Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Suitland

Transit


Prince George's seeks the right kind of growth around Green Line stations

Prince George's wants to encourage development around stations on the southern end of the Green Line. But plans to do so have stalled in an attempt to prohibit "undesirable" businesses there.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

A recent study from national consulting firm RCLCO shows that since 2000, the northern Green Line corridor between Columbia Heights and Navy Yard captured a larger share of young, professional, and affluent households than the Red Line in Northwest, traditionally the bigger draw for that population. To do the same thing along the southern Green Line, Prince George's County is working on a plan for sustainable, urban development around the Branch Avenue, Suitland, Naylor Road, and Southern Avenue stations.

The proposal would create an "overlay district" around the stations banning everything from nail salons to strip clubs. While some businesses may not be ideal for areas next to a Metro station, the bottleneck might deter future investment that residents anxious for walkable urban development are eagerly anticipating.

Prince George's lags the region in urban development

In his report The WalkUP Wakeup Call, George Washington University Professor Chris Leinberger identifies the DC area with its 43 walkable urban communities as a national model for urban development. These places not only provide residents with increased local amenities such as restaurants, retail, and entertainment options, but also bring jobs closer, reducing commutes.

However, only a handful of these communities are in Prince George's County. Due to a weak market and decades of disinvestment, parking and vacant lots surround the four Metro stations along the southern Green Line. Creating a vibrant, safe, and pedestrian and bike friendly atmosphere would serve to increase the quality of life as well as the property values of those living in neighboring communities.

In response, the Prince George's Planning Department proposed the Southern Green Line Station Area Plan last summer. It is an excellent step in the right direction, proposing vibrant, walkable, mixed-use development around each station. Real estate consultants RCLCO drafted the design for each station area as part of the Southern Green Line Station Area Plan Market Study the Planning Department commissioned in 2012.

Proposal could inadvertently discourage good development

While the Planning Board and County Council were supposed to approve the plan already, it's been pushed back due to neighbor concerns. And councilmembers have proposed creating an overlay district prohibiting businesses near the stations that might undermine attempts to create an upscale retail environment, such as nail salons, car dealers, liquor stores, and tattoo parlors.

In some cases, overlay districts have been used to encourage more upscale retail establishments, but prohibiting certain types of businesses could discourage developers who are already hesitant about investing in these areas. It would be better to use the county's licensing and permitting processes to tailor the types of businesses that are allowed around Green Line stations. It seems others agree; at a public hearing last night, many business owners testified against the imposition of restrictions on the area.

Hopefully, this proposal will only be a short-term hold up. The southern Green Line has a long way to catch up with the sustainable development that has already occurred at many of the region's other Metro stations, but the approval of the Metro Green Line Sector Plan could be a major step in the right direction. And it will show the development community that Prince George's County is serious about sustainable development.

Ultimately, the county will have to implement an innovative investment strategy to reduce some of the actual and perceived risk that developers face in Prince George's. Reducing barriers is one of the most critical strategies the county can employ in order for the southern Green Line to get the investment it needs.

To voice your opinion about the proposed overlay district and its impact on the southern Green Line, you can still submit written comments to the County Council via their website.

Bicycling


Suitland Parkway Trail is a mess. Will leaders seek change?

I'm biking on the Suitland Parkway Trail to work, swerving around broken glass and under low-hanging tree branches. Highway traffic roars past just inches away. Suddenly, the trail ends.


All photos by the author.

Friday is the official Bike to Work Day, so on Monday, I did a test-run of a new route from my home in Trinidad to work in Suitland. What I found is that DC, Prince George's County, and the National Park Service, which maintains Suitland Parkway, still have a long way to go to make cycling a viable option for many communities east of the Anacostia River.

Suitland Parkway is a near-freeway connecting neighborhoods like Anacostia, Barry Farm, and Shipley Terrace to employment centers at Suitland and Andrews Air Force Base. Next to it is the Suitland Parkway Trail, a bike highway similar to the Mount Vernon Trail in Northern Virginia, but it doesn't make it out of the District. It appears to be DDOT's responsibility to maintain the trail, but judging from the lack of maintenance, it's clearly not a priority for them.


