Posts about College Park
The Cafritz development along Route 1 in Riverdale Park is slated to bring the first Whole Foods to Prince George's County. While one neighboring community is trying to cut off access, another sees opportunity in increasing connectivity.
The Riverdale Town council, at first inclined to restrict access to the project only from Route 1, may now see access to the development from the south, along Maryland Avenue, as a chance to open its own town center to additional traffic. This commercial area adjacent to the MARC station, and home to a popular farmers market, has struggled to find tenants. It could become a successful complement to the Cafritz project.
By contrast, University Park wants any new traffic signal on Baltimore Avenue at Van Buren Street to prevent traffic from crossing into its residential streets. Yet access works both ways.
Without such a light, town residents will have to use some part of Route 1 to shop at Whole Foods. And that feeling of being trapped by traffic, which residents have commented on at council meetings, would only grow worse.
Good news on access was heard at Cafritz's presentation last Thursday to the Riverdale Park council. The cost of building a bridge or ramp over the CSX line at the rear of the property is possibly much lower than the $15 million first expected. This would provide access to River Road on the the other side of the tracks, with its significant office developments.
Vehicular access into College Park to the north, along Rhode Island Avenue, may remain a dream. This means that College Park residents from adjoining neighborhoods will have to make a left onto Baltimore Avenue, and another left into the site, to get to the development.
Yes, they can use buses and shuttles, which should be integrated into the design from the outset. Or perhaps they can walk or bike along the trail that the Cafritz development will now complete. But many people who go grocery shopping choose to take their cars. Forcing them all onto arteries won't repeal this preference, but it may make traveling on those arteries more difficult for everyone.
Discussion of a massive residential and retail development that will house Prince George's County's first Whole Foods Market is bringing forth the usual anxieties around growth. It represents a series of dangers and difficulties, but if done right, it could bring positive change to a county in need of an economic boost.
The Cafritz property, located on East-West Highway between Baltimore Avenue (US Route 1) and the CSX railroad tracks in University Park, is about a mile south of the College Park Metro/MARC station (and just a few blocks west of the Riverdale MARC station).
Current plans call for several high-end retail spaces in addition to the Whole Foods, along with town homes and condos. Yet the current design would greatly alter the shape of the surrounding neighborhood and would serve to reinforce auto dependence, though it would be just up Baltimore Avenue from the burgeoning (and quite walkable) Hyattsville Arts District.
At Monday night's University Park town council meeting, concerns were aired that the development would generate excessive storm water run-off, poor access for public services, and much, much more traffic. At the same time, the enterprise's economic prospects were questioned: some characterized the design as "another strip mall" where no one could live , shop, or navigate the traffic even if they wished.
Current designs would worsen the traffic problem by only allowing cars to flow on and off of the two arterials, blocking access to neighborhood streets.
The developers, who put up a glossy website using Whole Foods' cachet to promote the project, are nevertheless deliberately vague about their plans while they seek initial rezoning of the property. There is still some doubt as to the soundness of Cafritz' business prospects, and about the company's ability to produce a successful design that would draw customers and residents.
There have certainly been false starts around large scale projects in the area: Wells Fargo recently repossessed the nearby University Town Center, to name one example. But as census data suggests, the DC Metro area is growing relentlessly, and the Route 1 corridor from Mt. Rainier through Hyattsville, Riverdale Park and College Park, will be an important axis of future growth. This will become an increasingly urban area.
Smart growth demands that property around the principal arteries be rezoned from single family to mixed use, especially in areas well-served by mass transit. The 80s Metrobuses provide frequent service along Route 1, Metro's Green Line is nearby, and proposed service expansions would make MARC's Camden Line a more potent transit corridor. As the council members recognized, change is coming, and the real challenge before them is to shape that change in a way that enhances the quality of life rather than worsening congestion.
The town wants the county and state to help fund a $15 million bridge over the railroad for rear access to the property from Lafayette Avenue. It will be challenging to get that kind of commitment in this fiscal climate, but it would be one of the best uses of Council members' political capital.
