Route 1: A Main Street by Default

Route 1

A recent article in The Diamondback commended the rise of mixed-use development on our university’s main street, as it should. After years of housing shortages and blight, College Park is finally being rejuvenated. But in current discussions of College Park’s redevelopment, there is a huge elephant in the room: Route 1 itself.

Dangerous and traffic-clogged, our principal road hardly functions as a hub of campus life. A typical main street is lined with independent businesses for meeting friends, street furniture for sitting and chatting and wide sidewalks for leisurely strolls. Route 1, however, is a different story. As evidenced by the constant rotation of restaurants in Terrapin Station, this street has managed to extinguish business in our downtown corridor. Lacking infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, this unsafe road seems set on exterminating our human population, as well.

Two major factors contribute to an establishment’s success. The first is population density, a store’s customer base. The second is foot traffic, the stream of pedestrians from which stores can fish out these customers. Clearly, College Park has the population density to support a bevy of businesses, yet we are lacking the foot traffic. Why? Because traversing Route 1 on foot is a death-defying feat. Anyone who has tried to cross Route 1 at Hartwick Road knows I’m not being hyperbolic.

Sadly, the ills of Route 1 are not unique to College Park. In Hyattsville, where Route 1 also serves as the default main street, the city has been trying to bring life back to a strip that was, until recently, dominated by vacant lots and used car dealerships. While the development project is anchored by a Busboys and Poets and features intriguing locally owned businesses, the speed and noise of Route 1’s traffic prevents Arts District Hyattsville from becoming a comfortable environment for spending an afternoon.

Particularly telling is a bench located outside of Busboys. Instead of facing outward toward the expansive view of the surrounding neighborhoods, as benches typically do, it faces inward toward an unsightly brick wall. Hyattsville’s developers are trying to build public space that fosters a thriving community and economy, yet these four lanes of traffic make that impossible to do.

Route 1 is in desperate need of traffic taming — steps that would retain the street’s automobile capacity, yet make the road more comfortable for pedestrians. By narrowing lanes of traffic as currently planned, we could finally widen sidewalks, install bike lanes/cycle tracks and add street furniture and greenery. These measures would attract College Park residents from their homes to the street, helping to repopulate our downtown corridor and ensure the success of our new businesses.

Roads are the building blocks of our communities, and it is simply impossible to build community around six lanes of traffic. We cannot continue to herald new businesses when they come to town, yet neglect to create an environment where they can thrive. The establishments in the new mixed-use high rises require a Route 1 that accommodates both cars and people.

There is nothing “new” about Route 1. It remains a main street by default, not by definition.

College Park Development Update – January

The Development Update is a bi-monthly newsletter prepared by the City of College Park Planning, Community and Economic Development Department covering development activity in the City. This edition features updates on the Maryland Book Exchange redevelopment, Domain at College Park, Cafritz Property, and The Varsity. If you have any questions or would like to subscribe, please feel free to contact Michael Stiefvater at (240) 487-3543 or mstiefvater@collegeparkmd.gov.

Traffic: Is it worth the worry?

On Thursday night, I listened to a few of the comments in front of the Prince George’s County Planning Commission regarding the proposed development of the Cafritz site. Not surprisingly, many of those opposed to the current version of the project cited increased traffic as their central argument. While listening, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of us are so terrified of traffic that we are willing to let a great opportunity pass us by.

One opponent, a resident of University Park, explained how her trip to pick up her children at a school in the Berwyn neighborhood in College Park has taken up to 30 minutes (a distance of about 2 miles) when University of Maryland is in session. Because of her concern about additional traffic, she is willing to forgo the opportunity of having a highly regarded grocery store and new development within walking distance of her home.

While I agree that 30 minutes is a long time to travel two miles in a car, I suspect that this is not an everyday occurrence. However, let’s assume the development is built as planned and she must endure the burden of additional time to pick up her children. Is she worse off? I argue no.
cafritz property 2011
To start, on nice days, she has the opportunity of hopping on a bicycle and riding to school with her children . . . or letting them go alone if they are old enough. While Route 1 is big and wide, crossing at a signalized intersection is simple enough and the College Park Trolley Trail leads directly to the school. It’s a perfect opportunity to get some exercise and enjoy the day.

