Does College Park Need a Farmer’s Market?

Farmer's MarketThe idea of a farmer’s market may seem a bit out of context here with the innumerable quick food restaurants, corporate chains, and densely packed parking lots. Here, students about equal the number of normal, home-cooking, child-feeding residents; and the proximity of local farms distances more than the drive to “Giant”. One the whole, perhaps it seems odd to bring such a wholesome, small-town activity into a rowdy college town.

But in all honesty, wouldn’t it be nice to walk down to CVS on Sunday and pass by a fresh-fruit stand, a flower cart, or a table full of freshly baked pies?

The reality is that Farmer’s Markets are intended for more than Sunday leisure. Many markets across the nation focus on different societal and community needs. The Montgomery Farm Women’s Co-op in Bethesda began during the depression by women trying to bring maintain business for local, small town businesses. The organization FreshFarm Markets also runs a number of farmer’s markets in and around Washington. Oakland, California, an ethnically diverse urban area lacking in pubic transportation has a traveling “People’s Grocery”. This bright red truck travels the city, parking in public school lots, parks, and community centers to make available low-price organic foods, products, and produce to local residence.

There are a number of unexpected places in which Farmer’s Markets have found a home. Madison, WI; Fayetteville, AR; and Denver, CO are a number of college towns who received federal grants for Farmer Markets. In these cases, the market has been used to incorporate minority collaboration within community activities. Opportunities to work at the market, buy fresh produce at a low price, and implement the use of food stamps are a few benefits of the Farmer’s Markets.

(Photo is from the H Street Farmer’s Market in Washington, D.C. by Inked78)

East Campus Specifications Released; Grad Housing, Hotel Requested

East Campus

The University released today the second part of their Request for Proposals for the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative, a massive project to redevelop the 38 acres of university-owned land pictured above. This document was released to a “short list” of the companies that made it past the first round of the application process. The university told us they would not release the names companies selected to participate in the Part B of the process. The initial selection was made by an “Evaluation Committee” which contained no student representation we are aware of.

The document instructs the companies to create a “lively, successful town center destination in which they can work, shop, live, learn and play. The project should create a pedestrian friendly environment that complements and grows the many assets of the University.” While the 18-page document specifies that “no specific use or tenant mix is required” it identifies four components that an “optimal project” would address: housing, an affordable infant and childcare program, a “high quality” hotel, and a bookstore. The document contains the following information regarding their plans for housing (emphasis added):

– upscale market rate housing geared towards empty nesters, professionals, faculty, staff, and families to enjoy the many amenities of a university-oriented town center;
– affordable graduate housing with a approximately 450 beds. The mix should be approximately one-third of the beds in 2 BR, 1 BA units and two-thirds of the beds in 4 BR, 2 BA units. In 2006 dollars, the affordable rental rate for 2BR units is approximately $950/month/bed and the for 4BR units the affordable rental rate is approximately $600/month/ bed. Resident graduate students will be permitted to purchase on-campus parking on the same basis as other students, on a first- come, first-served basis.
– East Campus is intended to include a mix of housing types, including a healthy market rate component. It is not intended to be a predominantly student housing community.

Developers are instructed to submit detailed financial tables describing the impact of including the following into their proposals should they choose not to include them: “Undergraduate housing replacement including costs, time constraint on demolishing undergraduate housing, graduate student housing rent caps, child care, including development of facility and program operation etc, bookstore, hotel.” The RFP directs the companies to take into consideration the University’s Environmental Stewardship Guidelines and incorporate the proposed Purple Line into the design.

The document also says that proposals could remove the Old Leonardtown complex with or without replacement of the 240 undergraduate beds, the proposal should make up for the loss of revenue for the university. New Leonardtown, on the other hand, is described as important for the university and “New Leonardtown will not be permitted to be developed unless and until the University is assured that: a) all undergraduate beds will be replaced and be affordable to the students, and b) the net revenue from New Leonardtown is fully and satisfactorily addressed.”

These are just some of the interesting details we picked out after a cursory reading. What do you think of the document?

> Read the East Campus RFP Part B (PDF)
> View our East Campus library page or archives for more information

Suppressing Student Housing

The following published in my biweekly column in today’s Diamondback. The views expressed don’t necessarily represent the views of this site or its other authors.

If you go to city council meetings on any given Tuesday, you are likely to find two students in attendance. One is student liaison Jesse Blitzstein, and the other a Diamondback reporter. Indeed, it’s hard for students to think of anything more boring than these weekly meetings. Zoning amendments, curb cut debates and speed bumps don’t draw students en masse. Despite its reputation as a powerless governing body, the council does wield some power. Recently, it’s discovered a series of ingenious and underhanded ways to sort out the city’s population and determine where and how students live. So I’m forced to come forward and reveal a disturbing and largely unnoticed trend – the council consistently attempts to suppress student housing in College Park.

It has developed a threefold strategy to achieve this goal and manipulate the city housing market. These policies, combined with the increasing demand students have for housing near the campus, translate into the desperate housing crunch we face today. This means high rents now and even higher rents in the near future.

