“My initial reaction is that they’re not going to be able to build student housing at this site,” he said. “I think that the space could be better used.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman
Back in July, the Diamondback had an article talking about development plans to turn the Book Exchange lot into student housing. After reading the College Park Patch and speaking with County Councilman Eric Olson and the developer Ilya Zusin, we got a better image of what is being proposed – a 6-story, 334-unit primarily student apartment building with 14,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. We also got a sense of the politics that are beginning to erupt around this high profile downtown CP project that’s proposed just across the street from the front entrance to UMD. These politics could very well thwart the project all-together.
The proposal comprises 109 units geared towards visiting professors, young professionals, and graduate students (mainly singles with some doubles) and 225 marketed to undergraduates (mainly quads). While proposed as one building, the development would read like two with different facades and lobbies if constructed. There would be about 830 dedicated student beds all housed within the part of the site closest to Route 1. The 109 unit building (roughly 170 beds) would have a different entrance and be located at the rear of the site backing up to Yale Avenue. 10,000 square feet of the retail space would be taken up by the Book Exchange itself with frontage on Route 1. Another store would locate on the College Avenue side.
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According to the Patch and other sources, a small group of vocal residents are concerned about the addition of hundreds of new students in Old Town. They fear increased noise and traffic. District 3 County Councilman and College Park smart growth champion Eric Olson, who ultimately determines what takes place on the site, seems to be leaning towards the view of long term residents who oppose student housing at the site. That’s a surprising position for Olson given the pro-student and smart growth platform that swept him into office. Some of Olson’s non-student constituents turned out for a meeting August 25th in Old Town College Park and stated their preference to see a “Trader Joe’s, a boutique hotel, or even apartments aimed at area professionals” on the site rather than student housing.
While we agree that it’s less than ideal that every residential product being built in College Park these days is student housing, it’s difficult to deny the smart growth implications of such an infill project. The site is literally across the street from the main entrance to UMD at the corner of Route 1 and College Ave. It’s also difficult to ignore the precedent being set here. While projects like this can always be killed one way or another politically, there is really no legal ground to oppose it under the current zoning regime. This project conforms completely with the spirit and language of the Route 1 Sector Plan that was just updated by the County Council this summer. Politicians don’t need to get into the business of deciding who can live where; especially given the character of established zoning and housing incentives in College Park. I believe it sets a bad precedent if Olson ultimately quashes the first development proposed under the updated Route 1 Sector Plan. We can’t let latent and unfounded anti-student housing hysteria stand in the way of smart growth in College Park.
UMD has the wherewithall and momentum to build the non-student housing on East Campus that Olson and others desire for the community. One private developer with a 2.6-acre site does not. Indeed, UMD is refusing to build any undergraduate beds in its East Campus Redevelopment Initiative and will be bulldozing 650-beds of affordable undergraduate student housing over the next 5 years to make way for that project. UMD intends to infuse a critical mass of retail and high end residential that can draw in young professionals with the East campus Redevelopment Initiative that Olson and others desire. As more student high rises come online, the Old Town neighborhood will begin get drained of its student residents and houses will likely turn over to non-student young professional hoping to locate near the College Park metro station.
Most recent renderings of the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative.
The location of the Book Exchange site between Fraternity Row, a group of sorority houses and the entirety of the UMD nightlife scene makes it nearly impossible to finance a true residential product for young professionals at this point. Anything that departs substantially from what the developer has proposed here simply will not be built. There is no market for it. The 109-unit non-student section was already a pretty big concession for the developer to make considering the economy.
Furthermore, to blunt criticism the developer has offered to help the city annually to expand noise and code enforcement. They’ve also agreed to get the project certified LEED Silver or Gold and build an associated 150 bike space (covered). Because of traffic concerns, they will reserve spaces for car sharing (Zip Car) and provide free bikes for students that have none. Zusin would build between 141 and 315 spaces under the project depending on if the city lets him pay fee in lieu for space in their newly constructed garage just down the road. The project will likely reduce traffic during rush hour given that almost all its residents will walk to campus or utilize Metro day-to-day. They’d be using the provided parking for car storage. To top it all off, the city currently receives $18,000 per year in property tax from the Book Exchange. They’ll receive around $250,000 annually if the project goes forward.
What exactly are we fighting against here? Tell us what you think.
Sources indicate that UMD is also opposed to this project. While we’re looking for more information, their position likely stems from fear of unfilled student beds on campus due to private competition off campus. Unfortunately for students, that translates to higher rents.