City Scrambles to Spend Speed Camera Money

The College Park City Council seemed to be taken off guard Tuesday by $350-600,000 in city speed camera funds that must be committed to “public safety” projects (including pedestrian infrastructure). The money must be committed in the next two months or it will be returned to the state. The relatively large sum (equivalent to 10% of the city’s total budget) was perfectly foreseeable when the cameras were authorized last November, but for whatever reason no project prioritization conversation has occurred until this week.


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Unfortunately, various neighborhood factions (see video above) will inevitably descend upon City Hall attempting to eke out their “fair” (read: small) share of the money in the coming weeks. The city as a whole would be much better served by a small number high-value, cost-effective investments that will save lives. A pedestrian activated HAWK signal where the Trolley Trail crosses Paint Branch Parkway or a full traffic light at Route 1 and Hartwick Road come to mind. The latter project would also expand accessibility to floundering businesses on the east side of Route 1 in Downtown. Each project would cost about $80-100,000. City staff should immediately begin conversations with the state to assess the feasibility of planning such projects on non-city roads in the expedited timeline (Funds must be committed by June 30th). The City Manager has done a tremendous disservice to the community by not already having these conversations.

On a similar note, we continue to be dismayed but the relative lack of attention being paid to the impending State Highway Administration (SHA) Route 1 crosswalk reconstruction project from Albion Road to Paint Branch Parkway. That initiative is going to be a major missed opportunity if SHA is left to run with whatever their highway engineers feel like doing. Traffic camera money could easily be used to supplement or complement those propsoed state investments and perhaps even extend them north of Paint Branch Parkway towards the emerging mixed-use district there.

RTCP Presentation – Background, Impact, and Takeaways

The following is a presentation I gave to my colleagues at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning last month. Included is some background on the beginnings of the RTCP as well as an honest assessment of the project’s impacts and takeaways. While the audience was composed of aspiring planners and academics, the presentation is accessible to a general audience.
Rethink College Park – DCRP Speaks Presentation

Purple Line Town Hall Meeting 2-1-11

3 Proposed alignments

From: President Wallace Loh

Dear University of Maryland Community:

Faculty, staff and students are invited to a town hall meeting, hosted by the President’s Office, to discuss the Purple Line light rail system.  As you may know, the proposed transit line would run between Bethesda and New Carrollton, passing through Silver Spring, Takoma Park, the College Park campus, and Riverdale.

The town hall will be held on Tuesday, February 1, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., in the Colony Ballroom, on the second floor of the Stamp Student Union.

A formal program will open the meeting, providing information about the federal competition for light rail funding, factors affecting the decision about the University alignment, and the pros and cons of at least two campus alignments.   A panel of experts will include representatives from the federal government, the Maryland Transit Administration, Hatch Mott MacDonald (engineering consulting firm), and our faculty and staff.  Don Kettl, Dean of the School of Public Policy, will serve as the moderator.  Following the short formal presentations, we will welcome questions, suggestions, and comments from the audience.
Because of limited time, we ask that questions and comments be kept to two minutes.

Proceedings of this Purple Line forum can also be viewed live via web stream (www.umd.edu), and a videotape of the meeting will be posted on the University website.  Those who cannot attend the meeting can also submit their comments to president@umd.edu.

We look forward to your participation in the town hall.

Sincerely,

Wallace D. Loh
President

UMD Releases Purple Line Consulting Study

UMD just released its much anticipated consultant study of Purple Line alternatives through campus. The study, produced by Hatch Mott MacDonald (HMM), a Canadian-based engineering firm, sheds light on UMD’s current feeling on a controversy that has consumed the campus for nearly four years.

We reported a couple weeks back about our cautious optimism that President Loh may be preparing for a workable resolution to the Purple Line debate. We’re still digging into the 169-page document, but its important to note up front that the document was commissioned well before Loh was tapped for his new post. Indeed, President Loh is scheduling an open forum on the alignment issue on Feb. 1. We commend him for this step. He has invited Garth Rockcastle, former dean of the UMD College of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, to speak on the benefits of the Campus Drive alignment, which Rockcastle believes in completely. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) will speak as well. We are unsure who else will attend, but aside from MTA, we expect the majority to be campus administrators and staff.

Some of the items in the report are quite technical, but overall the study seems to suggest that UMD continues (at least as far as we can tell) to grasp at straws: Choosing to focus primarily on pedestrian safety and unworkable south campus alignments rather than the realistic and fundable Campus Drive alignment.

