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What does Maryland's primary mean for smart growth?

Turnout was low in Maryland's primary election yesterday, but there were some surprises, especially in the local races. What does it mean for urbanism in the state, particularly in Montgomery and Prince George's counties? Our contributors offer their thoughts.

Attorney general nominee Brian Frosh in Silver Spring. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Ronit Dancis: Though primary elections tend to draw out the voters most inclined to oppose change, candidates in Montgomery County who campaigned on an anti-growth platform didn't perform well. In the at-large council race, groups including the Sierra Club threw their support behind anti-growth candidates Beth Daly and Marc Elrich while targeting Purple Line advocate George Leventhal, who had just cast crucial votes against M-83 and Ten Mile Creek.

As in 2010, Marc Elrich won first place, but Beth Daly, who campaigned as "Marc's second vote," took 5th place in a race for four seats. In District 3, developer ally Sid Katz defeated two opponents more attuned to smart growth. As a result, the council will have a three-person pro-development bloc, with Katz, Craig Rice (District 2) and Nancy Floreen (at-large).

Dan Reed: Smart growth supporters got a win of sorts in Montgomery's Council District 5, containing Silver Spring, Takoma Park, White Oak, and Burtonsville. Current state delegate Tom Hucker is leading former journalist Evan Glass by just over 200 votes.

A 12-year resident of downtown Silver Spring, Glass helped start the South Silver Spring Neighborhood Association, bringing together a redeveloping urban district that's one of the region's youngest neighborhoods. He's advocated for more affordable housing, the county's Bus Rapid Transit plan, and changing the county's liquor laws to support local businesses and nightlife.

As state delegate, Tom Hucker fought for the Purple Line and has support from the building trades, who are naturally pro-development. But as a council candidate, he opposed new housing near the Silver Spring and Takoma Metro stations. He also allied with Councilmember Marc Elrich, who received donations from real estate interests even as he lambasted Glass for doing the same.

This tight race suggests that voters aren't necessarily interested in the "growth-vs.-no growth" debate. It also gives Glass has a good place to start from if he ever runs for office in the future. (Full disclosure: I supported Evan Glass's campaign.)

Ben Ross: Legislative results brought some good news for urbanists. Two strong transit advocates will enter the House of Delegates: David Moon, a former Purple Line Now! and Communities for Transit staffer, won in District 20 (Silver Spring and Takoma Park), and attorney Marc Korman in District 16 (Bethesda and Potomac). Susan Lee moved up easily into the Senate in District 16 while Lou Simmons, the county's lone vote against the gas tax increase, failed to advance to the Senate in District 17.

In District 18, containing Chevy Chase, Kensington, and Wheaton, lone Purple Line supporter among the incumbent delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez was easily reelected, while senator and Purple Line opponent Rich Madaleno fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Purple Line supporter Dana Beyer.

Jim Titus: The primary results for bicycling were as good as we could have hoped. Brian Frosh has been one of the State Senate's key supporters for bicycling rights, and we can expect an informed perspective should the need arise for an official opinion of the Attorney General. That is certainly better than the outgoing Attorney General, who advised state police that stop signs are optional, at least when he is the passenger.

On the Prince George's County Council, the strongest bike supporter has been Eric Olson, who was term limited. But his chief assistant Danielle Glaros will replace him. She will be a strong voice for the eventual urbanization of New Carrollton, thorough technical understanding, and sufficient political skills that she will almost certainly serve a term as Council Chairman.


Prince George's doubles down on sprawl

Prince George's County has a backlog of approved, but unbuilt sprawl developments that will soon expire. Planners recommended cutting that backlog, because homebuyers increasingly prefer more compact types of housing near transit. But a council committee recommended letting the sprawl get built anyway.

Photo by FadderUri on Flickr.

80% of the approved residential development in Prince George's pipeline consists of low-density single-family homes outside of the Beltway and far from transit. Project approvals normally expire after 3 years, but lawmakers extended these validity periods several times during the housing bust. Last week, the council's Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) committee recommended moving these deadlines back for another two years.

County planners warn that this is the wrong type of development, in the wrong place, and that it puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors." They urged lawmakers to recalibrate county development priorities to focus on compact, mixed-use development near transit. Sadly, county council members weren't listening.

