Finally! A (legitimate) music venue in College Park.

The Birchmere announced this week it has plans to open a new 500 seat music venue as part of the East Campus development in College Park. Although its not scheduled to open until 2011, the Birchmere will provide a much needed improvement to the College Park music scene.

While it may attract larger acts, the Birchmere will also cater to the local crowd. As part of the plan, it will operate a stage for up-and-coming artists in the D.C. area, and will partner with the University of Maryland’s School of Music to develop and nurture future performers.

The Birchmere has been open in Alexandria, Va. since the 1960’s, but its new location promises to draw many residents north of the District. The theater has been visited by acts such as Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Dave Matthews, and Emmylou Harris.

> See the University Press Release 

Help Us Improve – Take Our Reader Survey

After over a year of blogging about College Park, we’ve published 267 posts and (as of today) 1,000 comments. As we plan to continue to enhance and improve the site, we have decided to conduct a reader survey. While we have some idea of who we are reaching through comments and other feedback, we want to get a better idea of who is reading the site and what type of information they’re looking for.

If you are reading this post now, please take a minute to answer our short, 16-question survey. All individual responses will be kept private. Thanks for your help!

> Rethink College Park Reader Survey

Gas and MARC-Up

A departing Green Line train and the parallel Camden Line on a snowy night.At the behest of Gov. O’Malley, the Maryland Transit Administration has drawn up plans to increase MARC train service throughout the state. The plan, announced in the Post and the Baltimore Sun, would increase passenger capacity on MARC’s three lines. Here in town, the Camden Line (right) is slated for only a few upgrades, including longer trains, more trains, weekend service, and extensions to Northern Virginia and Bayview (near Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). The MTA has even bigger plans for the parallel Penn Line, which is the more-popular and electrified line connecting Union Station and Baltimore via New Carrollton, BWI, Odenton. The state envisions that line becoming more “transit-like” with more trains, longer trains, late evening service, express trains, and better connectivity with the Baltimore Subway.

Though the cost of these enhancements is estimated to run into the billions, there is no word yet on how the state intends to finance the expansion. Add these expenses on top of the state’s expected $1.7 billion budget gap and the $40 million in unfunded transportation projects and the task looks even more challenging.

Last week we noted the conspicuous absence of a gas tax increase in Gov. O’Malley’s latest tax plan. However, today the Sun is reporting that O’Malley is proposing a separate plan to index the gas tax to the inflation in the cost of highway construction materials such as concrete and steel. At the current rate of inflation, that would amount to an annual increase of about $0.008 per gallon.

Maryland’s GOP caucus in Annapolis opposes the increase on the grounds that gas taxes should only fund road projects and not transit. The Sun explains:

Half of the transportation trust fund goes toward mass transit, which is of little benefit in the rural communities that most Republicans represent, [Senate minority leader] Brinkley said. Creating a dedicated funding source for mass transit, paid for by the communities that use it, would free up enough money at the current gas tax rate to maintain and expand the road system, Brinkley said.

Though Mr. Brinkley’s concerns of transfer payments are valid, one should note that expanded transit service reduces the burden on the roads and is thus similar in effect to an increase in highway lane miles. Furthermore, to peg the gas tax as a wealth-transfer scheme from rural to suburban and urban areas is absurd: the wealthier, traffic-clogged suburban counties (Montgomery, P.G., Howard, Baltimore) are the communities providing the tax subsidy to fund projects that rural Maryland counties cannot afford by themselves.

Greener Greenbelt Initiative Launched

This coming weekend the city of Greenbelt will open its doors to local residents, business owners, design professionals, and architecture students by hosting a three day charrette focusing on current and future challenges faced by the city on its 70th anniversary. The session is a component of the “Greener Greenbelt Initiative”, a working partnership between the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-PV) and Greenbelt Homes Inc. (GHI), the housing cooperative that owns and operates Greenbelt’s original New Deal-era homes.

Officials hope the three day charrette, or interactive brainstorming and design session, will foster a creative dialog and result in the development of a long-range plan to help ensure old Greenbelt will continue to serve as a national model for livable communities as it has since its dedication in 1937.

