Multiple Pedestrian Fatalities Finally Spur Action on Rt. 1

Walk Smart College Park (via UMD Police)

It’s been a deadly year for pedestrians crossing Route 1 in College Park.  The tally from the first half of 2014 was grim: five persons struck and three deaths.  As the casualties mount, there is growing concern about the dangers that Route 1 poses to pedestrians, particularly the stretch by the University of Maryland campus, between Guilford Rd & Berwyn Rd.  The situation finally became grave enough to produce action, with a number of measures already implemented along Route 1 since July to improve pedestrian safety, and additional enhancements planned shortly after the start of the UMD Fall semester.

One of the most common misunderstandings around town is figuring out who is actually responsible for pedestrian safety on Route 1.  UMD students, who are most familiar with the dangers along this stretch of road, have demanded safety improvements from College Park officials.  But the mayor of College Park is not responsible for Route 1 safety, nor is the City Council, UMD administrators, or even Prince George’s county.  Because it is a state highway, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) is ultimately responsible for the situation on Route 1.  In fact, pleas for Route 1 pedestrian safety improvements from the from the City Council have gotten little response over the years, until the situation grew dire enough this year to spur the SHA into action.

To be sure, the ingredients for multiple pedestrian fatalities on Route 1 have been in place for a long time.  In the last eight years, over 3400 beds have been added to the west side of Route 1 in College Park in the form of four large apartment complexes.  Meanwhile, more rental houses in the Old Town and Calvert Hills neighborhoods have attracted growing numbers of UMD students, increasing their footprint in these areas.  Though a number of enhancements have made streets on the UMD campus friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, Route 1 has retained the same dangerous features of a state highway over the years: wide lanes, fast cars, heavy traffic and few visual warnings to drivers that they are entering a campus zone with a high number of pedestrians.

The situation can become chaotic at night, as hundreds of UMD students are crossing from campus to the East side of Route 1 to get to bars and other attractions.  At times, crowds of students gathering in front of local establishments can grow too large for sidewalks, forcing people into Route 1 traffic.  Along with poor visibility, the risks of intoxication from both pedestrians and drivers goes up during nighttime hours, which is also when speed cameras have been turned off in the past.  In short, the potential for risky behavior and bad decisions and skyrockets at night, which is when all of the Route 1 pedestrian fatalities so far in 2014 have occurred.  As UMD President Loh noted: “There are actually people standing not on the sidewalk but on the road, and cars are zipping by. My major conclusion was: I am surprised more people have not been hit.”

Most of the measures outlined by the SHA, UMD and City Council to address pedestrian safety issues were implemented in the July-August time frame, with the remaining enhancements to be completed during the Fall semester.  Lowering the Route 1 speed limit from 30 to 25 mph near the UMD campus and changing the speed cameras in this zone to operate 24/7 are two small steps that could help calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety.  A new pedestrian safety campaign (Walk Smart College Park) and an increased presence by the UMD Police on Route 1 during nighttime hours on weekends could also make a difference.   The planned overhead pedestrian signal at Route 1 & Hartwick Rd intersection, similar to signals on Route 1 near Fraternity Row and on Paint Branch Parkway, could eventually give pedestrians another important option for crossing Route 1 along its most dangerous stretch.

The most controversial enhancement is definitely the fence along the Route 1 median between Knox Rd & Hartwick Rd to help deter jaywalking.  The median fence is intended to be temporary and hopefully that will be the case.  Critics of the fence rightly point out its unsightliness and the risk that it may actually be counterproductive to pedestrian safety if drivers perceive Route 1 as being a divided highway, though it will only be in place for one block.  Unfortunately, the situation had deteriorated to the point where status quo on Route 1 was unacceptable, and questionable measures like the median fence could no longer be avoided.

There is a long term solution that would likely go much further than the steps taken this summer towards improving pedestrian safety in our city.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that solution, because the reconstruction of Route 1 in College Park has been in the works by SHA since 1998.  At least sufficient funding was in place to start the design of the first phase of the reconstruction near the UMD campus back in Feb. 2012 and hopefully the design work will be complete by next year, as planned earlier.  Basic features of the reconstruction include transforming Route 1 from a five-lane to a four-lane highway, with wider medians,  improved sidewalks, and even bike lanes.  Though all of these improvements sound exciting, at this point, it’s impossible to even predict a start date for Route 1 reconstruction.  Now would be a good time to get an update from to SHA and find out: (a) when the design work will be complete, and (b) a projected timeline for the first phase of Route 1 reconstruction.