Developers lobby for more time to build

As originally drafted, bills CB-70 and CB-71 would have granted only a one-year extension to unbuilt projects approved as far back as January 2003. But the bills' sponsor, Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis, whose district includes suburbanizing communities like Westphalia, moved to amend the bills to grant a two-year extension to those projects, making them valid until December 31, 2015.

While the Coalition for Smarter Growth and I submitted written comments in opposition to the bills, it's likely that Davis was responding to the parade of developers' representatives who showed up to last week's PZED committee meeting to testify in favor of the bills. According to the committee minutes, seven developer attorneys testified, including Thomas Haller, Larry Taub, Norman Rivera, Ed Gibbs, André Gingles, Mike Nagy, and Chris Hatcher. Two lobbyists from the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, Marcus Jackson and Kenneth Dunn, testified as well.

Gingles, one of the attorneys, raised eyebrows this past December by suggesting that council member Eric Olson, who was in line to become the next council chair, was "too Arlington" for Prince George's County. And one of the lobbyists, Marcus Jackson, was a longtime legislative liaison for disgraced former county executive Jack Johnson, as well as a former policy analyst to District 8 council member Obie Patterson.

Ultimately, 4 of the 5 PZED committee members voted in favor of Davis's amended bills: committee chair Mel Franklin (District 9), vice chair Karen Toles (District 7), council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5), and council vice chair Obie Patterson (District 8). The committee's lone dissenting vote was from council member Eric Olson (District 3), who expressed concern that the legislation did not provide any incentive for developers to move forward with their projects.

Alternative bill would place requirements on extension

Olson proposed an alternative bill, CB-75, which would grant an extension of not more than 6 months to any dormant project that applies for and obtains required grading or building permits prior to the expiration of the existing validity period. The 6-month period would run from the date the building or grading permit is issued. The PZED Committee voted unanimously to forward this bill to the full council.

As currently drafted, Olson's bill does not have a sunset provision. Instead, it sets up a new procedure where developers could obtain an automatic 6-month extension of site plan validity periods for any project that is able to obtain a building or grading period prior to the expiration of its then-current validity period. Olson believes this new procedure will properly incentivize serious developers to keep their projects on schedule.

Prince George's needs sustainable development, not sprawl

Although there are nearly 15,000 approved suburban single-family homes in the pipeline, studies show that future homebuyers will be increasingly disinclined to buy them. Data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and George Mason University suggests that to meet future market demand, upwards of 60% (or 31,200) of the 52,000 new homes Prince George's will need in the next 20 years should be multi-family homes.

CB-70, the bill that would extend the approvals for unbuilt subdivisions through 2015, will be introduced to the full council during their October 8 legislative session. It's unclear when the other bills will be introduced, as these do not (yet) appear on the agenda.

According to the council's standard legislative process, once a bill is introduced, a public hearing before the full council is scheduled to occur "not earlier than 14 days after introduction." Therefore, there is still time to let the council know what you think about these bills.

You should direct any written comments to the Clerk of the Council, and copy the individual council members, whose email addresses you may find in the Maryland Manual. You may also make limited oral public comments at the hearing.

The recent housing crisis is not the main reason why many of these approved suburban single-family sprawl developments have gone unbuilt for 10 years. There's simply less demand for the product these days. Instead of simply giving them the green light, county leaders would do well to rethink these projects and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities to build in established neighborhoods and around its 15 Metro stations.

A version of this post appeared in Prince George's Urbanist.


Prince George's considers two new TOD bills

Five months ago, public outcry persuaded Prince George's councilmember Mel Franklin to pull two controversial fast-tracked bills to exempt Metro station developments from site plan review and public meetings. On Wednesday, the council will consider two new, and better, bills.

Photo by MDGovpics on Flickr.

Both bills would streamline the development review process near Metro stations. CB-6-2013, spearheaded by Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3), would apply to proposed developments either in a Transit District Overlay Zone (TDOZ) or within ¼ mile of a Metro station.

