Questions Arise with the Varsity’s Wall

Construction continues on The Varsity and Starview, College Park’s next-in-line for undergraduate, off-campus student housing.  The progress is beginning to show how the new buildings will improve Route 1’s streetscape.
The Varsity:varsity full
Starview:starview full

The Varsity has begun installation of a wide sidewalk stretching south from the main entrance toward the bridge passing over Paint Branch Trail. The new sidewalk is much wider than the current sidewalk and provides a buffer of about 12 feet from the heavy traffic on Route 1. Land has also been cleared for the long-awaited Northgate Park located to the south of building along Paint Branch Creek.
varsity sidewalk 2

However, questions remain about the imposition of a wall fronting Route 1 that will separate pedestrian traffic from the retail entrances located on the ground floor of the Varsity. Councilman Bob Catlin has informed us that the reason for the wall is to prevent these retail establishments from falling within the Paint Branch flood plain. This Diamondback article makes reference to similar concerns raised by council members at the time of the project’s approval several years ago.

A recent site visit indicates that the wall is 5 to 6 feet tall and stretches the entire length of the building fronting Route 1, potentially disengaging pedestrians from the building and the retail that locates there.

varsity wall 2
varsity steps 2


As the Route 1 corridor continues to develop, pedestrian traffic will be an integral part of the streetscape and retailers will depend on passing foot traffic for a significant portion of their business. Long, blank walls discourage an active street scene and break down lines-of-sight between storefronts and pedestrians—all negative elements that undermine the advantages of ground floor retail.

It appears that there will be three staircases leading up to the first-floor storefronts, but this may not be enough to entice passerby if they are unable to see the actually see what’s going on inside. Active and entertaining streets create a lively pedestrian environment, and active streetscapes and successful retail corridors are made possible when stores and outdoor seating are directly accessible and visible to passing pedestrian traffic. Visually appealing window displays and an abundance of activity entice pedestrians into stores.

An active, enticing streetscape:
Potential Streetscape

Walls serve as barriers to this visual appeal. They prohibit the instinctive curiosity pedestrians possess that causes them to stop, peruse, enter, and patronize. Hopefully, the Varsity will draw an abundance of strong anchor tenants that will create a “destination location” and overcome the wall’s design flaws.

Fundamentals of CP Student Housing Still Strong

Street Pattern

Of the seven active construction projects (listed on our area projects by number page) in College Park right now, five of them are student housing. The other two are University-led office buildings in M-Square. Indeed, there is an unprecedented amount of dirt moving on Route 1 right now; proving that while the national economy may still be floundering, CP student housing fundamentals are still strong. If you include South Campus Commons #7 (which was just completed near Van Munching Hall) we’re witnessing the completion of about 3,600 public, private, and public-private (partnership) student beds over the course of about 3-4 years. That’s an incredible number when you consider that the first six Commons buildings and the first phase of University View only amounted to 2,925 beds.

This surge in construction has led some to speculate that perhaps we’ll witness a student housing bubble since all of these units are dedicated student housing and totally separate from the larger area rental market. These developers who are breaking ground don’t seem to think so. We think it’s too early to tell, but a bubble wouldn’t be such a bad thing for student rents. Otis Warren’s planned University View phase III (8350-8400 Baltimore Ave. in image above) which will house about 1000 beds is apparently stalled because of market conditions (they leased out their 8400 Baltimore Ave office building for another year). UMD is also holding tight on Commons #8. If either of these projects get moving again in 2011 or soon thereafter, it will be a clear indication that developers and financiers still see profit potential in student high rises.

Here is a construction rundown: Continue reading Fundamentals of CP Student Housing Still Strong

Student Housing – 6 months later and a whole new ballgame

It has been about 6 months since the issue of student housing really exploded in College Park and anyone (ourselves included) would have had a hard time predicting what has taken place since that time. What started off with hundreds of rising seniors losing their on-campus housing in April has progressed – or regressed rather – to over a thousand students potentially losing housing next school year (now with rising juniors thrown into the mix).

