Greater Greater Washington

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Prince George's adopts "Sprawl Plan 2035" over community objections

It was supposed to be different this time. Prince George's County's new general plan was supposed to embrace a bold new vision for a more sustainable and transit-oriented growth strategy. Instead, the county chose to cling to its old, failed approach of mouthing platitudes of support for walkable urban development around transit while actively facilitating suburban sprawl far from transit.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County residents and smart growth advocates feared this when planners released a draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the updated countywide comprehensive plan for long-term growth and development, last fall. The draft placed too much emphasis on sprawl.

It ignored the revitalization needs of most inner-Beltway communities and downplayed neighborhood Metro stations. At the same time, the preliminary plan supported massive greenfield development outside the Beltwayboth at mixed-use "suburban centers" like Konterra and Westphalia, and also in scattered single-family residential subdivisions.

Each subsequent revision of the plan only made matters worse. When the Planning Board adopted its version of the plan in March, it added hundreds of acres to the exiting suburban Bowie Regional Center, which was already too disconnected from transit.

Likewise, when the County Council approved its version of the general plan earlier this month, it removed hundreds of additional acres of woodlands from the rural preservation area and placed them into the "established communities" area, making them eligible for further sprawl development. The council also added language specifically endorsing automobile-oriented suburban "town centers," stating they "help[ed] fulfill countywide goals."

Planners and council members rebuffed calls for TOD fixes to plan

When planners held their first town hall meeting about Plan Prince George's last June, they appeared committed to a strategy of picking 3 Metro station areas as "downtowns" and focusing most of their energies at those stations.

But when the preliminary plan draft finally emerged, it did not seriously put weight behind directing more growth to those downtowns and less to areas far from transit.

When the preliminary draft plan went before the Planning Board for review in March, more than 100 citizens and public officials from across the county signed a petition urging county officials to reconsider the land use priorities in the preliminary plan.

Among the petition's signatories were Maryland State Senator Joanne Benson, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant, Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, and a host of civic leaders representing all 9 council districts. The Planning Board ignored these pleas and forwarded its sprawl-enhanced version of the plan to the County Council for approval on March 6.

Led by council members Ingrid Turner (District 4) and Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), the County Council chose to maintain the build-anywhere-you-want culture that has left the county with the least-developed and least-profitable Metro station areas in the region. The lone dissenter was outgoing District 3 council member Eric Olson.

In the end, Plan Prince George's 2035 embodies the same undisciplined, sprawl-centered approach that planners cautioned against. While the plan says many good things about why the county should focus on developing its transit stations and reinvigorating its older communities, it ultimately allows and encourages uncontrolled growth away from transit and outside the Beltway. As such, it does not improve much upon the previous 2002 general plan.

Fortunately, the county does not have to wait another decade to right this wrong. Any future master plan or small-area sector plan can amend the general plan as it relates to that specific planning area. But to realize that opportunity, the county needs council members who are serious about focusing on smart growth.

A version of this post originally appeared 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, Virginia, Brad spent most of his adult life in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Prince George's County in 2007. Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George's County. 

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Disappointing, shortsighted, and out of synch with the current zeitgeist.

by likedrypavement on May 20, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

Unfortunate that PG isn't learning its lessons from Fairfax County. Witness the (high) financial and political costs of trying to improve on the suburban design.

Even with greenfield growth, the county could at least future-proof their actions...little things like adequate sidewalks and bike facilities on new roads, so that you don't need to go through the hassle of adding them after-the-fact.

And connect the roads...no dangling cul-de-sacs.

by Astute Observer on May 20, 2014 2:13 pm • linkreport

I say, why worry? If they want to continue to damage PG County and voters vote for these people, than that's their problem. And if developers want to sink millions of dollars into these developments, than let them. And if people want to buy in these places and have horrible commutes, let them. And if those with long commutes devoid of transit increase congestion for others similarly situated, than let them all suffer in gridlock. You can lead a horse to water . . .

by JDC on May 20, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

I think the criticism might be a little harsh and unwarranted. The plan does specifically state that:

the majority of residential and employment growth should be concentrated around the county's 8 "Regional Transit Centers"

1. Prince George's Plaza
2. New Carrollton
3. Largo Town Center
4. College Park
5. Greenbelt
6. Suitland
7. Branch Ave
8. National Harbor

All of these stations, with the exceptions of Branch Ave and Suitland, have seen significant levels of development over the past decade, and even more projects are planned. This is a HUGE improvement over the Prince George's that in the 80's and 90's "wasted" their Metro and MARC stations while Arlington and Montgomery focused development around them.

