Yet another year has disappeared from the city’s screen. Residents and the officials of the City of College Park recently engaged in a lively discussion on what they think about the progress made in the past year and what to expect in 2011.
The city saw its leanest budget in years, due to thousands of dollars of loss in state revenues and property taxes. However, there were signs of progress that several city officials attempted to highlight.
Residents have mixed reactions to the slimmer funds and emphasized improvements.
The issue of public safety is still a hot-button issue. While Prince George’s County overall crime rates have seen a 35-year drop in the past year, the city has seen a modest rise in violent crimes such as assaults, homicides, and robberies. The overall violent crimes against persons, from 2009 to 2010, have increased 10%. Crimes against properties, such as burglaries during the same period have gone down 18.4%.
There are, however, attempts to improve public safety, especially in downtown area. “Crime is an issue, but as a result of a state grant we were able to install about 20 security cameras downtown at year’s end. In 2011 we will be able to judge their effectiveness and determine if such cameras are an economical substitute for adding more police,” said District 2 councilmember Bob Catlin.
There were no such security cameras for North College Park residents. The neighborhood was shocked by a sexual assault incident, wherein a 15 year girl was attacked by a stranger at the north entrance of the Greenbelt metro station in the summer of 2010. Though the suspect was arrested 3 months later, residents felt a security camera at the station entrance could have prevented the incident. The city will soon send a petition with over 300 signatures to WMATA asking for cameras to be installed at the station’s entrance.
There were concerns about police presence. PGPD’s District 1 had a new police chief in 2010 (Maj. Liberati) and a new community liaison officer (Jaron Black). The new leadership is publishing crime reports for the north and the south areas of College Park on a weekly basis. They also host a weekly morning coffee club gathering to update neighbors about the crime incidents.
Those efforts did not stop some residents from expecting more. “The police still do not get out of their cars and their reports still include inaccuracies and people still have trouble with responsiveness. I don’t think we will see any real changes unless and until we have our own police force, “said Stephen Jascourt, a north College Park resident. However, Mr. Jascourt does think that some attempts have been made to increasingly involve the police in the community and get more information to the community faster.
The city is still struggling to revive its Neighborhood Watch program, which has been running leaderless for the past several months. The city has been searching for several leaders at the city and neighborhood levels. The initial December 13 application deadline was extended until December 24 to get more people involved.
“(We) have been attempting to overhaul the Neighborhood Watch program city wide to make it more effective. I’m especially proud of the role Councilwoman Mitchell has taken in trying to spearhead this effort. Thankfully, in West College Park we have Rex Powell and Zari Malsawma leading the charge so our program is already pretty strong,” said District 4 councilmember Marcus Afzali. Malsawma is also thankful for the support the Woods community received over the past year. “I’ve also been delighted with the encouragement and support that Public Services and the city council have provided for Neighborhood Watch Programs in the city. As coordinator of Neighborhood Watch for College Park Woods, I have found their support to be invaluable!” she commented.
Afzali acknowledges that the city still has the reputation of being unsafe. “Crimes of opportunity still happen too frequently and home/car break-ins are still major concerns.” He said, however, that he is hopeful about the prospect of a safer 2011. “The PGPD can better collaborate with the UMD police and perhaps expand their concurrent jurisdiction areas, expand our security camera network, which went online this year, and grow our neighborhood watch program,” Afzali added.
Councilmember Bob Catlin is also hopeful that public safety will improve. He said blue light phones will be soon installed at the Greenbelt Metro and the Trolley Trail at Berwyn Road. He also thinks speed cameras that were installed in November were primarily designed to increase pedestrian safety.
Regarding city-university relations, reactions fluctuated. Afzali, who is a UMD graduate student, said ”The university hinting that they might stop paying the A & A Tax and their continued opposition to the state-preferred Campus Drive alignment for the Purple Line are big negatives.” However, he thinks that “going forward, the new UMD president Dr. Loh’s decision on the Purple Line will be a big factor in continuing to improve relations. The development of East Campus also provides a chance for working in a collaborative manner.”
District 1 councilmember Patrick Wojahn agrees with Afzali. “I believe we will make strides this next year with the new president, Dr. Loh, who has expressed interest in developing a stronger relationship with the city. We will work with him and with Chief Mitchell of the UMD public safety department to address concerns about student rioting and drinking both off-campus and on,” he said. He also pointed to the first College Park Day event in early October, which was jointly organized by residents and UMD student volunteers.
Afzali also touted his personal accomplishment of “passing a memorandum of understanding between the University of Maryland and the city of College Park, which requires the University to consult with residents within one mile of any construction project planned by the university.” He said that the agreement will “ensure residents are informed about projects that may add noise and light pollution to their communities before they happen.”
There were also words of praise for “the Explore and Enjoy College Park Tour,” a monthly meet-up at various restaurants within the city. The purpose was to bring residents from across the city together to build a sense of community and talk about local issues in a relaxed setting. Several key local figures, including President Loh, attended the tour.
