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Olson ignores smart growth basics on Book Exchange project

An array of officials who are usually reliably pro-Smart Growth have teamed up with College Park's Old Town Civic Association (OTCA) in an effort to quash the proposed Book Exchange project.

The 6-story mixed-use development could bring 830 student beds to downtown College Park along with roughly 170 beds geared towards grad students and young professionals. But opponents would prefer less student-oriented development on the site.

The debate has become almost farcical. Handpicked neighborhood committees are staking their positions and misinformation and hysteria abound in a way that we have not seen with any other project.

The developer has not even submitted formal plans yet or presented the concept to the City Council, yet the battle lines have already formed. Most key decisionmakers, including County Councilman and longtime Smart Growth proponent Eric Olson, have aligned themselves squarely against the project.

At the starting gate, the project seems almost destined for a court battle. It completely satisfies existing zoning, yet most of the local political establishment opposes it anyway. The demand for housing and policies in the Route 1 Sector Plan have taken a back seat to an anti-student hysteria brewing among a handful of the most politically active and vocal Old Town residents.

A letter dated October 1 from OTCA sums up adjacent neighbors' opposition:

We shall be completely marginalized and without hope should this project go forward. ...

OTCA believes the influx of up to 1,000 more undergraduates would symbolize "kiss of death," for College Park's downtown, as the likelihood of more upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops would forever be lost to sandwich shops and fast food venues, the market of choice targeted to undergraduates. If downtown is completely dominated by undergraduate residents, it will not attract more diverse retail. If this project goes forward, the opportunity to change the nature of downtown will forever be lost. ...

We cannot support the proposed development at the Maryland Book Exchange, as it is likely to have grave and irreversible impacts on our community.

The basic premises behind opposition to the Book Exchange redevelopment are faulty. City Councilwoman (and supporter of the project) Chris Nagle puts the situation best:
The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town.

I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings. The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.

OCTA voted unanimously (24-0) on September 27th against the project. Unfortunately, people who are supposed to be voices of reason in the community are instead playing to its deepest fears. The neighborhood has convinced itself that its very future is in jeopardy.

This gut emotional reaction stems from the development's proximity to the neighborhood, not on any reality of its potential impacts to the community. In fact, the project would create the exact reverse effect than what residents fear: it will contribute to draining students out of single-family homes.

We're not saying that there isn't room for adjustments around the edges. Rethink College Park has already proposed that the developer seek the Maryland Food Co-op as a tenant for the ground floor retail space. The developer should also look at ways to better ensure graduate students can comfortably occupy part of the complex.

If construction of student housing isn't the long term solution to what ails Old Town, what is?

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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"OTCA believes the influx of up to 1,000 more undergraduates would symbolize "kiss of death," for College Park's downtown."

Damn that lying Realtor, I KNEW there was a reason why they named this town College Park!

by tom veil on Oct 19, 2010 1:33 pm • linkreport

Downtown Ann Arbor seems to do rather well despite the fact it has plenty of students. In fact, most college towns generally represent the best "downtown" environments available in large parts of the country.

by Aaron on Oct 19, 2010 1:41 pm • linkreport

Moving out the NIMBY's to Hagerstown

by Redline SOS on Oct 19, 2010 2:08 pm • linkreport

The debate has become almost farcical. Handpicked neighborhood committees are staking their positions and misinformation and hysteria abound in a way that we have not seen with any other project.

Oh, I would say that it has been seen with other projects. Namely, just about any project undertaken by any university that has as a consequence the possibility of increased contact with students. See Georgetown's current battles over the Campus Plan, for instance. It's nothing new: townies, especially wealthier ones, tend to view students as leprotic vermin.

by Dizzy on Oct 19, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

God forbid a town should have cheap food options. And in what world do college students not attract retail?? UMD students are actually relatively wealthy.

by Stephen Smith on Oct 19, 2010 3:00 pm • linkreport

Downtown College Park has got to be one of the downtowns of any major college town in America, and I say this as an alum. What "upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops" does College Park have now? Oh, right. None. Because the market won't sustain any. I'd think residents might first want to focus on attracting enough businesses to downtown College Park to keep the existing storefronts occupied before worrying about what is occupying them, but maybe that's just me. 800 more bodies downtown would certainly help.

by Nate on Oct 19, 2010 3:12 pm • linkreport

*one of the worst. Edited that too many times.

by Nate on Oct 19, 2010 3:13 pm • linkreport

So how is this anti-smart growth? It's anti-undergrad/student. None of the quotes you selected show the town is against dense development.