CB-12-2013, advanced by Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) chair Franklin (District 9), would apply to proposed developments within ½ mile of a Metro station or a constructed MARC or Purple Line station. The council will consider both bills at a special evening meeting of the PZED committee this Wednesday evening, March 13, at 6 pm.

Both bills appear to have broad support among the council members, although they appear to address the same topic in meaningfully different ways. Eight of the nine council members have signed on to Olson's bill. Councilmember Mary Lehman (District 1) has not yet expressed her support for CB-6. Six of the nine council members have signed on to Franklin's bill. The three who have thus far declined to support CB-12 are Olson, Lehman, and Obie Patterson (District 8).

Unlike the case with Franklin's TOD bills during the 2012 legislative session, these two bills are coming earlier in the session and do not (yet) appear to be on a fast track. Instead, these bills seem to be proceeding at a normal pace through the typical three-step process for passing legislation in Prince George's County:

  1. the first reading (or "presentation") of a bill, where a bill is assigned to a committee for further hearings;
  2. the second reading (or "introduction"), when the amended bill comes out of committee; and
  3. the third reading, after which the committee's bill is debated, perhaps further amended by the full council, and then either put to a vote or referred back to a committee.
CB-6 and CB-12 are both at the initial stage of the process (presentation), so there still should be time for the public to provide meaningful input into the process.

CB-6: Simple and straightforward streamlining—but needs tweaks

The primary goal of CB-6 appears to be the elimination of costly, time consuming, and duplicative development review procedures that apply to certain zones currently in use around Metro stations. In some zones, such as the Mixed-Use Transportation-Oriented (MXT) Zone around the New Carrollton Metro Station, developers have to submit and obtain approval for both a conceptual site plan (CSP) and a detailed site plan (DSP) before building permits can be issued.

In theory, the CSP is supposed to be more preliminary in nature and general in substance than the DSP. For phased projects, the CSP is supposed to outline all of the various proposed stages that a developer anticipates. As a practical matter, though, the CSP and DSP are often extremely duplicative of each other—particularly for development projects that are proposed in only one phase.

And because the CSP and DSP both call for full public adjudicatory hearings before the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), with all the attendant rights of administrative appeal and review before the District (County) Council and judicial review by the courts, it can take an incredibly long time for developments to get approved.

This, in turn, can create a disincentive for developers seeking to build around Metro stations. After all, time is money—and wasted time is...well, you get the picture.

CB-6 would alleviate some of this burden by dispensing with the CSP process for "TOD priority projects." Eligible projects would go through only one round of DSP hearings before the Planning Board. The legislation also calls for other agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and Transportation, to expedite TOD priority projects around Metro stations.

The public would have the same full panoply of rights to advance notice and a public adjudicatory hearing that they currently have with respect to DSPs now. Items or issues that would ordinarily be discussed in a CSP (such as overall phasing plans) would be wrapped into the DSP.

CB-6's targeted streamlining approach is generally a good thing. However, the bill needs slight tweaks to ensure that adequate urban design standards are in place to require the type of compact, walkable mixed-use development that should exist in a transit zone. In particular:

  • The bill should apply only at Metro stations where a recent sector or area plan has prescribed specific, form-based building envelope and site standards, along with other architectural and open-space standards applicable to urban areas. Without these standards, the bill's directive that TOD priority projects should "use the best urban design practices" has no real teeth. Generally, any Metro station area plan that was enacted after January 2008 should incorporate these types of standards.
  • The bill should apply not only in Transit District Overlay Zones, but also in Development District Overlay Zones, Comprehensive Design Zones, and Mixed-Use Zones. Given the clunky and non-user-friendly way that the Prince George's Zoning Code has developed over the years, there are multiple types of zones that currently exist around the county's 15 Metro stations. This legislation should reach all of these different zoning types currently in use.

    (The county's form-based Urban Centers and Corridor Nodes Development Code, approved in 2010 and also known as Subtitle 27A, has its own set of expedited development review procedures and should not be covered by CB-6. Currently, however, no Metro station area is covered by Subtitle 27A.)

CB-12: Better than last year's bill, but still problematic

It's clear, from reading CB-12-2013, that Councilmember Franklin has made some attempt to respond to some of the public comments in opposition to last year's bill, CB-79-2012.