Last year the council enacted its “rent stabilization ordinance,” capping single-family house rents at 1 percent of a building’s assessed value. Students were quick to realize this policy did nothing to address the real reason for the high cost of renting in College Park – sheer lack of housing. The city’s vacancy rate stands at an amazingly low 2.8 percent, and students have shown that they are willing to pay a premium to live near the campus in what basically amounts to slum housing. Indeed, the rent stabilization ordinance explicitly states the council’s goal of “reducing the number of single-family homes that are rental properties,” in order to “stabilize neighborhoods.” One might logically conclude that, after taking action removing students from neighborhoods, the council would do everything it could to facilitate more student towers like the University View.

Continue reading Suppressing Student Housing

Unraveling the Graduate Housing Problem

Although less visible than the undergraduates on campus, roughly 10,000 graduate students are enrolled at the UMD College Park Campus. Housing has long been a top priority for this community since they usually must make ends meet through a meagre graduate stipend and many are independent family assistance or trying to support families themselves. Unlike a majority of peer institutions surveyed in 2003 (PDF) by the Graduate Student Government, there is no university-run housing available for these students at UMD. Many other universities set aside housing reserved for graduate students, and international student dorms and even university-sponsored family housing is common at schools like Indiana University, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and UNC-Chapel Hill. Indeed, in an open letter to the Board of Regents sent this September GSG President Laura Moore and Vice President Kyle Gustafson argued that the lack of “adequate and decent housing” for graduate students could impact the quality of students, and indirectly harm the university’s ever-important academic rankings.

An exhaustive 88-page report completed for the Graduate School by the Urban Studies and Planning Program in 2003 offered three basic conclusions: there was a need for affordable and conveniently-located housing, the University should make providing this housing an “officially-declared priority” and create a action plan, and more housing information should be provided to current and incoming students. Three years later, little seems to have changed.

Graduate_2.gifRoughly 5% of graduate students are able to live in two university-owned complexes managed by the Southern Management Company, Graduate Gardens and Graduate Hills. Incoming graduate students automatically receive a letter directly from SMC regarding this housing, where a 1-bedroom apartment costs $900 a month and a 2-bedroom costs $1,073 a month. The University’s contract with SMC (PDF) allows them to make mid-lease rent increases, and there is widespread dissatisfaction among residents regarding a variety of basic management issues. As an example of the types of problems experienced, over the weekend residents sent a flurry of emails over a tenants’ email list complaining that the hot water abruptly ceased to work and nobody was answering the “24-hour” maintenance hotline.

Despite university administration inaction, there has been interest in the private sector in constructing housing for graduate students, and many of the projects now being planned may eventually house graduate students. We think East Campus in particular could provide an opportunity for much-needed housing of all types.

> See the GSG webpage on housing
> This GSG website for developers contains a variety of reports
> UMD Residence Life website on graduate student housing

A Greener Purple Line

Streetcar in Bilbao, Spain; from flickr

Some of the debate surrounding the Purple Line involves the amount of greenery it will remove along the existing Georgetown Branch Trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. When most people think of rail, they think of wooden ties and rails atop unsightly rivers of oil-stained gravel. It needn’t be that way.

Be it beside the biker trail in Chevy Chase, in the median of University Boulevard, or cutting across a field on campus, we suggest setting the rails into a concrete base, then covering the base with grass where possible. Not only will this eliminate unnecessary pavement, but will allow the soil to absorb rainwater.

Of course this will be impossible where the light rail is expected to share the street with cars (in downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park for instance), but several miles of the Purple Line are planned as exclusive light rail corridors. A greener Purple Line is not only environmentally superior, but aesthetically superior, too.

Although we at Rethink College Park like to think of ourselves as innovative, the oldest continuously operated streetcar in the world glides gracefully along the grassy median of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Likewise, the four-year-old EuskoTran (above) quietly and swiftly transports Spaniards in Bilbao.

10 East Campus Talking Points

EastCampusMasterplan

With the second East Campus RFP going out today to developers, we wanted to throw into the mix of ideas, the suggestions our readers have been sending and the common themes we’ve observed at various events and in all the research we’ve conducted for this website.

Rethink College Park has never questioned whether or not East Campus will be beautiful. Indeed, a brief walk around campus and a glimpse through the University’s illustrious Master Plan are proof enough that administrators can build world-class facilities and urban spaces. The intent of this exercise is to infuse some community ideas into what has so far been a highly insulated process. These suggestions should not be viewed as detailed prescriptions, but rather as an attempt to broaden the debate on the East Campus project. They are a work in progress and we’ll be sure the final community suggestions are heard.

We believe these 10 points will guarantee the vibrancy of the district (in no particular order):

1) Tie East Campus to the traditional downtown – start with the adaptive reuse of the Pocomoke Building

There is a huge barrier that exists today between traditional downtown College Park and the East Campus site. That barrier, oddly enough, is the open space that is Fraternity Row and the Chapel Field. It will become the dividing line between the two districts to the detriment of both. We have proposed in the past that the Pocomoke Building be retrofitted to include a specialty grocer. This would not only be the first step toward binding together the two districts, it would provide an amenity downtown that is sorely needed.