Yes, the county is still accommodating sprawl as well, but it also seems to be trying to preserve the little agricultural land left in the county. The Konterra and Westphalia projects were approved long ago, and it was unlikely that the county would halt them now.

by King Terrapin on May 20, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

In yesterday's special section on "energy" the Wall Street Journal described Konterra as a "sustainable development."

by Richard Layman on May 20, 2014 3:47 pm • linkreport

It is surprising that reps from Districts 2,5 and 7 would vote for this junk.

1 and 6 are where Konnetra and Westphalia are going to be located right.
4 and 9 are probably hoping for the same bouts of wasteful spending in the future.

by Richard on May 20, 2014 4:52 pm • linkreport

One sympathizes with any effort to make PG look nicer. Still, the words "bold new vision" seem too often connected with a presumption that people will be happier if they're ordered to live in a way they do not seem to have chosen so far.

Worth reading on this point is Katherine Kersten in this morning's Wall Street Journal (http://on.wsj.com/1lDtAD5). She's writing specifically about the Twin Cities, but her points are universal: A caste of planners, fueled by federal grants and belief, want to narrow people's options. You will, want to or not, live more vertically and be more transit-dependent. And you won't be asked.

Perhaps there's vast demand for this. But that's so rarely the question asked. Rather, when regional plans are drawn up, the question more often seems to be how to make people adopt a denser pattern, whether they want it or not.

I find that disturbing.

by I Also 95 on May 20, 2014 7:11 pm • linkreport

Nobody asked when the caste of planners made everyone live horizontally, spread out, and drive, based on beliefs cooked up by 19th century utopians and the auto lobby.

Now, people have internalized that this highly unnatural state so much that a plan to legalize density around transit is "herding" people and making developers pay the actual cost for services is theft.

It's not unlike Kersten's stance on gay marriage, where extending a right somehow undermines all other families.

by Neil Flanagan on May 20, 2014 9:40 pm • linkreport

Except here's the difference, Neil:

It wasn't a caste of planners who invented the suburb -- to the contrary, they've often opposed it since Malvina Reynolds penned "Little Boxes" -- but, rather, home-builders, developers, traffic engineers and, most crucially, the customers who liked what was on offer. All planners did was, if anything, get in front of that parade.

Nor was everyone made to live horizontally. You've always been able to live in the old-style parts of town, if you like that sort of thing. Alexandria didn't raze Old Town. Georgetown wasn't abolished. Apartments stayed above old main-street shops, for those who wanted them. If you have cause to complain, it's only that once lots of people were offered an alternative with a decent back yard, they favored it.

Whereas Kersten's point is that planners now very much want to eliminate that alternative, as much as they can. They're not asking, and they're not waiting for customers' tastes to change.

Finally, if you'd like to discuss whether we ought to let judges redefine social institutions to gut their central conjugal and complementary elements, I'd be happy to, though I'd suppose this isn't a venue where people expect that. But for the record, I think Kersten's right on that matter, too: No judge has the right to compel me to respect what I regard as wrong. Merely the power to do so.

by I Also 95 on May 20, 2014 10:32 pm • linkreport

@95: If the great mass of people don't have an interest in living near transit in dense, walkable environments, why are rents and home prices in DC, particularly near Metro stations, the highest in the region?

And how is providing good transit service in any way taking away your ability to drive a car if you want to? Neither you nor Kersten have any internal logic to your arguments.

by LowHeadways on May 20, 2014 10:52 pm • linkreport

Unfortunately, her evidence that planners want to eliminate all alternatives is flimsy.

If utility fees, TOD, and carbon statements are proof that a "caste" of people who serve at the will of elected officials, want to reshape the world, then what planners and engineers did to privilege suburbs and destroy the advantages of cities is a much more ambitious form of social engineering.

I'd recommend a book like City Rules or The Code of the City to see how long after folk singers turned on the suburb, the rules were still written to disadvantage city living.

by Neil Flanagan on May 20, 2014 11:05 pm • linkreport

Nor was everyone made to live horizontally. You've always been able to live in the old-style parts of town, if you like that sort of thing. Alexandria didn't raze Old Town. Georgetown wasn't abolished. Apartments stayed above old main-street shops, for those who wanted them. If you have cause to complain, it's only that once lots of people were offered an alternative with a decent back yard, they favored it.

Actually, many of those features you describe were made illegal as well. Even in those neighborhoods.

If Georgetown burnt down tomorrow then modern zoning codes (not just the Health and safety ones but the cosmetic ones) would prevent a lot of Georgetown being rebuilt as-is.

I got paywall'd at your link but locally it's exactly true that planners are forbidding sprawl.

In Maryland, the legislature (not "unelected planners" mind you) passed a law that really restricted localities ability to approve and build typical large lot subdivision.