Specifically, a list of prepared goals on the initiative’s website include maintaining the appeal of families, enabling older residents to remain at home in the city, making original housing more energy efficient, and protecting Greenbelt’s nature and open spaces while preserving the community’s character. The “Greener Greenbelt” charrette will occur between Friday, September 28 and Sunday, September 30 at Greenbelt Elementary school, located at 66 Ridge Road.

For more information or to get involved, visit http://www.greenergreenbelt.org.

As if “downtown” couldn’t get any worse

College Park’s nighttime revelers received another fatal blow this week after news surfaced that Wawa will be closing its doors. With the Thirsty Turtle apparently never opening, it’s hard to imagine where the increasingly large crowds “downtown” will go Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Can 7-11 measure up? We think not.

Yarrow Resident Mark Cook to Run for Council

Although too many members of the College Park community could care less about the composition of the city council, they play a large role in the direction the city will take in the future. Although they do not hold final zoning authority, they mold new development projects in the city through extensive consultation with developers and influence with county officials. The city sets parking policies, is building a new downtown parking garage, has created trails systems, and even caps the rents on rented houses in an attempt to both control high rents and prevent conversions to rental properties. Given that context, the composition of the council is set to change this November, something the Diamondback pointed out in a recent analysis of the race.

Mark CookWe can report that a new face to the council will be running for a seat in District 3. Mark Cook, a Yarrow resident and chair of the city’s Advisory Planning Commission has filed to run in this November’s election. Cook’s community involvement also includes work as president of the Yarrow Citizens’ Association and for the Committee for a Better Environment. District 3, which includes Old Town, Fraternity Row, the Knox boxes, and the Commons buildings, is currently represented by Stephanie Stullich and Andrew Fellows on the council. Stullich plans to run for re-election, but Fellows will not.

When we sat down with Cook this week he said public safety, Route One redevelopment, and public schools would be some of his top priorities. “The city needs to decide whether they want a main street or a highway running through the community,” Cook said, “I want a main street.” Cook envisions a city where public transit is encouraged, off campus students have a better relationship with city residents, and where University faculty and staff want to live. He views East Campus as an opportunity for the city to gain a common space and amenities.

While we will look forward to learning more about the views of all the candidates, Cook’s vision and experience will make him a strong candidate for the seat. The election is scheduled for November 6, 2007.

UMD, PG County Prove Transit Doesn’t Automatically Translate to Smart Growth

Ballston Metro Station

Service began at the College Park metro station on December 11th, 1993. Since that time, only one Transit Oriented Development (the FDA building) has been built in the area. What’s the only other major construction project in the immediate area in the past ten years? A 1,345 space parking garage. Such is the plight of nearly every Metro station in PG County – heavy on parking, light on walkability. This of course is not the case in Montgomery County nor the Northern Virginia suburbs (Ballston Metro picture left), which have become national models for how to build on and around suburban transit stops. So why the discrepancy? The completely backwards state of PG County politics according to a Washington Post article earlier this month. The situation is probably compounded by notoriously poor leadership from WMATA.

According to a former metro board member:

“We really tried to develop those stations, but we just constantly ran into flak from the [Johnson] administration if it wasn’t what they wanted and it wasn’t the people they wanted,” said Smith, an architect. Metro would come up with a proposal to develop a site, have “its ducks in line, but if Johnson didn’t want it, they would tell us, ‘You can go ahead and approve it, but we won’t issue the building permits,’ ” Smith said. “It became ludicrous.”

So what do we have to look forward to at the CP Metro? That 1,345 space lot was built by WMATA in 2005 to facilitate a 500 unit condo building to be built by Manekin on the remaining surface lot (proposed building pictured in orange below). There has been no movement at all on that project that we have heard.

