Purple Line Receives Green Light for Next Phase – CP Open House 11/1


The Purple Line, a proposed light rail line that is a critical part of College Park’s future development, has cleared an important hurdle on the way to becoming a reality. On October 7th Governor Martin O’Malley announced that the Federal Transit Administration has given the go ahead for the project to proceed to the “Preliminary Engineering” phase. This means that the project now can move on to developing more detailed plans, construction schedules, and cost estimates, and can complete the relevant environmental studies. This latest approval is no guarantee of ultimate federal funding for the project, but it moves the project an important step closer.

The Purple Line is a planned 16 mile light rail line that will run from Bethesda in the west to the New Carrollton Amtrak station in the east. The College Park/University of Maryland area will be one of the main beneficiaries of the project, with 5 planned stations (University College, UMD Student Union, East Campus/Route 1, College Park Metro, and River Rd./M Square). Important progress was made earlier this year when University of Maryland President Wallace Loh announced that the university was dropping its opposition to a route that passes through the middle of the UMD campus. That route received strong support from the Maryland Transportation Administration (MTA) and from the local community and officials.

The MTA has announced a series of Open Houses to update community members on this next phase of the project. The first of these will be held in the Prince George’s Room at the Stamp Student Union, in the middle of the UMD campus, on Tuesday November 1st, from 5:30 – 8:30 pm. All are welcome.

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.

The University of Maryland at I-95

Image via Flickr user eddie.welker

The same university that worried about how a light rail line could endanger its students as they walk between classes is now looking to turn I-95 into a primary campus thoroughfare.

Maryland Senate President Mike Miller wants to merge the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park with the professional schools at the University of Maryland Baltimore. It is not clear where this idea came from, but in a message to the UMCP community,  President Wallace Loh appeared to be dutifully following Miller’s request to make it so. Members of the university senate, which plays an important role in campus governance, reported that this proposal came out of the blue. Reporting by the Gazette and others indicates that the proposal has the support of Governor O’Malley, and describes some of the rationale for the proposal.

The motivations quoted so far by the media are not very compelling. One oft-cited fact is that the combined universities would have research expenditures of around $1 billion per year, and would rank as high as 10th in the nation. Both universities have a good number of strong programs. The implication is that this will lead to yet more research dollars—hence, jobs—and also more prestige for the university. This is not very persuasive. Is there any evidence that individual research grant proposals from College Park will be more favorably reviewed because of the merger. Not very likely. Continue reading The University of Maryland at I-95

At UM Forum, Same Issues as Usual Plague Purple Line’s Progression

Purple Line 5

I wasn’t able to attend last Tuesday’s Purple Line forum, as I was happily riding a crowded Amtrak train. But the university helpfully posted a high-quality video of the event online. You can watch it here. If you don’t have  2 hours to spare, here’s what you missed:

This forum had a lot in common with  similar forums in recent years. There was a large turnout—the Purple Line is something that the community feels strongly about. As usual, MTA’s preferred Campus Drive surface alignment was pitted against the latest version of the university’s preferred anything-but-Campus-Drive alignment. In this case, a new incarnation of the southern Preinkert Drive alignment that includes a tunnel that starts near the Chapel and runs under Morrill Quad. As usual, audience input was overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the Campus Drive alignment. In the discussion period 10 people spoke in favor of Campus Drive, and 3 against (a further 6 raised other issues).

There were also some clear differences. There was a wider range of voices, including former Gov. Parris Glendening, who was Prince George’s County Executive when Metro’s Green Line alignment was being disputed, and Beth Day of the Federal Transit Administration, who offered some sobering truths on what it takes to compete successfully for federal funding. The event was kicked off by new UM president Wallace Loh, who continues to give no indication that he shares Dan Mote’s very strong views on Purple Line routing. It may be no accident that the university did not make the case for the Preinkert alignment as aggressively as it has in the past. There was a presentation from HMM, the authors of the university’s not-so-neutral recent report on the competing alignments, but it was not clear whether they were representing the current university administration, or Dr. Mote’s shadow. Overall, the tone of the meeting seemed less contentious than previous meetings.

Continue reading At UM Forum, Same Issues as Usual Plague Purple Line’s Progression

Purple Reign: President Wallace Loh and the Purple Line

“This may be the most important decision of your presidency.”

This is how new University of Maryland President Wallace Loh reports a piece of advice that he received from the federal Department of Transportation, when discussing the preferred alignment for the Purple Line. No pressure. The DOT only holds the keys to hundreds of millions of dollars in potential funding, without which the light rail project is unlikely to ever get off the ground.

