Greater Greater Washington

Olson may scuttle new housing in College Park

A private developer plans to build student housing on the site of the Book Exchange, a high-profile site in downtown College Park just across the street from the front entrance to the University of Maryland. But county councilmember Eric Olson, siding with residents opposed to student housing, could thwart the project altogether.


Image from Google Street View.

According to the College Park Patch, Olson and developer Ilya Zusin, the proposal comprises a 6-story 334-unit primarily student apartment building with 14,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

It would have 109 units geared towards visiting professors, young professionals, and graduate students (mainly singles with some doubles) and 225 marketed to undergraduates (mainly quads).

While proposed as one building, the development would read like two with different facades and lobbies if constructed. There would be about 830 dedicated student beds all housed within the part of the site closest to Route 1.

The 109 unit building (roughly 170 beds) would have a different entrance and be located at the rear of the site backing up to Yale Avenue. 10,000 square feet of the retail space would be taken up by the Book Exchange itself with frontage on Route 1. Another store would locate on the College Avenue side.


Map of the site. Image from Google Maps.

According to the Patch and other sources, a small group of vocal residents are concerned about the addition of hundreds of new students in Old Town. They fear increased noise and traffic.

District 3 County Councilman and College Park smart growth champion Eric Olson, who ultimately determines what takes place on the site, seems to be leaning towards the view of long term residents who oppose student housing at the site. That's a surprising position for Olson given the pro-student and smart growth platform that swept him into office. Some of Olson's non-student constituents turned out for a meeting August 25th in Old Town College Park and stated their preference to see a "Trader Joe's, a boutique hotel, or even apartments aimed at area professionals" on the site rather than student housing.

While we agree that it's less than ideal that every residential product being built in College Park these days is student housing, it's difficult to deny the smart growth implications of such an infill project. The site is literally across the street from the main entrance to UMD at the corner of Route 1 and College Ave. It's also difficult to ignore the precedent being set here.

While projects like this can always be killed one way or another politically, there is really no legal ground to oppose it under the current zoning regime. This project conforms completely with the spirit and language of the Route 1 Sector Plan that was just updated by the County Council this summer. Politicians don't need to get into the business of deciding who can live where; especially given the character of established zoning and housing incentives in College Park.

It sets a bad precedent if Olson ultimately quashes the first development proposed under the updated Route 1 Sector Plan. We can't let latent and unfounded anti-student housing hysteria stand in the way of smart growth in College Park.

UMD has the wherewithal and momentum to build the non-student housing on East Campus that Olson and others desire for the community. One private developer with a 2.6-acre site does not. Indeed, UMD is refusing to build any undergraduate beds in its East Campus Redevelopment Initiative and will be bulldozing 650-beds of affordable undergraduate student housing over the next 5 years to make way for that project. UMD intends to infuse a critical mass of retail and high end residential that can draw in young professionals with the East campus Redevelopment Initiative that Olson and others desire. As more student high rises come online, the Old Town neighborhood will begin get drained of its student residents and houses will likely turn over to non-student young professional hoping to locate near the College Park metro station.

Artists' Renderings for East Campus
Most recent renderings of the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative.

The location of the Book Exchange site between Fraternity Row, a group of sorority houses and the entirety of the UMD nightlife scene makes it nearly impossible to finance a true residential product for young professionals at this point. Anything that departs substantially from what the developer has proposed here simply will not be built. There is no market for it. The 109-unit non-student section was already a pretty big concession for the developer to make considering the economy.

Furthermore, to blunt criticism the developer has offered to help the city annually to expand noise and code enforcement. They've also agreed to get the project certified LEED Silver or Gold and build an associated 150 bike space (covered). Because of traffic concerns, they will reserve spaces for car sharing (Zip Car) and provide free bikes for students that have none. Zusin would build between 141 and 315 spaces under the project depending on if the city lets him pay fee in lieu for space in their newly constructed garage just down the road.

The project will likely reduce traffic during rush hour given that almost all its residents will walk to campus or utilize Metro day-to-day. They'd be using the provided parking for car storage. To top it all off, the city currently receives $18,000 per year in property tax from the Book Exchange. They'll receive around $250,000 annually if the project goes forward.

What exactly are we fighting against here?

