The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Will "downtown" plan fix what ails Prince George's?

Yesterday, I talked about how Prince George's County planners want to create "downtown" areas around 2 or 3 of the county's Metro stations. But will the county direct growth to the right places, and will this new policy actually discourage suburban sprawl?

At a town hall meeting last Saturday, county planners presented 3 Metro stations, College Park, Prince George's Plaza, and New Carrollton, that could be sites for potential "downtowns." They would become Priority Improvement Districts (PIDs) which would get extra public investment to encourage private development. 3 other stations, Greenbelt, Largo Town Center, and Branch Avenue, were dubbed "game changers" that could become downtowns in the future.

This is a welcome step toward steering the county's growth toward transit sites and away from greenfields in distant, car-dependent areas. However, there are still questions about whether the county is picking the right centers, what to do with the other Metro station areas, and how the county will handle development away from Metro.

Are we using the right methodology to identify the best "downtown" locations?

How should we decide where a downtown goes? Historically, cities grew from areas with some geographic asset, like a confluence of rivers or an important rail junction, but Prince George's County has used very different criteria.

Planners developed a PID Diagnostic Index to analyze the county's 27 "activity centers" and decide which ones were best suited for a downtown. They gave the most weight to dynamic conditions, like current population demographics, the presence of large employers, and crime rates, while downplaying static features that could provide opportunities for growth, like undeveloped land, the lack of steep slopes or flood plains, or proximity to transit, including Metro, bus, and MARC.

While the 6 places they came up with make sense, it's strange to see Metro and MARC stations like Suitland, Riverdale, and Cheverly also ranked among the county's top 10 "highest performing" areas. M-NCPPC's 2010 Subregion 4 Master Plan said these areas weren't suitable for private investment, citing low household incomes, and a lack of existing private investment and developable land. Instead, planners recommended focusing on places like the Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard Metro stations, which offered "the best market opportunities for near-term development" in central Prince George's County. Yet, Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard appear nowhere on the top 10 list. This doesn't instill confidence in county planners' current analysis.

Largo Town Center: A promising high performer underrated in the PID Diagnostic Index. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It's also strange that Largo Town Center wasn't rated more favorably than College Park, Prince George's Plaza, or New Carrollton. Largo is centrally located, is on the Blue and eventually Silver lines and major highways, has significant commercial activity, reasonably high income and education levels, and a large number of government offices. Matt Johnson recently called it the prime location for the new county seat. Unlike New Carrollton, Largo has lots of land available for redevelopment that isn't constrained by flood plains.

It's likely that, had M-NCPPC considered other models that weighted each factor differently, other stations may have come out on top in some of those alternate models. It might be a good idea for the planners to rethink some of these models and rankings, in an effort to arrive at a more realistic ranking of stations.

What about the other Metro stations?

While 2 or 3 downtowns would receive extra help from the county, the rest of the 27 activity centers would have to fend for themselves in the private market, according to the strategy proposed at the town hall forum. This logic flies in the face of previous M-NCPPC studies and findings, which indicate that there isn't enough of a market in the near term to spur development at most of the county's Metro stations without public help.

TOD next to the Morgan Boulevard Metro station. Photo from Google Street View.

It's also unclear that a singular focus on creating "downtowns," as opposed to other station typologies, is the best strategy for the county. Previous M-NCPPC planning efforts called for a "corridor strategy" that pursues coordinated development and planning of several transit station areas along a major transportation route. Planners are working on two such efforts now, along the Blue Line and the southern end of the Green Line. The development of non-downtown station areas along these corridors may likewise require public commitment, focus, and financial support.

Representatives from M-NCPPC and the county haven't clearly explained why they've changed their focus, nor have they provided any data showing that the private market will be organically motivated to redevelop existing station areas in the short term, with no financial incentives or strategic support from the county. While it's not realistic to expect that all 27 centers or even the areas around all 15 Metro stations will be redeveloped at once, it may be advisable to pursue more of a middle-ground approach.

The county could still direct a lot of public investment to the downtowns, while providing some additional, targeted aid to other Metro station areas, like the "game changers" or other high-potential urban neighborhood sites like West Hyattsville and Addison Road. This could include building street grids where they don't exist, filling in the sidewalk and bike lane network, and assembling land for private development.

Other stations, like Morgan Boulevard, might need fewer public infrastructure improvements, since there's a lot of vacant and developable land around the Metro station and it's owned mostly by the county and WMATA. But they could use marketing and branding support from the county and WMATA to encourage private development.

