Greater Greater Washington

Development


Can a commercial enterprise succeed if hidden from view?

Yesterday, we discussed the plan for Prince George's County first Whole Foods store. Besides the inappropriate strip mall design, it also contains a huge "buffer" between the development and Route 1, which could fatally damage the ability for this area to be successful.


2011 plan of Cafritz Property.

Both the 2007 and 2008 versions of the project planned for a wooded buffer along Route 1 to separate the development from the single-family homes across the street in affluent University Park.

The current plan removes much of that wooded buffer, but not to create an active streetscape along the main street. Instead, it's been shrunk from the interior edge to make room for more parking lots. If the latest sketches are accurate, there will be only a couple trees saved along Route 1.

Cafritz Route 1 Rendering 2007
2007 rendering of Cafritz Property as seen from Route 1.

Cafritz Route 1 Rendering 2008
2008 rendering of Cafritz Property as seen from Route 1.

It's worth calling into question the provenance of such a buffer in the first place. One assumes it was to be set aside to preserve the wooded view for the 12 to 13 houses across from the property on the west side of Route 1. Those houses are already facing a four-lane arterial highway.

One would have to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief to think those houses are anywhere but on a busy road. Shielding the development from these dozen or so houses would make it nearly impossible for passing traffic to realize there is commercial space behind the trees, and the lack of visibility would almost certainly be a turn-off for business proprietors.

Right now, the proposed development site is zoned R-55 (residential-single-family). Before the Cafritz developers can build any portion of their proposed mixed-use development, they will need to obtain a zoning change from the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), and from the District Council (which is what the County Council calls itself when it sits as a zoning agency).

The M-NCPPC and the District Council approved a mixed-use town center plan for the Town of Riverdale Park in 2004. This plan covers the commercial areas of the town just south of the Cafritz Property. Thus, one rezoning option that the Cafritz developers would have is to apply to extend the Riverdale Park Mixed Use Town Center (M-U-TC) zone northward, to cover their property. This would allow them to build the Whole Foods along with the other commercial and multifamily residential components of their proposed development.

The Riverdale Park M-U-TC zoning regulations for that portion of Route 1 just south of the Cafritz property specifically prohibit parking between the street and the front of buildings. The intent of those regulations, according to the plan, is "[t]o retain and create a consistent street wall (abutting buildings aligned along a build-to line) that promotes a sense of enclosure (a street room), defines the sidewalk, and frames the street."

Instead of designing its project to follow the streetscaping requirement of the plan, however, the development team uses creative language to explain its intent to sidestep those standards:

[W]e intend to deviate from the Riverdale Park MUTC Plan development district standards in one way. The current MUTC Plan encourages development to create a Route 1 street wall, with buildings tight to the Route 1 sidewalk. We intend to deviate from this pattern primarily because, in order to be compatible and respectful to the existing houses across the street, we are proposing a landscape buffer zone as our transition from Route 1 to our proposed multilevel retail/office buildings. In keeping with the spirit of the Riverdale Park MUTC Plan, our buildings will be tight to the internal sidewalk to create a comfortable and lively pedestrian experience, along our internal streets and not Route 1.
These "internal sidewalks" are simply pedestrian walkways alongside their parking lots. The "internal streets" are simply the driveways for the parking lots. By playing fast and loose with language, the proposed plan sounds like it's adhering to good urban design principles, while it's really a standard suburban big-box development.

The Riverdale Park MUTC Plan's build-to line design standard is a "shall" command, which the Plan describes as "mandatory and not discretionary." It says:

All new buildings shall be built within a specified distance (the build-to line) of the face-of-curb depending upon location, plus or minus the allowable variation.
In that area of Route 1, the mandatory build-to line is 10-15 feet from the curb, depending on the size of the sidewalk, with a permissible 4-foot variation. Therefore, if Cafritz wishes to obtain the M-U-TC zoning approval necessary to construct its project, the M-NCPPC and District Council should insist that Cafritz's proposed development conform to the mandatory design standards of the Riverdale Park plan for Route 1.

The question is, will they? Unless somebody who becomes a party of record (like a neighborhood association or concerned citizen) raises the issueboth in writing, before the public hearing, and at the public hearing itself, it's unlikely.

