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Accokeek growth: A good idea in the wrong place at the wrong time

Located on the outer fringes of the Washington region, well outside the Favored Quarter, Accokeek is a very quiet, very low-density area of far southern Prince George's County. Since it is both low-density, and miles from the Favored Quarter it lacks many retail and employment amenities that residents in the core of the region often take for granted. It is no surprise that some residents are hopeful that a new mega-project could change the current status quo. However, development so far from the metropolitan core probably won't bring the benefits that the group, called the Accokeek Smart Growth Coalition, hopes.

Livingston Road at Indian Head Hwy.

First off, it's unlikely that the new Accokeek Crossing development would have a human-scale street grid. It is proposed as single-use retail, making the automobile the only way to travel to the stores. Secondly, how can it support retail activity in a place with so few potential customers? Finally, and most importantly, there is no transit planned for the Indian Head Highway corridor. Transit plans with light rail to Southern Maryland usually envision transit along the Branch Avenue corridor, to connect with the Metro at the Branch Avenue station. It runs the same risk as the Belward Farm proposal in Gaithersburg: supposed "Transit-Oriented Development" without the transit. It would have all the disadvantages of the National Harbor development without the true human-scale street grid (PDF).

Despite reservations about this proposal, I understand why a group of residents would be hopeful for new development in their area:

But members of the Accokeek Smart Growth Coalition [a group that is, ironically, pushing for something that is clearly not Smart Growth], a community organization pushing for development in the area, said the proposal would be a high-end project that would reduce shopping commute times, spark business growth and allow residents to spend more time closer to home. Hopes are high for restaurants and fine retailers for clothing and electronics, but no stores are lined up for the project, which is in the early stages of development.

"I'm tired of living in my car," said Chuck Clagett, coalition vice president. "We're all driving somewhere [far away in order to perform daily functions of life]."

Without knowing it, Mr. Clagett expressed one of the most compelling arguments against dispersed low-density car-dependent human settlement patterns. Just like residents of the Open Meadow Lane subdivision in Prince William County, he is describing the suburban/exurban trade-off between "affordable" housing and torturously long commute times. In the case of car-dependent places outside the Favored Quarter like Accokeek, and Prince William County, the trade-off is even more striking as residents have to drive far away for most retail, restaurant, and entertainment amenities in addition to the commute to work.

In the case of this specific proposal, it looks unlikely:

County planners said rezoning the area would be a hard sell because Accokeek was never meant to house large shopping centers and commercial developments. "Accokeek is not a growth area," said Wendy Irminger, a county planning coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "Smart Growth requires a place where public money will go to support it."
Irminger is stating the the obvious in this case. During the bubble years in the middle of this decade, our nation saw far more suburban and exurban retail space built than it could use. Since then, the bubble popped and many developers are on the brink of insolvency because of all the unfilled retail space. However, these conditions bring up the question, "where we go from here?" The Prince George's County Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission would be prudent to not make the problem worse with this project.
Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


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We can't just tell people not to develop the land in their area, though. What's the solution? Push for better transit to that area? Does transit there even make sense?

by Michael Perkins on Mar 30, 2009 3:04 pm • linkreport

It is a conundrum. In this case, I feel little sympathy for the gentleman in the article. He moved to Accokeek knowing it is a rural place. If he wanted urban amenities, he could have lived somewhere where there are urban amenities. Accokeek has been planned as a rural place for decades. There has never been any plans for enough population to support retail and restaurant amenities.

I grew up in Cecil County, MD. It's a very rural place that is roughly 2/3 farmland by land area. I remember people who moved in next to a pig farm and complained about the smell. Yet, the pig farm was there for decades before they ever built their house. It's not like there was a surprise.

I feel that more development in Accokeek should be discouraged. It would be far more prudent to concentrate growth around transit nodes so there an agglomeration of customers and businesses that are interwoven can develop. Kind of like a walkable city or town.

by Cavan on Mar 30, 2009 3:13 pm • linkreport

You can have dense development and a walkable area without transit. Even if people live there and drive to work, you can still decrease VMT by virtue of concentrating retail and commercial within a residential area. (or even free standing)

ANd honestly, light rail in that corridor would be mostly park-and-ride with connections to Metro...

by AA on Mar 30, 2009 3:35 pm • linkreport

Cavan, once again a good substantive piece. But despite your love for the term, I'm not sure Favored Quarter needs to be mentioned 3+ times for every new story relating to Maryland Suburbs... =)

by Paul S on Mar 30, 2009 3:41 pm • linkreport

AA, good point. National Harbor has those characteristics. However, this project is being proposed as single-use retail. That tends to imply lots of surface parking.

by Cavan on Mar 30, 2009 3:43 pm • linkreport

Anything to keep retail in the Favored Quarter and away from the unsophisicated ruralites. WE know how to use their land better than they do, why can't they realize that?

by MPC on Mar 30, 2009 4:32 pm • linkreport

You want neighborhood-serving retail to be pretty close to all neighborhoods, so some retail in Accokeek is a good idea. What you don't want is so much that it acts as a draw and induces more sprawl.