We also need a strategy for implementing these public investments. County TIF bonds are one possibility. Both existing or future municipalities, like the City of Greenbelt, could take more of a direct role in the redevelopment of non-PID Metro stations. We also need to decide which non-downtown stations should receive priority consideration.

Do "new towns" and other typologies make sense?

Plan Prince George's 2035 continues to designate substantially vacant and undeveloped areas far away from transit, like Westphalia and Bowie (away from the MARC station), as planned growth areas. If the county wants to focus its energy on building 2 or 3 "downtowns," and several other Metro station areas have room for development and a need for both private and public investment, why would we need any "new towns" in the near term?

Even if greenfield communities are fully paid for by the private sector, which is unlikely, the county would still have to pay for the infrastructure needed to sustain them, like roads, sewers, and schools. M-NCPPC should explain how "new town" centers thus fit logically into the county's strategic land use priorities between now and 2035.

If we're going to direct future development to transit, we need to ensure a strong connection between transit and land use. That means allowing more density around Metro, both to incentivize development, support high-quality retail and commercial uses, and create compact, walkable neighborhoods where people don't have to drive. But it also means discouraging development of any density in areas far away from transit, which not only cannibalizes what private investment does come to the county, but further destabilizes closer-in communities.

According to M-NCPPC project leader Kierre McCune, work on Plan Prince George's 2035 should end by next spring. If you'd like more information, visit their website to get updates, and follow the process on Twitter at #PlanPGC2035.

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 and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 


Add a comment »

I think M-NCPPC came to the conclusion that trying to develop 15+ areas int he county was spreading themselves too thin. I think it is good that the county has a sharper focus. And while it may seem that they are sending mixed signals, this is just an evolution due to dynamic market forces. There are market undercurrents that may be driving them to tone down their focus and pursue programs that can accelerate those areas that have had a measure of success with development within a core that is also next to transit. Just my guess.

by adelphi_sky on Jun 20, 2013 1:59 pm • linkreport

Comp plans almost universally have a serious problem of wanting to designate everywhere as a "growth node," because local politicians want to be able to have a gravy train of development to profit from.

Yet as we've found with WalkUPs, focusing growth into a downtown creates a critical mass of activity that creates exponential returns on investment. The "downtown" sites identified are all sub-critical: each of them has a bunch of activities (I'm often amazed at how there's actually a lot of retail scattered around Largo, and up Baltimore Ave.), but little connectivity and no sense of place. Yet by dint of their existing uses and relatively strong access, they're much further on their way to that critical mass than greenfield sites like Branch Avenue, much less Westphalia.

Let's also be realistic: Prince George's County accounts for a small share of regional development activity -- less than 5% of the region's leasable office inventory, for instance (from the Cassidy/Turley 1Q2013 market reports) -- and even if that activity multiplies, there won't be enough to create appreciable development at all 27 centers. Focusing development into a few "downtown" sites to get those truly up and running on their own, to the point where they're regionally competitive on their own merits as unsubsidized destination locales that offer excellent access, services, and quality of life, will help the county better focus attention on spurring demand elsewhere.

by Payton on Jun 20, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

It's also strange that Largo Town Center wasn't rated more favorably than ... New Carrollton.

While it may be a leap of faith, the state and county are committed to moving development forward at New Carrollton. It's the only Amtrak station in the County; and the lack of serious development is a continuing black eye for M-NCPPC and elected officals. It's access to US-50 and I-95 is at least as good as that of Largo.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has signed a lease to move to New Carrollton in about two years, to a new building which will be at 7800 Harkins Ave, and accompanied by 500 residential units and 40,000 square feet of retail.

The developer has plans for a $1 billion investment. We've heard that before, but with a $1 million bond posted by the developer and a lease signed, it looks like the first step is going to happen. If the Purple Line is approved, this area will finally start to become attractive.

by JimT on Jun 20, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

@ Jim:

Oh, I wasn't suggesting that we don't need to make New Carrollton one of the priority sites. We definitely do. Despite its many, many undesirable site constraints (rail lines, highways, etc.), it is already a premier regional transportation hub, with Amtrak, MARC, Metro, Greyhound, Bolt, Peter Pan, etc. So you have to put some significant development there, just like you have to put something significant at Union Station in Capitol Hill.

