Talks Resume for Whole Foods Just South of College Park

There’s nothing like talk of a Whole Foods opening in the neighborhood to get local pulses racing. After a few years of recession-induced torpor, it appears that plans are again underway to develop the Cafritz Property, a 35.8-acre tract of undeveloped land on Route 1 immediately to the south of College Park. Whole Foods would like to be the anchor tenant for this development (it is listed among their “stores in development“. As the lively discussion on the Riverdale Park Patch shows, some locals regard this as the best thing since unsliced organic bread, while others view it as the latest in a line of development and transportation disasters to hit the area.

A little background. The Cafritz Property is an overgrown/wooded tract bounded by Route 1, the MARC/CSX train tracks, and the towns of College Park and Riverdale Park. It’s where the Green Line metro exits the tunnel shortly before College Park Station. See the location in a map or an aerial shot It is one of the largest undeveloped pieces of land inside the Beltway. The land is currently zoned for single-family housing, but the Cafritz family would like to develop it as a mixed-use development. There was a flurry of community meetings and discussion on the development back in 2007. And then we all know what happened to real estate development in 2008. Some older schematics can be found at the long-dormant web site for the development. It is rumored that the new plans for the property will reflect less density than the earlier plans. We have not yet seen specific plans, or heard of new community meetings. If the newer plans are well received, then the development could move ahead sooner than East Campus (remember that one?).

Already saving your pennies for those perfectly proportioned tomatoes? Or groaning in despair? Let us know in the comments.

Why is this development different from other struggling developments, e.g., University Town Center, which is barely limping along? Simple: Whole Foods. Like it or not, nothing gives a neighborhood a stamp of approval like the upscale grocer.

Should locals rejoice? Well, some like to see housing prices go up, and others are less enamored of the much discussed Whole Foods Effect. Some see it as a much needed boost to the local tax base. Others as a way to save on driving to Whole Foods in Silver Spring. Others as a much needed antidote to the local inferiority complex.

What about those nice trees? Who’s going to look out for the environment? If you want to save the tree canopy in your own back yard, then you have reason to be worried. But if you’re serious about saving the planet, then a broader view is needed. People gotta live someplace. And we can save more trees if they live in dense developments, rather than in sprawling suburban castles. Dense development is more likely to work when it’s within walking distance to a transportation hub (Green, Purple, MARC, Bus lines). Not to mention proximity to the university and M-Square. Packing people close to transportation is one of the best things you can do for saving trees.

And will it create transportation gridlock? Hard to tell, really. Route 1 can get congested in downtown CP, generally in the direction of the morning/evening commute. But the stretch near Cafritz is rarely backed up. Whole Foods would certainly attract traffic. How many of those cars are not already on Route 1 heading elsewhere is hard to tell. Would dense housing compound the travel nightmare? For CP as a whole, probably not. The traffic in town is so bad already in part because so few of the people who work or study here also live here. If more of those people lived here — and those are the people most likely to settle in the new development — then their commute wouldn’t be clogging up our roads so much. Many would be attracted to the development by the prospect of being able to walk to the Metro and to Whole Foods.

Olson Delivers HAWK Signal at Trolley Trail Crossing

After several years of struggling with intransigent county highway engineers, District 3 County Councilman Eric Olson has secured approval for a critical safety improvement to the College Park “Trolley Trail” crossing at Paint Branch Parkway. A pedestrian-activated red light (or HAWK Signal) is expected to be installed by the County’s Department of Public Works and Transportation within the next several months. This is a huge step forward in making College Park’s pathway system much safer for cyclists and pedestrians. For several years, safety concerns went unaddressed as the city and county bickered about how to improve the crossing. The curent yellow flashing arrangement causes confusion for motorists and has led to multiple serious accidents.

Fortunately, a change in federal guidelines reframed the debate in late 2009 and the unwavering support of political leaders made the installation possible. Thanks to Eric Olson for his work in addressing this important issue! Below is the official press release:

Trolley Trail Crossing

Friday, May 20, 2011
CONTACT: Karen Campbell


Busy Paint Branch Parkway Crossing Safer with Pedestrian-Activated Red Light

Today is Bike to Work Day and Prince George’s County Council Member Eric Olson (D) – District 3 and County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III (D) marked the occasion with an announcement that the College Park Trolley Trail Crossing at Paint Branch Parkway will become a safer place for pedestrians and bicyclists in 2011.

Council Member Olson secured funding for placing a pedestrian-activated red light at this location in the Fiscal Year 2011 County Budget. In collaboration with County Executive Baker and the Department of Public Works and Transportation, this improvement is slated for installation in late spring or early summer.

The College Park Trolley Trail, a popular path for commuters (including University of Maryland students and staff), making their way to the nearby College Park Metro station and University of Maryland shuttle bus stop, has been the site of several recent collisions between cars, and pedestrians and bicyclists, prompting many calls from the community to upgrade safety. Recreational users, especially those heading to Lake Artemesia, are also frequent users of the crossing.