“I attended the last two events and thoroughly enjoyed them. What a great idea! It benefits everyone involved, businesses & residents alike,” said one resident of the Enjoy College Park tour.
There were however times when things didn’t go so smoothly in the resident / student relations. For example, the proposed student housing at the current Book Exchange property drew many city residents, including its student population into a heated debate. The debate divided the city residents roughly across its north-south border.
“Be more sensitive to the residents and stop playing politics in Old Town as it applies to the proposed development of the MD Book Exchange,” said one resident, who supports the proposed housing plan. However, the resident thinks UMD is too powerful in many city affairs “I am opposed to having the university in essence dictate to the city and some members of council bow down to them,” she added.
Termini however thinks the UMD is too powerful in many city affairs “I am opposed to having the University in essence dictate to the city and some members of council bow down to them.” – she added.
There were also words of optimism in reducing student / resident tensions in residential neighborhoods. “(these tensions) results from a lack of understanding. Students renters are often living on their own for the first time, so they don’t really know how to live as part of a community.” said Alex Weissmen, an UMD student living in a residential neighborhood. “Noise, parking, trash, and a host of other issues stem from the fact that students see their home in College Park as a “place to live”, and not necessarily a community with all of its rules and benefits. Sending out cold, impersonal flyers and tickets is not going to engage students – they need someone to extend a warm hand.” Weismann suggested.
A number of City officials, including council members Bob Catlin, Marcus Afzali and Patrick Wojahn, gave accounts for the development projects that made progress in the past year and will make their ways in the current year.
The city saw a few progresses made on the business development front. Ledo’s Restaurant opened in the late summer in downtown, and North College Park saw the opening of the electronic chain store Best Buy. Jerk Pit signed a five year lease for the old College Perk Coffee space. And, a new business may potentially inhabit what used to be the Thirsty Turtle.
To spur businesses in the city, Afzali encouraged residents to check out www.shopcollegepark.org and sign up to follow Shop College Park on Twitter and Facebook.
On the development front, Northgate Park, a university project on Route 1, which began construction last year, will include a second pedestrian bridge to campus across the Paint Branch Avenue. The Varsity, a student housing development which has already started construction, will include three retail spaces. They should open this year. The city will also resume efforts with county to place a public school at the old county school on Calvert Road.
In North College Park, the city added pedestrian safety lights on Lackawanna Street, but the brightness caused controversies among local residents. This year, the Mexican restaurant Azteca is expected to open on the northern stretch of Route 1. Prince George’s County will finally be building the long-awaited improvements to the Rhode Island Avenue and Edgewood Road intersection. “That area gets so horribly backed up. I know it is on someone’s radar screen. It would just be nice to have it completed,” said North College Park resident Moira McGuire.
The city also plans to develop for a replacement facility for the public works trailers at Davis Hall.
The city is working to enhance public transportation. The Purple Line is the most significant long-term project, but the council intends to target enhanced bus service on Route 1 in the short-term. Funding from the Council of Governments, Prince George’s County, and private developers will be directed toward the institution of a priority bus corridor on Route 1. The city is hoping to institute a newly-branded bus line specific to the Route 1 corridor; it would bring students and residents between the UMD campus and to the housing and shopping opportunities on Route 1, while easing congestion. In North College Park, the City added way finding signs directing people from the metro station and from Route 1 to the Hollywood Commercial District.
Some North College Park residents think development in the downtown is causing an increase of traffic in their part of the city. “Why should North College Park take on the brunt of development and traffic?” said one resident. Other residents think the city should make the business owner responsible for keeping the properties in shape. Route 1 in North College Park has a number of vacant businesses just north of Route 193. “Make Route 1 property owners beautify and maintain…their vacant properties,” said resident Alan Hew.
The code enforcement in the city also received a mixed rating. Most think the city did a fairly good job in clearing the extraordinary amount of snow off the streets in early 2010.
Commenting on noise control, one long-term resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “There has been over recent years, and still continues, a decrease in noise and disturbances from UMD students, especially from those in rental houses in my neighborhood.”
Others want more stringent codes and inspections for bars, and want to insure that businesses that open in residential areas are what they say they really are. At least three businesses in the city stirred controversies in the past year for questinable business practices: Thirsty Turtle in Old Town, and Bamboo Eater and Comfort Zone in North College Park.
Residents also believe more should be done regarding code enforcement laws on storefront signage. “Look at Mundo Latino store on Edgewood [in North College Park]. It looks awful,” said one resident.
Speaking of the progress made in the past year and the challenges ahead, Afzali said, “I know we have a lot of serious issues we need to deal with and that the changes we all want to see take place in College Park aren’t going to happen quickly.”
“I have always believed in the saying ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re on the right track, if you don’t keep moving forward you’ll still get ran over’. But I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction and that College Park will be known as one of the better college towns in the country,” added Afzali.