That said, downtown DC isn't at Union Station, and downtown PGC likely shouldn't be at New Carrollton. Largo is a much better station area for a true "downtown" and should've rated better in the indexing, for all the reasons stated in the article. Moreover, other high-potential stations should've ranked higher than Cheverly and Suitland - which pretty much everyone (including M-NCPPC) has agreed are poor candidates for significant development, given site constraints and other market factors.

by Bradley Heard on Jun 20, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport

PG Plaza isn't doing too well as a mall and seems like an eventual candidate for demalling which, if done right, could help making the Metro stop more of a downtown. Not all of the nearby development fits in. More office development around NCHS would be a big help or, better yet, integrating it with the next evolution of the shopping mall.

Without a lot of intensive development, New Carollton will just continue to be a transfer point.

by Rich on Jun 20, 2013 6:23 pm • linkreport

Well one of the biggest problems that holds PG County back is that there is very poor public transportation. While Montgomery County has relatively decent Metro rail, MARC, Metrobus, and Ride-On bus service, PG County does not. The Metrobus service within the county operates less frequently than it does in Montgomery County; many routes don't even run on the weekends. And those that do run on the weekend tend to only run once per hour and stop in the late afternoon/early evening. (As I said in the post about Ride-On, having service end at 5 or 6 PM on a Saturday or Sunday works well if you're that sweet, old Grandmother who gets up at 8 or 9 AM in the morning, does her errands in the midday, goes to mall, and then turns in for the night in the late afternoon/early evening; but it works poorly for those who want to go to the movies or into town for entertainment). The Bus, PG County's equivalent or Ride-On, doesn't even run on the weekends. The public transportation options there are very limited; and, with the slight exception of perhaps the communities that ring around the DC border, you need a car to live in PG County.

For whatever reason, when Montgomery County chose to aggressively support public transportation, PG County did not. I wasn't around back in the 1960s and 1970s, but those poor decisions haunt the county to this day. One of the biggest factors making PG County unattractive to developers and high-end retailers is the lack of an effective public transportation system.

by Rain17 on Jun 21, 2013 4:25 am • linkreport

The issue that will continue to hold back PG County is that the anti-Growth crowd continues to hustle the pipe dream that if they push for development at the existing metro stations in PG County it will increase economic growth. However they don't tell you that the properties near the Metro Stations in PG County is Far more Expensive to land more Business there then it will be to Develop in areas outside of the the Beltway in PG County. So with that formula it will continue to keep PG County from being as Competitive as Business Rich Northern Virginia's Fairfax County and Loudon County. And... if PG County continues the same old formula of making it harder for Major Businesses to relocate to PG County and preventing Upscale Retail Growth then expect those "Fancy" Condos that they keep putting up or trying to build near the Metro Stations in PG County to be 50% to 85% empty especially if they are charging DC/Northern Virginia Prices with No Benefits of being close to High Paying Jobs and Upscale Retail Shopping Malls......

by Richard on Jun 21, 2013 9:11 am • linkreport

Has anyone considered what a downtown actually is? From what I gather, there are numerous definitions of downtown that date back to WWII. Based on research by Hauge Brueck Associations,LLC, downtowns were initially considered the center of American Metropolis. Since then, areas around urban and rural locations have become rather fragmented and blended to quite an extent. This exemplifies areas just within and outside of I-95/495 Beltway within Prince Georges County.

Also, aren't downtowns located within municipalities? Based on current choices for 2035, it makes sense that New Carrolton would fit the classic definition most. Although not a municipality, another area that should be considered is Suitland. It is located within synergetic development of Capital Riverfront and Southeast Anacostia, serves as gateway community between D.C. and outside beltway Prince Georges areas, contains a major Metro Line, has a strong federal workforce presence for potential private developers, historic facilities and is part of the Transferring Neighborhoods Initiative of County Executive.

The Southern Green Line plan effort may prove to be the most viable option of a high density, mixed retail/housing, public transit location that best suits both classic and contemporary downtown definitions.

A Dr. Blake Roberts comprises it this way.

A downtown is the perceived commercial center of a community. It is typically characterized by:

Compact form;
Higher densities;
Historic buildings and infrastructure;
Uses that serve the community and region, particularly civic and public uses;
A mix of uses; and
Emphasis on multiple transportation modes.

by Len on Jun 21, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

People who live in the housing developments need to organize. It's really plain. The wealthiest "communities" aren't towns or cities. They are just a collection of homes. That is in part because the people who live there refuse to organize and actually incorporate their communities.

First place the county should start with in Downtown Upper Marlboro. What else should be a better representation of how a downtown should look and feel than your County Seat.

by MissBrittBritt on Jul 23, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us