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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?

Photo by beardenb on Flickr.

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.

The staff of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Photo from the agency's website.

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.

Plans for TOD at a MARTA station. Image from the City of Atlanta.

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.

Revitalization areas along Metro's Blue Line in Prince George's County. Image from M-NCPPC.

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.

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. 


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I think that juridictional boundaries and history are an important aspect of the PGC v Atlanta difference.

Most of the city of Atlanta is under one jurisdiction that covers a huge area, and includes the central business hub, apartments and highrise, and burbs. They can see the advantages of denser development, and have the experience of implementing it.

PGC has no center, like Atlanta, and its history is influenced by all the Black professionals who fled the squalor and dysfunction of DC. As a black friend of mine, in explaining why he didnt want to move into DC, because he had already grown up in the ghetto in Detroit, and didnt plan to be an urban pioneer moving back to another one. For him, a SFH, with space and distance from his neighbors, was very attractive.

by SJE on Oct 10, 2013 4:02 pm • linkreport

Actually, as we're now learning in Atlanta, the BeltLine is little more than a dream. Don't look down here for inspiration or, God forbid, hope. The attractiveness of the BeltLine idea--not the reality, since there is no actual BeltLine, just a plan--has now made it the new frontier for big box developers. They've got a tag line: "We're on the BeltLine". It's all over now, although it was a nice idea at one time.

by Michael on Oct 10, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

I never thought I would hear "smart growth" and Atlanta in the same sentence. Atlanta is "swiftly metamorphosing from 'Sprawlanta' to new urban paradise?" There must be a Atlanta out there different from the one that I know.

Comparing Atlanta (major regional/global hub city with huge economy) to Prince George's (mostly suburban county with urban pockets) is comparing apples to oranges.

That said, compared to most other similarly large suburban counties (nationally), Prince George's is actually ahead of the curve in terms of of smart growth. Yeah it doesn't come close to the standards of Arlington or Montgomery, but those are nation-leading jurisdictions.

Atlanta on the other hand, compared to other major cities, is just the typically Southern poorly planned, automobile-dependent, low-density "city." The only difference from the model is the MARTA rail system which is very simple with just two lines: north-south and east-west, kinda like Baltimore or Los Angeles, but far less useful since walkability in the city (besides a few urban hubs) is practically nil.

Just last year voters overwhelmingly (2:1) voted against positive transportation improvements in the Atlanta metro area, (including the important BeltLine light rail) preferring instead the unsustainable status quo.

by King Terrapin on Oct 10, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

Although it would be great if they can build a certain part of PG County identical to Buckhead(Northern Atlanta Boundry). It has a very nice Upscale Mall called Lenox that is almost comparable to Tysons Corner Mall.

by Rick on Oct 10, 2013 5:41 pm • linkreport

@ King Terrapin:

I spent most of my adult life in ATL and wouldn't have thought of it as a smart growth leader either. But Leinberger's study of what's been going on there since 2009 presents a compelling case. And frankly, on my visits back there, I can see a difference. More things are going up near MARTA, portions of the BeltLine are underway, and the FTA recently completed its stage 1 FEIS for BeltLine-related transit enhancements. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, unlike PGC.

I think the relevant apples-to-apples comparison is inner-Perimeter, MARTA-accessible metro Atlanta (Fulton and DeKalb counties, including Atlanta) and inner-Beltway, Metro-accessible metro DC (DC, Arlington, PGC, MoCo). Because PGC has the most metro stations of any of the DC suburbs, it should be a regional leader in WalkUPs.