Cross-posted at Rethink College Park.

David Daddio is a master's student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Originally from Columbia, Maryland, David founded Rethink College Park while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. He is currently the Second-Year Editor of Carolina Planning, the oldest student-run planning publication in the country. 

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Sounds like the crap we went through in Williamsburg, VA.

The residents passed legislation that effectively made it illegal for students to rent single-occupancy dwellings (basically 99% of the housing stock), and then effectively fought the construction of student-centric apartment complexes. (In a particularly evil move, they also managed to lock us out of the polls for two election cycles)

We get it. You don't like students. However, they have to live somewhere, and you probably shouldn't have moved to a town named College Park if this bothers you so much.

by andrew on Sep 13, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Yeay, another neighborhood that opposes its livelihood.

Is there any university left that's not opposed by its neighbors?

I love that everybody always complains about the state of education, while at the same time there seems to be nobody who wants to live next to a school or student housing.

And how come nobody seems to realize that their neighborhoods exists solely due top the university it's next to?

by Jasper on Sep 13, 2010 3:54 pm • linkreport

I support this housing proposal, however, the idea that faculty (even "visiting professors") will live there is a bit of a fantasy.

Young faculty without families will chose to live somewhere more vibrant (Silver Spring, DC, etc). Perhaps this will make College Park more vibrant, but the city has a long, long, way to go.

Faculty with families (and remember that many, many graduate students have families as well) will live in Montgomery County for the schools.

Also, before we go on bashing these residents, some of them likely remember that when what is now known as College Park Towers was proposed it was sold as "upscale" condos for young professionals. The fact that it was a condo, and not an apartment, project was part of its appeal. It wouldn't turn into student housing.

It has. Today few, if any, of the units are owner-occupied. Thus you get the twin ills of student housing (not always bad), and absentee landlords. I looked a picking up a unit in there a few years ago. The price was right, but no way was I living in what was essentially a giant dormitory. I did that once when I was in college, and while it was fun, I'm a bit old for that now.

Also remember that residents were similarly burned when the university, rather than building new dorms, or renovating what they had, housed students in the hotel on Route 1 (Quality Inn) against the wishes of the city. At one point UMD had 1 "high rise" dorm closed, was leasing space in another to Bowie State for its students, and then dumping freshman into the hotel.

Again, I support this project. The Book Exchange has to go now, before the internet puts it out of business a few years, and I would rather have some housing than a typical College Park vacant lot. But, I do understand the concern of some of the residents who have been through this before.

by urbaner@hotmail.com on Sep 13, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

There are some of the same problems in Fairfax with the GMU community.

It's my understanding that its basically impossible to build apartments in the city of fairfax. This means that are few options off campus where one can still reasonably walk or bike. Several houses in the adjacent neighborhood rent to students but students either have to pay enormous rents or live illegally since no more than 4 last names can be on a lease. The campus is adding housing but the city of fairfax is only adding to traffic woes by discouraging places for students to live.

On the other hand Masonvale is a very nice looking housing development meant for faculty/staff and their families. It has a good diversity of housing options (small apartments to large homes) with many urban friendly features. It seems like these homes are popular with the staff. Plus the increased the street connectivity of that area.

by Canaan on Sep 13, 2010 5:30 pm • linkreport

Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ is comparable in many ways to UMD College Park - RU has about 36K in New Brunswick, UMD has about 37K. RU has about 2K more undergrads in the New Brunswick area (the group most likely to live near campus in the first place).

While RU's relationship with New Brunswick and other surrounding towns runs hot and cold, there has been a huge amount of university related development in downtown New Brunswick in the past decade or so.

There are, however, many differences. New Brunswick is (and feels like) a city. New Brunswick has worked with the University as it has turned a very dangerous street connecting 2 of the campuses into a real downtown with a great nightlife surrounding a university housing tower and a boutique hotel. Also, as to the comment from GMU about off campus housing, New Brunswick makes it very easy to legally rent a house to multiple students. While there is a story every few years about a house that was being rented out illegally and without inspection, I lived off campus in a house of 11 with all of us on the lease and a certified inspection by the city.

I think that the border that surrounds large campuses such as UMD here or OSU in Columbus may encourage and "us and them" attitude among local residents that seems diffused by how RU's main campus ends and, across the street, private housing begins.

