Posts about College Park
The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George's Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.
Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.
Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present "Dernoga Money" at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.
"Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?" ...Dernoga's shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park, on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county's top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.
"You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we'd] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?" Dernoga said. "I found it greedy on the part of the property owners."
Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a "drop in the bucket," he said.
Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.
After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to "revisit" the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.
College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga's actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn't make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we're stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city's tax base.
Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George's council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid a another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George's County.
College Park has the fortune of having a unique system of trails and open spaces running through and around the city. However, there are some instances where this system of open spaces serves to divide the community rather than bring it together.
One such instance is the large, wooded open space directly north of Paint Branch Parkway and east of Baltimore Avenue. This land sits at the geographic heart of College Park and has the opportunity to serve as a gathering place for local residents and the University community.
Unfortunately, this land is vastly underutilized due to difficult and unattractive pedestrian and bicycle access and a lack of visibility.
During my frequent runs and bicycle rides around Lake Artemesia, I am amazed by the lack of University students taking advantage of this amenity. I have come to the conclusion that the few number of students who utilize Lake Artemesia's pathway and surrounding trail system is driven both by a lack of perceived safety and simply being unaware that such an amenity exists.
With so much beautiful open space directly adjacent to the University and many of College Park's neighborhoods, it is unfortunate how cut off this land is from campus and surrounding neighborhoods, especially Old Town. Unfortunately, physical barriers, such as dangerous Route 1 and a sound wall along Paint Branch Road, along with psychological barriers, such as a perceived lack of safety, are currently discouraging more recreational use of this area.
Additionally, though the university sits less than a mile away from Lake Artemesia, the distance seems much further due to the convoluted path system and a lack of sight lines between the two destinations.
A little planning and creativity could go a long way in creating a world-class arboretum right here in College Park. The solution to increasing usage lies in creating a highly pedestrian-oriented system that emphasizes safety and the natural beauty of the Paint Branch stream.
The first step is creating a safe pedestrian crossing across Route 1 near Campus Drive. This includes curb bumpouts and pedestrian islands to reduce the distance and time necessary to cross this extremely busy road. Second, a pedestrian countdown signal and shorter light signals will emphasize an intersection that is geared toward people, and not only cars.
Third, a wide, relatively straight, and well-let pathway that follows the Paint Branch Stream will shorten the distance between the university and Lake Artemesia, provide sight lines, and go a long way in increasing the perceived and real safety of this area.
Finally, a high-class pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks will avoid the unsettling concrete tunnel that currently traverses below. This bridge will enhance visual interest, improve safety, and provide a new perspective on the lake and surrounding open space.
In the long run, more amenities such as an outdoor amphitheatre, exercise equipment, a flower garden, and nature center could further enhance the attractiveness and desirability of the arboretum.
It is imperative that the university and city join forces in creating unique and desirable assets throughout College Park. We can hope than new University of Maryland President Loh will play an integral role in building this strong relationship.
An enhanced and improved public space between the university and Lake Artemesia could create a much-needed amenity, serving both permanent residents and students. An arboretum could go a long way in making College Park more than just "a livable community"; it could propel it to be a top-notch college town and a regional attraction.
With the coming of the Purple Line and East Campus, College Park has the opportunity to capitalize on improved accessibility and attractive new development and provide another highly desirable amenity and reason for people to visit and move to College Park.
It's time for College Park to step out of the shadows, build upon its natural assets, and create a highly pedestrian-oriented public space that will serve as a community gathering place and transform College Park into the college town that it should be.
Cross-posted at Rethink College Park.
In a city as disenfranchised as DC, it seems especially important to make sure that all residents have the opportunity to cast a vote. But one group is systematically denied a voice in local decision-making: college students.
It's true that students at schools like Georgetown, Howard, and Catholic are, in a sense, not permanent residents, and many of them may be unfamiliar with or uninterested in local elections. Most of them will probably move out of the neighborhood after four years or so.