For example, similar to Olson's bill (CB-6), CB-12 would require only a Detailed Site Plan review for "expedited TOD projects" constructed within ½ mile of a Metro, MARC, or Purple Line station. (Franklin includes MARC and Purple Line stations that exist at the time the development proposal is submitted.) Additionally, contrary to last year's bill, CB-12 would incorporate a public comment process into the expedited DSP review.

The problem is that CB-12's expedited DSP review process would not facilitate meaningful and informed public participation. Additionally, elimination of an interested party's right to a public adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board in connection with proposed development projects is likely contrary to state law.

Under CB-12, a developer proposing an expedited TOD project would file an application with the Planning Director (not the Planning Board). The Planning Director or a staff member designee would schedule a "pre-application conference" with the developer, at which time members of the public could appear, hear a presentation from the developer, and offer oral or written comments on the "preliminary project plan" filed by the developer.

The preliminary project plan would be made available to the public via M-NCPPC's website, but only seven days after the scheduled pre-application conference. If you want to see it before the conference, the only option appears to be making a trek out to the Planning Department Office in Upper Marlboro, the county seat.

Nothing about the preliminary project plan is binding on the developer or M-NCPPC. The actual Detailed Site Plan filed by the developer could differ dramatically from the preliminary project plan discussed at the pre-application conference. M-NCPPC staff would post the actual DSP application on a website and accept additional written comments, but would hold no further in-person conferences with the public. Nor would there be any opportunity provided for a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board.

Within 20-50 days, the Planning Director or a staff member designee would prepare a staff report and final recommendation and file it directly with the District Council. Within the next 25 days, the Council could elect to review the recommendation, or an interested party could file an "appeal" of the Planning Director's recommendation with the District Council. (The word "appeal" is somewhat of a misnomer in this context, since there was never a hearing before M-NCPPC to begin with.)

If an appeal or review is filed, a hearing before the District Council would be scheduled within 30 days, and a final decision would be issued within 15 days thereafter. Barring any appeal or review, the Planning Director's recommendations would become the final decision of the District Council within 25 days after they are filed with the District Council.

Prince George's Planning Board. Photo by M-NCPPC

The above procedure eliminates altogether the involvement of the Planning Board in evaluating DSPs relating to expedited TOD projects. It also eliminates the public's right to a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board relating to the DSP—including the right to cross-examine the developer's witnesses under oath, introduce evidence of one's own, and have a decision rendered on the basis of the record developed at the hearing. Although that certainly speeds up the development review process and otherwise makes things easier for developers, it's also quite likely unlawful.

Under a 2012 amendment by the Maryland General Assembly to the Regional District Act (the state law that establishes the M-NCPPC as a bi-county commission covering Prince George's and Montgomery counties), Prince George's County is prohibited from withdrawing its previously-delegated authority to M-NCPPC to decide DSPs unless it is doing so for purposes of re-delegating that same authority to a municipality within the county. Because CB-12 seeks to withdraw the Planning Board's authority to hear and decide DSP cases in the first instance, it probably runs afoul of state law.

Show up at Wednesday's meeting if you can

Whatever your feelings about CB-6 or CB-12, the County Council needs to hear your voice. All too often in Prince George's County, legislative committee meetings are held during normal business hours, thereby depriving most working-age citizens of the opportunity to participate. The result is that those meetings are typically filled with developers, county planning professionals, and occasionally retirees—hardly a representative sample of the community.

This time, however, PZED chair Mel Franklin has made good on his promise to hold an evening meeting on these bills, given the high public interest in the issue of Metro station transit-oriented development. Let's honor Councilmember Franklin's decision by turning out in great numbers this Wednesday, March 13, 6 pm, in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, MD.


Is "too Arlington" a bad thing in Prince George's?

This past Tuesday, Prince George's Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3-College Park), fell short in his bid to become council chair in 2013. Development lawyer André Gingles posited that Olson didn't get the job because he might be a bit "too Arlington" for Prince George's. What's that supposed to mean? Is that supposed to be some type of slur?

Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Olson, a well-known progressive smart growth and environmental advocate on the council, had been elected by his colleagues as vice chair for 2 years in a row.

