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

Olson, Stullich, NIMBYs Oppose Book Exchange Housing Plan

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“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.


View Larger Map

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.
Artists' Renderings for East Campus 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.

UPDATE:
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.

Best Buy & The Original Ledo’s Opening Soon

A local establishment and a powerhouse national chain are both moving into College Park over the next month with the long anticipated opening of the original Ledo’s Pizza in about two weeks and Best Buy slated to open in the College Park Market Place in early September.  I think both will help College Park in different ways.  The Original Ledo’s will give downtown College Park a destination location at last and will hopefully help increase the use of the downtown parking garage.  Best Buy will be taking the place of the closed down “Linens and Things” and hopefully will add a nice little boost to our city tax revenue.

These two new store openings remind me of the soon to be voted on College Park City Council Strategic Plan. One of the action items in this plan is to “Create a list of 10 most desired retail/restaurant businesses and actively pursue encouraging them to locate in College Park.”  So what retail/restaurant businesses locations do you think College Park should be pursuing?  What type of retail/restaurant businesses would help turn College Park into the vibrant college town we all know we can and should be?  Feel free to list one location or ten and feel free to say something general (a coffee house) or specific (Trader Joe’s).  You can list one retail/restaurant business or ten – but also think about WHERE you think you’d like to see such a business open.

The Real Ledo’s is Coming

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Future home of Ledo Restaurant

At the opening ceromony yesterday for the new downtown parking garage amid the usual pomp and circumstance a big announcement was made regarding the 5800 square feet of ground floor retail.

ledologo2The original Ledo’s will be moving from their long time location in Adelphi to downtown College Park. This is the mothership of all Ledo’s pizza places. The franchise location you see all over were born from this one location. I do not know the full history but I do know there was a split and the Ledo Franchise is NOT the same thing as the original Tommy Marcos resaurant. All I know is those awesome square boxes of joy are coming to downtown college park.  This is just the kind of local business we are dying to have. And did I mention there will be plenty of places to park?

Grand Opening for New Parking Garage

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New City Parking Garage (KNOX RD VIEW)

Finally those circling in front of Chipotle’s looking for a parking space will have a new option. The Grand opening for the new Parking Garage will be on Wednesday, August 5, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. The garage provides 288 parking spaces plus 5,800 square feet of ground floor retail space. No word on if there will be free burritos.

Prince George’s County Councilmember Eric Olson…. “The parking garage with retail space was envisioned many years ago and has been in the works for nearly a decade,” says Olson. “It will contribute greatly to strengthening College Park’s downtown and redevelopment efforts.”

Mayor Brayman and the College Park City Council will host a dedication ceremony and reception on the fourth floor of the parking garage. The City’s new public parking garage is located in the heart of downtown at the corner of Knox Road and Yale Avenue, across from City Hall.

City Presents Real Estate Data

We know as well as any the difficulty of keeping track of all the development occurring and proposed in College Park, as well as how hard it is to separate truth from fiction when it comes to the economics of real estate. That’s why we decided to post these slides, presented by the city’s economic development planner Chris Warren at the February 12th Real Estate Roundtable. They present a concise snapshot of new developments on Route 1, and the College Park Retail and Office markets. Notably they show retail space in downtown College Park commands very high rent, as the number of residents has grown but effective space remained largely unchanged. Also, vacancy rates are generally low, despite the high-profile vacancies downtown. (Paperworks and Wawa)

Route 1 Projects

Route 1 Projects

Retail
College Park Retail Market

Office
College Park Office Market

The full presentation is here.

Wawa Editorial and the Aftermath

In case you missed it, I wrote an opinion column that was published in last Wednesday’s Diamondback student newspaper entitled “Wawa, good riddance”. To read it, go here.

In summary, I celebrated the demise of the College Park Wawa and how it symbolized the less than desirable conditions of College Park. And while Wawa wasn’t the sole cause of College Park’s decline, it was perhaps the face of it due to routine weekend vandalizing from drunken bar-goers. I hoped that Wawa’s closing could catalyze future fundamental changes in downtown College Park to improve its sustainability and become more pedestrian-friendly. I called on JBG Rosenfeld Retail, the landlord of College Park Shopping Center where Wawa is located, to follow the East Campus Initiative’s lead and recognize the market and need for more attractive options for retail and housing in downtown College Park.

College Park Shopping CenterThe College Park Shopping Center was built in 1949, where a society dominated by car culture called for a strip mall with easily accessible surface parking at the expense of pedestrians. There are several long-term leases on the property, including CVS/pharmacy and Bank of America. JBGR owns this main L-shaped center, as well as the lot one block to the south, which encompasses FedEx Kinko’s and Applebee’s. The official profile of the shopping center can be found here.

Following publication, I received a lot of attention and feedback. However, almost none of it was from undergraduate students, which was my original intention. Even though the scope of my editorial went far beyond Wawa, I hoped that using it as a scapegoat would draw attention from those lamenting the loss of a late-night hangout. Instead, the bulk of feedback came from professionals and alums, most of whom praised my column and agreed with the principle that change was needed in College Park. One individual noted that it was a shame that downtown College Park did not more accurately reflect the presence of a nationally-recognized planning program, as well as the innovative National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education center on campus.

This week, I was surprised to learn that the principal of JBG Rosenfeld Retail, Robert Rosenfeld, teaches a class in Real Estate Finance in the Real Estate Development graduate program on campus. He had read my column and had assigned it to his students in preparation for class discussion. This past Monday, I introduced myself to Mr. Rosenfeld and sat in on his class discussion. While the reaction to my column was overwhelmingly positive, insightful questions such as the perceived lack of financial incentive for JBGR to redevelop the property were brought up. Mr. Rosenfeld responded that long-term leases that give an unusual amount of clout to tenants such as CVS make a revisionary effort in downtown more cumbersome.

However, Mr. Rosenfeld said that his company would observe the progress of East Campus very closely to see what impacts it has on the retail and development climate of downtown College Park. Finally, he offered a tentative plan to redevelop the southern lot with Applebee’s into a mixed-use, multi-story building with retail on the bottom floor and housing for rent on the upper floors. The plan is four years away, he says, but it would go towards transforming College Park from its present state.

In conclusion, I have welcomed all the feedback that I have received from the column and I look forward to yours. The question I grapple with everyday is how to ensure students get a seat at the table when their general apathy towards these issues persists. In the coming weeks, I hope to come up with ideas to encourage active student participation in a time of hope and transition for College Park. Stay tuned.

As if “downtown” couldn’t get any worse

College Park’s nighttime revelers received another fatal blow this week after news surfaced that Wawa will be closing its doors. With the Thirsty Turtle apparently never opening, it’s hard to imagine where the increasingly large crowds “downtown” will go Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Can 7-11 measure up? We think not.

Downtown Guide Updated

Downtown MapWhile we’re busy dreaming about the new businesses that could come to the mixed use buildings on Route One and East Campus, for the time being most College Park residents are stuck with what we’ve got in downtown. Downtown contains over 70 storefront businesses offering tacos, transistors, tea, and textbooks.

The downtown guide includes the phone numbers and location of all businesses, as well as the city’s car and bike parking facilities. Print copies are available at City Hall.

>> Downtown College Park Guide (PDF)