piece.

WRT Bossi's point about Whole Foods and the UP demographic, the reality is that the retail trade area is going to be at least a five mile radius, and will draw upon a few hundred thousand people.

The other response would be "Wegmans."

Who would think a Wegmans could "thrive" in PG County? Well, it is.

The thing that I could have said better in my overlong piece is that these kinds of "pathbreaking" anchor developments (granted there are differences between the original and the current proposal) have the ability to reshape development paradigms in significant ways.

So more traffic now, but long term, less traffic, as more development is done that generates more transit, biking, and walking trips, and fewer trips by car.

Anyone who looks at the UTC example as a reason not to do this project is somewhat foolish (with the new commentator guidelines I don't want to say "stupid") because there are so many urban design faults with the development "around" PG Plaza Metro that for the most part it is a total misnomer to say any of it is "transit oriented."

by Richard Layman on Aug 18, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

I find it fascinating that the editorial writers of the Washington Post and the authors and many of the commenters do not live in this area, and do not present any information about the state of the infrastructure or retail or housing markets(Route 1, D or F; portable classrooms outside University Park Elementary; polluted waters and flooding in the area due to failed stormwater infrastructure; Prince George's County overbuilt with apartments, etc.), and still conclude that the original development or proposed development will work, despite a massive number of empty store fronts in the area and the recent UTC foreclosure. I'm all for transit-oriented development, but this is about a mile from the metro stations, present or future, and every study I've ever seen shows that transit stations have to be closer than that to be "walkable." So yes, location does matter! Also, studies show that townhouses are the most costly kind of development in terms of infrastructure demands and do not pay for themselves in terms of tax revenues. "Smart growth" and energy-saving LEED buildings sound great but do not build NEIGHBORHOODS and LEED ND does not even REQUIRE excellent stormwater management. How about some real analysis on the benefits and impacts on Hyattsville, Riverdale, UP and College Park before we make our conclusions!?!

by Dana in University Park on Aug 18, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

Dana: We'd love to have the first-hand opinion of someone who lives close to the Cafritz Property. Could you tell us what some of the impacts would be, based on your knowledge of the area?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 18, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

Dana, I do know that area. While you're right that there are issues, it's misleading to equate the proposed housing here with the preponderance of apartments targeting lower income people elsewhere in PG County.

WRT housing costs vs. tax benefits--all housing pretty much is a net loss, especially for households with children. However townhouses pay off much better, but still lose, compared to single family detached housing, because the cost of infrastructure is amortized over more units. I have never seen results say anything differently. For places that share in income tax revenue, like counties in Maryland, the difference would be even more pronounced.

I think that multiunit buildings of mixed income apartments are revenue positive or close to neutral--it depends on the schools issue, but the households with children are trending downward nationally. E.g., those apartment buildings targeting UMD students are probably net winners for PG County, because there are few if any children.

by Richard Layman on Aug 18, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

Dana, I lived in College Park for four years. I went to school there and I worked in Hyattsville (in University Town Center) briefly as well. On top of that, I have family who lives and works in the area as well. No, I can't see the Cafritz Property from my house, but I know the community well and am confident that, if done right, this project would be very beneficial to that community.

by dan reed! on Aug 18, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

Geoffrey - Thanks for your piece. I live nearby in the oft forgotten, perhaps to our benefit, Calvert Hills neighborhood just north of Cafrtiz. As an urban/transportation planner by training, one thing that I think is unfortunate is that unless we bike on the bike path (certainly a good option at times) we won't be able to reach this development without driving on Rt.1. My regional VMT might be down because I am not going to Silver Spring to shop, but it seems crazy that I would have to go out onto Rt. 1 to get into a development just a few blocks away. My neighborhood and UP are very well engineered with a system of one way streets to prevent cut through traffic. I say, connect the Cafritz property to us, tweak our street network if need be, and help mitigate Rt. 1 traffic nightmares.