That is not to say that it is always rosy - but there is a real willingness in the residential neighborhoods around RU to make students, if not welcome, at least tolerated.

by gooch on Sep 13, 2010 6:06 pm • linkreport

I haven't been around Ohio State in quite a while, going backa couple decades or so, I remember a fairly unattractive student ghetto in the areas surrounding the campus. One high school friend lived in a building that was basically in Burger King's parking lot and obviously built for students. That's probably what CP doesn't want, but there are other ways to achieve it besides this kind of NIMBYism. I've gone to the CP campus a few times for work and it has to rate is one of the most poorly designed places imaginable, as well as poorly connected to the surrounding community. Even the most unattractive Big 10 campuses, like U of Illinois are more coherent and relate better to their surroundings.

by Rich on Sep 13, 2010 6:47 pm • linkreport

@Gooch Actually, I completely forgot about New Brunswick.... I was shocked by how much the area had transformed when I visited there last year. One of the few "healthy" non-upscale downtowns remaining in New Jersey.

by andrew on Sep 13, 2010 10:23 pm • linkreport

Having a hotel or non-student apartments on a space that close to campus is just silly. However, a Trader Joe's wouldn't be a bad idea, since there's no grocery store within walking distance of the main campus. That seems like the closest thing to a win-win, if the logical idea of expanding student housing is killed.

by jakeod on Sep 13, 2010 11:39 pm • linkreport

A Trader Joe's and student housing aren't mutually exclusive. A Trader Joe's could fit right in the ground floor of the proposed building. Unfortunately they've told the developer that they aren't at all interested in locating in College Park given the demographics.

by David Daddio on Sep 14, 2010 12:25 am • linkreport

To summarize: the developer proposes, a small group of people oppose, the elected official agrees, the project dies.

An elected official who advocates smart growth, claims to support development and gives bus tours of development sites.

No hearings, no broader consideration of the plan, even though the project is consistent with zoning and masterplan. And this one doesn't increase traffic, the usual opposition excuse.

No increased tax revenue, no construction and follow-on jobs, no better quality retail, no student housing near the campus.

So much for the planning process in Prince George's County. Any wonder Prince George's is where it is? Or why the University wants its own downtown?

by Bemused Citizen on Sep 14, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

So, Trader Joe's doesn't like my demographics? That's OK, I won't drive to Silver Spring in Montgomery County to shop at Trader Joe's (or Whole Foods). I will keep my money in my own area!

by Greenbelt Gal on Sep 14, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

Comparing the cities of New Brunswick and College Park is ridiculous. You might as well compare Philadelphia, PA and Philadelphia, MS.

New Brunswick, in addition to housing Rutgers University, is the home of the corporate headquarters of Johnson and Johnson, and the offices of a number of smaller businesses that feed off the proximity to J and J. Thousands of people each day commute into New Brunswick. It is part of a corridor stretching from Trenton to Newark Airport with well over 1 million residents.

New Brunswick is also home to one of the largest hospitals in the state (RWJ), which is growing every year (and is affiliated with UMDNJ, not Rutgers). New Brunswick also houses all of the county offices and the courthouse for Middlesex County, a county of over 750,000 residents.

One more thing, nearly all of the new housing built in New Brunswick in the last decade has been aimed not at students, but rather at people who want to live in close proximity to the train station for commutes into Manhattan. The only student-oriented projects I can think of were built by Rutgers, one on Alabny and the new Heldrich Center complex at George and New Streets. The ground floor retail of the Albany Ave building (with several hundred students living upstairs) has never been occupied, except for a chain record store (Sam Goody?) that went out of business.

New Brunwsick has only one relatively small neighborhood of student housing and very few business that target students. For example, along the main business district (George Street, and around the train station, you will find very few students at all. The daily influx of jurors at the courthouse brings in more business to downtown New Brunswick then Rutgers students, not to mention the thousands of high-paid professionals that work downtown and at the hospital.

College Park will never be New Brunswick. Does College Park even house a single company, let alone #33 on the Fortune 500 list? Does College Park have a major hospital complex, government offices? Dozens of law firms? etc?

by urbaner on Sep 14, 2010 12:18 pm • linkreport

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