MTA’s written response towards the end of the report is quite revealing. The fact that they had a limited role in the production of this document only confirms the report’s single-purpose nature: to poke holes in the Campus Drive alignment while building the case for the report’s pre-determined conclusion. HMM ignores that a Preinkert Drive tunnel is neither prudent nor feasible…and never mentions that such an alignment is fundamentally unattainable from a funding perspective. UMD has succumbed to one of the most pervasive pitfalls in all realms of transportation and land use planning: The lure of fantasy alternatives and “visions” has thus far obscured the path to pragmatic, achievable compromise.

HMM should have at least acknowledged that Campus Drive is the most likely alternative to reach fruition. In ignoring this basic fact, UMD missed a great opportunity to suggest ways to tweak the Campus Drive alignment to make it more compatible with the pedestrian activity on campus. Pedestrian safety is a legitimate concern, but the issue can’t be adequately adressed without a true partnership between UMD and MTA.

Despite a few promising steps towards collaboration along the way, UMD long ago forfeited any real opportunity to take on a leadership role. Astoundingly, UMD’s consultants now underestimate the time and resources MTA has invested in studying various proposed alignments which UMD itself put forward. We hope that President Loh can help reverse the unconscionable course that his predecessor set and forge a new transportation future for the the state of Maryland’s flagship campus.

“You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a high-end hotel”

The Varsity, a student housing project set to open Fall 2011, has just launched its leasing website. They appear to have taken a page from Mazza GrandMarc’s cheesy marketing campaign, but then they took it to a whole new level.



They’re selling a lifestyle and experience rather than housing (complete with tanning beds, a game room, and fitness center):

College life is full of events you’ll remember forever. Many of the memories you will create with friends will happen where you live. At The Varsity, we believe your apartment is not just a place to keep your stuff and sleep in at night; it is an experience. We have worked hard to create a student housing community that is all about you… sophisticated yet down-to-earth, edgy yet classic, luxurious yet comfortable and private.

The Varsity at College Park Lobby

Olson, Stullich…We’re waiting for real leadership on the Book Exchange redevelopment

olsonbus
Local leaders have really put themselves in a quandary over the Book Exchange controversy. An array of officials who are reliably pro-smart growth have teamed up with Old Town Civic Association (OTCA) in an effort to quash the proposed 6-story project that could bring 830 student beds to downtown College Park—along with roughly 170 beds geared towards graduate students and young professionals. They think the site could be better used. The debate has become almost farcical. Handpicked neighborhood committees are staking their positions, and misinformation and hysteria abound in ways not seen with any other project.

The developer has not submitted formal plans or even presented the concept to the City Council, but the battle lines are drawn. The preponderance of the key decisionmakers, including county councilman Eric Olson, are squarely in the camp opposed to the project. At the starting gate, the project seems almost destined for a court battle; it’s completely within the zoning, but opposed by most of the local political establishment. The basic realities of the situation and the Route 1 Sector Plan (area zoning) have taken a backseat to an anti-student hysteria brewing among a handful of the most politically active and vocal Old Town residents.

A letter dated October 1 from OTCA (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 basic premises of the opposition to the Book Exchange Redevelopment are faulty. City councilwoman Chris Nagle, who supports the project, describes the situation best:

“The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town. I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings.  The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.”

bookexchangeA unanimous vote (24-0) on Septemeber 27th, 2010 by OTCA recommended the proposal not go forward. Unfortunately, those who are supposed to be voices of reason in the community are playing to the deepest fears of a neighborhood that has convinced itself its very future is in jeopardy. This gut emotion stems from the development’s proximity to the neighborhood, not from any reality of its potential impacts on the community. In fact, the project would create the exact reverse effect of what residents fear: It will contribute to draining students out of single-family homes.

We’re not saying that there isn’t room for adjustments around the edges. We’ve already proposed that the developer seek the Maryland Food Co-op as a retail tenant and look at ways to better ensure graduate students can comfortably occupy part of the complex. That said, if Olson, other local leaders, and OTCA can’t answer the following key questions, then the project should be allowed to proceed:
Continue reading Olson, Stullich…We’re waiting for real leadership on the Book Exchange redevelopment

What’s Ailing Old Town?