But in a surprise move, the council bypassed him for the top spot in 2013 and instead reelected its current chair, Andrea Harrison (District 5-Springdale). The council also stripped Olson of the vice chairmanship and replaced him with Councilmember Obie Patterson (District 8-Fort Washington).

Harrison, who had previously pledged her support to Olson for the chairmanship, reversed course, agreed to allow her name to be placed back in the running, and then cast the deciding vote in favor of herself. As Harrison herself acknowledged to the Washington Post, the circumstances of her reelection to the chairmanship were "not comfortable."

Through a spokesperson, county executive Rushern Baker denied any role in the thwarting Olson's election to the council chair position. However, the Post reports that Baker did show up in the council chambers shortly before the vote was cast and declared, "We are moving in the right direction, we are taking Prince George's County in the direction it needs to go ... because of [Harrison's] leadership and [her] work."

What is "too Arlington"?

So what is it about Harrison's leadership and work style that arguably makes her not "too Arlington"? Or, perhaps better stated, what is it about Olson's perceived leadership and work style that arguably makes him "too Arlington" for Prince George's?

(And before we jump to the conclusion that "too Arlington" simply means "too white," let's recall that former councilmember Tom Dernoga, who is white, was elected as council chair back in 2010.)

We know that Harrison and new council vice chair Obie Patterson are both reliable supporters of the current county executive, Rushern Baker, and his largely suburban-oriented economic development agenda. Olson, by contrast, has opposed certain development projects supported by Baker, such as the controversial rezoning of the Cafritz propertya vacant, wooded formerly single-family residential-zoned parcel in Riverdale Park that is outside of the ½-mile pedestrian zone of any existing Metro station or any planned MARC station.

Might Olson's approach to land use and economic development issues be what's "too Arlington" for his colleagues on the council and/or to County Executive Baker?

Prince George's should learn from Arlington's smart growth focus

The 2002 EPA national award winner for overall excellence in smart growth, Arlington County, Virginia, is a proven leader in transit-oriented development and environmental sustainability. Whether measured by housing units, jobs, retail and office space, economics, crime, or other general "livability" factors, Arlington stacks up quite favorably in the metropolitan Washington region.

Arlington's economic development strategy over the past 40 years has been inexorably linked to its two Metro station corridors—the Orange Line's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and the Blue and Yellow Lines' Pentagon/Crystal City corridor. Arlington directed major employment centers and higher density residential and retail development toward "urban villages" around 7 of the county's 10 stations: Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square, Ballston, Pentagon City, and Crystal City. (Arlington's other three stations—Arlington Cemetery, Pentagon, and Reagan National Airport—have other dedicated uses.) Arlington also prioritized reinvestment in its existing residential communities ahead of creating new sprawl developments on previously-undeveloped land.

Sadly, Prince George's County has not followed Arlington's path to success. The county has 15 Metro stations—the largest number of any jurisdiction outside of the District of Columbia. With 2,500 acres of developable land within ½ mile of those stations, county planners acknowledge that Prince George's "is uniquely situated in the Washington region to take advantage of the regional interest in TOD."

Yet, while county leaders continue to pay lip service to the idea of transit-oriented development, they actively support development strategies that are directly contrary to that idea. Virtually all of Prince George's County's Metro stations remain undeveloped or underdeveloped. At the same time, county leaders continue to push outside-the-Beltway suburban sprawl strategies, like the town-less "town center" projects at Konterra, Westphalia, and Woodmore. And rather than reinvesting in its existing residential communities inside the Beltway, the county breaks its own rules to approve oversized greenfield projects like the Cafritz property.

Thus far, there has been no true, sustained commitment on the part of Prince George's officials to the smart growth and TOD concepts that have secured Arlington's prosperity over the past few generations. And the comparative demographics show the troublesome results of that lack of commitment: Prince George's lags behind Arlington in nearly every category.