Regarding the 'it will empty out the town'. I don't see any proof of that on rethink. Demand for student housing will continue to grow. Total UMD enrollment increased by over 2000 students from 2002 - present. Even with the addition of on the campus suites on south campus and the building surrounding No 1 liquor, off-campus single family home student rentals were still increasing.

by m on Oct 19, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Enrollment at UMD is not increasing. This has everything to do with more undergrads having a preference for living close to campus and nothing to do with change in enrollment. Student housing construction (off and on campus)has not kept pace with this change in preferences... therefore students have nowhere to live except single-family home neighborhoods.

by David on Oct 19, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

@m: The Courtyards complex opened in 2000 and the first Commons apartments opened in 2001, and if you include these in your figures (and I'm not sure why you wouldn't), the University alone has added 3,313 beds in the last decade. University View, which is fully private but very close by, also contains 1100 beds, and is in the process of adding 1500 more. So yes, student housing has increased in the past decade at a much faster clip than enrollment.

by Nate on Oct 19, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

Enrollment is not increasing, student preferences are changing. Thousands of student-designated beds have been constructed (even more than you indicate) yet developers (based on market research) are still proposing more. See the full numbers here:

by David on Oct 19, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

@Nate My point was that single family student rental occupancy also increased even though these were brought online. This implies that more big buildings doesn't mean less students in the surrounding community.

@David enrollment in 2002, 34,801, Fall 2009 37,195
from: Not huge, but still growing.

Also, if enrollment is not increasing as you say, why more student targetted housing? At what point will you end up w/ lots of vacant or a price crash

by m on Oct 19, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

I meant to choose the projects I chose because this was about downtown CP, although I guess I shouldn't have included Courtyards for that reason. But point taken on enrollment, I can't find the data but I believe you.

by Nate on Oct 19, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

take out the numbers just for undergraduates. Grad students are generally not the focus of these new developments. Many of them live in DC or Silver Spring. Even if you don't take grad students out, the increase in enrollment is not that significant compared to the number of beds constructed. UMD continues to transition from a commuter school to a top research 1 university. Students want that "college experience."

by David on Oct 19, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

Sounds like some folk need to take a trip up to Penn State... State College has a great downtown with a nice variety of food & retail including among a variety of bars -- none of which ever really stood out in my head as being particularly bad or rowdy. Some of the bars even served as venues for a variety of professional conferences & seminars. The Hooters was probably the sole exception, raising a bit of a havoc at closing time; but I don't think that's even around any more.

by Bossi on Oct 19, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

It would seem to me that building more housing that close to campus would both decrease car traffic (less students commuting from off-campus) and the amount of drunk drivers leaving downtown bars in a car - which are both things you would think that the neighborhood would support.

As the map that rethinkcollegepark posted illustrates, the majority of houses above Calvert Rd are rentals to students anyway, and I think most people would agree that if you live in the midst of frat/sorority houses and student group houses you either need to deal with and enjoy it, or move (a few blocks away, if you'd like).

by DC_Chica on Oct 19, 2010 5:14 pm • linkreport

I would rather have college students who have to study and attend class rather than high school teenagers who have nothing BUT time to be rowdy and get into trouble. Oh, and those students living in those apartments have to be employed for the most part unless their parents are ponying up the dough for the rent. If I was a student there, I would be offended. It's quite funny how a neighborhood parked right next to a large university doesn't feel that students should be a part of it. Did they expect things to stay the same forever?

by John on Oct 19, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

when i was an undergraduate at michigan state university, there was a riot after a duke basketball game (similar to the kind of stupid stuff that happens in college park from time to time), and some damage occurred to businesses downtown. the mayor of east lansing had the temerity and stupidity to get in front of TV cameras and state that the town would be better off if MSU had never existed.

those of you with any geographic knowledge of the greater lansing area realize that, without MSU, east lansing would still be cornfields on the outskirts of the capital.

my rambling point being, this is a college town. what the hell do these people expect in a college town? do they think that tiffany, bloomingdales, and maserati are all going to open outlets right there on the corner, if they can just keep the kids out?

looney tunes, every last one of them.

by IMGoph on Oct 19, 2010 10:18 pm • linkreport

I think I get it.

"upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops"

Same issue as Georgetown. Its all about homeowners and people have have real estate which they would like to see appreciate in value. If College Park turned into a snooty enclaves with gourmet cafes and clothing boutiques, no doubt there are those who would benefit. Students wouldn't necessarily cause any harm, but they would quash some of the speculative fantasies that some rich jerk with a nice piece of property has.

Follow the money, right?

by TXSteveW on Oct 19, 2010 11:18 pm • linkreport

Its a shame that the town of College Park is UMD's biggest downfall. Do the residents in the area pay attention to what Route 1 looks like as they drive in? All this development is actualy improving the look and feel of the college. Once the Purple line moves in we will have a nice walkable comminuty.

by Matt R on Oct 20, 2010 7:02 am • linkreport

People that move into a town named College Park and complain about the students? Sounds like people that buy a house next to National then complain about the planes.

by OX4 on Oct 20, 2010 7:59 am • linkreport

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