Council Member Olson says the new light responds to resident concerns for safety. “We are creating a more sustainable and healthy community by making the pedestrian experience much safer. We have a great and expanding trail system, and every improvement creates more opportunities for walking and bicycling to Metro, employment, and parks among other destinations.”

County Executive Baker agreed. “Improving pedestrian safety in Prince George’s County is a priority. We have had too many auto accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists in the County and we must create better, safer conditions – particularly around our 14 Metro stations, critical to our economic development future.”

The City of College Park is now completing the final phase of the Trolley Trail through the Old Town and Lakeland neighborhoods. The Trolley Trail runs on a former streetcar right-of-way, which at one time ran trolleys into the District of Columbia from the Maryland suburbs before discontinuing service in the early 1960s. The trail runs north and south through College Park, travels through Park and Planning property, runs along Rhode Island Avenue, and includes an off-road city property. Plans call for the trail to continue through Riverdale Park and Hyattsville and connect to the Northwest Branch Trail and the rest of the Anacostia Tributary Trails System.

Eminent Domain of #1 Liquor in Question

#1 Liquor at University View

With the city council election only a few months away, and an increasing number of residents are voicing their opposition, the council may soon vote on a motion that will permanently put a stop to the negotiation to purchase #1 Liquor: College Park’s most infamous homestead holdout. The small parcel (8200 Baltimore Avenue) is sandwiched in between University View and the Varsity high rises, has been a point of contention for the council for years. In December 2009, the City Council authorized the City Manager to negotiate the acquisition of the property and turn it into a “pocket park” for general public use. The purchase would be funded by College Park’s allocation of the state’s localside Program Open Space (POS) money.

City council members who supported the motion in 2009, argued that the property was “an eyesore.” They also said that the purchase would be an opportunity “to improve that portion of Route 1 corridor“. The 2009 resolution allows the City to pursue the acquisition using all “actions necessary to proceed with condemnation if negotiations are not successful.” This meant eminent domain, or compulsory purchase by the government against the will of the landowner, was on the table if the store owner refused to make a deal.

However, opposition to the eminent domain option from the residents in recent days have forced some council members to soften or even reverse their support. One of these council members is Patrick Wojahn (Dist 1), who has come under fierce scrutiny for his original support for eminent domain from a small but vocal group of residents in his north College Park constituency.

I was on the fence initially about eminent domain, and after hearing what residents have had to say, I oppose it.” -wrote Mr. Wojahn in an email to his north College Park newsgroup.

However, Mr. Wojahn’s reversal on eminent domain option did not completely please the group of residents; they want the Council to stop negotiation with the #1 Liquor owner altogether.

The City should stop going after this particular business.  You [Mr. Wojahn] and Mr. Catlin keep saying the City should continue because the owner is still willing to negotiate [to sell]” – charged one resident.

I have not seen anyone on the council move to amend this item be removed” – continued the resident.

During the recent budget worksession, this topic was brought up and the City Manager (Mr. Nagro) said the only way to stop the negotiation would be for the Mayor and Council to do another vote to “unauthorize” it.

Mr. Wojahn’s counterpart in District 1, Councilmember Nagle, who has been a vocal opponent to the #1 Liquor purchase from the beginning,  has recently done just that. She has asked the city to unauthorize the City Manager from pursuing any further negotiations to obtain the property (arms-length or otherwise). The council will vote on that motion in next Tuesday’s (May 24) regular council session.

In the mean time, the debate on the property deal is intensifying. Most opponents to the idea of acquiring the property argue that “uglinesss” should never be the reason for purchasing the property.

.. if you want to get rid of it, why don’t you get rid of town hall or that vacant building that is an eyesore between Burger King and Taco Bell (on Rt. 1).” – said one long time residents.

If we are looking to make the city look good, there is nothing on US 1, in my opinion, from the IKEA corridor on down except the University of Maryland that looks attractive to anyone wanting to relocate to the city.” – continued the resident.

Council member Robert Catlin (Dist 2), who sponsored the 2009 motion disagrees. Catlin thinks location, and not the look, should be a major factor why the City should buy the property.

(The location of the property) is great because of the large population that will be living or passing through there.  It can be a place for people to buy food from the adjacent food establishments and enjoy eating outside or interact with people (like Dupont Circle). ” – said Mr. Catlin.

In addition to location, Mr. Catlin argues that  the property would make for a good bus superstop location, as it the southernmost point that southbound buses can stop to pick up passengers. He also points out that the current business owner is not the same business owner that was there when University View was built.

The current liquor store owner is free to lease space elsewhere in College Park. ” – he argued.

In response to the argument that the City will be losing precious tax dollars from a legitimate business, Mr Catlin said: “The $1,500 in revenue derived from the store is insignificant in the city’s budget, especially when considering that the redevelopment here generates hundreds of times more revenue than was generated here before redevelopment.