FBI headquarters and regional hospital planning typify Prince George's haphazard development strategy

More recently, we've seen other examples of the county's unfocused approach to TOD in the ongoing discussions as to where the new FBI headquarters and regional medical center campuses will be located. I argued nearly a year ago that the county needed to be more nimble if it wanted to land the FBI. After identifying the five available Metro station sites (i.e., Branch Avenue, Largo Town Center, Morgan Boulevard, New Carrollton, and Greenbelt) that would meet the federal government's requirements for the new building, I recommended Morgan Boulevard as the most ideal site. Indeed, the Morgan Boulevard station area could accommodate both the new regional medical hospital and the FBI headquarters.

The county still has yet to publicize or lobby for a particular site preference for the FBI building or the new hospital. However, despite the many transit-oriented development opportunities existing around Metro stations, the current buzz appears to favor the nearly-abandoned Landover Mall site for one or both projects. Like the Cafritz property, the mall site is outside of the pedestrian zone of any Metro station and will therefore likely encourage more single-occupancy automobile travel.

Arlington County would never have considered a development strategy that placed some of its largest employment centers and highest quality jobs away from Metro. Why? Because Arlington recognizes that successful planning requires strategic leveraging of Metro's premier regional rail transit system. As David Alpert recently argued, when deciding where to locate a major job-and customer/patient- generating public facility such as a regional medical center, the list should start and stop with Metro.

Prince George's shouldn't fear being "too Arlington"

If Eric Olson was passed over for chair of the Prince George's County Council because of a fear that he would be "too Arlington," that is truly regrettable. Most in the region would readily agree that, as compared to Prince George's, Arlington County government is better managed and run, less corrupt, more focused on smart growth and transit-oriented development, better at managing the public's finances, and overall more successful in providing a high quality of life to its citizens.

The truth is that the Prince George's County's government could stand to become "more Arlington" in its outlook and in its approach to smart growth and transit-oriented development. Because—let's face it—"keeping it [real] Prince George's" hasn't exactly gotten us where we need to be.


Developers should provide sidewalks, not just road capacity

Prince George's County, like many other jurisdictions, requires developers to pay for new roads around new buildings, even outside the project's boundaries. But it never requires new sidewalks or bike lanes offsite. A bill in the county council would change that.

Photo by the author.

"The Park at Addison Metro" is a prime example. It's a new development of townhouses that boast a 4-minute walk to the Addison Road Metro station. But to walk to the Metro station, residents must use a poorly-designated crossing to get to a legal sidewalk on the other side of the busy street.

The county required the developer to pay money to add new road capacity around the area, but asked for nothing to improve access for pedestrians.

On April 24, the Prince George's County Council will consider County Bill 2-2012 (CB-2) which would address this glaring oversight. It would let the county require developers to fill in missing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure around new developments.

Prince George's County has consistently had more pedestrian fatalities than any other jurisdiction in the region or in the state of Maryland. Between 1999 and 2010, Prince George's suffered an average of 25 fatalities per year, far eclipsing the 16 deaths on average in Maryland's second worst county, Baltimore County. Prince George's even has more pedestrian fatalities than the District of Columbia, which has far more pedestrians.

Prince George's planners won't address this problem without a law specifically allowing them to. This proposed bill would give the Planning Board the authority they need.

Councilmembers Mel Franklin (District 9) and Eric Olson (District 3) are leaders on pedestrian safety issues, and proposed CB-2 to help foster more walkable development and improves safety and access.

The bill asks county planners to determine adequate walk and bike facilities for new developments, similar to the current provisions for roads. If the area lacks needed infrastructure, the developer may be required to construct the most critical missing sidewalk or bicycle links.

The bill caps the cost for the developer at a modest 35¢ per square foot of commercial development, and $300 per housing unit. It also only imposes these new rules for developments in the county's designated urban centers and corridors, which are the most conducive to walking and bicycling.

This bill is a reasonable approach to a real problem. It works with developers to produce a better final product, and to reduce the costs of traffic.

Everyone benefits when more people walk and bike instead of drive. The developer can pay for less expensive transportation infrastructure, residents and businesses enjoy better and safer access to nearby destinations, and surrounding communities experience less automobile traffic.

The County Council will conduct a public hearing on the bill on April 24, at 1:30 pm at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro. If you live or work in Prince George's County, contact the County Council or speak at the hearing, and urge them to support this bill.

Click here to send the Prince George's County Council an email in support of CB-2.


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.

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