After a pleasant ride southbound against the commute rush on Martin Luther King Avenue, I turn onto Sheridan Road SE. This on-street section is the western extension of the Suitland Parkway Trail. It could certainly use sharrows or even a bike lane/cycle track, as the travel lanes are very wide.

Construction debris from the unfinished Sheridan Station development litters the sidewalk adjacent to the road. I swerve around something that was burned to the curb cut and a pile of mulch that sprawls onto the trail. There's no clear signage for the trailhead, but this is where it starts.


This is the nicest part of the trail in the city, though. There's separation from the parkway, and weeds and garbage haven't colonized the path yet.


It quickly gets worse, though. In some areas, there's so much underbrush, weeds, plant debris, garbage, and broken glass on the far side of the trail that there's just one passable "lane." I'm now limited to a space 3 feet wide, keenly aware that cars traveling over 50 miles per hour are just inches away.


The trail separates from the parkway for a short distance, where it's quickly overtaken by nature.


Grass grows through cracks in the pavement, reaching the point where the trail needs to be completely rebuilt. The surface is completely broken here.


When I get back to the parkway, the lane farthest from the road is still blocked, whether by trash and dead leaves or by low-hanging tree branches. I either have to get off my bike or move into oncoming traffic to pass it.


There's a speed limit sign placed not next to the trail, but in it. There's plenty of room 4 feet to the right.


Here's an uncharacteristically clear section of the trail. It's right in front of the speed limit sign, though, so I get the feeling it was kept that way so drivers could see the sign.


East of Stanton Road, the garbage littering the path makes me think I've found a mobile automobile repair shop.


A stream culvert passes under the trail and road here. Unfortunately, it narrows the trail.


This is the steepest climb on the trail, though thankfully it's much less steep than taking parallel streets like Good Hope Road or Pennsylvania Avenue. Here, you reach two places where the trail is collapsing due to erosion of the ground below.


After crossing two exit ramps, the trail continues under the Alabama Avenue bridge. The trail is very overgrown here, and I can pick out mulberries, Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven), Virginia creeper, and other weedy plants overrunning the pavement.


Under the bridge, the trail is barely 3 feet wide, making it impossible for two cyclists to pass each other here. The lanes of the parkway must be at least 12 feet wide, and they should be narrowed to give enough space for the trail.


If you haven't noticed by now, the parkway itself has a brand-new layer of asphalt, while the adjacent trail has not seen the same level of care or investment.


At Southern Avenue, the boundary between DC and Prince George's County, the trail abruptly ends.


I trudge up the hill through waist-high weeds to get to Southern Avenue. To add insult to injury, there's no gap in the guard rail, so you have to lift your bike over the rail to get to the sidewalk.




Improving the Suitland Parkway Trail is a chicken-and-egg argument: no one uses it because it goes nowhere, so it isn't used, which means it isn't maintained. But if the District and Prince George's County are serious about making cycling a viable option for communities east of the Anacostia River, they have to do a better job of creating trails and other infrastructure, and they have to actually maintain them. If our leaders are serious about all their claims about "One City" and working with our neighbors, they'd sit down together and find a way to make this a priority.

There are rumors that the trail will one day extend to at least the Branch Avenue Metro station, if not farther south to Andrews. In 1994, the National Park Service did a feasibility study of extending the trail, but nearly 20 years later, nothing has happened.

It's also unclear who would be in charge of this construction, the National Park Service or Prince George's County. I'll believe that the local governments actually see some level of priority here when I see shovels in the ground.

In the meantime, DDOT and Mayor Gray should at least send a crew to pick up debris and clear the underbrush so what's there can be used by District cyclists and pedestrians. It's literally the least they could do.

Development


Put the FBI in Suitland, not Greenbelt (and not Poplar Point)

Talk of the FBI leaving its Pennsylvania Avenue heaquarters reached a fever pitch in the last week, with WMATA taking steps to enable its development partner at the Greenbelt Metro station to bid on the FBI. But a different site might be more fiscally prudent and better contribute to transit-oriented development: the Suitland Federal Center.