by JC on Aug 18, 2011 5:58 pm • linkreport

There is a grass roots movement underway to create an entirely new type of development on that parcel of land. Using existing designs developed by UMD's school of architecture for the US DOE Solar Decathlon, build a community of energy independent homes.
To even consider a development like this, a great number of circumstances have to align. Land--it is there, waiting. The parcel is much more suited for residential use; by zoning, topography, access and boundaries. Technology and design--the solar team has provided it. Check their website, and more important, take the time to visit the Solar Decathlon. Support--I believe the university and its benefactors would back this project with all their resources. Why endow a chair when you can endow an entire house? Location--we are adjacent to not only our nation's capital but the world's media capital. When this is built it will receive global coverage. The purpose is not to create an isolated biosphere, but to show how new technologies and methods can be integrated into a growing, vibrant, established area. Build it and they will come; to be part of it, to be next to it, to be associated with it. We should not allow ourselves to be deterred by obstacles, but rather stimulated by challenges. It would be folly to turn a blind eye to the confluence of opportunities that make this project possible right here, and right now.
It's time to take real steps toward figuring out a new way to live on
the earth. The weather doesn't lie. I am not a wild-eyed radical,
recycling maniac, or anything like it. I am just an average American,
depressingly so sometimes, but its time we the people stepped up our
collective game. My goal is to garner enough signatures that the
major players must seriously consider the idea. I may fall flat on my
face, but it's just an average face anyway.
We all know the world is changing in many, many ways. If the people and
the powers-that-be in this country really want the United States to
lead, then we better lead by example, and fast. It shouldn't take a
self-employed plumber to come up with this idea.
Here's a link with some more information:
If anyone would like to further support this idea, please contact me off this list:
Thanks for reading.

by Joe Kelly on Aug 18, 2011 10:18 pm • linkreport

JC: I think street connections to your neighborhood would be fantastic and TOTALLY logical. The problem appears to be that WMATA owns the parcel that lies above the Metro tunnel there, and there are no connections planned through that piece of land. That's a shame - this entire development could simply be an extension of your neighborhood if done right.

Joe: Thanks for sharing this. I think it's a very interesting proposal, and one worth looking at. I'm in favor of density, but if there are ways to bring the construction techniques demonstrated in the Solar Decathlon to medium-density construction on this site, I'd be very inclined to support that.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 18, 2011 11:34 pm • linkreport

JC/Geoff -- it would be interesting to approach the development team at WMATA and find out what their plans are for the land. Obviously, if this site gets developed, it will be worth much more. If they plan for an extension of the street grid jointly, then this could be realized.

WRT the solar stuff, that's great and everything, but what really matters to Cafritz is how much money can Cafritz realize from developing the project.

by Richard Layman on Aug 19, 2011 6:42 am • linkreport

Richard-- I am not naive enough to be blind to the economics of development. However, I don't think King John had the Magna Carta in mind on coronation day, and the Italians weren't all that hip to that Columbus guy. The fact remains that circumstances have provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for a radical approach that could yield immeasurable outcomes. My aim is to try to insure that the chance is not wasted. It's for the greatergreatergood of us all. If the idea lands on the desk of someone with the financial wherewithal to make a bold move, all the better.

It is not impossible that the Carfitz Company could change course and act in a forward thinking manner. The land is obviously not the keystone to their continued good fortunes, otherwise it would not have lain fallow for 50 years. Under the current zoning, their vision for the site is no more tangible than mine. If enough clearly stated public support for the idea is generated, the largely unspoken opinions of elected and appointed officials can change course as well. Well over 90% of the people I have approached about this idea have supported it, a far higher approval rate than any side in the yes/no/maybe, but... debate can claim.

It is not a done deal. Let me know if you'd like to help.

