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Posts about College Park

Development


An entire student neighborhood bites the dust in College Park

New investment is pouring into College Park, seeking to turn this town known for undergrads and traffic into an urban hub for all ages. As part of that transformation, the famous Knox Boxes student neighborhood is transforming from the ground up.


College Park's Knox Boxes are just a memory. All photos by the author unless noted.

For decades, the Knox Boxes epitomized the University of Maryland's image as a party school. The cluster of 25 low-rise 1950s-era brick apartment buildings was just south of the campus, behind the seedy bars and pizza joints on Route 1.


The same intersection (Guilford Drive and Hartwick Road) in 2006.

For many undergrads, a Knox Box apartment was their first taste of living on their own, and the small backyards and proximity to other neighbors made for comfortable college living.

But they were also cheaply built and poorly maintained. During my freshman year at Maryland, two students died in separate Knox Box fires.

As Maryland became known more for academics than basketball riots, the university and the City of College Park started looking at ways to redevelop the Knox Boxes.

Getting multiple landlords to sell was difficult, but by 2013, a single owner had purchased most of the Knox Boxes. That year, the city approved a plan from developer Toll Brothers, usually known for suburban McMansions, to replace the Knox Boxes with Knox Village, a luxury student apartment complex for over 1,500 students.


The future Knox Village (as seen from Guilford and Hartwick). Image from WDG Architecture.

Like most of the new student housing going up in College Park, Knox Village's apartments and townhomes will have gourmet kitchens and amenities like a pool, gym, and covered parking garage. The complex will have a series of courtyards with a grand staircase (which Toll Brothers compares to the Spanish Steps in Rome...), and two spaces for shops and restaurants.

Mayor Andy Fellows called the vote a "landmark occasion." Construction began last summer, though a few of the Knox Boxes whose owners didn't sell remain.

Change in College Park goes well beyond the Knox Boxes

Knox Village is just one piece of a bigger plan to recast College Park as more of a college town, hoping to attract post-graduates or even families. The university and the city recently opened a charter school to keep more faculty in the area. In a reversal from 10 years ago, when the administration opposed the Purple Line running through campus, president Wallace Loh has been a strong supporter.

More high-end student apartments are going up on Route 1, and last week Target announced plans to open one of the nation's first Target Express stores inside one of them. The university itself has been buying up properties in downtown College Park, and they're partnering with developer U3 Advisors to buy a former bar and turn it into a branch of Milkboy, a Philadelphia music and art venue. Even Ratsie's Pizza, a longtime favorite of the drunk and hungry, will become a Nando's Peri-Peri.


Even as new development comes to College Park, bits of the old remain.

Not even six years since I graduated from Maryland, much of College Park is unrecognizable. Having lived on Knox Road as an upperclassman, I admit I'm a little nostalgic about losing the Knox Boxes. It's also worrisome that so much of the new student housing is very expensive and might make the already high cost of attending college even higher. On the other hand, thousands of new student apartments are coming in, and as the supply increases, rents are likely to fall.

When I lived there, College Park could be frustrating if you weren't into the party scene. There wasn't even a grocery store within walking distance of campus. It's exciting to see College Park develop into more of a college town. That's not only great for students and faculty, but also for neighbors who aren't even affiliated with the university.

Check out these photos of the Knox Boxes in 2006 and today.

Roads


Let's build a great bike lane for Route 1 in College Park

People who bicycle in College Park were very excited last year when Governor Martin O'Malley announced funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements on Route 1 in College Park. But the state's new plan for the road just includes basic, painted bicycle lanes. The road needs better bicycle infrastructure to be safe and attractive for cycling.


Rendering of SHA's proposed typical section for Route 1 between College Ave and Greenbelt Road. Drawing by the author.

When the funding was announced last summer, one news report said that the plan called for a "bicycle and pedestrian trail along US 1 from College Avenue to MD-193."

Northern Prince George's county has an excellent bike trail system paralleling Route 1 and Metro's Green Line, but many of the larger roads in the area are hostile to cyclists and pedestrians. Route 1 does not even have continuous sidewalks in many stretches between the University of Maryland and the beltway, and there are no protected bike lanes or cycletracks on any of the larger numbered state roads in the area.

The state's design disappoints

Last week, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) described a plan for section of Route 1 between College Ave. and Greenbelt Road that would create a narrow five-foot painted bike lane (four feet plus a one foot gutter pan) next to the curb.


A diagram from an SHA newsletter describing the proposed Route 1 cross-section.