Suitland Federal Center. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

I have only seen Suitland, in southern Prince George's County, mentioned once in the press covering this story (December 18, 2011, in the Baltimore Sun), but I believe it's the best choice in Prince George's and the region.

The Suitland Federal Center is a 226-acre site housing the offices of the US Census Bureau, the National Archives' Washington Records Center, the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility, the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office, and a few other small buildings. There is a contiguous area of just under 55 acres that includes a couple vacant buildings, open land, and underutilized parking lots.

Suitland already has much of what the FBI needs

This space could easily become the new location for the FBI. The entire area is already access controlled via gates and a fenced perimeter. There is room for the standoff distance that the GSA requires for Level 5 facilities (those that are considered critical to national security). The building would need to be long, narrow, and tall in order to fit all the office space necessary to house upwards of 10,000 employees, but luckily, there is already precedent for such a building in Suitlandthe Census Bureau's building.


The 55-acre area that could house the FBI.

Most importantly, the federal government already owns the land. Unlike at Greenbelt, a headquarters building in Suitland will not preclude any more land from future taxable uses. The latest proposals for the Greenbelt property would have GSA pay taxes to Prince George's County and Greenbelt for the next 20 years, but the land would come off the tax rolls permanently after that point.

Both locations have regional transportation benefits

The city of Greenbelt and Prince George's County have good reasons to want the FBI at the Greenbelt station. More jobs at this location would mean economic development opportunities for Greenbelt and other nearby cities in northern Prince George's County, and the oft-cited "reverse-commuting" effect from employees living to the west may help slightly balance traffic on the Capital Beltway, which is heaviest out of Prince George's County during the morning rush and heaviest into the county during evening rush hour.

The commuting situation would be similar at the Suitland location. The years-long Wilson Bridge project added driving capacity along the southern part of the Beltway, and can arguably handle commuter traffic more efficiently than the northern part of the beltway through Montgomery County and over the American Legion Bridge.

Many FBI workers already drive to and from Virginia. The Bureau has a major facility including its training academy at Quantico. Suitland would offer a shorter trip for people traveling between the two, via the Wilson Bridge by car or bus, or possibly a future rail transit connection.

News reports have also cited a need for a location within 2½ miles of the Beltway. Greenbelt is clearly superior in proximity, as it is directly adjacent to the beltway, but Suitland falls within 2½ miles of the highway. At either location, a new exit for traffic would need to be built. The exit for the Greenbelt station only serves traffic coming from or going to the west, and an exit on the beltway for the Suitland Parkway would probably be necessary to handle higher traffic coming to and from the Suitland Federal Center.

Both locations could take advantage of a Green Line station adjacent to the site, and both are at or near the end of the line, encouraging reverse commuting for those using the transit system from DC and the core of the metro area.

Greenbelt could be so much more, while Suitland never can

The placement of the Suitland metro station, unfortunately, precludes the opportunity for strong transit-oriented development at this location. The station is hemmed in by a freeway to the west and the fenced-off-and-not-open-to-the-public Federal Center to the north and east. The "downtown" crossroads of Suitland (Suitland and Silver Hill Roads) would have been a better location to encourage TOD, but moving the station is extremely unlikely.

Greenbelt, on the other hand, has the opportunity for mixed-use at its station. The area to the south of the station had a development plan that derailed when the real-estate market crashed in the last decade. Eventually, demand for housing, shopping, and jobs at locations inside the beltway will only make Greenbelt an even more attractive place to invest in growth.

I realize that it's difficult to ask a city to wait, when they can benefit from development today. In the long run, though, the city of Greenbelt has the opportunity to create a plan that will bring jobs, residents, retail, and a tax base to this site. That seems like too good of an opportunity to throw away for the short-term promise of 20 years worth of property taxes from the federal government.

Not Poplar Point, either

Update: Just before this post went live, Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post reported that Mayor Gray will propose keeping the FBI's headquarters in DC by moving it to Poplar Point in Ward 8.

While that site would have some transportation advantages similar to Greenbelt or Suitland, ultimately, it would be a bad choice for the city. It would preclude the possibility of developing that land in a form that could produce property taxes for DC, and it would cause an even larger stretch of our very limited waterfront property to be forever off-limits to the residents of the city.

