When I became aware of new development coming to the Maryland Book Exchange site I thought, “Great! We are finally getting some student housing downtown.” So many of the previous development had been farther north that this project looked to be right in the sweet spot giving real incentive for tenants (most of which will be students) to abandon their cars and help revitalize downtown.
Then I heard about grumblings from the City Council and other residents of Old Town on the project: — “Its too large.” — “There will be a thousand students roaming the streets of Old Town looking for parties.” — “It doesn’t fit in with the residential neighborhood.”
My initial reaction? Give me a break.
Why is it OK to have multi-story student centered development everywhere else but downtown? This is exactly where we need this type of development. Right at the front door of the campus. Contributors to this blog and others in North College Park felt the same. What about the “residential area” to the east? Please. The first true single family homes do not appear until a full block east on Princeton Ave. What exactly are the city staff and the council thinking? The vote against this new development has only added to the fodder for those that feel that the city and the council are dead set against any development in their backyard.
Then I actually took a hard look at the Route 1 Sector Plan for myself. The Sector Plan is a great blueprint for how development along the Route 1 corridor should proceed. Then I watched the presentation given October where both sides were presented and came away with a change of heart.
This building as proposed does not fit within the guidelines of that plan especially when it comes to the stepback transition requirements for development adjacent residential neighborhoods. The basic argument from the developer is that 1) this site is not in Old Town, which it is, and 2) The immediately adjacent parcels are not residential, which could be argued either way although they are certainly residential in character. While the developer “conceded” a small stepback transition (pictured above), the Sector Plan clearly calls for a more substantial one.
City Councilman Afzali gave probably the most passionate defense of adhering to the step back requirements on the plan. (Starting at 1:27 in the video).
“I feel like the applicant and their lawyers are trying to use technicalities to ignore something that was obviously the intention of the sector plan…… When you look at the surrounding community to say that this is not in opposition to the Sector Plan is quite frankly ridiculous.”
The disapproval from the City Council of the Book Exchange project is not a vote against development, it is a vote against poor development. Even the updated proposal with the sloped roof design is far from acceptable. When is comes to development in College Park, I’m solidly in the “Build Baby Build” camp; however, we must not allow the well thought out guidelines to be brushed aside for the sake of squeezing in as many tenants as possible. In any case, this issue is in the hands of the Prince George’s County Council. The County Planning Board has already approved the plan. The City has filed an appeal and maybe a combination of additional conditions and the threat of dragging this issue out in court will be enough for the developer to redesign his proposal before barreling ahead. Time will tell.