Greater Greater Washington

Superblocks near Metro, Part 1: Prince George's

Sprawl development comes with many impersonal, mobility-limiting, traffic inducing accouterments. Seven lane roads, grass berms, curb cuts, enormous setbacks, corporate drive-thru fast food restaurants, strip malls... the list is long and ugly. But perhaps the most basic symptom of poorly thought-out suburban planning is in the street grid: the superblock.


Superblocks in Montreal. Photo by Joel Mann.

Superblocks destroy the permeability of the street networks, force large amounts of traffic onto arterial highways and virtually destroying the pedestrian environment. They breed excessive setbacks, and are often fronted by the omnipresent berm. Many of them house big box stores. They are often served by wide culs-de-sac that lead to acres of surface parking. And there are a surprising number of them adjacent to Metro.

When superblocks are present near Metro stations, they are veritable barriers to safe and consistent access. Though they may contain inroads, by definition the do not contain a tangible public route through them. This forces circuitous routes to the station or unsafe cut-throughs that may not be safe or legal.

I expected to find them in Prince George's County. It is known for poor development around train stations. I did not expect to find them strung along entire routes, almost like an anti-transit-oriented development. But along the Orange and Blue Lines, such is the case.

The maps below show all the self-contained superblocks within approximately one mile of Metro stations.


View Superblocks PG Orange in a larger map.


View Superblocks PG Blue in a larger map.

I suppose one should not expect much better from an area that considers a concrete plant a wise use of real estate near an underused mass transit station.

The Green Line is no better. On the south side, the spaces between many of the stations are nothing but giant superblocks. A cul-de-sac neighborhood pod here, a shopping center pod there, all the while a failed opportunity to lay a continuous permeable street grid with coherent approaches to the stations, not to mention connecting residents to shopping to jobs.

Prince George's County is not exactly known for its pedestrian safety, either. With a lack of safe approaches to stations, pedestrians are forced along roads like Branch Avenue, Silver Hill Road, and Auth Road, which have little design considerations for pedestrians. Here's a look at southern leg of the Green Line:


View Superblocks PG Green South in a larger map.

The northern leg of the Green Line goes through many older communities in Hyattsville and College Park. Yet areas around the stations tend to be suburban blobs that neither embrace nor compliment the adjacent neighborhoods, which are traditionally laid out communities that have been there for over 100 years.

West Hyattsville is a veritable blank slate, with little development of any kind occurring near the station. Prince George's Plaza still has a giant mall encased in parking hallmarking a long list of poor land use by the station. College Park, which is a larger regional transit center, has experienced little more than cookie-cutter office box development near the station. "Greenbelt" serves a relatively low density North College Park neighborhood and a surface parking lot suitable for landing military aircraft, but it has little coherent connection to the City of Greenbelt.

Instead of a string of pearls for TOD, it appears that the areas around Metro stations are pock marks on otherwise neatly planned areas, a truly absurd reversal of what you might normally expect in transit oriented areas:


View Superblocks PG Green in a larger map.

Infill construction along the existing Metro stations could profoundly affect the local economy. Breaking up the superblocks, tearing out the parking lots and cheap monolithic building complexes and replacing them with integrated communities with permeable street and pedestrian connections can make more economical use of the existing high-demand land, attracting jobs and residents.

Jobs and residents mean a greater tax base, which could go toward improving county schools, fighting crime, or cleaning up pollution. Until then, Prince George's will continue to have some of the lowest ridership amongst its Metro stations, high pedestrian death rates, and lower property values than other areas near Metro.

Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast. 

Comments

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I've never heard of a proposed Peppermill Station. Where did that come from?

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 28, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

excellent posting.

Greenblet is indeed a total horror.

So is that atrocious area around the disgustingly badly planned football stadium.

However- I am not in agreement with the concrete plant-ugly as it may be- there is a need for basic industrial support and if the employees use Metro or are induced to use it- this can be a very good thing. In the USA, we need to get over our prejusdices about industry and industrial develpoment- this kind of backwards thinking is just as bad as the reverse TOD that you are rightly calling.