But, they didn't ban it. They just said that if you want to build then you also need to connect to the local sewer system rather than go with septic systems. Since that eliminates a lot of rent seeking and subsidization of that particular lifestyle then demand starts to dry up because it isn't that sustainable of a business model anyway.

Finally, smart growth is explicitly designed to work at all density levels (google "transect studies") but there is a real dearth of medium to high density living spaces close, especially close to reliable public transit. It's natural to expect efforts to focus there when so there are so many low density units available.

by Drumz on May 20, 2014 11:08 pm • linkreport

Grr, I meant
"Locally, it's NOT exactly true..."

by Drumz on May 20, 2014 11:09 pm • linkreport

I'd also point out that I've never read an official plan that called for the elimination of suburbs. Even theoretical ones are about densifying and reconnecting sprawl.

Whereas, in DC for twenty years, the plan was literally to destroying a quarter of DC's housing stock.

by Neil Flanagan on May 20, 2014 11:12 pm • linkreport

That said, it's unfortunate that PG is planning to stick with all this. It's their right but I fear it'll be a mistake as it'll only be harder to catch up with its neighbors as time goes by.

Prince George's could have easily leap frogged many problems that Fairfax and Montgomery county are trying to solve right now but it looks like it'll hve to be the hard way.

by Drumz on May 20, 2014 11:12 pm • linkreport

After reading this article, as a PG County resident, I am so happy to be closing on a home in DC next month.

by dwight on May 21, 2014 7:07 am • linkreport

"This is a HUGE improvement over the Prince George's that in the 80's and 90's "wasted" their Metro and MARC stations while Arlington and Montgomery focused development around them."

There were a grand total of 5 Prince George's county metro stops where one could get single train service into downtown (DC) until the 21st century. And that's with a * at Capitol Heights, which is right on the border.

And to this day, there's still only one PG county station outside the beltway.

TOD is fine and all, but first you need transit. (and then you need money, which is also in short supply in PG county).

by Kolohe on May 21, 2014 11:13 am • linkreport

This is unfortunate but it's not surprising. PG is the only place in the DC suburbs where you can get a new single family home for under $500k so why not continue to build the brand and increase the tax base?

I agree with Mr. Beard about Westphalia but Konterra should not be put in the same category. There is currently a MARC station that serves the area and it is closer to a metro station than National Harbor. In addition, it is accessible to several main arteries. This is also a great option for new FBI transplants if the agency comes to Greenbelt with some of the best schools (currently) in the county.

Development shouldn't be defined as sprawl just because it's not inside the beltway.

by Lane on May 21, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

@ I also 95
The people who chose the suburban life and those who catered to them have never been asked to account for the full multiple lifecycle costs that came with their choice. In other words, the market has been, and continues to be highly distorted by subsidies. If those choosing the large suburban lot with the big commute were faced with something approaching the actual costs, they might be apt to make different choices.

@lane
While PG might be increasing the tax base in the short term, it's taking on even larger long term liabilities in the form of roads, sewers, police/ems, schools, water pump houses, etc. Single family developments are rarely able to pay for themselves over multiple lifecycles. There is so much potential for development (and redevelopment) where the infrastructure is already in place in PG.

by thump on May 21, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

I don't completely disagree with PG County, the reality is that the urbanist model forces displacement, promotes gentrification and quite honestly only benefits high income earners and developers. What good is having bike lanes and walkable neighborhoods if the people who have spent their whole lives there can no longer afford to enjoy it? At the point when having transit becomes an amenity in lieu of a necessity (for many low income persons who need to get to work) there is really no need to have it. So in a way this Urbanist model encourages sprawl because it forces those who can no longer afford to live near transit to move further out which will only increase their need for a car.

by IDK on May 21, 2014 4:53 pm • linkreport

The argument that sprawl is more desirable or that urban development encourages sprawl is absurd. This is evidenced by rent prices in every walkable neighborhood in the country compared to car only areas. The reason urban development primarily benefits high income earners is because there isn't enough of it. The law of supply and demand applies here, and walkable neighborhoods have high desirability and short supply. That simple law of economics is driving the price and access. The answer is MORE urban development, not less.

Developers have one purpose, to maximize profit. If they can maximize that profit by building straw shacks on acre size lots, then that is what they will do (look at developments in Florida and Arizona). You should have no expectation of livability, sustainability, or durability from developers. That is the reason planners exist.

