RTCP To Host March 19 New Contributors Meeting

UMD CHAPELRethink College Park (rethinkcollegepark.net/), a local group/website dedicated to helping transform College Park into a great college town, is currently recruiting new contributors. Part journalism and part smart growth advocacy community group, the project’s impact spans far beyond the internet. Rethink College Park sets the debate in local and regional traditional news outlets and helps instigate substantive policy change. The group’s members use the site as a sounding board to communicate smart growth concepts to the public and shape specific projects such as student housing proposals, the East Campus redevelopment and the proposed Purple Line light rail. In 2008, the urban planning portal Planetizen named Rethink College Park one of the web’s top 10 planning websites. In 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley recognized the project for its community activism and achievement.

The group is credited with:
– Helping advance multiple mixed-use student housing developers on Route 1
– Bringing the routing of the Purple Line through the University of Maryland campus to the forefront of public debate
– Furthering the goal of a pedestrian-friendly, transit-ready, mixed-use district for the state’s flagship university

We are seeking both residents and students with an interest in urban and transportation planning, journalism, and community participation. No experience necessary. Enthusiasm a must.

The meeting will be held at 6PM on Monday, March 19th at Looney’s Pub (8150 Baltimore Ave. – Ground floor of The Varsity). Email rethinkcollegepark@googlegroups.com to RSVP.

UMD Continues M-Square Transit Dis-Oriented Development

Taking cues from 1980s-style office parks, UMD is forging ahead with the next phase of M-Square (see interactive map) – its suburban office complex steps from College Park’s metrorail Green Line station. Not only does the proposed three 150,000 square foot building, 1,114 parking space development ignore its relationship to the Green Line, it fails to acknowledge a planned Purple Line light rail station directly at its front door. The plan misses or puts off indefinitely several opportunities to make critical pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle connections in the area. The College Park City Council will discuss the plan in Tuesday’s work session and the Prince George’s County Planning Board will hear the application March 8th.


While the proposal conforms to the 1997 College Park-Riverdale Transit District Development Plan (TDDP), it stands in direct contradiction to the University’s sustainability goals. The design is completely legal and within the bounds of current zoning, but it abandon’s UMD’s moral obligation to Prince George’s County, College Park, and Riverdale. UMD should immediately remove this detailed site plan from consideration and wait for the completion of TDDP update (which will begin this summer) and M-NCPPC Purple Line TOD Study. According to M-NCPPC, these studies seek to address several issues confronting this area of town:

  • Most of the properties near the station are within the Aviation Policy Area (APA) 6 portion of the College Park Airport, and are subject to certain height and notification requirements.
  • Existing and proposed development in the M Square research park is not transit oriented or supportive, and lacks cohesive pedestrian- and transit-friendly design.
  • Federal tenants (FDA, NOAA, Center for Advanced Study of Language) require secure compounds detrimental to pedestrian and bicycle connectivity.

See the current M-Square Master Plan HERE.


Governor Awards Rethink College Park for its Community Activism and Achievement

Rethink College Park will be officially presented with the 2011 Florence Beck Kurdle Award for Community Activism and Achievement by Maryland Secretary of Planning Richard E. Hall this morning. The honor, part of Maryland’s Smart, Green, and Growing Awards Program, is presented annually to a group who demonstrates professional commitment to making Smart Growth a reality in the state. Secretary Hall will make the presentation before a regular meeting of the Region Forward Coalition at College Park City Hall at 10:30 a.m. Clay Gump, a longtime member of the Rethink College Park, will be on hand to receive the award on behalf of the group’s contributors and founders.

What is Rethink College Park?


Rethink College Park (RTCP) was launched in July 2006 as a user-friendly website dedicated to creating a focused and sustained conversation about the future of College Park. Its mission is tohelp transform College Park into a great college town…. [through] full access to information, public dialogue, and the power of creative ideas.” Thousands now visit the site each week: reviewing maps, renderings and site plans; posting comments and contributing stories and tips.

RTCP’s simple structure, straightforward style and engaging content have garnered the project nearly universal praise in the community. Part journalism and part smart growth advocacy community group, the project’s impact spans far beyond the Internet. The group is the preeminent area advocate for redevelopment of the Route 1 Corridor in College Park; helping local citizens, politicians and university officials understand current events that affect their mutual interests. Its reporting helps further the goal of a pedestrian-friendly, transit-ready, mixed-use district for the state’s flagship university. The website has dramatically changed the way local citizens and the region view College Park’s smart growth potential.

Rethink College Park sets the debate in local traditional news outlets: helping initiate countless stories in the Washington Post, The Gazette, and the Diamondback (UMD student newspaper). It educates journalists and “breaks” dozens of smart growth-related stories each year. More importantly, the project has succeeded in instigating substantive policy change. The group’s members use the site as a sounding board to communicate smart growth concepts to the public and shape specific projects such as the University of Maryland’s East Campus Redevelopment Initiative (a major mixed-use redevelopment) and the routing of the Purple Line through College Park.

Perhaps best known for its advocacy of student housing construction for University of Maryland students, Rethink College Park has played a significant role in alerting local elected officials to the desperate need for student housing and bringing student leaders to the table to push projects to completion. The group also helped preserve and expand an important impact fee waiver incentive that encourages private student housing projects near the University of Maryland campus. Almost 4,000 beds of student housing, mostly in private, mixed-use projects have been completed since the group’s founding in 2006.

In 2008, the urban planning portal Planetizen named Rethink College Park one of the web’s top 10 planning websites.