The DC area in particular [ MoCo and Fairfax especially] are real hotbeds of white collar snobbery- the people who live and work in those places consistently look down on people who are blue collar or those of us who use our hands to make a living- or those of us in manufacturing.

If this country is to survive- we cannot have all lawyers and restaurants.

One only needs to visit old areas of our cities to find beautiful old factory buildings- Washington Navy Yard, Baltimore, docks of Philadelphia, the list is huge. Industrial buildings do not have to be ugly.
There are basic well designed factories right here in the USA that are a hell of a lot nicer on the eye than many offcie buildings in downtown DC.

Great words about superblocks and walk ability !!!!

by w on Jan 28, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

Yes! Industry for the sake of industry!!

by MPC on Jan 28, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

Greenbelt is awful, although the neighborhood W of the station is relatively high density for single family. It's actually a short walk to REI, which for an environmental sensitive store doesn't encourage Metro use (ditto their Rockville store which is a block from Twinbrook). The whole setting is miserable--hot, exposed, and ugly. No real mention that the MARC side leads anywhere than the train.

by Rich on Jan 28, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

Love the post! In downtown Silver Spring they are trying to break up some of the super blocks for just the reasons stated.

@w,
Totally agree that old warehouses are usually so much nicer than modern office buildings, but that's before they declared ornament a crime and beauty a persuit of the the bourgeois class. Granted they spare you the marxist lecture part, but oddly enough the style, I mean "formal language" is much the same. Look at Soho or Tribeca in NYC. You can't touch that realestate but it was originally built for warehousing and manufacturing.

by Thayer-D on Jan 28, 2010 4:44 pm • linkreport

I live in a superblock? Man, I thought living in 'A Liveable Community' was all one could wish for.

I live within a 5-minute walk of Addison Rd Station. If I said that about any other station in any other county or the District, aces. But I live in PG County, famous for losing $2mil in free, lower-income housing money because they missed the 5-YEAR DEADLINE to spend it, a perpetually flooded Edmonston, a carcinogen-breeding Cheverly/Tuxedo, and an all-around Charlie-Foxtrot government, oh yeah, and Crime (capital 'C'). Places like Upper Marlboro, Mitchellville, and Bowie may have seen a recent drop-- not Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights.

I would love to see some of that redesign, rezone, redevelop, and restart action. And so would my unborn child.

by horseydeucey on Jan 28, 2010 5:13 pm • linkreport

Some of these stations have somewhat-decent potential development planned, but stalled for a variety of reasons (Greenbelt North/South core, West Hyattsville, PG Plaza --behind the mall though and across six lanes of traffic...). I personally live one mile from the West Hyattsville metro and am amazed at the lack of development at this station. Sure there are plans (http://tinyurl.com/ydvvsur) but who knows when these will be implemented.

The infrastructure, while likely needing substantial updates, is essentially there. At the end of my street, there is a 1/2 mile long park with bicycle paths leading from DC all the way through Silver Spring and College Park. I have two metro stops in 1.5 miles and multiple bus lines to choose from. A major university five miles in one direction, and both Silver Spring and downtown DC five miles in the other.

The "Queen's Chapel Town Center"/West Hyattsville (http://tinyurl.com/ycjsbxq) reminds me of a run down version of Shirlington (http://tinyurl.com/ybqbu2g). Take away the upscale restaurants, bookstores and shopping of Shirlington and replace with a KFC, Aldi and liquor stores - 3 in one block! - and you have West Hyattsville. All a five minute walk from a metro station. Shirlington has 395 and a bus station.

