College Park's mayor takes Smart Growth to school
Andrew Fellows came to College Park from Silver Spring in 1991 as a grad student at the University of Maryland and never left. Now mayor and newly elected to a third term, Fellows wants to draw staff and faculty back to this college town, all while making it more environmentally sustainable.
Andy Fellows, mayor of College Park. Photo by the author.
It's Thursday morning at the Starbucks in College Park, perhaps the main thoroughfare for college students in this 30,000-person city. Fellows walks in quickly. If you're not looking up at the time, you'll miss him. A hand shoots out.
"Morning, Mayor," says a man from a lounge chair.
"Hey, how are ya doin?" says Fellows.
In November, Fellows was reelected in the city's first contested election in 24 years. Fellows, whose day job is regional director at Clean Water Action, agreed to meet me for one of the first interviews since then.
What are the executive powers of mayors of small municipalities like College Park?
Mayor Fellows: Almost none...the city council sets policy. I have a vote on council matters, but only if it's a tie. Then we have a city manager who is full-time: basically who runs the city, and implements the policy that we settle.
It's not really my authority, but it's my ability to meet with leaders. When I was sworn in, I said that I wanted to improve the relationship with the University of Maryland and also with Prince George's County. So I spend a chunk of time meeting with people and talking with people about ways we could work together and improve relationships. I'm a little bit of an ambassador for College Park.
Could you tell me a little about your work [at Clean Water Action]?
Mayor Fellows: Clean Water Action is a national organization. We have about a million members around the country. I coordinate our program in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Our mission is both to make democracy work and get people involved in the decision-making process on environmental issues, and also to implement the Clean Water Act, which is to make the water of the United States more fishable and to make sure there's safe and affordable drinking water. It's partly political because we do endorsements and we do election work, and it's also education and outreach.
It seems College Park is a bit of a hotbed for non-profit environmental work. Did that activity and organizing attract you to the city in the first place?
Mayor Fellows: It's part of being a college town where those types of groups tend to be here. In a sense it did attract me. But then again I didn't really work in environmental work at first. I worked at Citizen Action, which did do environmental work but they worked with other issues as well.
I've attempted to make it a point not to bring my Clean Water agenda to being the mayor at College Park, but it overlaps in the sense that I'm a green mayor. I'm an environmentally-minded mayor. So I want to encourage as much sustainability as possible.
What are some of the challenges that are unique to College Park instead of other nearby municipalities?
Mayor Fellows: I think the unique opportunity we have, and in some ways the challenge, is being home to the flagship campus to the state of Maryland. Because of that we have a lot of count-down issues. Sometimes it's the tension of people who are renting and living short-term and maybe have a different lifestyle than their neighbors: partying and noise. That's a lot of what the Quality of Life Workgroup does, is address some of those issues.
But also with planning, transportation, and economic development issues. The university has a lot of power and the city doesn't have final authority on land use; the county does. So, our focus is on coordinating our efforts with the university and the county to make sure that we're working together.
What are you proud of having accomplished?
Mayor Fellows: Well a lot of the university faculty don't live here in town, and so one of the things that we recognize for the university to be more sustainable is having them living closer to the university so that they can bike or walk to work.
The reason they don't is education. The public schools of Prince George's County don't have a good reputation, so education has always been a top priority of mine. But the city of College Park didn't run education. We do now that we are helping to run a new charter school called College Park Academy, that just opened this fall...It's in a former Catholic school called St. Mark's. We will be creating a full-time location for the College Park Academy, but we're still in the process of doing that.
To me that's a really concrete accomplishment of getting the university, the city, and the county to work together to improve public education opportunities for kids.
Where does affordable housing rank on the list of the city's priorities?
Mayor Fellows: It's pretty high, but affordable housing is one of those issues that's mostly related to students. Of course, that's not true in a lot of parts of Prince George's County. I think for us in College Park, we've got a pretty good amount of diversity of income and affordable housing.
We imposed rent control and rent stabilization to address what we felt were students being ripped off by landlords who were charging really high rates. A lot of the parents of students can afford high rates. So the rents around here in the group houses were going up. So we did two things: one, we put rent stabilization in place, and then we went to war with the landlords, which took a while to get going.
What were some of the provisions of your rent control?
Mayor Fellows: You could only raise the rent a certain percentage of the value of the property.
Are student advocacy groups active on this front?
Mayor Fellows: The Student Government Organization and the Graduate Student Government have somewhat engaged in housing issues. Their big issue is getting more housing. Because, the market says, in theory, that if you have enough housing, the prices will come down because of supply and demand.
Where does smart growth fit into all of this?
Mayor Fellows: Smart growth for me is the more we can build around transit areas, areas with transportation infrastructure, so that people aren't as dependent on cars. And for us it's working. We're actually decreasing the amount of vehicle trips on Route 1 because of the fact that students living so close to campus don't have to drive to campus, which reduces cars on the road.
Okay, let's switch gears. What's the strangest thing a constituent has ever said to you?
Mayor Fellows: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind… I'm not really sure if it's strange, but it's strange to me. We put up speed cameras a few years ago, and sure enough people got caught speeding. But I was amazed that people would call me up, the mayor, and complain about being caught for speeding. Basically, their attitude was, "How dare you put up a speed camera ad how dare you fine me for breaking the law." It was so weird to me.
What are some of your personal challenges that you've faced since becoming mayor?
Mayor Fellows: My personal challenge is probably time. I end up working 60 or 70 hours a week. And it's work I love doing. So it's figuring out, "how do I prioritize and get things done in a way that's effective, but doesn't drive me crazy?"
Also, being patient, which is somewhat of a strength of mine because I'm a pretty patient guy. But some things don't happen overnight or really quickly. The most sustainable things are the ones where people take a lot of community ownership or a lot of people involved in the project to get people going together. It's bottom up and not top down. And that also takes time.
A version of this post appeared on Jimmy's Writing Samples.
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