“We need to create a housing balance and start attracting redevelopment that will help spur a greater variety of restaurants, stores and housing for professionals, graduate students, as well as undergraduates.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman
“When it comes to development, it’s important to have a balance. At this point, we’ve done so much to address [the demand for student housing], I’m worried about going too far in that direction.” ~ Stephanie Stullich, City Councilwoman
That’s right, a better project is always just around the corner or so we’re so often told by our political leaders when it comes to the redevelopment of Route 1. It’s a theme we’ve examined time and time again on this site and a worldview that’s repeated by politicians and everyday citizens around the country over and over again during the development review process. Those sentiments become stronger in existing communities where the stakes are high and NIMBYism, complex economic and community impacts, and us-vs.-them thinking can hijack the dialogue and take our eye off the ball. The controversy erupting over the proposed redevelopment of the Maryland Book Exchange is no exception.
The local political establishment has been taken by the idea that there is too much student housing being built in College Park and that it’ll ultimately be at the peril of other types of development that can bring variety and interest to the community. This line of thinking, if taken to it’s logical conclusion, could really destroy the momentum of redevelopment in the city. It’s a mindset and position that purports to understand what the community needs, but ignores that projects need to be economically viable in order to be achievable. When the Book Exchange went up for sale last spring, it wasn’t high end condos, retail and office developers, or boutique hotels inquiring about the property. It was national and regional student housing developers seeking to cash in on a potential for a smart growth, urban infill redevelopment student housing project just across from UMD’s south gate.
Why are we surprised that a private developer has come along, put this property under contract and proposed a student housing project completely in line with the zoning for the property? What precedent does that set for the local development community if our politics are completely at odds with the policies on the books? What right does anyone have to decide what types of people can fill what types of property when the public has already gotten together and agreed on the intensity of development allowed at a site?
It should come as no surprise to anyone that a student housing proposal is exactly what we got at the Book Exchange. RTCP is not making the argument that it’s an unreasonable public policy goal to want to attract professionals and graduate students to downtown College Park that will in turn diversity the retail offerings. What’s unreasonable is to expect such a housing proposal to materialize against the realities of the market. UMD in partnership with the City and County are embarking on a highly ambitious, publicly-assisted and financed project with the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative. That public assistance along with the sheer size of East Campus makes new housing products in downtown marketable to the general population and therefore financially feasible. There is no such opportunity in place for a purely private project like the one being proposed for the Book Exchange site. What this property does have working to its advantage is its location in an Impact Fee Waiver zone that gives incentives for private developers to build housing for University of Maryland Students in specified areas near campus. Let’s work from the proposal in front of us today instead of holding out for a pure high-end apartment building or condo proposal on the site, which may not materialize for 5 years or more if ever.
We do believe it’s a worthy end to get non-undergraduate housing and other types of retail in College Park. That’s only achievable with a)public financing or b)a mix of housing in one project that includes a sizable portion of student beds which make the project financially feasible. On this project, the developer Ilya Zusin has already committed to marketing roughly 17% of this project to non-undergrads. That 17% would be housed in a self-contained building to the rear of the site. Given that Zusin qualifes for the school facilities impact fee waiver, which reduces his development costs substantially, we think it’s worth looking at ways that he can blunt community criticism and set aside some portion of the other 83% of beds (255 units) specifically for graduate students for some period during the annual leasing process once the complex is built. This arrangement could be similar to how the Mazza Grandmarc operates, but flaws in that system should be examined and addressed to ensure graduate students do ultimately occupy the units intended for them.
On the retail side, Zusin seems legitimately interested in delivering some sort of small grocer to the complex. We suggest that he look at ways of attracting the Maryland Food Co-op, currently located in the Student Union, into the ground floor of his complex along Yale Avenue. These would be good faith efforts on the part of the developer to avoid having the barrel through the county planning process without political support. These efforts would hopefully avoid the need for a lengthy and expensive (for the developer and county) court fight. The Maryland Book Exchange plans to lease the 10,000 square feet of retail on Route 1. It’s great that we can retain this local retailer in the community.
Ultimately, its worth remembering that student housing doesn’t create more students. UMD’s undergraduate population is stable and is actually lower now than it used to be. Multiple private student housing projects have been and are currently being built in College Park. Once complete, they will effectively drain many of the student renters from single family home neighborhoods. Since many of these units are designated student housing, they are separate from the larger rental market and rents will have to be low in order for beds to fill up. Yes, there will still be some students left in neighborhoods, but there will be a dramatic locational shift. Students get cheaper, better housing in a vibrant urban corridor. Neighborhoods get students out and into a slim, transit-ready section of the city along Route 1 as well as access to new retail. Everyone wins.
“Possibilities to add convenience, intensity and cheer in cities… are limitless” ~ Jane Jacobs