To remedy this, a developer could replace (or better yet renovate and reuse) these run-down stores and fill in the gaps on the opposing side with more retail at street level, and then add condos /row homes/townhomes above (as opposed to the glut of rental units in the area) and they might begin to create an urban atmosphere within a block or two of a metro stop for PG County. Pie in the sky dreams.

by S on Jan 28, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport

I live just outside of the superblock areas in the last map, and after 10 years in my residence, I'm still amazed at how I would be utterly cut off from Metrorail if I had neither car nor bus. All I can think of is that the Greenbelt Metro station was planned to keep the "undesirables" out of the rest of Greenbelt, or maybe to make it convenient for people in Laurel to drive to the end of the Green Line.

As it is, I live roughly equidistant from the Greenbelt and College Park Metro stations, so I usually go to the latter on weekdays. I save a bit on fares and I have fewer acres of asphalt to walk across -- no small thing when it's icy.

by Greenbelt Gal on Jan 28, 2010 6:23 pm • linkreport

This sort of brings up the issue of where it is REALLY better to build transit.

You can build it where there is already density, which is very expensive and disruptive and often involves tunneling.

Or you can build where there is space to build (such as along an existing rail ROW) which is cheaper but means that you then have stations far from people and destinations.

In the former, money is paid upfront by the government. In the latter, it is paid later by developers. As the old blues song goes "you pays me now, you pays me later, you pays me all the same." Generally, I think it's better to build where the density is, but it's politically more difficult.

by David C on Jan 28, 2010 9:32 pm • linkreport

Very glad to see such a strong response from the Livable Community folks. I live in Laurel, and I find Greenbelt decidedly inconvenient.

@W- I'm not down on industry, but a concrete plant is particularly polluting and it's near residential areas. It would be a lot more appropriate just outside the Beltway. Industry near high density mass transit (like Metro) is wasteful because industrial developments rarely put out the ridership and mixed use capabilities that make transit work. Industrial areas are not walkable, they are spread out, and they are a major cause of superblocks.

@Rich- In addition to an REI, there is an organic market there too. Car oriented, yes, but also community oriented. North College Park is an excellent neighborhood.

@David C- An age old argument indeed... but in Prince George's, it should be a no brainer. Invest in the money makers!!!

by Dave Murphy on Jan 29, 2010 12:11 am • linkreport

@Neil- This gigantic PDF has info on the proposed Hill Road/Peppermill Village station. TOD in PG!!

by Dave Murphy on Jan 29, 2010 12:23 am • linkreport

@W

I am a Prince George's County resident. I live and work here, and I work a job that, while not in manufacturing, would probably not be considered "white collar" by most standards. I have worked in commercial shipping in the past. I am a graduate of Montgomery College and Army veteran. So the uptown snobbery thing doesn't fly me.

I respect the notion that it can be derogatory to marginalize the needs of manufacturing employees. I don't seek to do that. I don't think we should sweep DC clean of all hard industry and let some poor dirty city take it. But to me it just makes so much more sense to cluster those developments along freeways that are not likely to get boulevardized (like the Beltway and US-50). Currently the county is throwing tract housing up in areas that would probably be more suited to industry (Woodmore is a great example).

Manufacturing industry ought to be near freeways and freight rail, absolutely. But not near mass transit stations and not surrounded by residential areas on two sides... unless of course that industrial area is walkable, mixed use, low pollution, and safe. Unfortunately, that is a rare combination for industrial zones right now.

Perhaps that is where the problem lies. Investing in cleaner, safer, walkable, mixed use industrial infrastructure ought not be so politically unfavorable. If it were possible, it would be a valuable asset to include it near Metro stations. But again, that proposed concrete plant won't cut the mustard.

by Dave Murphy on Jan 29, 2010 12:38 am • linkreport

@Neil- Oops, here's that link: http://bit.ly/b4Jb35

by Dave Murphy on Jan 29, 2010 12:39 am • linkreport

When I was growing up in Bethesda, they had a cement factory right where Bethesda Row exists. That being said those where the days every public space was adorned with ashtrays. I wouldn't want a cement factory to saddle up to my house now.

by Thayer-D on Jan 29, 2010 6:43 am • linkreport

One bit of terminology disagreement - I wouldn't call all of the areas Dave identified as Superblocks. Some truly are, but others are more just pods that are completely isolated from the other pods. They have their own interior circulation systems, but the pod (no doubt stemming from their original subdivision plan) only connects to others via the main arterial roads that form the boundaries between the superblocks/pods.

by Alex B. on Jan 29, 2010 9:02 am • linkreport

South Fairfax has very large superblocks too. I live on the superblock that contains the VRE Lorton station, yet it would take me about 10 minutes to drive there, or about 30 to bike. Walking is out of the question. Sadly there is no transit there at all.