What could we buy [with POS money], only church property?” – asks Mr. Catlin.

Some residents want the City to spend the fund to purchase the property in the design and rehabilitation of Duvall Field project in north College Park. The City originally received $300K as part of State’s Program Open Space (POS) fund, however it could not use the money due to a related fund from a Greenbelt south core development project.

Others have a different perspective on how the purchase should be viewed,

Program Open Space is neither a highway beautification fund nor a blight reduction tool. The park idea is a farce. A fraction of an acre ‘pocket park’ on the #1 Liquor site will not meet the city’s conservation or public recreation goals, especially in light of the fact that the 5-acre North Gate Park (another POS project) is about to open just to the south.” – said the Rethink College Park editor David Daddio.

Daddio thinks the North Gate Park parcel would make an excellent location for a bus super stop for the emerging North Gate District.

Indeed POS funds could be used for the purchase; but let’s not pretend that there is a park deficit in the city.” – said Daddio.

Though it is unclear at this moment how the Council will vote next week, intense lobbying by the opposing residents may sway the minds of the council members. If there is a tie, Mayor Fellows will cast his vote to break the tie. Mr. Fellows who supported the original 2009 motion is also undecided.

We have not established what that cost to the City might be.  I do understand the concerns of a significant number of residents, and they are a factor in my consideration. ” – said Mr. Fellows.

In the mean time, opponents to the purchase plan are hoping that the upcoming November election could swing the Council decision next week.

Real Route 1 Bus Service – Time to Seize Opportunity

At the city council meeting last Tuesday, council members Marcus Afzali and Patrick Wojahn were able to get Route 1 Bus integration/consolidation on the agenda for the next City-University Partnership meeting. The idea originated from a 2008 City-contracted transportation study of Route 1 in College Park (RTCP discussion/ analysis HERE), which envisioned bus “super stops” around development nodes on Route 1, common branding of service across the three area transit providers, and other transportation demand management strategies designed to reduce congestion and increase accessibility. Unfortunately, thus far, the only tangible thing that came out of that $150,000 consulting report was a reworking of the Prince George’s TheBus Route 17 along Route 1 which provides a miserable 40 minute headways (wait time between buses). City efforts for more systematic coordination of transit service have thus far been thwarted by limited funding, WMATA intransigence, and lackluster participation by UMD. With the impending completion of two more student housing projects on Route 1, however, there may be light at the end of the tunnel… and soon.
Paint Branch Pkwy @ Route 1, Looking at future Hotel site

New Hall Ings Bus Canopy Construction
A super stop under construction in Bradford, England

As currently planned, two new separate Shuttle UM routes serving the Varsity and Starview Plaza student housing developments opening this fall. When you consider the already completed University View and Mazza GrandMarc, that means by August there will be four developer-funded routes servicing each development individually for an annual total payment of about $500,000 to Shuttle-UM for four projects housing about 3,500 student. Alone, each route has (or will have) pretty bad headways (U-View and The Varsity- 10-20 minutes, Mazza 25-30 minute, Starview somewhere in between), especially for nights and weekends. Three or even all four routes could easily be consolidated to provide much more frequent service along most of Route 1 (3-5 minute headways during peak hours, roughly 10 minute headways for nights and weekends). Such a service could form the backbone of north-south transit service along Route 1, which is already available to non-UMD affiliated city residents.

The idea behind transit coordination and consolidation is simple. People do not care what name is on the outside of the bus. They care how much it costs, where it goes, and how quickly they can get to their destination. Unfortunately, the current haphazard provision of bus service in the city means that people have only a limited notion of the services available. Transfers between service providers are almost unheard of. Students ride Shuttle-UM, area residents/faculty/staff ride WMATA and Shuttle-UM, and pretty much nobody rides (or has even heard of) TheBus. The concept behind bus super stops, is that a few high profile bus shelters along a corridor could raise the profile of transit and help people understand and take advantage of all transit options and transfer opportunities regardless of transit operator.

Real-time bus arrival information
Real time bus display in Singapore.

Up until now, there really has not been the density of passengers needed to justify frequent bus service along Route 1. Indeed, UMD scuttled service from Ikea to downtown Hyattsville two years ago for lack of ridership. However, with the completion of several student housing projects all along the corridor (each paying Shuttle-UM to provide individual service to campus), there are the makings of regular transit service again. Eventually, beefed up bus stops sporting real time displays could further complement already high student trasit ridership from these new dense, transit-ready development popping up all over town. We attribute the high ridership of the University Town Center and University View routes to student finances, the price and difficulty of parking at UMD, and the relatively close proximity of these projects to campus. There is lots of potential. Unfortunately, August is just three months away and this conversation has not even really begun. The council meeting last Tuesday reflected the limited understanding that city elected officials and planning staff have of the opportunities as well as the nascent stage that the conversation is at despite the three years that have passed since the Route 1 Transportation Study.:
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