Learn more HERE.

City and Book Exchange Developer at Impasse

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At the October 4th City Council worksession (video above), councilmembers, city planning staff, and R & J Company, LLC were at loggerheads over the developer’s proposed 6-story building on the site of the Maryland Book Exchange downtown. Lying just below the surface are community concerns over the fact that the mid-rise building would contain 830 undergraduate beds and approximately 170 beds marketed to graduate students and young professionals across the 341 units. The City’s agenda tonight incudes a motion recommending that the County Planning Board reject the detailed site plan for the project.
Book Exhange elevation from College Ave
Keep in mind that the city (both council and staff) fill an advisory role. The County Planning Board and Council have the final say. Eric Olson on the County Council could definitely delay the project, but ultimately this does not come down to a popular vote no matter how much elected officials at both the city and county level would like it to. The developer is mostly within the intent and bounds of the zoning for the property and could seek relief in the court system. Their hard line approach seems to indicate and intent to do just that. As usual, the press coverage and political pronouncements overlook the legal and regulatory framework underlying the development review process.

The Prince George’s County Planning Board will  hear the case on Thursday, November 3rd in Upper Marlboro. It will be very interesting to watch how the Book Exchange project progresses through the process seeing as this is the first project to be proposed since the adoption of the updated Route 1 Sector Plan in summer 2010. Some of the disagreement stems out of the lack of precedent for these new regulations.

There is definitely a gap between what the Sector Plan says and what the City’s staff wants it to say. Most (but not all) of the items listed in the city’s staff report are of questionable relevance. The developer’s argument that the building doesn’t need to be “stepped-back” from the Old Town neighborhood is pretty specious.


Comment on the Update to UMD’s Campus Facilities Master Plan

UMD is putting the finishing touched on its 2011-2030 Campus Facilities Master Plan (FMP – informational website). The FMP seeks to “establish a framework to guide the orderly growth and development of the campus over the next decade.” It focuses on the campus landscape and transportation systems, which are two major weaknesses of the current FMP.

The FMP Steering Committee will finalize the plan in the coming weeks and present the document to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents in January. Be sure to read the document and submit your thoughts to the Steering Committee.

Zusin Files Plans for Book Exchange Redevelopment with County

Book Exhange elevation from College Ave
On July 14th, R & J Company, LLC filed a detailed site plan to build a 6-story apartment building on the site of the Maryland Book Exchange at the corner of College Ave. and Route 1 in Downtown College Park (SEE RENDERINGS). From what we can tell, the details of the proposal are basically the same as they were last fall:

  • 341 units
  • 14,366 SF of ground floor retail (with a little less than 10,000 leased by the Maryland Book Exchange in a new space)
  • 321 parking spaces underground (the City Council nixed a request by the developer to pay for fee in lieu parking in the city’s empty public garage two to the south of the site)
  • LEED Silver at a minimum

Although proposed to be constructed as one building, developer Ilya Zusin envisions a structure that would from an architectural standpoint “read” as two buildings from College Avenue. The two sections would not be connected internally and have separate entrances. About 2/3 of the units would be contained in the section on the Route 1 side of the parcel and contain approximately 830 dedicated student beds. The remaining 1/3, with about 170 bedrooms, would be marketed to professors, graduate student, and young professionals.

Unlike recently approved and constructed, dense student housing projects on Route 1 to the north, this proposal is immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood – Old Town College Park. Although the vast majority of Old Town is rental housing, there is still a contingent of about two dozen residents vehemently opposed to siting any student housing on the east side of Route 1 downtown. Even without the student housing component, a 6-story building would be far taller than anything in the immediate vicinity (with the exception of the city’s parking garage which is slightly shorter).

A letter dated October 1, 2010 from Old Town Civic Association (READ HERE) to the City effectively sums up the basis for the adjacent neighborhood’s opposition:

“We shall be completely marginalized and without hope should this project go forward.”

Later: “OTCA believes the influx of up to 1,000 more undergraduates would symbolize ‘kiss of death,’ for College Park’s downtown, as the likelihood of more upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops would forever be lost to sandwich shops and fast food venues, the market of choice targeted to undergraduates. If downtown is completely dominated by undergraduate residents, it will not attract more diverse retail. If this project goes forward, the opportunity to change the nature of downtown will forever be lost.”

The letter concludes with: “We cannot support the proposed development at the Maryland Book Exchange, as it is likely to have grave and irreversible impacts on our community.”

The project will no doubt be one of the most controversial development proposals in recent memory for the city. Despite the opposition and the public perception that the development approval is up for popular vote, Zusin’s project appears to be perfectly within the bounds of the zoning for the property. That is the basic reality of the situation and the Route 1 Sector Plan, but that doesn’t mean the project can’t be obfuscated by politics and end up in a drawn out court battle. The project will go before the Prince George’s County Planning Board on October 20th.

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.:
Continue reading Real Route 1 Bus Service – Time to Seize Opportunity

WashPo Covers Back Room ‘Dernoga Money’

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George’s County Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.

Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.

Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present “Dernoga Money” at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.

“Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?” …

“You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we’d] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?” Dernoga said. “I found it greedy on the part of the property owners.”

Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a “drop in the bucket,” he said.

Dernoga’s shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park (and have appeared multiple times on this blog), on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county’s top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.

Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.

After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to “revisit” the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.

College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga’s actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn’t make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we’re stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city’s tax base.

Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George’s council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George’s County.