2) Connect Paint Branch Parkway with a road through East Campus and into Old Town

Anyone who has ever driven on Route 1 or through Old Town knows it’s a headache. Route 1 is constantly congested simply because it is the only north-south road through College Park. The Old Town road system has a confusing one-way streets grid that is clearly intended to eliminate outside traffic in the residential neighborhood. This setup pours traffic out onto Route 1 and has become a serious safety issue. Now that the university is advertising Paint Branch Parkway as a major thoroughfare to campus, we feel it behooves the entire community to connect at least one existing dead end road (we think Princeton Ave) in Old Town through Frat Row and the East Campus site all the way to Paint Branch Parkway. This connection would further the objective of point #1.The Route 1 sector plan provides for a connection of this sort and decision-makers must not shy away from it.

3) Integrate the Purple Line into the project

The State Highway Administration has proposed two similar alternatives for the Purple Line around East Campus. One is a median alignment on Paint Branch Parkway (directly through UMD’s North Gate) and the other goes through the East Campus (and next to the Armory). Since the former seems to go against the pedestrian purpose of the transitway, we feel the latter should be provided for in the site plans for East Campus and an onsite Purple Line stop should be pursued.

4) Minimize park (green) space

UMD’s campus has an ample amount of green-space and more on the way as the University continues to build structured parking and convert surface parking to pedestrian malls. Much of this space is already underutilized and we feel that providing any significant amount of it on East Campus would work at cross purposes to the emerging view of East Campus as an “Urban District”. We suggest that the university leave space to fulfill this high density vision if demand doesn’t yet warrant it. Many people have pointed out College Park’s lack of a town square. Our readers suggested that a town square like Madison’s (University of Wisconsin) is in order.

5) Maximize the diversity of residents

There has been much focus on the need for affordable graduate student housing. University affiliated housings provides 6.7% of UMD’s Grad Students with housing compared to 14% at peer institutions. East Campus is an opportunity to close this gap and the university has shown a clear commitment to do this. Still we don’t want to see College Park divided into turfs – East Campus should also contain undergraduate housing, faculty housing, and (dare we say) housing not earmarked for anyone in particular.

6) Make clear pedestrian and visual links to campus, trolley trail, and the metro

East Campus is not only the greatest single development opportunity in College Park, its central location is a great chance to connect the university’s sprawling facilities and tie together College Park’s existing pedestrian facilities. These include the promenade on either side of Mckeldin Mall, the City’s Trolley Trail (formally the Rhode Island Streetcar line), the College Park metro station, and UMD’s rapidly expanding research park. A major sidewalk from east campus and along the Purple Line alignment we proposed in #3 seems like a logical way to reduce the number of new stoplights on Route 1. A site plan committed to these connections will ensure that East Campus is part of College Park.

7) Limit parking – don’t let garages dominate the district

A College Town is a resoundingly pedestrian place. When you hear people rave about Charlottesville, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley it isn’t for their great parking garages. We can’t deny that College Park is in a suburban area or that the vast majority of people move around in cars. Still a College Town provides a unique opportunity for people to work and live in the same place and university officials should not ignore the huge burden that parking lots (and cars by proxy) place on developers, renters, and the community at large. Cities that have reduced or eliminated parking requirements like Ann Arbor, Michigan and Ithica, New York have seen an increase in new projects designed to house students. Eliminating parking can also make projects more affordable by reducing their overall cost.

8) Provide for independently owned businesses

Because of the limited amount of retail spaces in the city, rents are exorbitant and only ‘sure thing’ business models like national burrito and sandwich chains seem to be able to survive downtown. More net retail space in College Park should alleviate high rents, but still we think some sort of provision for independently owned businesses is in order. This could take the form a strict percentage requirements like those in the Washington Convention Center and other cities or the intentional inclusion of small and odd size spaces in building designs.

9) Require LEED Certification

The university continues to tout its environmental successes, but actions do truly speak louder than words. If the university is really committed to protecting the environment it should require LEED Certification on East Campus. The recent approval of NOAA’s Center for Climate and Weather Prediction is a great example of the application green building practices to a university-affiliated building. Some degree of LEED certification on East Campus is necessary and reasonable.

10) Show a commitment to meaningful community input

The university’s attempts to include the larger community in the East Campus have fallen short thus far. Their East Campus website, while providing a good overview of the project, is geared towards developers and Rethink College Park is left as the lone organization trying to engage the public. University administrators must follow up on their commitment to meaningful community input on East Campus. Other universities have done the same for similar projects (see case studies in UMD’s market research for East Campus (PDF)). We suggest they start with large displays in prominent locations on campus once site plans and building designs are underway. When plans begin to materialize the university should host several events to gain community input and support.

Of course the university can build an expansive and beautiful east campus, but they need the university community to build a truly great college town.

As always we encourage comments!