The T-SPLOST defeat was not a good development, but likely reflects the general something-for-nothing, anti-tax sentiment that seems to run through the entire country these days. (Here in PGC, folks seem to cling reflexively to our own anti-tax referendum, TRIM, even as the county is falling apart at the seams.)

by Bradley Heard on Oct 10, 2013 6:23 pm • linkreport

"Although it would be great if they can build a certain part of PG County identical to Buckhead(Northern Atlanta Boundry). It has a very nice Upscale Mall called Lenox that is almost comparable to Tysons Corner Mall. "

It would if we could duplicate Buckhead's shopping, restaurants and fantastic skyline.

by ceefer66 on Oct 11, 2013 12:11 am • linkreport

Atlanta may be becoming walkable, but that doesn't mean that Atlantans are walking. I was there recently and walked from my Midtown hotel to a restaurant - about 3/4 mile. There were less than half a dozen other walkers in my 1.5 mile round trip. But, I did see signs of the Beltline bike trail around Morningside, and separated bike lanes at Piedmont Park.

by rogerwilco on Oct 11, 2013 6:59 am • linkreport

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.

Um, no, it's not. I own a loft in the neighborhood less than a quarter mile from the Station, and it's a neighborhood very similar to Takoma Park in its hey-day.

As for the plans there, they are just that--plans. Atlanta is very good at planning like that, and very poor when it comes to implementation. Those plans (as well as plans for another walkable development across the street from my loft) have been circulating around now for going on 10 years, without any forward progress to build out. Maybe one day it'll happen, but I'm not counting on it.

by Circle Thomas on Oct 11, 2013 8:54 am • linkreport

Why can't PGC learn from DC, Montgomery County, Arlington County, even Fairfax County?

One of the points I make in planning is that elected officials either are uncomfortable learning from places outside their state or they prefer to look to other places, and often take the wrong lessons from what they see because they have limited understanding of the whys and hows.

I talked with Ron Carlee once, when he was the County Manager in Arlington, and he told me something that at the time I didn't know, that ArCo, when the Metro was being designed, was declining in population and economically, just as DC was declining at that time, and how the elected officials then bet the farm really, on Metrorail and allowing for land use intensification along the Wilson Blvd. corridor.

Now they aren't declining. And like Portland with regard to transportation and land use, Arlington County continues to build upon that decision and benefit from it, through continuous incremental improvements to policy and land use and transportation decision making reinforcing and extending the original vision.

Interestingly, I find many of the issues of Baltimore County to be similar to PGC. Baltimore County is satisfied measuring themselves solely "against" Baltimore City. Since Baltimore City has serious economic problems and continued residential and business leakage, and the preponderance of that metropolitan area's extremely impoverished, Baltimore County always will come out on top in a comparison.

That County has a lot of wealth, a lot of opportunities, a lot of successes (and some problems too, both with poverty and the impact of deindustrialization, especially in the East County), but from the standpoint of urban design and centers, they fail to compare themselves to Montgomery County, which is at a minimum, the jurisdiction that Baltimore County should start benchmarking against.

PGC has a lot of issues, but as someone else said, because so much of the population looks at the issues in terms of being "not DC" then they don't have much of a framework to build upon.

Arlington has advantages, it has two business districts abutting DC basically, plus the Pentagon.

But it has built centers in those areas, and then between Courthouse and Ballston. By comparison Towson isn't much on the ground, but a significant conurbation, and they have sprawl and lack of focus in Baltimore County amongst Owings Mills, Hunt Valley, and White Marsh.

One of the biggest assets PGC has is UMD, plus the various Metro stations, plus the coming of the Purple Line. The cities along Rte. 1, I suppose the National Harbor. The capability to build out around New Carrollton. Various government and military installations.

Again, if PGC wants to redefine, it needs to move its government center to a Metro Station, and reset the county's planning paradigm.