Old Town Rental Units 2006
In 2006, roughly 23% of the single-family homes in College Park were rental units. In Old Town (the area bounded by Route 1, Paint Branch Pkwy, Calvert Rd and the Metro tracks) about 3 in 4 houses are rented (red and blue dots above). This is according to a detailed GIS study conducted by Eric Raasch, former RTCP contributor and UMD Real Estate Development Student in 2008. A similarly dramatic percentage of rental units exist in the southern part of the College Park Woods neighborhood just south of Metzerott Road. The percentage of rental housing in neighborhoods close to UMD is a whopping three times larger than the city as a whole. Presumably the vast majority of these are student group houses. The student influence on rental homes further from UMD (like in northern College Park) declines abruptly as it’s subsumed by the larger Prince George’s county rental market.

These maps will come as no surprise to those of us familiar with the city. Students, for the most part, seek out low cost units as close to UMD as possible. The effects of the lack of structured on and near campus student housing in College Park fall disproportionately on about 50 owner-occupied units in Old Town and another 100 or so in the southern part of College Park Woods.

Some would argue that state should take on the risk of building the 1000s of student beds required to house the increasing number of UMD undergrads seeking to live in College Park. That’s a non-starter given that the state is unwilling and unable to substantially expose itself to further risk. The strategy of imposing rent control, denying further private student housing or apartment buildings that developers still see profit potential in, and insisting that UMD provide all student housing on campus (to no avail) will not improve Old Town. That strategy is a recipe for the continued degradation of all the neighborhoods near UMD; especially Old Town. It’s an argument that ignores the fact that nearly all the economic development in CP over the last 10 years has been driven by student housing developers. Without these projects, there would be no mixed-use redevelopment of Route 1 and nearly all these students would be living in College Park’s neighborhoods and driving to campus…

UMD is currently building a $67 million dorm on north campus that will house 650 underclassmen. They’ve also built well over 2,000 beds in recent years with South Campus Commons and The Courtyards through public-private partnerships. The Lakeland and Berwyn communities of College Park have accepted over 3,000 beds of student housing right adjacent to their neighborhoods (some are still under construction). Why is it that the handful of long term residents still left in Old Town and city councilmembers across the city are fighting against the proposed Book Exchange Redevelopment – a project that is plainly in everyone’s interests?

There would be next to no opposition to this project if it was occurring over at Applebees or up at the Knox Boxes, yet the effect on the area would be the same if the proposal was in one of those places. Why can’t Old Town see that the completion of all these beds (some next fall) will drive down rental rates in these complexes and begin to empty out students from the neighborhood, reduce traffic, enliven and reinvigorate downton, expand the city’s tax base and increase walking and transit use?


CP_wide Rental Units 2006

Meeting on Book Exchange Development Tonight

Please mark your calendars for
Monday, September 27th
7:30 PM
City Hall Council Chambers

A small committee of Old Town residents was set up to speak with the developer of the proposed Book Exchange Housing Project. That committee consists of Steve Brayman (former Mayor), Stephanie Stullich (city councilwoman for the area), Bob Schnabel (Stullich’s Husband), Chris Aubry (president of the Old Town Civic Assn.), and Bob McFadden. Not surprisingly, the group would like to see the project go in a different direction. That committee is meeting with the larger Old Town Civic Association to formulate an official neighborhood position that they will convey to the city council.

Email message from Old Town Civic Association President Chris Aubry:

Per the developer’s invitation, representatives from Old Town met with Ilya
Zusin twice since our meeting on August 25th to discuss development proposed
for the Maryland Book Exchange site.

Our meetings have ended and the committee would like to share its findings
with you so the Civic Association can determine its collective position. I
will then draft a formal letter to the City Council and mayor to notify them
formally of the Civic Association’s position.

See the staff at the window for a parking pass.

Please pardon the short notice but timing is tight and we must voice our
opinion so the city council can include it in their consideration.

Chris Aubry
President, OTCA

UMD Supports Book Exchange Development

A letter we got our hands on from UMD VP of Administrative Affairs to District 3 County Councilman Eric Olson indicates that UMD supports the Book Exchange Redevelopment Plan. In the past, UMD’s support has been a make or break for student housing projects in the city. The letter, dated August 25th, doesn’t specifically cite support for the undergraduate portion of the project, but does imply support for the plan in its entirety given its inclusion of housing for graduate students and visiting faculty. They’d like to see a Fall 2013 delivery. How do you read into the contents of this letter?

—>UMD’s Letter to Eric Olson