But decades and decades from now there will still be students in that same area with similar interests, and there's no mechanism for taking their needs into account.
For example, in the elections last month, two American University freshmen ran write-in campaigns for ANC seats. ANC 3D chair Tom Smith filed complaints against both of them with the Board of Elections and Ethics, although one, Deon Jones, managed to get elected to the long-vacant 3D07 seat.
The other, Tyler Sadonis, who was running for Smith's own seat in 3D02, lost, although according to Smith himself nearly 60 AU students showed up to vote in that precinct. This was an unusually high turnout, but many students were prevented from voting by poll watchers specifically targeting students.
Smith has since called (huge PDF) for the repeal of voting reforms passed by the DC Council last year, including same-day registration and early voting, citing the fact that some AU students attempted to register without the proper identification.
Even if all 60 AU students who tried to vote in 3D02 had been allowed to, Smith still would have been easily reelected with 228 votes. But those students should have been welcomed and encouraged to participate in their local election, rather than intimidated and targeted for challenges.
Nor is this an isolated incident: AU student Sami Green says she's tried to get on the ballot in 3D07 eight times in the past two years. Sometimes she failed to get enough signatures, but other times her petitions were rejected on various technical grounds.
Meanwhile, down in Burleith, neighbors are vociferously opposing Georgetown University's 10-year development plan, which would expand graduate student enrollment from 6,275 to 8,750 while adding only 120 beds on campus. According to Burleith residents, the student presence in their neighborhood is already intolerable, between late-night parties and "walk-by noise." You have to sympathize with them; apparently they were unaware they were moving in next to a 200-year-old university.
The Burleith and Georgetown residents demand that the university build more on-campus housing to keep students away from them. But what if students want to live off-campus? Unfortunately for them, there's no practical reason Councilmember Jack Evans should even consider what students want, because it's mostly the residents who get to vote. Indeed, Evans told the Burleith Citizens Association that he supports them and opposes the campus plan. Why should he say otherwise when the political incentives are so clear?
Up in College Park, the University of Maryland's neighbors have shown a similar hostility towards the idea of students living outside the confines of campus. Elected officials are currently trying to prevent the construction of a residential project on the Maryland Book Exchange site, across the street from the main entrance to UMD. They may or may not be right that the project would adversely affect locals, but there's little question it would be good for the 830 students who'd be able to live there. Unfortunately they aren't really a party to the debate.
Some may argue that college students are free to register to vote at their college address or even run for local office if they meet residency requirements. (Others incorrectly warn of legal consequences for students who try to register at their college address.) But hostility and obstructionism on the part of local residents can be discouraging, and the transient nature of student life means many students are still getting to know their adopted neighborhood when their four years are up.
Unfortunately there are few easy options for increasing student representation in local decision-making. Foremost among them is gerrymandering, which can create a seat on a local body that's effectively reserved for students. Gerrymandering is what created SMD 3D07, the seat won by Deon Jones. Jones will join Georgetown student Jake Sticka as the only two college students serving on ANCs. That's less than 1% of the 276 commissioners citywide, in a city where college students represent nearly 15% of the population.
An intercollegiate campaign called DC Students Speak was launched last year partly to correct this imbalance. They've identified 11 SMDs with majority student populations that are represented by non-student commissioners. The campaign hopes to register and mobilize enough students to correct this imbalance somewhat.
For their part, college neighbors should be more welcoming of students, especially those interested in getting involved in their communities. It benefits everyone if DC-area college students graduate with an attachment to their adopted home, since they may choose to stick around and contribute to the tax base. And it's the right thing to do. Everyone deserves a voice, and only by making everyone's voice heard can we build a city that works for everyone.
One of the main arguments for more student housing in downtown College Park is that there simply aren't enough people in the area to support all of the stores, bars and restaurants in the area. College Park's three-block business district is a revolving door of store closings, where new retail options open with great fanfare and close within a few months.