During the school facilities fee waiver controversy last year, when local leaders were proposing a massive cut to an incentive Sign of the Timesfor the construction of privately owned student housing projects in the city, we proclaimed that there was “No End in Sight” to the housing crunch. At the same time we harshly criticized leaders for trying to limit the incentive to the Knox Box and Northgate Area – areas of the city which development seemed like a distant dream and non-student housing free-for-all respectively. These days, the Knox Box redevelopment is moving along ever so slowly, but Janet Firth has made a couple big moves since April. The Northgate area at the time was already almost completely proposed for luxury hotels and high end condominiums. The condo market flopped, the support for a TIF for Mark Vogel’s Hilton Hotel project evaporated, and nearly every other project in the area is now marred by financial/regulatory difficulties that make low and mid-rise rental/designated student housing a nearly forgone conclusion. Developers are literally falling over themselves to propose student housing after all the fuss last spring. Many of these projects we are compelled to keep under our hat for the time being, but we count 7 potential or proposed projects without even including East Campus, a Knox Box redevelopment, or any on-campus housing.

The University is proposing some token student housing on South Campus, but we think the importance of on-campus housing is being far overplayed by the Diamondback. Indeed, public-private partnerships like South Campus Commons are riddled with problems and make for especially poor forms of urbanism because they seperate students from present and future activity centers. We aren’t denying the need more traditional dormitories for underclassmen. One hasn’t been built in decades. That being said, a substantial increase in private off-campus housing could bring vacancy rates up from abysmally low levels and bring rents all over College Park back within reach. All this could be achieved without any financial contribution from UMD.

P9280020The Diamondback should stop perpetuating the myth that the root cause of the housing crunch is an increase in the UMD’s enrollment. To do so is the most inaccurate, simplistic, and irresponsible form of journalism that they have yet bestowed upon College Park. The housing crunch is fundamentally driven by a change in preferences among students (especially freshmen). People are opting for on-campus housing only because they are increasingly choosing to live closer to campus and the only decent, affordable housing is on-campus. How can enrollment be the deciding factor in the housing crunch if it has stayed roughly constant for the past 20 years?

Senator Rosapepe’s continuing bull in a china shop politics in regards to this matter is only damaging relationships, causing confusion, and accomplishing nothing. The University cannot fully build its way out of this problem and have enough land to achieve its academic mission for the next 150 years. Despite the senator’s continued insistence that land is the limiting factor for private student housing projects, the city is awash in developable land and developers are finally stepping forward knowing student housing projects can succeed off campus. To legislate our way out of this mess without careful consideration of the situation is to legislate Route 1 into another 15 years of big plans and no action.

Vogel Proposes New Student Housing Project

8240 Balt. Ave

The Hilton Hotel is out and a mixed use 700 bed (250 parking space) student housing project is in. Mark Vogel’s architect easily lived up to their last work (pictured just below) for the site when the developer proposed this project to the city council earlier this month. According to a Diamondback article, Vogel plans to have a solid sit down restaurant on the ground floor. The city was receptive to the designs although they voiced a strong desire for LEED certification for the project. The parking ratio seems very appropriate for such a close location to campus and the type of tenant…

The Hilton project failed after county support for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) evaporated. Presumably this was because the county is expecting to use multipe TIFs for East Campus – a project which is widely expected to have it’s own hotel within a stone’s throw of Vogel’s project site.

Hilton Hotel at UMD North Gate

Jerry's Sub

Student Housing Proposed at Northgate

Early Proposal for 8400 Baltimore AveA condominium project first proposed in December 2006 by area developer Otis Warren is moving forward, and this time it seems possible it will be developed with students in mind. The project, located at 8400 Baltimore Avenue, will contain 300 residential units, 14,000 square feet of retail, and a 4-story 421 space parking garage. These are the same numbers from when we posted a very rough rendering in February. According to our sources, although the city has a number of complaints regarding aesthetics, they supported the concept that it could become student housing at their meeting earlier this month. If built, the building could result in as many as 900 to 1,000 student beds. The condo market has softened significantly in recent months and many projects in the Washington region have moved from condos to rental units.

Issues raised during the city’s consideration of the detailed site plan at their meeting earlier this August included the infamous rules about whether the building’s facade had enough brick, the fact that the proposed building’s lot coverage exceeds the maximum and is set back 8 feet farther than the build-to line, and quibbling about the applicant’s traffic and parking exemption calculations.