Geoff: I am FOR not wasting opportunities, I am not acting against anything. I would like to see the development go through with an emphasis on spectacular and game-changing.

by Joe Kelly on Aug 19, 2011 9:00 am • linkreport

Joe: I understand completely, and I never claimed you were against anything. I very much appreciate what you've shared with us. Thank you!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 19, 2011 9:01 am • linkreport

Geoff: Sorry, my unfortunate use of words. I didn't mean it in that manner at all, or think that you were implying negativity on my part. I just wanted to emphasize to all involved the importance and benefit of acting in a positive direction and concentrating on the gains to be made rather than the losses incurred. Johnny Mercer probably said it best.

by Joe Kelly on Aug 19, 2011 9:22 am • linkreport

Actually, with lawyers and a track record and financing, Cafritz does have more going for it. Your position and theirs is by no means equivalent. Getting a zoning change is pretty likely, especially in PG County, especially now.

That's what I meant in terms of what I stated.

I don't know anything about the solar proposal nor do I have time to find out about it. Maybe it's great, but for a lot of developers, it would be a distraction. Whether or not it's the best use for that space, I don't know.

One problem with the Cafritz proposal for nonhousing stuff generally is that there is plenty of suboptimal commercial space already present in the area, and seemingly it would be better if instead some of those suboptimal places could be improved with the commercial part of this proposal, rather than doing "new development" and adding to the commercial space inventory (further devaluing extant commercial spaces).

But that's not how development works generally. Ideally Cafritz could link up with another developer, do the housing on the RP site, and jointly do other commercial (re)development elsewhere, with TDR etc. allowing for more intense housing at the RP site.

by Richard Layman on Aug 19, 2011 9:59 am • linkreport

JC: As you probably know, many residents in the College Park area are strongly opposed to making the street network more connected, which is one reason why Route 1 traffic can be bad at times.

Bossi: I agree that most customers will not use transit - but driving is not the only alternative. One point to developing the site to a high density would be to have residents on site who can walk to the grocery store. Otherwise, yes, almost everyone will drive there.

by Arnold on Aug 22, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

PG County obviously has too many trees. Cut them down for more parking lots and big box stores. Hole Foods is obviously more important than the locally owned Mom's and Glut Coop. Texas corporations (ie. Hole Foods) deserve lots of greenwashing points to ensure a good public image as they exaggerate how "green" they are.

Seriously, I'm sure there are many giant parking lots that could be converted into a new grocery store if planning for an energy constrained future was even remotely considered.

As for the Green Line, it was astounding that the Metro route didn't go next to the University of Maryland. Yes, I remember some of the objections that ensured it wouldn't be done, but this is probably the most bone-headed mistake that Metro made in planning the subway. The area east of the College Park metro was greenwashed by then County Executive Glendening as supposedly being transit friendly, but how many commuters in that complex use Metro? Very few. Three quarter billion dollars for a metro line that bypassed the large center of the U of MD? And Greenbelt station is mostly a giant park-and-ride, not a transit center. It's a great example of how transit doesn't necessarily reduce car traffic.

Now that oil prices have permanently increased, VMT across the country has stopped growing, for good. Transportation planning for roads and transit needs to recognize the era of VMT increases is over. Individual roads may still get busier, but the transportation system as a whole is no longer increasing VMT. The permanent recession and the looming end of the Alaska Pipeline and exports from Mexico to the US ("Cantarell" is winding down) will impact traffic more than calling new big box stores "smart" growth. Smart growth is just more growth past the limits to growth.

by Mark on Oct 29, 2011 6:51 pm • linkreport

I live in Calvert Hills in College Park and what I can tell you is that there is NO SUPPORT for connecting the Cafritz development to our neighborhood. NONE. ZERO. NADA. This it the majority opnion on my block and others. We are perpared to fight a zoning change if connection to Calvert Hills is proposed.

by Fred on Nov 10, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Fred: Is it fair to classify your position as NIMBY then?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 10, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

Just for the record, there are people in Calvert Hills who are open to studying the potential for a connection b/w Calvert Hills and Cafritz. Here is a link explaining some of the potential benefits:

by Mark Noll on Jan 9, 2012 10:57 pm • linkreport

What the alternative to Whole Foods ?

by Frank Martin on Jan 23, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

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