Further east of I-95 (which dissects my superblock) it's not any better.

I do think that this is a consequence of the "freedom" that developers have to do as they please when developing a large slab of land. "Communities" sell well, and hence they put a big fence around the neighborhood and limit access. Even the "inviting" entrances are not really inviting. They kinda say: Stay out if you don't belong here.

by Jasper on Jan 29, 2010 10:12 am • linkreport

@Greenbelt Gal:
Actually, when the Green Line was being planned, the only municipality in Northern Prince George's County to actually call for Metro construction was Greenbelt. College Park and University Park both actively campaigned against it, as did the University of Maryland.

The City of Greenbelt hoped the station would be closer than it is today, but WMATA chose the B&O (CSX) corridor because it would be the cheapest alternative. Other alternatives considered included a tunnel under Route 1, an Adelphi Road/Univ. Blvd alignment, and an Adelphi Road/PEPCO/I-95 alignment.
(see: http://rethinkcollegepark.net/blog/2007/523/)

The 3,300 parking spaces are located on the east (Greenbelt) side because that's where the land was located. Building the parking on the west side would have meant purchasing and demolishing the Hollywood neighborhood of College Park.

Initially, the station was to be located at Greenbelt Road (adjacent to the Washington Post printing plant). The line was extended further north, to its present location, to give Beltway/I-95 drivers easier access.

While the large surface parking decks at Greenbelt could be redeveloped as TOD, there will always be a gap between the station area and Cherrywood Drive/Springhill Lake because of the wetlands and flood plain for Indian Creek.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 29, 2010 10:19 am • linkreport

This is a great posting!

As a long-term resident dealing with folks on the Prince George's council I have to say that most of them are poor leaders and don't understand the value of making long-term decisions that benefit the overall county - beyond their district. It's also sad to see so many smart people living in Prince George's that aren't pushing the council to make better decisions in terms of utilizing those metro stations. There's a long history of the council making short-term decisions that have terrible long-term consequences. It's also sad to see the council constantly making decisions that go against their General Plan. One great example is building that million dollar court house in bumble f*uck uppper marlboro - not near a metro station - right after the council approved their general plan which doesn't designate upper marlboro a center for future growth. Why would the county invest millions of dollars in a place that goes against their general plan and encourages activity outside certain places where they and the general public (through a public planning process) said it was a priority. It's all a very unfortunate example of leadership.

by Joe on Jan 29, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

On Hill Road, PG County has to show SOMETHING with their TOD around existing stations before we give them a mini Rosslyn-Ballston with another new station.

by Reza on Jan 29, 2010 2:17 pm • linkreport

^ That was in response to the plan that Dave posted, calling for a new Hill Road station in between Addison Road and Morgan Blvd stations.

by Reza on Jan 29, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

I am amazed by the postings about West Hyattsville. After coming from Detroit, you have no clue how good you have it.

First of all, this is a working class neighborhood and the people live and work and buy a lifestyle of what they can afford. Its affordable and not caught up in trying to live up to what the Jones are getting in over-priced property values. So mock the "runned-down" stores all you like, but people shop there. And call it "under-used" all you want, but you don't watch the hundreds of people a day who walk back and forth from it into the neighborhoods nearby.

What I see in this article blasting superblocks is more than just a veiled reference to what is basically a new form of urban renewal. West Hyattsville is one of the few stations that does not serve as an attempt to remake and established neighborhood in its own image. I rather see it is kept that way.

by Ray on Aug 8, 2010 10:03 pm • linkreport

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