We think this project illustrates one of the biggest problems with the M-U-I overlay zone: the excessive parking requirement. Cities as diverse as Ithica, New York, San Francisco, and Arlington County, Virginia have had the courage to question the parking dogma and build buildings with no — or very little — parking, especially when located near transit. Rental housing near the university on Route One should contain less parking than the zone currently requires.

The Prince George’s County Planning Board Hearing on the plan has been scheduled September 20th.

Route One Development and the CP Airport

This Op-Ed article was written by James Garvin, a College Park resident and user of the College Park Municipal Airport. The views expressed here don’t necessarily reflect the views of Rethink College Park. This article is in response to our recent post about the conflict between the airport and development in the Northgate area.

1909 Model A and derrick College ParkI am a city resident and user of the College Park airport. I live here because I wanted to move within walking of an airport where can fly. I come from a family with a heritage of flight and I am trying to pass that on with my household. College Park Airport is my home base. Please help keep the airport open. Now, new development on Route One is threatening our airport. Not only is the airport a unique part of College Park’s history, I believe it should be part of its future. Small aviators are part of the transportation system, and transportation based in small airports is more efficient than the large commercial airlines.

The University View building has greatly impacted my use of the airport. I don’t believe the County’s Airport use policies adequately protect the interests of users of small airports. The University View is serious factor to any approach to Runway 15 at College Park airport. It is a death knell to an airport to have large structures off the end of the runway for obvious reasons. One is bad, but more large structures will be a lot worse. Big buildings in walking distance of transportation facilities are great, and I want them too, but they should not be constructed at the business end of an airport runway.

1912 Wreck at College Park, MDPeople tend to confuse us middle class aviation users with upper class jet users. We are “little people” in College Park who have small aircraft we use on business trips and for personal transport when ever practical. We hate using airlines just as anyone else does. A small Cessna 172 going direct to the destination is much more convenient than riding a 727 with multiple layovers along the way. This efficiency also makes general aviation transportation greener than buying a ticket on the big airlines. However this always seems to be overlooked, and we are seen with the same “greenness” as filth belching 707’s — like lumping a Prius in with a Mack truck!

There is also the future to consider. Will new companies make it possible for small groups of people to go where they need to go inexpensively, efficiently, quietly, and with a small carbon footprint? Already the Florida-based Dayjet company provides on-demand flights in small aircraft to business travelers. Is it really efficient to fly 240 people from a place they don’t want to go (hub 1) to another place they don’t want to go (hub 2) because it’s better for the big airline? I’m sure in the future we will be flying more efficient, quieter, smaller, and higher tech aircraft that can utilize small airfields and don’t need big hub airports. Destroying small airports is like tearing up railroad track beds, once they are gone they can never come back to provide transport solutions for the future.

The onerous and confusing security measures adopted since 9/11 at College Park have also threatened our very survival as an airport. Although the fliers have come to terms with these unreasonable requirements and are rebuilding our vitality as an airport, now we face the challenge of new development.

In addition to the University View, the proposed Northgate and Hilton could further diminish the usability of the airport. I call upon all readers to continue to speak out to keep this vital part of College Park open.

Worse than we ever imagined

Dback opinion page - housing crisisKnox BoxesThe student housing crunch in College Park is not new by any means. It’s been going on far longer than the 9 months or so we’ve been covering it. Yet, yesterday’s revelation that 639 seniors will be dropped from on-campus housing next year hit a lot of folks close to home and has triggered a level of student organization that has not been seen since the great Facebook rebellion of 06′. Some groups plan to stage a protest in front of Annapolis Hall every hour, on the hour, starting at noon today to criticize the Dept. of Resident Life’s 11th hour decision. Res life also plans a forum Monday at 1:30 in the Hoff Theater in the Student Union.

Indeed, the 639 number is just the beginning of next year’s waitlist which will be quite a bit higher once it incorporates lesser priority groups. The new Freshman deadline for housing applications doesn’t even occur till May 1st. More enlightened students will realize that if they aren’t affected by this round of eviction notices, their time may come if they seek on campus housing their senior year and don’t secure a South Campus Commons or Courtyards room.

So what exactly caused the crisis?