It's an interesting proposal, but ultimately its shortcomings should lead to the idea being scuttled quickly.

Pedestrians


Short-sighted bus stop placement puts pedestrians at risk

Too many bus stops are located far from the nearest crosswalk. Rather than walk long distances, many riders therefore cross dangerously in the middle of busy streets. The jurisdictions controlling the bus stops should either move them to safer intersections, or add new and better crosswalks.


Bus stop at Silver Hill Road and Randall Road with no crosswalk. Image from Google Street View.

This is a big problem throughout many parts of the region, but especially in suburban Prince George's County, and it is irresponsible to put transit users in such danger unnecessarily. A few examples from Suitland show the dangers of poor siting and design.

At Silver Hill Road and Randall Road, there is no crosswalk on Silver Hill. Pedestrians hoping to cross are out of luck.


Bus stops at Silver Hill Road and Randall Road. Image from Google Maps.

If pedestrians need to cross Silver Hill to access the Suitland Metro station, they have to walk back along a narrow sidewalk to Navy Day Drive and then cross. Even then, the crosswalk badly needs new paint. The faded lines can be particularly dangerous at night.


Crosswalk at Silver Hill Road and Navy Day Drive. Photo by the author.

This bus stop should be on the south side of Navy Day Drive. That way, pedestrians would be able to cross immediately over to the Suitland Metro station. Buses could also take advantage of red lights to pick up or drop off passengers, rather than stopping in the middle of the block.

On the other side of Silver Hill Road, the Randall Road stop comes right before a turn lane off of Silver Hill. The crosswalk across the turn lane is not signalized and pedestrians have to cross a second signalized crosswalk to reach the Suitland Metro.

At Silver Hill and Suitland Road, the bus stop on the west side is in the middle of the block far from the crosswalk and adjacent to nothing. The stop would be more useful farther back on the north side of the intersection with Suitland Road.


Bus stops at Silver Hill Road and Suitland Road. Image from Google Maps.

On the east side of the road, the situation is the opposite. The bus stop is past Suitland Road, which forces pedestrians to walk back to the crosswalk. The stop should be on the south side of the Suitland Road intersection instead.

Some bus stops on Suitland Road are even more dangerous. There is no crosswalk for the bus stop on the south side of Suitland Road and Huron Avenue. Additionally, the sidewalk abruptly ends at the bus stop, so if pedestrians want to reach the stop from the other side of Suitland, they must risk crossing the street without a crosswalk.


Bus stops at Suitland Road and Huron Ave. Image from Google Maps.

Since Suitland Road's blocks are so long, it might not make sense to move this stop to a different intersection. At the very least, a new, high-visibility crosswalk across Suitland Road would make it safer for pedestrians.

The bus stop on the other side of Suitland however, would be better just east of Huron Ave. If a crosswalk is installed there, pedestrians could easily cross Suitland Road if they were coming from either direction.

Unsafe bus stops are common in other suburban communities, too. This bus stop on Old Keene Mill Road in Fairfax County has no sidewalk and no way to cross the 6-lane stretch of Old Keene Mill.


Old Keene Mill Road in Fairfax County. Photo from Google Maps.

This bus stop on River Road in Montgomery County is along the shoulder. There is a small concrete pad on which to stand, but there is no protection for pedestrians walking to and from the stop, or for crossing River Road.


River Road in Montgomery County. Photo from Google Street View.

Much of the problem has to do with suburban street design, where pedestrian access has generally been an afterthought. Suburban blocks are longer than city blocks, and not all intersections have crosswalks or pedestrian walk signals.

But people in the suburbs do use buses and the stops should be convenient and safe, preferably at the intersection of 2 streets instead of the middle of a long block. Intersections should all have well marked crosswalks and sidewalks shouldn't abruptly end, particularly where there is poor access to another sidewalk.

Moving poorly placed bus stops or adding stops where needed, as well as adding crosswalks to some streets, would go a long way to help make suburban buses safer and more convenient to use.

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