It is disappointing that PG is embracing sprawl when the market is clearly demanding something else. I suspect that someones pockets have nice new linings.

by Appalled at Sprawl on May 21, 2014 8:02 pm • linkreport

Re the talking point about high rents near transit stations: Sure, some people want to live carless and depend on Metro. Their habitat is necessarily limited to walking-distance circles around stops. Limited supply typically raises prices, whether or not such demand is broad or specialized.

So, no, high rents for specific places near Metro stops does not indicate universal or even widespread wish to abandon suburbia. It indicates a specialized market and somewhat inelastic demand.

@IDK explains the suburban dynamic from a customer perspective much better. The reason I live far from DC, to which I must, regrettably, commute, is because the non-negotiable was a single-family house with decent yard in a pleasant neighborhood. Monty Co would provide that much closer, only it's about half a million bucks above my price range. Townhouse new-urbanism in Fairfax misses on the elbow room part.

So, yes, we kept heading out to afford what we needed.

by I Also 95 on May 22, 2014 6:13 am • linkreport

Prince George's County is a large county. The county does not exist in a vacuum. It must compete against other counties in Maryland, DC and Virginia. Most of the county is undeveloped. Likewise, only a small portion is inside the Beltway or "urban." Severely limiting growth outside of the more urban areas limits the county's ability to compete with other jurisdictions and attract people and services that other jurisdictions have.

by selxic on May 22, 2014 7:46 am • linkreport

IDK, I also 95,

Well, one way of tackling those high prices is by building more closer to transit AND providing more transit in certain areas. Many smart growth proponents would love to tell you where they'd like to build the next couple of metro lines. That could soak up even more demand and make things a bit more flexible.

And housing affordability is a tough issue and it's something that's talked about on this site a lot with many solutions proposed.

by drumz on May 22, 2014 8:17 am • linkreport

As a DC native the Metro System has always served it's utilitarian purpose which was to get my mom to work, me to school, and errands accomplished. It was only About 10 years ago when metro put out solicitations for development of underused land around its stations which then sounded like a great idea. However as the population grew it became more of a marketing component and as a result served as an amenity for a lot of new residents. I am a dc resident and own a home in a soon to be walkable neighborhood so I'm fine. However I have experienced others who have been displaced and pushed out due to the value put on transit. The DC model works for DC however PG county should learn from DCs mistakes and successes. PG is the last affordable refuge for many long term residents I would hate to see them bamboozled by the idea of revitalization near transit when really it's just their 30 days notice. This is just from a more human perspective.

by IDK on May 22, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

" is because the non-negotiable was a single-family house with decent yard"

That makes you an extremely unusual person -- [deleted]. Almost nobody actually gives a damn about having a yard and almost nobody uses the yards they have.

The demand for rowhouses is *massive*, but they're basically illegal to construct almost everywhere thanks to zoning code [deleted for violating the comment policy] .

by Nathanael on May 25, 2014 4:08 pm • linkreport

FYI Konterra has a MARC station right in the middle of it.

by Macklin on May 25, 2014 7:30 pm • linkreport

Perhaps I'm bizarre, Nathanael, but I do not think you've demonstrated it. I might note the widely reported results of annual surveys by the National Association of Realtors -- who make money no matter what you buy. See here http://bit.ly/S7p1tj or here http://bit.ly/1ojZHOv.

Upshot: 76% of buyers prefer a single-family detached house. More than half of buyers want it to have a big yard, and about four out of five say privacy from neighbors is the top consideration in home-hunting. This suggests that most buyers really do give a damn about yards. The preference is particularly strong among women. Such as the one to whom I'm married.

While the demand for townhouses may be "massive," Nathanael -- 6% of home buyers still is a large number, after all -- it simply isn't true that they cannot be built. My county, Stafford, has thousands, most built in the past two decades. They're being built now, not far from where I live: http://wapo.st/RqLYXA.

And no, I don't mind in the least. Want to live cheek-by-jowl with strangers? It's your life. My only complaint is that the planning profession seems to want to encourage more such packed-in living despite buyers' preferences, out of misplaced worry about "sprawl," which is another word for 76% of home buyers wanting at least some space on either side of their houses.

by I Also 95 on May 25, 2014 8:38 pm • linkreport

As many people above have stated, there is a MARC station in the Konterra development and also ample bus lines. I live in Northern PG, and I think it's actually unfair to categorize this as "sprawl." Many of the cities, including Laurel, Beltsville, Greenbelt, etc., are historic, and are near public transit lines. They are also more convenient in some ways because of their proximity to Montgomery, Howard, and Anne Arundel Counties, as well as Baltimore City. I was against building the ICC, but clearly it was meant to enable to development of Konterra, so the proximity major highways (97, 295, 95, 200, 495) can't be ignored.

by Suma on Jun 4, 2014 4:57 pm • linkreport

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