Clearly, the answer is a change in housing preferences as more and more underclassmen (and undergrads) vie for limited on-campus spots. The crisis IS NOT (we repeat: IS NOT) a result of increased enrollment at UMD, which was capped after the school became the state’s “flagship university” 15 years ago. IT IS the result of the university’s lack of available debt to build new dormitories. As we noted yesterday, UMD has not built a traditional dormitory since La Plata Hall in 1968 nor a suite-style dorm since New Leonardtown in 1982. They tried to build a new north campus dorm last year, but were handily rejected by the Board of Regents.

Who’s to blame?

It’s clear that Res Life erred in waiting so long in notifying students of their ineligibility for housing. That being said, they are not responsible for the failure to build more housing. Annapolis is responsible because tight purse strings led them to demand that UMD’s housing be self supporting. This caused the need, in recent years, for public-private partnerships like Commons and Courtyards, university land contributions like University View, and county incentives/giveaways for buildings like the Towers at University Town Center.

What’s not cut and dry is who’s responsible to house students – the city Jefferson Square Condominiums(+ county) or the university? Yesterday’s post drew maybe the most fierce comment string we’ve ever seen on this site. Opinions ran the gamut, but most will see that really both the private and public sector should play a role. It’s worth pointing out that both have made progress in recent years on the student housing front but somewhere along the way their efforts fell flat. Virtually no designated undergraduate student housing is on the way (in the city or on campus) and even standard (and existing) rental housing is having trouble navigating through the local planning and political process. Indeed the city has recently:

-instituted a rent control ordinance on single-family homes

-mandated owner occupancy requirements in nearly every project coming through the pipeline

-is pursuing the limitation of incentives for student housing via Annapolis

What’s the solution?

Clearly we need a multifaceted approach to student housing that includes the university bearing some of the burden. That does not mean they should pick up all or even most of the slack. The city needs to move forward with incentives for housing in Lakeland, the Knox area, and along Route 1 or surely the their neighborhoods will be so overcome with transient renters that they will be virtually unrecognizable in 15 years.

Jack Perry, a District 2 City Councilmen is quoted in today’s Diamondback as saying, “The University of Maryland needs the housing; we don’t. This is the city of College Park, not the campus of the University of Maryland.”

We say NO to Mr. Perry because his standpoint (the least enlightened on the city council) is a form of mutually assured destruction. Think like a mountain, Mr. Perry, think 5,000 to 7,000 beds.

City Council, Student Leaders, RTCP Reach Major Compromise

Final Impact Fee Waiver amendments

We’re pleased to announce that a major (and in our view: reasonable) compromise was reached late last night on the impact fee waiver controversy. While everyone at the meeting agreed the boundary (that allows a county incentive for student housing) needs to be reduced from its original size (black line) to an area within the City of College Park, there was no consensus on exactly where the new boundary should be drawn. Jim Rosapepe and the 21st Delegation originally proposed (with the approval from the College Park City Council) the red boudary (seen above) and that version of the state bill went to committee last week in Annapolis. The amended proposal approved last night adds several key properties located both:

-west of Route 1 and north of 193

and

-east of Route 1 and south of 193

After these new areas were added, 6 of the 8 councimembers agreed, in an unusual pro-student vote, that the compromise boundaries (in purple) would more reasonably accommodate long term student housing needs in College Park. They apparently agreed with the reasoning that most of the property zoned “mixed-use” in the city could potentially be student housing and that it should be eligible for incentives as such. There was also talk about “density bonuses” to encourage even more housing right adjacent to campus.

We applaud last night’s decision and are especially looking forward to a period of limited RTCP political activism (after the bill becomes law).

University View Part II – “Raymond Towers” Rendering Uncovered

Early Proposal for 8400 Baltimore Ave

We stumbled across this early rendering of the 8400 Baltimore Avenue project directly north of the 16-story University View that we first reported on in early December. As proposed it would be a 12-story (4 parking, 8 residential) condominium tower with 301 units and 14,000 square feet of retail fronting Route 1. Koons Ford would remain at its current location in the middle of the “L” shaped building. According to county documents, it will be named “Raymond Towers”. The City Council gave the project a lukewarm reception in December and again earlier this month. Their opinion counts strongly, but is not the final word. If built, it will likely carry a substantial owner occupancy requirement (interesting discussion on this) and be marketed as luxury condominums. More to come on this project as details and new renderings become available.