[Update 9/30/2010: This post has been updated with comments from District 4 Council woman Denise Mitchell]
The proposal to build a 6-story, 334-unit student housing on the current Book Exchange property may still be in its very primitive stage, yet some City Council members have already started to take sides on this development. Interestingly enough, not every resident or City council member is against the proposal, as the recent media reports (such as this and this) may have suggested.
Take for example District 1 council member Chris Nagle. She actually supports the idea of the proposed housing. Ms. Nagle says she does not agree with the residents in Old Town who have expressed concerns that the student housing at the current Maryland Book Exchange location will bring additional students into Old Town and create noise and traffic concerns for existing residents. “The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town. I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings. The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.”Ms Nagle said explaining her position.
The other District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn sits completely on the other side of the aisle on this. He is with the city residents – those living in the south and also in the north in his district. “I have a lot of concerns about this proposal. Whether I agree with those residents (in Old Town) or not, I would want other council members to support me if the residents of north College Park were opposed to a project, and I want to do the same for the residents of Old Town.”– says Mr. Wojahn.
Mr. Wojahn is concerned that this new project would over saturate the market and create challenges for the entire student housing along US 1. “the City and the University have worked together to build a lot of new student housing along the US 1 corridor over the past couple of years, and at this point, we do not know whether that will satisfy the demand for student housing..”- said Mr. Wojahn.
The District 3 council woman Stephanie Stullich echoes Mr. Wojahn’s assessments on this oversaturation part. According to her estimation, new student housing construction from 2000 to 2010 added a total of 7,057 new beds for students, including 2,892 on campus and 4,533 off campus. Those figures include 1,146 beds in two new buildings that opened this fall (View 2 and Mazza). In addition, three student housing buildings currently under construction will add 2,263 beds in fall 2011 (Starview, Varsity, and Oakland Hall).
Ms. Stullich wants to see the proposed development to house something different – “a grocery store like Trader Joe’s, a sit-down family restaurant, or housing targeted at University faculty and staff and young professionals could be a good fit for the site” – she commented. “I’d also like to see the old Book Exchange as part of the new development” – she added.
Mr. Wojahn agrees with Ms. Stullich on the diversity part of the development in downtown area to create what he says a true college town atmosphere. “I feel we need a diverse mix of housing opportunities. With the rest of the new M Square project coming online sometime in the next couple of years, I feel there is a need for young professional housing, and I think it would be useful for the developer to consider making all of this new development young professional housing instead of just student housing. Bringing more young professionals in the area would lead to a better market for higher quality restaurants and more diverse retail downtown.”Added Mr. Wojahn.
Mr. Wojahn also sympathizes with concerns of the Old Town residents. “I understand the concerns of the residents, and I want to support the residents who have concerns about this project coming so close to their neighborhoods. “
Ms. Stullich, who represents the residents living in the area near the proposed development, went further in explaining the concerns of the local residents. “This project would double the number of undergraduate students living in Old Town, which is the neighborhood that already has the highest concentration of undergraduates and struggles the most with tensions between students and older residents. The noise problem is pretty extreme, not just from the parties but also from hundreds of young people wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night looking for parties. And then there are the problems with vandalism and public urination – it all seems to go with the wild party atmosphere. It makes it sometimes a hard place for families to raise their children. The noise enforcement officers and police have a hard time dealing with this situation as it is – we don’t need to make this problem even harder to handle.”
Ms. Stullich added – “It is not in students’ best interest to make Old Town so difficult for older residents to live in that they all move out. Older residents help improve the safety of the neighborhood, because of Neighborhood Watch, because they know how to work with the police. They watch out for the safety of their student neighbors. Allowing this to become exclusively a student neighborhood would make the student residents vulnerable to even more crime.”
Ms. Stullich brushed off criticism against the opposition to the housing as “anti-student”. “I don’t think there’s an anti-student hysteria from me and the residents who oppose the development. We accept that students live in our neighborhoods and always will. We’re simply trying to seek a balance.”
She said she likes what RTCP is doing in promoting smart growth. “I’m an environmentalist, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-development. I have been a strong supporter of all of the other recent student housing projects. But it is important to have the right mix of development in the right places.” – she said.
Her counterpart in the district 3, council member Mark Cook supports the proposed development. ” “It’s hard to understand why a council member would support a project that so many of his constituents believe would harm their quality of life.”– Ms. Stullich added with frustration. In an interview with the Diamondback, Mr. Cook said he is excited about the vision for the site, as “it represents a smart growth project that will improve the overall use of the land – much of which is now a sprawling parking lot.”
District 2 Council member Bob Catlin hasn’t seen a proposal for the project and says it’s premature to judge the project. “The only thing we (the City Council) have been asked to do by the developer is to allow the developer to pay a parking fee-in-lieu for about 175 parking spaces prior to the proposal being presented. Some council members want to decide the fee-in-lieu at a later time.”
When asked about UMd’s letter of support for the project he said “It (the UMd) did send a letter- now I believe the University has (or it soon will) rescind that support. RTCP knows about the original letter, but perhaps not about a possible reconsideration of that position.” Mr. Catlin added.
District 4 councilman Marcus Afzali also wants to see more before making his mind supporting the proposed development, but he has sympathies for the residents’ concerns. “Right now community members are meeting with the developer so I don’t want to say too much because I want to give the residents of Old Town a chance to see what they can work out with them. That being said I think the residents of Old Town have valid concerns that must be addressed before I would be willing to get on board.” – Marcus said to me in an email.
Afzali’s counterpart in District 4, Denise Mitchell opposes the proposed development. “I want to be clear that I was opposed to the concept of the project from the beginning” – Ms. Mitchell told me in her email. “ It is my view that there are many existing projects currently underway for the sole purpose of adding student housing off campus and in close proximity to the university. Also, I felt as though the residents should have been conferred with before presenting this to Mayor and Council.” – Ms. Mitchell added.
The City Mayor Andrew Fellows also shares the residents’ concerns, but wants to hold off on taking a side. “I have thoughts but probably want to save them for public consumption. I want to explore the matter in public at City Hall. I will briefly note, though, that I do share the concerns of the residents.” – Mr. Fellows added.
Despite the divergent views from council members, the ultimate decision about the project will come from the County Council. County councilman Eric Olson, who represents the area, has indicated that he has concerns about the development. When asked about UMd’s support for the development, Mr. Olson said “My understanding is that there are multiple perspectives on campus, so I do not read their letter as the final University position. And ultimately, the University does not make the decision on the project. “