Of course we still have UMD’s gargantuan M-Square Research Park. One office building is nearly complete and the much lauded NOAA building is finally underway after more than a couple ceremonial groundbreakings. Unfortunately, M-Square is just about as far from transit-oriented as can possibly be imagined. M-Square Sprawling Research Park might be a more appropriate name. MTA planners will definitely have a hard time integrating the Purple Line into the area in a pedestrian-intuitive manner. We’re excited about Route 1, but there is a good reason why we rarely cover Metro development…
Detailed Phasing Plan for M-Square

More Dernoga (More Mazza)

RTCP has a column running in today’s Gazette:

> Dernoga’s ‘misjudgement’ hindering Route 1

The letter is in response to the County Councilman’s August 16th letter, which in turn was a response to GSG President Laura Moore’s August 2nd letter.

by David Daddio:

I was disappointed to read [Prince George’s] County Councilman Thomas Dernoga’s condescending letter [‘‘Free the developers from captivity in College Park,” Aug. 16] defending his position on the proposed ‘‘Mazza” student housing development. As a strong advocate of this project for over six months, I’m hardly surprised by the brashness with which Mr. Dernoga continues to conduct his affairs in regard to this matter.

Continue reading More Dernoga (More Mazza)

Of Photos, Protests, Partnerships, and Public Places

Public-private partnerships have become increasingly popular methods of financing infrastructure and redevelopment projects. The structure of such partnerships is simple: the government supplies the land and a private company builds and maintains a highway or development that benefits the public. Not too far from College Park, the Commonwealth of Virginia has struck deals with private companies to build and maintain highways in exchange for toll revenue (e.g. the Greenway, I-81). Montgomery County has partnered with private developers to create large projects to revitalize downtown Silver Spring (Ellsworth Drive) and downtown Rockville (Rockville Town Square). Here in College Park, the East Campus redevelopment project is a public-private partnership between the University and the Foulger-Pratt development company.

Town Center RulesPublic-private partnerships are good vehicles for providing public goods with little or no expense to the taxpayer. These hybrid partnerships become controversial, however, when private interests conflict with public interests. One such controversy erupted in downtown Silver Spring this summer. The project, developed as a public-private partnership between Montgomery County and the Peterson Companies, is centered on Ellsworth Drive, a street that now serves as a pedestrian mall in downtown Silver Spring. Guards of the developer allegedly stopped a resident from taking photographs on the street. The developer’s assertion that it had the right to limit photography on the street provoked the ire of local photographers, who asserted that Ellsworth Drive is a public place where photography cannot be prohibited outright. This is an especially relevant contention since Foulger-Pratt, the developer chosen for East Campus, is part of the development team that tried to limit photography on Ellsworth Drive.

With symbolic timing, dozens of photographers gathered on Ellsworth on July 4th to assert their right to photograph in a public place. Cleverly, the developer moved quickly to diffuse the situation by holding a photo contest the same day. The Montgomery County Attorney eventually determined that the provisions of the public-private partnership classified the streets and plazas as “Public Use Space,” (Sec. 59-A-2.1, Zoning Ord.) rendering the controversy moot. In a public place, photography, leafleting and demonstrations are a public right (even if permitting procedures are required). The controversy ended quickly as the terms of the partnership clearly stated the public’s continuing claim to the space.
Continue reading Of Photos, Protests, Partnerships, and Public Places

O’Malley Intent on Shoring up Transportation Funding, Backs Away From Gas Tax Hike

Governor O’Malley unveiled his plan today to head off a major impending budget shortfall in Annapolis. He has proposed to raise corporate income taxes from 7 to 8 percent with half the increased funds going to higher education and the other half going to transportation projects such as (in College Park’s case) the ICC, the Purple Line, and Route 1 reconstruction. Since Maryland’s gas tax (which is not pegged to inflation), even despite huge increases in the cost of road construction, hasn’t been raised since 1992. O’Malley still plans to join dozens of other states in indexing MD’s gas tax to inflation (meaning .7-.8 cent increases every year), but he has now backed away from the significant up-front increases (23.5 cents per gallon) that he spoke of just a few short month ago. The governor has also proposed to increase the (more politically palpable) titling tax from 5 to 6 percent of a car purchase price. It’s unfortunate that the governor has bowed to the opposition on such an important issue. From an economic perspective, gas taxes are the surest way to make drivers pay for the infrastructure they use. At least there is some end in sight to the deficit.
> O’Malley to Stump for Tax Increases, Washington Post