Greater Greater Washington

Prince George's great Heights

At the four corners of the original District of Columbia are four very distinct developments. In the south, Alexandria hugs the Potomac River as a classic example of a traditional city. On the west corner is Falls Church, a typical but up-and-coming Virginia suburb. In the north, Silver Spring sits atop the District's crown showcasing the triumphant transition from a suburb to an urban place. And then there is the east, where lie "the Heights".


Photo by Ben Schumin.

The City of District Heights, the Town of Capitol Heights, the Town of Fairmount Heights, and the City of Seat Pleasant, four of Prince George's County's small municipalities, hug the eastern corner of the District. Each houses only a few thousand thousand residents, mostly in single family homes organized on traditional street grids bounded by arterial highways. The area is rich with Metro stations, served directly by Capitol Heights and Addison Road/Seat Pleasant on the Blue Line, and somewhat indirectly by nearby Cheverly on the Orange Line and Suitland on the Green Line.

Much of their origin parallels other Maryland suburbs like Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, and Mount Rainier. Though promised trolley service like the other towns, the early Heights towns never received a trolley. But with the exception of Fairmount Heights, they originally housed wealthy Washingtonians who wanted a quieter home with scenic views of the city. Capitol Heights even went so far as to promise "no colored people." Fairmount Heights, on the other hand, was incorporated specifically to provide low-cost single-family houses to black families in a town that they could govern themselves.

Economically, the area has went downhill with suburbanization. A rebuilt Central Avenue became a sewer for high speed traffic, effectively cutting traffic off from the business core. Later, the Martin Luther King Highway did the same thing to the north. Currently, much of the commercial development in the area lies outside the municipal boundaries, mostly as low-grade sprawl-style strip malls along the highways.

The area has gained an unfortunate reputation, and undeservedly so. The towns continue to be strongly family oriented with relatively low crime compared to other nearby areas. Unfortunately, some perceive the demographics of this 90% black area in a negative light. The region has received disproportionally low investment, segregated from and spurned by the rest of the region. But despite the neglect this area faced, it might just be one of the more well kept secrets in the region.

These municipalities, like many others in Prince George's County, have very well-connected traditional street layouts. There is quick access to DC, both vehicular and by transit. There's immense capacity and opportunnity to improve this area. Unfortunately, Prince George's County is also notorious for its poor use of real estate around Metro stations. In 2007, Capitol Heights was the 6th least-used station on the entire Metro system. With such a well connected road network and community oriented atmosphere, this might be one of the best candidates to improve walkability.

M-NCPPC has recognized the need for transit-oriented development in PG County, and has a vision for Capitol Heights Metro station. The University of Maryland's school of Urban Planning studied (PDF) this area in 2003. These visions could transform "the Heights" into a hallmark example for transit-oriented development in Prince George's County, and these communities would finally earn recognition as the cozy, friendly and convenient neighborhoods that they are.

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Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast. 

Comments

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The sprawl era really warped our perceptions of the criteria for a nice community. Prince George's County has a lot of potential because of its many legacy towns. What they continue to do with new development, outside of National Harbor and Prince George's Plaza leaves much to be desired.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 9:13 am • linkreport

Until PG county gets it's crime rates more in line with MoCo development is probably going to lag. Unfortunately the only real way to lower crime is to increase development. Chicken, meet egg.

by Local on Dec 31, 2008 9:19 am • linkreport

Unfortunately the only real way to lower crime is to increase development. Chicken, meet egg.

Lolwut?

New York City spent tons and tons of money on its citizens during the 1960's and 1970's and yet its crime rate spiked to unimaginable heights in the late 70's.

Rethink your thesis my friends.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 9:42 am • linkreport

@ EC

I said nothing about public money. Private money in = development = less crime. You want examples? Look around. Columbia heights, Logan Circle, Times Square etc etc...

by Local on Dec 31, 2008 9:45 am • linkreport

Tell me how development actually reduces crime. My guess is that the criminal that was selling drugs at Times Square is not going to suddenly decide to work at the Nike shop that just opened instead of selling drugs.

The way you cut down crime is to actually enforce laws. Giuliani beefed up the police force and shockingly crime went down to historic lows in NYC.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 9:55 am • linkreport

NYC PD opperational strength peaked in 2001. Since then the number of officers on the street has gone consistently down. Guess what else also went down? Yep EC you guessed it, violent Crime. 20% drop. I'm sure pumping a boatload of private cash into the city had nothing to do with that...

by Local on Dec 31, 2008 10:07 am • linkreport

If you owned a business would you invest in a ghetto without any assurances of security so that

A- your investment is not threatened

B- customers are not terrified to go there

?

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 10:12 am • linkreport

EC - Finally you follow. Remember, Chicken - Egg. It was my point. Crime won't drop significantly without significant development, and no one want's to invest without a significant drop in crime. Probably why we see gentrification growing outward from a reasonably developed core.

by local on Dec 31, 2008 10:18 am • linkreport

Local, that is an excellent observation. A couple of years ago, all the new action was in older Favored Quarter places that had declined such as DuPont Circle, Georgetown, and Friendship Heights. Now, all the action is in the Favored Quarter Adjacent places like Columbia Heights, U St., Silver Spring, Columbia Pike (Arlington), and soon Wheaton.