Based on his remarks at a recent faculty forum, it appears that Loh is taking the Purple Line alignment very seriously. Although he has not yet recommended a specific alignment, his comments should be encouraging to many readers of this blog. According to Loh, “whether you choose Campus Drive or some other alignment is fundamentally a question of your vision for the next 50 years.” He regards the Purple Line as essential to the future of the university, the region, and the state. He expects that 20-30 years from now College Park will be a less suburban environment than it is now, fewer students will be driving cars, and fewer faculty and staff will want to drive cars, as the region becomes increasingly congested.

Interestingly, Loh reported that he compared notes with officials at Portland State University, which recently saw the opening of a TriMet MAX line that goes right to the center of its campus. It seems that the folks at PSU are quite proud of their new accessibility, and the train is so attractive to students that the university is updating its promotional materials to highlight the light rail. Loh recognizes that students increasingly want quick, sustainable access all over the region.

Loh also commented that the state’s case for federal funding for the Purple Line would be helped by a unified vision from the university and the surrounding community. Community support for the Campus Drive alignment is overwhelming. The protracted dispute between the local community and Loh’s predecessor C. Dan Mote over the choice of alignment probably would not meet the definition of “unified vision.” Loh’s official recommendation to the Chancellor and Governor is not due for a couple of months, but these signs are encouraging.

Loh offered other hints at his vision for the future of the city and the region. More details to come in a future post!

Graduate Housing in East Campus: We’re Glad we were Wrong!

We’re happy to report an important error in our post on the Nov. 30 East Campus Forum. Although discussions at the meeting suggested that graduate housing was no longer a priority for East Campus, we have since learned that graduate housing remains a central component of the project.

Ann Wylie, UMD’s Vice President for Administrative Affairs, said, “Graduate housing has been our number one housing priority from the inception of this project.” Blake Cordish, Vice President of the Cordish Companies, wrote “Everyone will gain from a graduate population in East Campus.”

There are no plans to include undergraduate housing in East Campus Phase I.

Wylie is a former Dean of UMD’s Graduate School, and has been a strong advocate for affordable graduate housing in the university’s new town center. As described in the university’s April 2010 request for proposals for the project (p. 5), an ongoing possibility is that the graduate housing could be financed through tax-exempt bonds from the Maryland Economic Development Corp (MEDCO), one of various ways to ensure affordability for the graduate housing. MEDCO bonds have been used previously to fund UMD undergraduate housing, totaling around 2900 beds in recent years.

The East Campus graduate housing could be built as a separate building. The April 2010 RFP suggests Block F in the schematic (see below) as a possible location, adjacent to the proposed site for the Birchmere music hall (Cordish have already made it clear that they prefer to break up the development into smaller blocks).

An interesting alternative possibility is that the graduate housing could be intermingled with the market-rate housing. This could be an excellent way to use the new development to foster integration of students and city residents.

In contrast to the sturm and drang that accompanies most proposals for new undergraduate housing in College Park–and is currently surrounding the Maryland Book Exchange development–graduate housing in East Campus seems to be an all around crowd pleaser. There are good reasons for this:

  • Grad students have really boring parties. Residents love this.
  • And they drink far too much coffee. Café owners love this.
  • Grad students tend to be year-round residents. Much better for local businesses than students who are gone away for close to 6 months of the year.
  • The campus needs to be a more appealing for grad students. The university’s ambitions depend heavily on its ability to compete successfully for top grad students.
  • They tend not to have cars, and want to live in a place where they can walk to the grocery store. Good for parking and the carbon footprint.
  • A grad student who lives in East Campus could save up to $150/month over commuting from Columbia Heights, in metro savings alone (peak rate).
  • Some grad students have young children. This is good for diversifying the community.

East Campus Public Forum Builds Hype, Leaves Questions

Around 150 people filled the bleachers in Ritchie Coliseum on Tuesday night to learn about what the Cordish Companies and the Design Collective (C-DC) plan to do with East Campus. There was a mix of anticipation and weariness, as many in the audience were veterans of the ultimately aborted East Campus planning process led by Foulger-Pratt (FP).

Did the new guys in town have better ideas? Had they done their homework? Do they have what it takes to get the project off the ground this time around? The answer is a definite “maybe.” C-DC have a good track record and some clear ideas of what they want to do, but their plans remain embryonic and it is not clear how much thought has gone into the unique features of College Park and the East Campus location.

If you’re new to this process, or if your memory is as shaky as mine, you might want to check out RTCP’s digest of East Campus articles and RTCP’s list of East Campus talking points. And, check back soon for conceptual drawings (we hope!). Read on for more specifics.

The forum was led by Blake Cordish, vice president of the company that his great grandfather founded. Together with two colleagues from C-DC he gave a brief presentation on the background of the company and the goals for the project. Most of the goals were fairly familiar: building a sense of community, integrated architecture, mixed-use, pedestrian and transit friendly, etc.

