Four lessons Prince George's County can learn from Atlanta
Prince George's County has stubbornly stuck with sprawl, preferring development outside the Beltway and away from transit. Could it learn a new way to grow from Atlanta, which is swiftly metamorphosing from "Sprawlanta" to new urban paradise?
A recent study from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger finds that most of metropolitan Atlanta's growth now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. Close-in walkable neighborhoods, especially those near rail stations, are now home to 60% of Atlanta's office, retail, apartment, and institutional development.
But how did Atlanta get there, and how could Prince George's do the same? By creating plans and sticking to them, coordinating people and resources, making the case for smart growth to developers, and embracing the possibilities.
Talk is cheap, actions matter
In Atlanta, city officials are fully committed to carrying out a bold vision for transit-oriented development. It centers around the Atlanta Beltline, a comprehensive revitalization effort that will turn a 22-mile historic and virtually abandoned railroad corridor surrounding the city into a network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit. In addition, the city has partnered with MARTA, the regional transit agency, to redevelop more of the areas around existing transit stations and also to augment regional rail transit with local streetcar and bus routes.
As Cheryl Cort discusses in her review of M-NCPPC's Where and How We Grow policy paper, Prince George's County lacks a unified vision and growth policy. While county officials talk a great deal in the abstract about the need to focus on TOD and Metro station development, their actions reveal that they have very little understanding of or concern for what it would take to do so.
M-NCPPC staff is in the process of revising the county's General Plan, the official road map that is supposed to guide the county's growth and development through 2035. However, it remains to be seen whether the County Executive and County Council will actually commit themselves to carrying that vision forward, instead of just paying lip service to it.
Proper coordination of personnel and resources is essential
In Atlanta, the planning, building, and housing offices are organized within one department, Planning and Community Development, with a single commissioner. The commissioner's office provides leadership, policy direction, and centralized staff support for all three offices. A single quasi-independent development authority, Invest Atlanta, promotes the revitalization and growth of the city and serves as the city's economic development agency.
Invest Atlanta created a separate entity to implement the Atlanta Beltline vision called Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Atlanta's mayor and appointees from the city council, city school board, and Invest Atlanta serve on its board. These organizations and offices coordinate extensively with the public.
In Prince George's County, it's unclear who is responsible for developing and carrying out any TOD priorities. The planning, redevelopment, housing, and economic development functions are scattered across various independent agencies, including M-NCPPC, Economic Development Authority, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Authority, and the Revenue Authority, each of which has a separate board of directors.
Two different division heads within the county executive's office interact with these agencies. None of the agencies have any meaningful engagement with the public, except for M-NCPPC, the bi-county planning agency established by state law.
Encourage the development community to embrace smart growth
In Atlanta, city officials appear to have leveraged their good working relationships with the development and real estate communities such that they have become willing partners in the city's smart growth transformation. Take a look at Mariwyn Evans' fascinating account of how the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors (ACBR) worked to educate its fellow members and community leaders about the benefits of transit-oriented development, and also to promote smart growth as one of its top legislative priorities.
ACBR even helped create an extensive redevelopment action plan for the Edgewood-Candler Park MARTA Station, which is located in an older, formerly distressed neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Both before and after the plan's creation, ACBR worked with city, MARTA officials, and community groups to ensure that the plan would become a reality.
MARTA, in turn, worked with a developer to acquire and develop the Edgewood-Candler Park station in a public-private partnership. Once the new development is finally built, ACBR's members will again play an integral role by brokering the various leasing deals.
Unfortunately, Prince George's County has a long and tortured history of corruption that discourages many good and honest developers from doing business in the county. Additionally, the county's development review process is overly-politicized as a result of the council's discretionary "call-up" procedure, which allows the council to delay or demand changes to projects previously approved by M-NCPPC.
These hindrances make it cost-prohibitive and otherwise undesirable for reputable developers and real estate professionals to bring quality transit-oriented projects to the county. Instead, developers pursue the easiest, cheapest option: greenfield sprawl development.
Embrace the possibilities!
The biggest lesson that Prince George's County should learn from Atlanta is that it is possible within a relatively short amount of time to effect fundamental change in the county's growth and land use policy. And that can change the way ordinary citizens, political leaders, developers, and real estate professionals alike see the future of their communities.
Prince George's County's political leaders can decide that they are going to embrace and follow a true smart growth strategy. They can decide to reorganize the various agencies and departments in a way that maximizes accountability and unity of vision and purpose.
County leaders can decide to stop funding, focusing on, and advocating for suburban sprawl projects. They can decide to invest heavily in the revitalization of the county's established, economically distressed inner-Beltway communities, so that they can become more attractive to prospective residents and economically viable to prospective developers and retailers. That includes improving the county's public schools as well.
Prince George's can take meaningful steps to cultivate positive relationships with the development and real estate communities. This includes de-politicizing and eliminating any appearances of impropriety, unfair dealing, and corruption in the development review process.
In the current climate, it's hard to imagine the Prince George's County Association of Realtors or the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association taking an active role in facilitating TOD in the county. Indeed, as demonstrated just a few days ago, these organizations frequently are among the fiercest advocates of maintaining the suburban sprawl status quo. Yet, the example of ACBR in Atlanta illustrates that such a collaborative, pro-smart growth approach is possible.
Like Atlanta, Prince George's County has all the building blocks necessary to develop thriving, transit-oriented, and sustainable walkable urban places that could rival any other jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region. The only thing the county has to fear is itself.
Will Prince George's County's leaders be bold enough to embrace a new way, or will they continue with business as usual? Will the county's citizens demand accountability from their leaders, or will they continue to elect and reelect individuals who are committed to replicating yesterday's vision of the county as a sprawling bedroom community?
The answers to these questions will determine the county's fate for the next generation.
Crossposted on Prince George's Urbanist.
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