Now, let’s think of the benefits of having a quality, mixed-use development within walking distance of your home. Here’s a scenario as an example. Mom finds out she is out of milk while making dinner. She doesn’t want to leave hot items on the stove so she sends her children out to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery. The children can walk to the store and return within 15 minutes. The children have the opportunity to gain a little independence and self-confidence while Mom can continue with dinner preparation.

Here’s another example. It’s Saturday morning and in a few hours you are heading to a friend’s house for an afternoon cook-out. You have several errands to complete before joining your friends in a few hours. You hop on your bike and ride to the new town center at the Cafritz property. You arrive within 10 minutes and park your bike out front of the coffee shop. You sit down, relax, read the newspaper or chat with a neighbor, then walk to the grocery to pick up some tasty dip for the cook-out. You also pick up that tape measure you’ve needed at the adjacent hardware store. You hop back on your bike and head home. You were gone for an hour and you still have time to get some things down around the house.
Palo Alto bicycle commuter
I’m sure everyone can think of another example that may be relevant to their life. To me, the benefits are clear. You don’t have to spend 20 minutes driving over to Silver Spring, searching for a place to park, then driving all the way home again. Instead, you get some exercise, finish your errands quicker, and have a much more enjoyable morning.

Some of you may still be thinking, “But, what about the traffic?” Here is my response. Whether it be in a car, on a bus, or on the platform waiting for the train, traffic (congestion) is a part of life when you live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, and it will continue to be so as the region grows and College Park and Route 1 redevelop. For those of us living adjacent to a variety of goods and services, we will have the benefit of a variety of transportation options to reach our destinations (walk, bicycle, transit, car).

If we don’t want traffic to dominate our lives, we have to start thinking about transportation and land use differently. Driving should take a back seat to walking and cycling for shorter trips. Public transportation can take care of longer trips within the metropolitan area. With this mentality, we can create more vibrant communities and worry less about the traffic on our roads.
Which is Most Efficient?
In the case of the Cafritz development, rather than fret about traffic, think of the benefits of having more amenities closer to home. Rather than fight to deny opportunities for new development, fight for better public transportation and sidewalks. When you have better access to goods and services closer to your house, you will have to drive less. You can spend more time doing the things you want to do, rather than sitting in traffic.

Greenbelt Sector Plan: Existing Transportation

Prince George’s County’s planning department is in the early stages of creating a new sector plan for the city of Greenbelt, called the Greenbelt Metro Area and MD 193 Corridor Sector Plan. The goal of the sector plan is to guide transit-oriented development around the Greenbelt Metro Station and commercial revitalization and pedestrian-oriented improvements along the MD 193 (Greenbelt Road) corridor. The last sector plan for Greenbelt was completed back in 2001, before Prince George’s County released a few key publications concerning growth and development: the General Plan (2002), the Countywide Green Infrastructure Plan (2005), and the Countywide Master Plan of Transportation (2009). The county is looking to incorporate these more recent publications into a new sector plan for Greenbelt. It hopes to have a preliminary plan ready by this fall.

Greenbelt Sector Plan Area

This plan is important to College Park because it will guide development in an adjacent city that attracts many of College Park’s residents. Yesterday, a presentation of existing transportation conditions was led by project manager Chad Williams at Greenbelt Middle School. Transportation in Greenbelt is certainly a relevant issue; the city is also strongly connected to the Beltway and has a metro station that a significant portion of College Park residents use regularly.

The presentation focused mainly on existing car traffic conditions, describing current levels of congestion on key roads within the sector plan area. These roads include the Beltway, Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Kenilworth Avenue, Greenbelt Road, Cherrywood Lane, and Hanover Parkway. Levels of service (LOS) ranging from A to F for peak hours were discussed, and it was explained that a LOS D is really not much “worse” than a LOS A, because traffic can move freely for the A, B,C, and D levels. The Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway had the lowest level of service (E), although I was surprised it wasn’t even lower.

The presentation also discussed who uses the Greenbelt Metro Station, with the data coming from the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA). It was found that about 69% of users drive to the station, with a large majority coming from origins 5 to 20 miles away, typically north and west of the station. A low but significant percentage come from 30 miles away or farther. This data was based on the home address of users’ Smart Trip Cards, and a couple of audience members noted that this source may not correspond well to where the users actually came from. Nonetheless, given that a lot of traffic entering the Greenbelt station can typically be seen coming from I-95 north of the Beltway, this data seems at least reasonably accurate.