Most revealing were some pointed criticisms of the plans that Foulger-Pratt had developed for the project. This gave the clearest insight into what C-DC sees as most important. The presentation was rather short, and most of the forum was used for break out discussions with C-DC staff – the kind with slick posters and easels where people can write about their pet peeves or favorite wine bar.

Cordish Companies and the Design Collective are closely related Baltimore companies that have coordinated redevelopment projects locally and around the country, some much smaller than East Campus, others somewhat larger. Some of their work can be found here; it includes the Inner Harbor Power Plant in Baltimore, a small but effective redevelopment on the Johns Hopkins Campus, and larger projects such as Kansas City’s Power and Light District. A note: The company has an alarming habit of naming developments “X” Live!” At least 5 projects have the same name. Let’s hope that this won’t turn into “Route 1 Live!”

Like Foulger-Pratt, Cordish emphasized that the company owns and manages most projects that they have developed. This is reassuring, as it encourages long-term investment. Cordish claimed that the long-term strategy made it attractive for them to use high-quality building materials, suggesting an upgrade over the materials in the Foulger-Pratt plans. Cordish said that his team’s goal is to change the way that people perceive the area, and they would like to create a “nationally acclaimed” college town development.

The scope of the new project is smaller than the earlier FP plans. It includes the north part of East Campus, covering all of the area to the north of Rossborough Lane, plus one line of buildings on the south side of Rossborough Lane. Plans to demolish and replace Leonardtown and surrounding areas are not part of the current plans, but could be added in the future. Within the current area, the plan is to first develop the area closest to the Route 1/Paint Branch intersection, as that will be the first to be empty, and the area closer to the Power Plant/Service Building will be built out later.

C-DC strongly believes in smaller street blocks and good sight lines from the exterior. They were critical of the large blocks in the FP plans and the unbroken façade that had been proposed for the Route 1 frontage. The concept sketch shows one new east-west street north of Rossborough, and 3 new north-south streets in the development. Additional pedestrian/bike only routes will further break up the buildings. The centerpiece of the development is a new open space/town square, roughly one city block in size, towards the northern tip of the development. The northern focus of the development is apparently motivated by the development schedule and by the noise of the power plant. This also means that the new center of activity will be as far as possible from College Park’s existing downtown, and surrounded by major roads, green spaces, and parking lots. It’s not clear how this could foster synergistic development of a unified downtown College Park.

Rossborough Lane will be kept wide, to allow for Purple Line trains.

The concept designs included a variety of mid-rise buildings, with residential only on the east of the project and a mix of retail/office and residential on the west side of the project. As in the FP design, C-DC plans an anchor hotel at the corner of Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway. Plans for the retail/office component were not yet developed. The developers made the standard nods to a mix of national and local retailers, but it’s not clear whether they had thought through the reasons why so many businesses fail in College Park. Amenities for childcare and other family-attracting features were not yet in the plans.

The housing plans sounded like a departure from the FP plans. Instead of a mix of market-rate and graduate student specific housing, C-DC only has plans for market rate housing (i.e., catering only to those precious young professionals and undergraduates with deep-pocketed parents, but no graduate students). The emphasis on bringing a year-round graduate student population into the center of College Park was a well-conceived part of the university’s original vision, and it’s disappointing to see this idea dropped. UMD is currently working to provide 650 graduate beds on East Campus through a state bond, but details on that project have yet to emerge.

The Birchmere Music Hall still appears in the concept plans, but it remains unclear whether this part of the development will move ahead.

The C-DC team emphasized their seriousness about sustainable building practices, and noted that around a third of their staff are LEED-certified. They claim to have a record of innovation in the use of sustainable materials. Many readers will be eager to see more details in this area.

Moving Forward
The plan to first build out the northernmost tip of the development is questionable from the perspective of integrating College Park, but it does suggest that C-DC is eager to move ahead quickly. They plan to seek public tax increment financing for some aspects of the project (see RTCP’s TIF 101 guide here). That process has the potential to delay the project, depending on the politics of the new Baker-led PG County Council.

No specific plans for future meetings or updates were given at the meeting, but you can read about them here as soon as they are available.

Campus Drive Purple Line Alignment Forum Update

On Monday the 24th Rethink College Park co-sponsored a public forum on the Purple Line Campus Drive alignment.

Joanna Calabrese [Director of Environmental Affairs, Student Government Association] kicked off the event.

Councilman Eric Olson acknowledged the value of student government as a consistent advocate for the Purple Line, and for a routing that takes light rail to the heart of the campus. He emphasized that there is unanimous support for the Purple Line among county council members. He pointed out that even the arguably hapless transportation planners of Northern Virginia came together to recognize the value of metro expansion for business and for the community.

Continue reading Campus Drive Purple Line Alignment Forum Update