 In any event, the number of pedestrians will only be increasing on Route 1.  A quick read through the latest College Park Development Update shows that in the not too distant future, a 4-star UMD Conference Hotel, as well as two more large apartment complexes (Landmark College Park, Terrapin Row) are scheduled to open near the most dangerous stretch of our “main street”.  College Park can’t realize its vision of becoming a Top 20 college town with a poor reputation for pedestrian safety.  The first steps have been taken, but this will likely be an ongoing challenge. Officials from the SHA, UMD, College Park and Pr. George’s County must continue monitoring the situation and work together to improve pedestrian safety on Route 1.

College Park Farmers Market – Survey

As part of the recently-formed Farmers Market Committee, the City is conducting a survey to gauge satisfaction with the current Downtown Farmers Market while garnering ideas for the Market’s future. Please take a few moments to answer the survey as the responses will enable the Committee to understand the interests of residents and develop recommendations for the future structure of the Downtown Farmers  Market.

The survey can be found here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GZBYC79.

 

 

Route 1: A Main Street by Default

Route 1

A recent article in The Diamondback commended the rise of mixed-use development on our university’s main street, as it should. After years of housing shortages and blight, College Park is finally being rejuvenated. But in current discussions of College Park’s redevelopment, there is a huge elephant in the room: Route 1 itself.

Dangerous and traffic-clogged, our principal road hardly functions as a hub of campus life. A typical main street is lined with independent businesses for meeting friends, street furniture for sitting and chatting and wide sidewalks for leisurely strolls. Route 1, however, is a different story. As evidenced by the constant rotation of restaurants in Terrapin Station, this street has managed to extinguish business in our downtown corridor. Lacking infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, this unsafe road seems set on exterminating our human population, as well.

Two major factors contribute to an establishment’s success. The first is population density, a store’s customer base. The second is foot traffic, the stream of pedestrians from which stores can fish out these customers. Clearly, College Park has the population density to support a bevy of businesses, yet we are lacking the foot traffic. Why? Because traversing Route 1 on foot is a death-defying feat. Anyone who has tried to cross Route 1 at Hartwick Road knows I’m not being hyperbolic.

Sadly, the ills of Route 1 are not unique to College Park. In Hyattsville, where Route 1 also serves as the default main street, the city has been trying to bring life back to a strip that was, until recently, dominated by vacant lots and used car dealerships. While the development project is anchored by a Busboys and Poets and features intriguing locally owned businesses, the speed and noise of Route 1’s traffic prevents Arts District Hyattsville from becoming a comfortable environment for spending an afternoon.

Particularly telling is a bench located outside of Busboys. Instead of facing outward toward the expansive view of the surrounding neighborhoods, as benches typically do, it faces inward toward an unsightly brick wall. Hyattsville’s developers are trying to build public space that fosters a thriving community and economy, yet these four lanes of traffic make that impossible to do.

Route 1 is in desperate need of traffic taming — steps that would retain the street’s automobile capacity, yet make the road more comfortable for pedestrians. By narrowing lanes of traffic as currently planned, we could finally widen sidewalks, install bike lanes/cycle tracks and add street furniture and greenery. These measures would attract College Park residents from their homes to the street, helping to repopulate our downtown corridor and ensure the success of our new businesses.

Roads are the building blocks of our communities, and it is simply impossible to build community around six lanes of traffic. We cannot continue to herald new businesses when they come to town, yet neglect to create an environment where they can thrive. The establishments in the new mixed-use high rises require a Route 1 that accommodates both cars and people.

There is nothing “new” about Route 1. It remains a main street by default, not by definition.

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.

 

Rectifying Route 1, A Pedestrian’s Perspective: The Intersection at Hartwick Rd

Last night, I crossed Route 1 at Hartwick Road. Once again, I risked my life just to cross a street.

We all know that Route 1 is an unpleasant experience for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. But the line between unpleasant and unacceptable is crossed at this intersection. The intersection lies along College Park’s main retail corridor and is within a quarter mile of UMD’s campus, an area where there is obviously a high level of pedestrian activity.

However, the State Highway Administration and elected officials have continued to disregard pedestrian safety to focus on autocentric policies and projects. What will it take for the city and state to wake up and realize this is a death trap? Do we have to wait until a resident or student is critically injured or killed?

Route 1 and Hartwick, no pedestrians signals
A lack of lighting, no pedestrian signals, no pedestrian islands, and speeding traffic combine to make this intersection extremely unsafe.

The Hartwick Road/Route 1 intersection lies within a stone’s throw of College Park’s main office complex, a CVS, a strip of shops and restaurants, a bank, and a hotel. It provides one of the most direct links between the Metro Station, the aforementioned amenities, and the university. In theory, this intersection should be the epicenter of pedestrian street life in our college town.