Bus routes were discussed briefly with a map that showed all the bus routes (including 2 UM shuttle routes) in the sector plan area. Audience members noted that the map failed to indicate the quality of service that these routes provide. A lot of members were not satisfied with the weekend bus service and hope that it can be expanded.

Audience members requested that a study of pedestrian and bicycle LOS be attempted for several intersections, and the presenter responded that some data has been collected for this during peak periods. I hope that data can be presented at some point; it could be valuable in helping to expand Greenbelt’s bike and pedestrian traffic while taking some cars off the road. Greenbelt is considering a bike sharing program, which could potentially fit well next to College Park’s planned program.

A PowerPoint presentation of this event should be available next week on the sector plan website.

City Council Rejects Book Exchange, Opposes Cafritz

During a four hour meeting Tuesday night, the College Park City Council rejected the Maryland Book Exchange site plan and voted to oppose the Cafritz Property rezoning.

The Council voted unanimously to reject the revised detailed site plan for the Maryland Book Exchange. The detailed site plan describes the specifics of a development project, including height, footprint, materials to be used, and architectural design. Councilmembers took offense to the plan as “hardly modified” from a previously rejected site plan. While the revised site plan reduced building height along Yale Avenue from six stories to four, councilmembers argued it still went above the two to three stories permitted by the Route 1 Sector Plan.

In a six to two roll call vote, the Council voted to send a letter to the Planning Board opposing the rezoning of the Cafritz Property from R-55 (residential, single family homes) to M-U-TC (mixed use town center). The motion made by Councilmember Stullich received the support of Councilmembers Dennis, Mitchell, Stullich, Wojahn, Day, and Afzali, and was opposed by Councilmembers Kabir and Catlin. At time of posting the text of the motion is not available electronically.

The Council heard from and questioned the developers, as well as Mayor John Tabori of University Park and Mayor Vernon Archer of Riverdale Park. University Park voted Monday evening to support the Cafritz Rezoning 4/3, while Riverdale Park voted Tuesday to support the rezoning unanimously. Both towns made their support contingent on a set of consensus conditions. The conditions were negotiated during twelve meetings held over the holiday among representatives from all three municipalities and the Cafritz developers. Councilmember Stullich served as College Park’s lead representative in the discussions.

Mayor Tabori emphasized that he had begun as a skeptic of the project, particularly of the traffic studies and the site’s transit orientation. He argued that the major weaknesses in the proposal had been addressed and noted that this was the first time a developer in Prince George’s County actively supported creating a Transportation Demand Management District. Developer opposition had stalled efforts to get a TDMD covering PG Plaza. Mayor Archer echoed Mayor Tabori’s support, observing that through the consensus conditions, the muicipalities had exchanged their power to stop the project entirely for significant influence over how it evolved.

Thirteen members of the public spoke for opposing the rezoning, including one visitor from University Park. Opponents of the rezoning emphasized concerns over traffic, unreasonably high density on the site, and questioned the desirability of any type of mixed-use development on the site, expressing a preference for single family homes. Several speakers also indicated distrust of the developer in general, specific anger over past behavior and a belief that the consensus conditions had been negotiated behind closed doors without public input.

Four members of the audience spoke against the letter of opposition, including your author and one visitor from Riverdale Park. Supporters of the rezoning pointed out that many concerns could be addressed during later stages of the process, that the consensus conditions adequately addressed community concerns, and that opposition now would limit the City’s ability to influence future proposals on the site. One speaker emphasized that change in the community was inevitable and better treated as an opportunity to adapt.

In discussion among the Council, Councilmember Catlin critiqued Councilmember Stullich’s stated objections to the rezoning, deeming them either irrelevant or already handled by the consensus conditions. Councilmember Kabir said he has struggled to support the project because of concerns over traffic and the mechanism for College Park to be involved in the M-U-TC process. In his view, the city got exactly what it asked for and his concerns were addressed. Councilmembers Wojahn and Afzali expressed conflicted feeling over the motion, indicating that while the Cafritz plans had come a long way, too many issues remained outstanding for them to feel comfortable with it. A similar sentiment came from Coucnilmembers Mitchell and Day, who both specifically cited concerns over density on and traffic generated by the site.

The Cafritz rezoning proposal will be heard by the Planning Board this coming Thursday, at 12:30pm at their office in Upper Marlboro. Public comments are welcome and the agenda can be found here.

Update: The post originally described the College Park Council vote as six to four. The vote was actually six to two, and the post has been corrected.