It has to focus, instead of enabling development everywhere. Concentration is key.

by Richard Layman on Oct 11, 2013 9:10 am • linkreport

@ Circle Thomas:

Your loft may be nice, but the Edgewood-Candler Park station areas a whole is still in transition, particularly in Edgewood, south of the tracks. This intersection is about a 0.4 mile walk from the station.

by Bradley Heard on Oct 11, 2013 9:39 am • linkreport

Atlanta is finally doing something right and you haters cannot stand it! Deal with it!

by Porky on Oct 11, 2013 10:20 am • linkreport

Los Angeles Metro has actually come a long way in the past couple of decades.

by BTA on Oct 11, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

@Porky, Atlanta must be doing the right things because people have been moving there from the Northeast and West Coast since the late 1980's. They don't call Atlanta the New York(or LA) of the South for nothing.

by Rick on Oct 11, 2013 11:37 am • linkreport

Very few major metro areas have been shrinking in the last 50 years. I highly doubt there is a particularly pronounced phenonmenon of a net amount of people moving to Atlanta from the NE or West Coast. Most change in metro areas can be accounted for by natural growth + immigration + urbanization from more rural areas.

by BTA on Oct 11, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

Interesting comments. That said, Prince George's County continues to evolve. The County's urban center is yet to be determined. I acknowledge the need for "smarter" growth; However, I think such growth should connect to a commensurate wealth of residents to infuse a good mix of homeowners. One thing is for sure, the County needs to improve public transit in South-County ASAP. And, by the way, despite the pain, TRIM is proving to be a good check on taxation for the County's taxpayers.

by DantethePrince on Oct 11, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Mr. Heard, I am even more convinced now that you don't understand the challenges PG faces with urban renewal and how that prevents much of the wishful thinking that you seek from coming to pass. Sounds like ATL is doing little more than "planning for TOD." It is still a sprawling nightmare.

by Ron T. on Oct 12, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

@ Ron T:

I think Leinberger's study shows ATL is doing more than just planning for TOD. It's actually *doing* TOD. No one's suggesting that someone waved a magic wand over Atlanta and turned it into Arlington County, but it's definitely improving.

BTW, what are the "challenges PG faces with urban renewal" of which you speak? I'm not aware of the county having attempted any urban renewal projects in the past several decades.

Finally, why do you describe a desire for Prince George's County to embrace TOD as "wishful thinking"? Are you that convinced that out county's leadership is incapable of change?

by Bradley Heard on Oct 12, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

This article is very misleading...I just recently relocated to Atlanta from Prince George's county for work. Atlanta although one of the most progressive metro areas in the South, is strip mall HEAVEN. I have been to every suburban corner surrounding 285 and I-85. All I noticed are countless and endless one lane winding roads connect one strip mall to the next. There is poor road configuration and a major upgrade is necessary here to improve the traffic woes in Atlanta. PG does NOT I repeat NOT have as many one lane country roads as there are in ATL.

The issue here is we are comparing a suburban county in Prince George's with the city proper of Atlanta. Because outside of that city proper Atlanta is down right country. I have seen no such edge suburbs in the entire Atlanta metro that PG should be modeling themselves after. Prince George's is levels beyond DeKalb in terms of development at this stage so to compare the two is naive. The only thing similar about PG and DeKalb is they both have a large black populace to the East of each major city.

PG by itself has four different Metro lines where at some point future development will be based around it. Atlanta has 4 Marta lines in their whole metro area. Marta literally is like the train to no where. The Beltline will be great for Atlanta and Atlantic Station is a good fill in development, but that is it. PG should be looking to their neighboring jurisdictions in the DC metro area for TOD development examples, not this suburban sprawville Atlanta.

Remember this isn't even apples to apples. Instead of comparing edge suburbs the article is comparing PG County to a major city.

by Dbeezer on Oct 12, 2013 7:22 pm • linkreport

@ Dbeezer:

Sorry you find the article misleading. I think you may be under the false impression that I don't think Atlanta has sprawl. Of course it does. There's a reason why that video I linked in the first paragraph called Atlanta "Sprawlanta." The point is, since 2009, Metro Atlanta has begun to change from their sprawl ways. Perhaps you also missed the earlier comment where I describe what I thought the relevant apples-to-apples comparison is.

As for MARTA, I agree it's not nearly as extensive as Metro, but it is the 8th or 9th largest transit system in the country, and it does have 38 stations. As more TODs come to MARTA station areas, the system will cease being a "train to nowhere."

by Bradley Heard on Oct 12, 2013 8:38 pm • linkreport

Two things:

A: two places don't need to have everything in common to come up with similarities and best practices. Of Atlanta is doing a good thing then we should pay attention. Same if it's NYC, Fargo, or hayseed Alabama.