It's therefore not surprising to hear what Mark Srour, who owns local bar Cornerstone Grill and Loft, told the Diamondback about what some bars do to survive:
Here we are today; the building's sitting stagnant. A great clothing store like Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, Old Navy
— somebody like that would be a great fit for that building," Srour said. "It's just too big of a place to have a bar because, unfortunately, you have to let all the underage people in just to survive. That's why that building is kind of cursed, I guess. It's just too big.
He's talking about Thirsty Turtle, which lost its liquor license last month due to a stabbing and a reputation for serving underage customers. As I wrote last month, Turtle and other bars in College Park need people within walking distance to get business. When the majority of those people are under 21, you're not going to discriminate.
Of course, even if the building that once housed Thirsty Turtle was turned into an Urban Outfitters or another clothing store, it might still have a difficult time staying open. There just aren't enough people living in downtown College Park to make it work, and the area isn't enough of a destination to draw shoppers who'd arrive by car. You need more people to justify the retail, and more retail to make the area a destination.
Having more stuff to do is a goal I'm sure everyone in College Park supports, whether you're a student, a permanent resident, on the University administration or the City Council. Unfortunately, they may not all agree that more student housing is the first step to getting there.
College Park officials want to shut down popular student bar The Thirsty Turtle after three people got stabbed there earlier this month. In the long run, College Park could best address its bar problems if it stopped fighting every student housing proposal.
I went to the University of Maryland and lived in College Park for four years, but never set foot in the Thirsty Turtle until a week before my graduation. As I wrote in my then-weekly column for the Diamondback, I was put off by the atmosphere, the music, and the obviously underage crowd.
But I can't blame the Thirsty Turtle's owners for turning a blind eye to underage drinking. After all, they can't stay in business without getting bodies on the dance floor, and the majority of the people living within walking distance of the bar are under 21. Housing in College Park has been increasingly difficult to find as more and more students choose to live close to school, yet the City of College Park continues to fight new proposed student housing developments tooth and nail. In many ways, they're the reason why downtown College Park is so gross.
The University no longer guarantees on-campus housing to upperclassmen, meaning that many have to live off campus. The most logical place for students to look would be in downtown and Old Town College Park, the only neighborhoods within walking distance of school. Rentals make up more than three-fourths of all housing in Old Town, according to University of Maryland Off-Campus Housing Services and research by Rethink College Park. Landlords say that there are far fewer vacancies in Old Town than in "further out" areas.
As a junior, I was lucky enough to find an new, clean apartment on Knox Road, maybe a thousand feet from Thirsty Turtle and the rest of downtown College Park. But many of my friends ended up in one of the few new student apartment complexes in the city, which are able to charge astronomical rents because of limited supply and the notion that all college students need granite countertops and tanning beds. Those who didn't want or couldn't afford to live there landed in single-family homes situated well away from campus, in neighborhoods like North College Park or outside the city, in University Park, Hyattsville or Berwyn Heights.
Of course, many students move to these areas by choice. Student housing in downtown College Park is often run-down and unsafe. Because of their proximity to the bars and fraternities and sororities, many of these houses host loud parties on the weekends. If you're not into that scene, you have to look elsewhere. The student population is not a monolith, but the available housing in downtown or Old Town College Park only attracts certain kinds of students, and the amenities that locate there reflect that.
Rethink College Park has made a strong case for why more student housing is needed in Old Town and how wrong local leaders are in opposing it. For years, the city of College Park has been trying to draw business to downtown with a proposed boutique hotel and a parking garage that usually sits empty.
If we actually want a nice downtown where bars don't have to accept underage patrons and stores don't close after a few months, we need more students living there. Build for everyone, and everyone will come, not just the kids who'll take a rat-trap apartment because it's within stumbling distance of a bar.
Thirsty Turtle's practices may be wrong, but they're as much the result of lax oversight as they are of a college town that insists that students don't have a place there. College Park's leaders should recognize that and find an approach to redevelopment that includes the kids who gave the town its name.
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. ...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:
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 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.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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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