Even then, if history is any guide, the county will often strain to find a way to either ignore the standard or find a way to grant the developer a departure. But at least if the issue is raised, the M-NCPPC and the District Council will have to address it. The good news is anyone can become a party of record by filling out this form and/or by appearing at the hearing and testifying.

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. 
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. 
A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also 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. 

Comments

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Hiding a store from the road will nto harm it. Look across the country at communities with high standards where they don;t let development run roughshod over aesthetics. Once you know where it is you will go back.

by dd on Aug 18, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

If "anyone" can, why are the three authors urging some mysterious saviour to step forward and do so, rather than stepping up to raise the issue themselves? Without exploring this, the article reads as if the authors expect a random reader to do their dirty work.

by Lucre on Aug 18, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

Lucre: I would gladly raise the issue with the Council myself, but, since no hearing has been set regarding a rezoning of this parcel, it would be premature to make a concrete call for such action at this time.

dd: Our concern was less with Whole Foods' ability to get people to come to the store (as you said, once you know it's there, it would be easy to know where to go to return). The problem would be more for other retail locating at the site. Without the benefit of having more eyes on the site, smaller retailers would have to rely on Whole Foods shoppers patronizing them as well in order to get more people into their stores. I realize they can advertise, but that's often a large expense for a start-up enterprise.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 18, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

Why can't they put the parking lots BEHIND the complex, or underneath it?

by ceefer66 on Aug 18, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport

The Wholefoods in Fairlakes is hidden from sight. As if the strip mall on the other side of the road there. Those stores seem to be doing fine.

Is it handy to hide stores from sight? Of course not.

by Jasper on Aug 18, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

If there's a good anchor store, it won't harm a shopping center that's otherwise hidden from view. People will search out a Trader Joe's, for instance. Or if there was an Apple Store there...

by rnarnarna on Aug 18, 2011 4:24 pm • linkreport

Why can't they put the parking lots BEHIND the complex, or underneath it?

Because this is AMERICA, darn it, and that's the way you do things. What are you, some kind of Commie?

by JustMe on Aug 18, 2011 4:45 pm • linkreport

If Whole Foods wants to open a store in this area, why doesn't it open somewhere like PG Plaza or Laurel which have established commercial districts anyway?

by grumpy on Aug 18, 2011 6:30 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

The Fairlakes Wholefoods is visible from I-66.

@grumpy

Different market. University Park is the most elite town in that area. Wholefoods is catering to that market and the high income earners in the immediate vicinity.

by Sivad on Aug 18, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

@Sivad PG Plaza is not so much a different market. Especially when half of University Park can walk to it in 10 minutes. I would say that PG Plaza shares the market with RP. I'm an affluent Whole Foods shopper who lives in Adelphi and I frequent PG Plaza because it is less then a mile from where I live. Beltsville, Bladensburg, and Langley Park are what I would call "different" markets.

by Adelphi_Sky on Aug 19, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

@Adelphi Sky - that's kind of what I thought, and my coworker who lives in Takoma Park goes to PG Plaza when she needs something from Home Depot, etc. I'm ignorant as to just how big University Park is (I'm a Terp alum, but I mostly lived on-campus) but is it really big and affluent enough to sustain a Whole Foods by itself? It would seem that a location like PG Plaza which has Metro Access and a variety of other retail would make more sense then a "Whole Foods in a forest" proposal like the one being considered. Or is Whole Foods just really snotty about not being located next to lower-budget retailers like Target, Old Navy, etc?

by grumpy on Aug 19, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

Some in the UP neighborhood want a buffer, others reluctantly accept the wholefoods but not associated mixed use (commercial and high density residential). It will change the "character of the neighborhood". There is no obvious reason why parking shouldn't be behind, or that greater residential density shouldn't be allowed on an artery.

by Roland Stephen on Aug 19, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

"Fatally damage"? Really

by Scooter on Aug 19, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport

*Really?

by Scooter on Aug 19, 2011 4:30 pm • linkreport

Every bix box retail or mixed use development or what have you does not have to be on the street in some sort of Pennsylvania Ave set up. This area wants to remain true to their quiet, suburban roots and I don't blame them. Everyone doesn't want that and time and time again I keep reading how everyone is objecting to any plans that are not mixed use floor level retail and upper level mixed income condo, apts. Sorry but we can't create everything that way. Otherwise in 20 years we'll be where we are now wanting to rip everything down to start over again.

by VonniMediaMogul on Aug 22, 2011 3:14 am • linkreport

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