B: PG should look to urban places for its urban areas and suburban places for its suburban areas. It doesn't really matter which is a city and which is a suburb when it comes to the form of a particular area.

by Canaan on Oct 12, 2013 8:51 pm • linkreport

The changes in the city of Atlanta are real and quite stunning-- The Beltline (which is being implemented right now) has already generated literally over 5,000 new hosing units in the city's Northeast quarter, and the major renovation of a 1920s 1,000,000sf former Sears warehouse to shops, restaurants, loft office space and apartments. Political will and smart development have aligned to recreate whole sections of the city. Old 4th Ward, Inman Park, the Westside are all increasingly urban and walkable. Change can and will come. How we approach and direct these inevitable forces will determine the future of our urban and suburban cities.

by DH-ATL on Oct 14, 2013 10:17 pm • linkreport

Some of you are totally missing the point of this article. The author never denied the fact Atlanta is a sprawling nightmare. He is simply highlighting the fact that the city of Atlanta is making positive changes in an attempt to reverse that reality. We all know Atl and PGC are two totally different communities. That is not the focus. Simply put, there is hope for PGC and it starts with effective planning and the personnel willing to bring that planning to fruition.

by KC on Oct 15, 2013 12:20 am • linkreport

I appreciate looking at what we can learn from others, but we need to give a little credit to the Baker administration and the new Planning Board while also pushing for them to do better. Most significantly, we need to praise Baker's decision to locate the Regional Medical Center at the Largo Metro station. This is a tremendous decision showing follow through on the Baker administration's commitment to TOD. I agree that Westphalia is terrible sprawl that needs to be contained. And many other actions by the county are fostering rather than reigning in auto-dependent development that is undermining the TOD agenda. But let's give a little credit!

by Cheryl Cort on Oct 18, 2013 5:04 pm • linkreport

@ Cheryl:

I agree, the decision to put the medical center at Largo was a great decision in favor of TOD. I mentioned that in part one of this post. I also think a bunch of the credit goes to the Coalition for Smarter Growth for mounting such a huge and highly successful lobbying effort to get the medical center at Largo. You all pretty much packed the public hearing with community members who argued forcefully for that decision, and the county officials responded favorably. Were it not for that, we very well could've ended up with a medical center at Landover Mall.

by Bradley Heard on Oct 18, 2013 6:13 pm • linkreport

UPDATE: I just got word that MARTA and InvestAtlanta have released an RFP for development of the Edgewood-Candler Park Station that I discussed in this post. This is a perfect example of local government working together with the regional transit authority to develop neighborhood transit stations.

Unfortunately, Prince George's County hasn't learned this lesson yet. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the General Plan that the the county is currently contemplating pays little to no attention to neighborhood Metro, MARC, and future Purple Line stations—preferring instead to focus on sprawl. A growing chorus of residents and civic leaders is calling for a change in the General Plan's priorities, but it remains to be seen whether the County will listen.

by Bradley Heard on Mar 4, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

@Bradley Heard


"Three Prince George's County property owners have released a joint solicitation for the potential development of roughly 9 acres of contiguous real estate adjacent to the College Park Metro station.
Prince George's County, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Castle Properties separately own a series of parcels generally north and east of Paint Branch Parkway and south of College Avenue, adjacent to Metro on one side and the College Park Airport on the other."


"Also on Metro’s development solicitation list this year are the West Hyattsville and Largo Town Center stations, where Prince George’s County officials are pushing for heavy redevelopment."

"Metro also is looking to piggyback development at the Largo Town Center station, where the county is in final negotiations for construction of a new regional medical center in partnership with the University of Maryland. The site has 36 acres available and provides 2,200 daily parking spaces and 141 short-term spaces."

by Ron T. on Mar 17, 2014 10:10 pm • linkreport

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