Given the bus and delivery truck traffic on Route 1, a narrow bike lane could be hazardous, squeezing cyclists between an 8-inch concrete curb and large vehicles in dense traffic. In addition, buses that are stopped or idling by the curb would force cyclists into the roadway and mixed traffic—something neither cyclists nor drivers prefer.

The SHA design is unlikely to be popular with either cyclists or drivers. College Park officials asked SHA hard questions about whether the design could include protected bike lanes, but SHA representatives didn't have good answers beyond, essentially, "this is where we usually put bike lanes."

This design decision will make an enormous difference in the long run for College Park's accessibility and business development. Since SHA will be rebuilding the entire roadway, this is once-in-a-generation opportunity for Prince George's County.

Will the bike lanes be part of an urban street design that is welcoming to pedestrians, bikes, and bus riders? Or will they lanes just be a stripe of paint between the curb and a roadway that is designed more like a suburban strip or rural highway?

Why not a cycletrack?

Fortunately, there are much better designs that cities nationwide have used for decades. Some even would allow for a narrower road, meaning Maryland would have to buy less land and do less of the expensive full-depth road reconstruction.

Protected bike lanes, or cycletracks, physically separate between cyclists and vehicle traffic, offering a more comfortable and safer ride.


A protected lane through the MIT campus on Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA. Photo by straightedge217 on Flickr.

Twenty-four states use these lanes, which many cycle advocates call protected bike lanes and others call cycletracks. The District uses cycletracks extensively, and they have coincided with a boom in population and tax revenues for the city.

A Route 1 with such a lane, keeping the same proposed center median, could look something like this:


Drawing by the author.

Cyclists do not have to compete with faster vehicles that can hit or kill them, nor do they have to compete with slower pedestrians on crowded sidewalks (like they do now). This is a win-win for all road users and dramatically improves everyone's safe travel.

A two-way cycletrack might also be an option, especially on the west (University) side of Route 1.

Alternatively, SHA can also follow the lead of many other states by putting in buffered bike lanes. These separate the bike lanes from vehicle traffic within the road using striped or curbed buffers. While not as good as cycletracks or protected lanes, they are far superior to the simple painted lanes in SHA's design.

Although there has limited space in the right-of-way on Route 1, SHA is working on expanding the right-of-way beyond its existing width. This gives College Park a rare opportunity to create enough space to safely accommodate cyclists and pedestrians.

Protected bike lanes will encourage bike commuting to the university and surrounding businesses and will take car traffic off the road. In order to entice people to bicycle, people need to feel safe. Basic painted bike lanes alone will not achieve that.

Transit


On Car-Free Day, residents yearn for the Purple Line

Yesterday was Car-Free Day. For many residents of Montgomery County, it will be a lot easier to make important trips without a car when the Purple Line is built.


Proposed UMD Campus Center stop. Image from Maryland MTA via the Washington Post.

University of Maryland student Sareana Kimia live-tweeted her two-bus commute from Rockville to the College Park campus and compared it to what her commute would be like with the planned light rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

That night, she and Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal co-hosted a Twitter chat about the Purple Line with the Action Committee for Transit and Montgomery County Young Democrats. Her commute exemplified many of the challenges that transit riders face.

Like so many commuters, she began her trip desperately hoping to catch her bus—and in need of accurate, live time transit information.

Her bus was 10 minutes late. In contrast, the Purple Line will run every 6 minutes in rush hour.

Sareana takes the RideOn 5 to Silver Spring to pick up the UMD Shuttle. Delegate Al Carr suggested what might be a faster route, and Sareana explained the economics behind her transit choices:

When Sareana arrived in downtown Silver Spring, she related a standard bus riding nightmare:

Although she made her UMD Shuttle, Sareana was still 12 minutes late for her 9 am class, despite having begun her commute 1.5 hours earlier. She would have arrived 39 minutes earlier via the Purple Line—with a smoother ride.

Her afternoon commute once again illustrated the importance of frequency in making transit convenient.

Her afternoon commute also demonstrated how horrible traffic can be in this area, even when the weather is perfect:

At 6 pm, she joined Councilmember George Leventhal on Twitter to discuss the Purple Line. Leventhal shared how the Purple Line would improve his commute from Takoma Park to Rockville.

Marc Korman quizzed Leventhal on the Public Private Partnership process that will build the Purple Line.

Korman also asked about state and county cooperation.