The Council's discussion accentuated every possible risk, leading a casual observer to think that the project faces a significant political hurdle. Nevertheless, the majority of the Council is confident that the development will succeed, voting to provide $5,000 for a market analysis of its impact, which, as Mayor John Tabori noted, would only measure the "negative externalities" and not the positive ones that could come from a less car-oriented design.
Strangely, there was no mention of jobs, which is a top concern of many voters, particularly in Prince George's. Also lacking was discussion of the value to consumers of new retail opportunities, or of increased property values, or of new sales tax revenues for a town and county overly dependent on property taxes to make up its $2.5 billion annual budget (although it should be noted that Maryland's sales tax exempts unprepared food sales).
Councilmember Jacqueline Bradley Chacon (Ward 7) took a larger view in a letter to her colleagues, noting that encouraging and meeting the needs of consumers with educated tastes would allow for more diversity and more retail outlets, and attract more like-minded residents. Prince George's County is obviously not overflowing with these kinds of choices. Retail sales and sales taxes leak out of the county, and with those retail sales go badly needed jobs.
It is important to understand and work to mitigate the risks of such a major development, but one must also step back and take in a larger view that balances those risks with a sense of the rewards. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of those rewards tend not to go to council meetings.
The University of Maryland, College Park will launch a new smartphone application next week that places campus safety in students' hands.
With the tap of a button, students using an Android smartphone will be able to connect with University of Maryland Police while on campus.
The new application, known as M-Urgency, uses the phone's camera to stream live video and audio of an incident to police dispatch and the laptop of an officer's squad car.
The student taps the red "help" box and the phone instantly begins streaming video and audio to University Police dispatch. Photo from the MIND Lab.
Officers can respond to the incident using the phone's GPS system, which pinpoints the caller on a Google map within 10-feet of their actual location.
"I tell students and parents that it's smarter to carry a smart phone than it is to carry a gun," said Ashok Agrawala, director of the University of Maryland's MIND Lab.
This is the first smartphone application of its kind to be used at a university for student safety, said Agrawala. And developers say they are working to expand the program to iPhone users and off-campus locations.
The view from police dispatch. The software pinpoints the emergency on a Google map, and the video and audio stream live. Photo from the MIND Lab.
Earlier this month, University Police presented the technology to College Park's City Council in hopes of securing an additional $100,000 in funding for the program, but the council and College Park's mayor informally turned down that plan during an Aug. 9 work session due to program costs.
"We heard an initial cost estimate, and there may be more dialogue between what the university would be providing," said College Park Mayor Andrew Fellows. "If it is $100,000, I think it's safe to say, 'no' we can't do that, but if there's some other discussion it might be possible."
In addition to expanding the program off-campus, Agrawala said there is interest from several other colleges and universities. And, there are plans to make the application available to all thirteen colleges and universities within the University of Maryland system.
The MIND lab partners with private businesses and government agencies to build information technology systems and is currently working with an Annapolis-based company, TeleCommunication Systems, Inc., to develop text message and video emergency messaging as part of a national Next Generation 911 system.
"The University of Maryland in this case will serve as a national model," said Agrawala. "Others will likely take notice."
The lab worked with the University's Department of Public Safety to ensure that police officers are prepared to use the new technology.
A student with special needs can also add information to their phone's application, which will tell officers if it's a person with high risk needs or a specific medical condition.
"I think it's a good idea, but sometimes a cell phone video or photo can exaggerate what actually happened," said Jose Arevalo, an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland.
Arevalo said he thinks many students on-campus will use the application, but also worried about some of the application's privacy issues.
"If it's used the right way, then it can help, but if the videos get saved, people may try to YouTube them," he said.
Privacy concerns have been a primary issue Agrawala said. But, he thinks that students will first-and-foremost see the advantages of safety.
"The effect that this application will have will make criminals think twice before coming to campus," he said. "We are giving so many more eyes and ears to the police department."
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.
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