Looking at Google Maps, it looks like Accokeek has two grocery store-anchored strip malls, both with some out parcels and secondary shops. That ought to be plenty for purely local business.

by BeyondDC on Mar 30, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport


To me that seems like an unfair ad hominem, perhaps you could respond in a more detailed way?

by Art on Mar 30, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

MPC, it's been too long since I've read your comments.

No. That's not what I said. I said a strip mall in a place with too few potential customers that's too far away from anything is not a good idea. The favored quarter thing is part of the background of commute times and distance from regional amenities.

Once again, it's more to do with the rural characteristics and lack of transit infrastructure. I think I have been very clear about my views in favor of human-scale transit-oriented walkable urban development in all places in the region. My view against this proposal has to do with the fact that it possesses none of those characteristics.

by Cavan on Mar 30, 2009 5:10 pm • linkreport

But Cavan, I always thought you were a venal and mercenary shill for THE DEVELOPERS (a branch of international libertarian fascism). How can you oppose this? Does this mean the purple line NIMBYs lied? Maybe this is a false flag attack to make your opinions look principled! It's not possible that someone could actually take a nuanced view about good land use.

I don't know whom to believe now...

by цarьchitect on Mar 30, 2009 6:22 pm • linkreport

No. That's not what I said. I said a strip mall in a place with too few potential customers that's too far away from anything is not a good idea

So now we're all armchair M.B.A's? Maybe you should send this shocking piece of market analysis to the development firm. I'm sure they've never even considered that.

Or maybe it's a trend. GM is now days away from cranking out a Yugo now that Washington calls the shots anyways, why shouldn't the bureaucrats get involved in other exciting opportunities as well?

by MPC on Mar 30, 2009 6:29 pm • linkreport

I am quite shocked to see that there is an organization hiding behind "smart growth" to advocate retail on a rural corridor. Prince George's County already has a "high end retail" destination at National Harbor, 8 miles north of Accokeek. If that is too far, then don't move to a rural exurb.

As for transportation, the County has proposed a fixed rail line down Indian Head Highway:

Although, I am strongly against a transit line serving far flung new developments when they should concentrate on the more densely populated regions of Prince George's County that are so grossly underserved.

As far as retail goes, Layman linked to a great article on the failure of the Boulevard at the the Capital Center

In the linked WaPo article, PG County expresses desire for something "like Downtown Silver Spring", but of course the primary allure to SS is the fact that it's by a Metro station inside the Beltway in a walkable area.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 30, 2009 6:50 pm • linkreport

Side note: the image says "Indian Head Highway at Livingston Road", which is an intersection that occurs five times in Prince George's County, and one more time in the District. Quite confusing.

by Dave Murphy on Mar 30, 2009 6:53 pm • linkreport

Dave beat me to it (that the county transportation plan proposes an LRT line down Indian Head Hwy).

Not completely familliar with the area, but I think BDC's assessment (and suggestion) is pretty close to target.

by Froggie on Mar 30, 2009 7:34 pm • linkreport

I haven't been there, but isn't the Largo Town Center metro stop next to the Boulevard?

by alexandrian on Mar 30, 2009 11:33 pm • linkreport

Dave, Livingston is sort of the old road that Indian Head Highway replaced. That's why it sort of weaves in and out of the Indian Head Highway ROW.

The intersection is question is the one where Livingston is signed MD 373. The intersection is the intersection of MD210 and MD373. It's really rural.

You can't just plop down a strip mall in the middle of nowhere and call it "high end retail." In a car-dependent place, such an arrangement only works in the Favored Quarter. In the case of Pentagon City, it benefits greatly from being on top of a Metro station and somewhat centrally located. It attracts shoppers from all around the region. Tysons Galleria, Montgomery, and White Flint malls are in the Favored Quarter and attract shoppers from farther out in the suburbs and exurbs. It is no coincidence that Montgomery Mall thrives in North Bethesda/Potomac and not in Germantown on the fringe of the region.

These economic issues are on top of the land use and environmental problems with the proposal.

by Cavan on Mar 31, 2009 9:44 am • linkreport

MPC, I'll respond to your snark by mentioning to you that I don't have an M.B.A. I actually hold a Master's in Economics with a Financial Economics concentration.