Unfortunately, the current design of this intersection completely disregards pedestrian safety in favor of allowing cars to plow through the middle of town at at least 40 miles per hour. There are no traffic islands to allow pedestrians to cross half way at a time and no signals or flashing lights to indicate to motorists that a pedestrian is attempting to cross this street. At night, the intersection is exceptionally dark and a steady flow of left-turning vehicles prohibit drivers from making eye contact with pedestrians.

When will this insanity end!?

A recent email exchange with city engineer, Steve Halpern, led me to believe that it will be later, rather than sooner. In his response, he stated that the State Highway Administration is in the design phase for the “construction of pedestrian ramps and the reconstruction of existing crosswalks.” While this is a start, it hardly scratches the surface in addressing the urgent and dire need to create a safe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists along Route 1. Unfortunately, Mr. Halpern’s email also stated that “pedestrian signal improvements will not be a part of this contract.” This means we are unlikely to see any type of traffic light at Hartwick Road any time soon. I fail to understand how this is not a priority.

While we wait for the long-anticipated pedestrian-safety improvements to Route 1, I continue to wonder what it will take for our local and state officials to wake up, recognize one of the greatest threats to our safety in College Park, and take action before it’s too late.

Shop College Park!

SHOP COLLEGE PARK

All of us RTCP readers and contributors want to see College Park’s business environment to thrive and support a variety of unique local restaurants and retail spaces.

For those interested in supporting the idea of shopping locally, the website www.shopcollegepark.org is a great resource. A Facebook and Twitter version of Shop College Park launched that will be updeated frequently with the latest deals and events taking place at College Park establishments.  Sign up to “like” Shop College Park on Facebook and “follow” Shop College Park on Twitter at stay informed!

Rectifying Route 1, A Pedestrian Perspective: College Avenue and Route 1

Few people will deny that Route 1 is well overdue for major improvements. Motorists are fed up with traffic, bicyclists despise its lack of bike lanes and high speed traffic, and pedestrians loath the poor condition of sidewalks. Traffic speeds, up to seven travel lanes (none safe for bicyclists), and long light cycles make this road equally as miserable to cross. Most everyone will also agree that vast stretches of Route 1 are not aesthetically pleasing and that restaurant and retail options are lacking. The Route 1 Sector Plan was established to address many of these issues, but it appears funding will continue to be a major hurdle to implementing that plan.

This is the first installment of what I hope to be a series on analyzing specific intersections along the Route 1 corridor. This series will focus on bicycle and pedestrian safety, and to a lesser degree, aesthetics and economic development. The goal is to analyze current conditions and facilitate conversation on ways to improve each intersection. It is my hope that increased public conversation on this topic will highlight the necessity for long overdue improvements and make Route 1 a funding priority.

The intersection at Route 1 and College Avenue is one of the most critical in College Park and deserves immediate attention. It links the southeast entrance to the University, the city’s retail corridor, and the Old Town neighborhood. Because of this, one could assume it handles the highest level of pedestrian crossings of any in College Park.

Continue reading Rectifying Route 1, A Pedestrian Perspective: College Avenue and Route 1

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

North College Park to Discuss Proposed Book Exchange Development Tomorrow

bookexchange
The proposal to turn the Book Exchange site into a 6-story mid-rise apartment building for students and professionals has stirred quite a bit of discussion among City’s southern inhabitants – University students and Old Town residents. Being so close to the campus, UMD, smart growth proponents and students would love to see this proposal go through. On the other hand, some long time residents fear that the proposed development is an invitation to more trouble for them – stuff like “late night parties, noise ” etc. will be very common, they think. While the project appears to be in line with the recently updated zoning for the property, but political opposition could delay the project considerably and ultimately quash it.

Does north College Park have anything to do with this property development? Directly the answer may be no, but indirectly, definitely yes. North College Park has a sizable student populations living in its houses. If more and more rental housing is built in the south, students will likely to leave north and concentrate closer to campus. This may or may not have an effect to the northern neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the four council members representing the north part of the city have been divided on the proposal. While District 1′s Chris Nagle supports the proposal, her counterpart in District 1 Patrick Wojahn does not. District 4′s Dennis Michelle is also against the proposal. The other District 4 council member and UMD graduate student Marcus Afzali is publicly undecided but skeptical.

Ilya Zusin, the developer of the proposed development will be at tomorrow’s North College Park Citizen Association (NCPCA)’s meeting (Oct 14). The session will start at 8:10pm. A detailed agenda can be found here.

Earlier this month, the members of the Old Town Civic Association overwhelmingly rejected the proposed development. Tomorrow’s discussion has been billed as an informational session for NCPCA’s members. This means that the members are unlikely to take an official position on the matter.