The eyes on the street from the vital social life helps reduce crime. There has to be some new attraction there to draw the first pioneers. From there, it's a self-reinforcing cycle. In DuPont, it was the first wave of upscale bars. In Silver Spring, it was the Fenton Street development. In Columbia Heights, it's the new development clustered around the Metro on 14th St. NW. In SW DC it will be the reopening of 4th St. SW and the related new amenities.

There has to be some new bright shiny object. Then the region gets used to going to the place and it stops being alien and scary. Crime then goes down because there are more eyes on the street. Police presence drops because there are fewer incidents. It is quite a self-reinforcing chicke and egg cycle.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:12 am • linkreport

Cavan, in your cycle of gentrification you forgot the obvious. Populations get squeezed out and moved to other areas. And when the crime was associated with these populations, it just gets transferred elsewhere. It doesn't really disappear.

by Lance on Dec 31, 2008 11:22 am • linkreport

Prince George's County has four Metro lines, numerous Metro stations, the BW Parkway, the Beltway, Route 50, tons of other roads, nice old towns, and a good street grid. It's really a shame that development in the county has mostly been outside the Beltway, and development in the region has passed the county in general. In Maryland the focus is on building Montgomery-centered projects like the Purple Line and the ICC rather than on using existing infrastructure by getting development around the underutilized Metro stations and considerable road grid of Prince George's County. It is a waste, a missed opportunity, and a sad testament to a complete and utter failure of regional planning.

by Omari on Dec 31, 2008 11:36 am • linkreport

Whether crime gets relocated or disappears depends on the greater macroeconomic conditions in the society.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:36 am • linkreport

The Purple Line is not a Montgomery centered project. You'll notice that it connects two existing Metro lines in Prince George's and two in Montgomery. One of the main reasons why it's very politically feasible at the state level is that it will serve a wider constituency.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:39 am • linkreport

"There has to be some new bright shiny object."

That's interesting, and you're on to something. It does seem that development and (maybe even more so) redevelopment centers around bright shiny objects, such as sports venues or shopping or other massive private investment.

There are a few such objects in Prince George's: National Harbor (wow, another drive in/drive out sprawlville, great idea), Largo, and Prince George's Plaza.

by Omari on Dec 31, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport

"The Purple Line is not a Montgomery centered project."

I disagree with this because the Purple Line has always been about connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring. The line to New Carrollton was tacked on to get Prince George's support. Even now it is often sold as a way to cart workers from Prince George's to Montgomery, not as a way to encourage development in Prince George's. Prince George's would be better served with capital investment around its existing infrastructure, not with another transportation line that will cart workers out of the county. It's Montgomery that needs improved transportation infrastructure, not Prince George's.

by Omari on Dec 31, 2008 11:45 am • linkreport

Omari, that's one big part of the reason why I moved from Prince George's to Montgomery: not enough bright shiny objects. Not enough amenities that I can walk or take transit to. Prince George's has focused its development on car-dependent residential uses for decades. Therefore, the only amenities are also car-dependent and generic. It's a really quiet place to live a quiet suburban life.

Prince George's is starting to get the concept of the Bright Shiny Object at PG Plaza and National Harbor. It's a start. Even though it's not in the Favored Quarter, the income level is there. The county is a middle class place by any national measure.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:50 am • linkreport

The Purple Line is being looked at as a redevelopment tool even more heavily in Prince George's than in Montgomery. Places like Langley Park, East Campus, River Road, the intersection of Kenilworth and East-West, and the New Carrolton Metro station are being considering in future plans.

You are correct that its origins lie in connecting the two Red Lines. There is some truth in adding in the Green and Orange Lines for political as well as practical purposes. However, those practical purposes have been as much for Prince George's as for Montgomery. Otherwise, the Price George's delegation wouldn't be so in favor of it.

As far as what you said about moving Prince George's commuters to Montgomery, there will be plenty of that. However, once there is investment in Prince George's because of the rail line, that equation will change a bit. The line is good for both, regardless of its origins. It only feels like it's Montgomery-centered at times because of the nonsense in the Town of Chevy Chase.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 11:56 am • linkreport

Prince George's has several bright shiny objects, 15 to be exact. Some of these shiny objects are orange, some blue, and most green. Yet the County has not leveraged them to make the County more desirable. Instead, they have promoted development at locations inaccessible to mass transit like the old Capitols Center, Bowie Town Center, and National Harbor. At least the Konterra property will have MARC access.

While the County has access to a highly professional planning organization in the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, there are things that are beyond the control of planners. While street crime gets more than its share of the blame (especially inside the Beltway), a lot of the problems have to do with the politics in the County. The political landscape in Prince George's is very different than that in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, or Montgomery.

by Stanton Park on Jan 2, 2009 4:04 pm • linkreport

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