Hence why so many of my posts have an economic angle to them.

by Cavan on Mar 31, 2009 9:48 am • linkreport

If that is too far, then don't move to a rural exurb. -Dave Murphy

Please don't exaggerate. I hardly think we're -that- far flung from the rest of the region. I wouldn't consider Accokeek an Exurb at all considering there are plenty of towns south of here in Charles county that still commute into DC. On a good day, it takes only 15-20 minutes to get up to Anacostia or Alexandria and about 35-40 into downtown DC. We're only as far out as Gaithersburg, Fairfax or Bowie from the District Core.

In the case of Pentagon City, it benefits greatly from being on top of a Metro station and somewhat centrally located. It attracts shoppers from all around the region. -Cavan

It's funny you mention that because as a resident of Accokeek for the past 15 years, I've regularly trekked over to Alexandria and Crystal City to shop and spend my leisurely time there. I'm not sure what these people are complaining about nor what they are pushing for. In fact, most people I know or spoken with in the area are rather content with using Waldorf as a primary commercial outlet which is but 7 miles east of town. We practically border Waldorf. There's plenty that Waldorf has to offer that is easily accessible (even if by car) and has a lot more established than Accokeek could ever hope to achieve.

If it's a walkable vision they're pushing for, then good luck with that. Our new library was built, which had a great chance to establish it's prominence along Livingston Rd instead got far recessed behind a park and ride lot making it obscure and unapproachable. Adding the second retail outlet along 228 wasn't really that much needed either. As Cavan pointed out, we have two strip malls and grocery stores plus a gas station to boot, pretty much a staple at almost EVERY intersection along 210. Anything along 210 is pretty much the epitome of suburbia.

What to call Accokeek, hmm. Rural, Small-town USA or Suburban? I've seen these monikers pushed around many times in the last few years of recent development, but I'm not really sure where to place Accokeek. Call it an identity crisis, but suburbanization has destroyed that ubiquitous rural character and I hardly think we're going back. We're both yet neither at the same time. At the surface (everything along 210) you'd imagine Accokeek were Suburban, but it's only on the fringes where you actually see farms (and many of them are pretty small to boot). The problem here is we're being crunched by development pressures from the likes of Oxon Hill, Waldorf and Bryans Road, which are all aiming for higher development densities while we're caught in the middle as an anomaly among developing DC suburbs. Pushing more development here isn't the best idea since we're surrounded by great communities. It'd be nice if we could leverage persuasion on those neighboring communities to pick up walkable districts rather than force a needless, sprawl inducing, non-existent one of our own.

by Andrew on Mar 31, 2009 11:11 am • linkreport

And also the most interesting feature I neglected to mention, the Village Plan concept in question:

[Back in 2006 I came across 4 versions of the plan, two of which included a new school which our area -desperately- needs.]

What currently exists there? Trees. Lots of Trees. And nothing basically.

What I like about this is how it connects the older developments and turns them into a grid. However I expect NIMBY's out of that development due to their streets not having any pedestrian friendly connections, characteristic of the rural development you have previously mentioned.

The thing that always gets me is that these developments are isolated from the core. I hate National Harbor's one way only point of entry. This plan offers many more points of entry, but still I feel feels separate from the majority of Accokeek's 7000+ Residents. [If this plan alone was intended to cater to locals only]. Involving more crossings along 210 would be nice, though cross commuters from Waldorf wouldn't be too happy.

by Andrew on Mar 31, 2009 11:28 am • linkreport

The proposed shopping area is not a mega retail area as being implied. The goal is for about four sit down restaurants and several large stores with some smaller ones to bring services that don't exist along the Indian Head highway corridor. We are tired of the strip malls with fast food that Park and Planning only allow us to have along Indian Head highway. This retail area can't get any larger than the proposed size because it is box in on four sides with existing development. The estimated number of people this will service is 30,000; this doesn’t look very rural to me. It doesn't need mass transit to be successful because most of us will be dead before that happens. Stopping all the incessant driving to Waldorf or Virginia is better for the environment. Finally for the Prince George's County residents, their tax dollars will stay in the county and finally help pay for those better schools, police, fire, and mass transit services they need instead of paying for Charles County services.

by Accokeek Smart Growth Coalition on Apr 3, 2009 11:30 am • linkreport

I think a rail line in accokeek or near is a great idea.. We need some sort of transportation to get to the other places in the county without calling upon a cab or a friend to drive us places and paying money at unbelievable costs to get across the county. It's ridiculous! Please I don't mind being taxed and I'm sure others wouldn't either, we need a rail line down here besides branch avenue which is 20m minutes away, sometimes just about 30.

by X on Apr 9, 2009 3:56 pm • linkreport

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