Leventhal discussed a "Purple Line Compact" being developed by the Purple Line Corrider Coalition, that would "ensure residents know what to expect from" the Purple Line. It is based on compacts drawn up in Denver, Minneapolis and Baltimore, among others, before light rail lines are built.

The goal is to release the Purple Line Compact by the end of the year.

The Silver Spring Transit Center Twitter account made a poignant contribution during the chat:

Leventhal noted that the Montgomery County Council would get an update on the Purple Line next Tuesday, September 30. He ended the chat on an upbeat note:

Transit


Metro locks out an entire College Park neighborhood

Metro's aggressive rebuilding program sometimes means riders must use bus shuttles to travel to and from closed stations. But when Metro closes Greenbelt station, the work blocks access to the shuttles from an entire neighborhood.


Left: Walking path from Hollywood to Greenbelt on normal days. Right: When the station is closed. Maps by the author.

Greenbelt Metro station sits on the boundary between the cities of Greenbelt and College Park. On the Greenbelt side there's a bus loop and a massive parking lot. But few people live within a reasonable walk. On the College Park side is Hollywood, a neighborhood of single-family homes straddling Rhode Island Avenue. A pedestrian tunnel beneath the tracks links the two.

Right now, Metro is building a test track for new railcars between College Park and Greenbelt. This means construction most weekends, and sometimes Metro closes Greenbelt station for the work. So far in 2014, Greenbelt has been closed on 3 weekends. It will likely close again before the year is out.

As usual when Metro closes stations for weekend work, they provide bus shuttles to the nearest Green Line station that's open.

But there's a problem: When Metro closes Greenbelt station due to work, they lock the station gates. The pedestrian tunnel linking Hollywood is behind these gates. So when the station is closed, the tunnel closes too.

This means people who live in Hollywood can't even walk through the station to get to the shuttle buses substituting for trains. They also can't access regular buses going to places like New Carrollton, the University of Maryland, or Wheaton.

When Greenbelt station is closed, what's usually an easy 4 minute walk through the station becomes a daunting and impractical 1 hour 9 minute walk of 3.5 miles.

College Park station is different

College Park station, the next one down the Green Line, has a similar design, except for one crucial difference: the pedestrian tunnel under the tracks at College Park emerges outside the station gates, and so then tunnel can remain open even when the station is closed.

Greenbelt's tunnel isn't so lucky.


Tunnel at College Park. Photo by the author.

Can Greenbelt change?

Is there any way for WMATA to make sure riders who live in Hollywood still have reasonable access to buses, even when the station is closed? Ideally the agency could leave the station gates open at Greenbelt, and just block off the faregates with a barricade.

That might mean Metro has to have one more staff person at the station on work days, but locking out most of the people who live within walking distance of the station isn't a good option.

Bicycling


Is Gaithersburg the next frontier for Capital Bikeshare?

Gaithersburg is considering joining Capital Bikeshare with up to 21 additional stations. But with turbulent bikeshare rollouts in College Park and Rockville, it may not be easy.


Proposed bikeshare stations in Gaithersburg. Map by the author, using Google.

The Gaithersburg City Council is mulling whether or not to join Capital Bikeshare, and how to fund the program if they join. At a meeting on Monday, the council worked out preliminary plans for 8 initial stations, to be followed by around a dozen more later.

Gaithersburg has a growing collection of mixed-use neighborhoods that will someday be connected by the Corridor Cities Transitway. Adding bikesharing to that mix makes sense, and can help Gaithersburg transition to be a less car-dependent community.

But is expansion even possible right now? And if it is, does Gaithersburg have the right plan?

Trouble in College Park and Rockville

Theoretically the next expansion of Capital Bikeshare in suburban Maryland should be underway in College Park right now. But with Capital Bikeshare's parent supplier company in bankruptcy and reorganization, no new bikes or bike stations are rolling off the assembly line. As a result, College Park's expansion is on indefinite hold.

Eventually the assembly line will start rolling again. But how long will it take, and how huge will be the backlog of existing orders? It may be some time before anybody can accept new orders.

Meanwhile, nearby Rockville has its bikeshare stations already, but they're poorly used.

One big problem appears to be that Rockville's stations are spread too far apart. Instead of placing stations every couple of blocks, Rockville only put one or two stations in each neighborhood. Cyclists have to commit to a long ride to use the system.

Based on the map of proposed stations, it looks like Gaithersburg is shaping up to make the same mistake. It might be better for both cities to rethink their stations, and cluster them together in a smaller part of town.

But implementation details aside, it's great news to see more and more communities looking to progressive transportation options.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


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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