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

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

Talks of Proposed Housing Split City Council

[Update 9/30/2010: This post has been updated with comments from District 4 Council woman Denise Mitchell]

The proposal to build a 6-story, 334-unit student housing on the current Book Exchange property may still be in its very primitive stage, yet some City Council members have already started to take sides on this development. Interestingly enough, not every resident or City council member is against the proposal, as the recent media reports (such as this and this) may have suggested.

Take for example District 1 council member Chris Nagle. She actually supports the idea of the proposed housing. Ms. Nagle says she does not agree with the residents in Old Town who have expressed concerns that the student housing at the current Maryland Book Exchange location will bring additional students into Old Town and create noise and traffic concerns for existing residents.  “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.”Ms Nagle said explaining her position.

The other District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn sits completely on the other side of the aisle on this. He is with the city residents – those living in the south and also in the north in his district. “I have a lot of concerns about this proposal. Whether I agree with those residents (in Old Town) or not, I would want other council members to support me if the residents of north College Park were opposed to a project, and I want to do the same for the residents of Old Town.”– says Mr. Wojahn.

Mr. Wojahn is concerned that this new project would over saturate the market and create challenges for the entire student housing along US 1. “the City and the University have worked together to build a lot of new student housing along the US 1 corridor over the past couple of years, and at this point, we do not know whether that will satisfy the demand for student housing..”– said Mr. Wojahn.

The District 3 council woman Stephanie Stullich echoes Mr. Wojahn’s assessments on this oversaturation part.  According to her estimation, new student housing construction from 2000 to 2010 added a total of 7,057 new beds for students, including 2,892 on campus and 4,533 off campus.  Those figures include 1,146 beds in two new buildings that opened this fall (View 2 and Mazza).  In addition, three student housing buildings currently under construction will add 2,263 beds in fall 2011 (Starview, Varsity, and Oakland Hall).

Ms. Stullich wants to see the proposed development to house something different – “a grocery store like Trader Joe’s, a sit-down family restaurant, or housing targeted at University faculty and staff and young professionals could be a good fit for the site” – she commented. “I’d also like to see the old Book Exchange as part of the new development” – she added.

Mr. Wojahn agrees with Ms. Stullich on the diversity part of the development in downtown area to create what he says a true college town atmosphere. “I feel we need a diverse mix of housing opportunities. With the rest of the new M Square project coming online sometime in the next couple of years, I feel there is a need for young professional housing, and I think it would be useful for the developer to consider making all of this new development young professional housing instead of just student housing.  Bringing more young professionals in the area would lead to a better market for higher quality restaurants and more diverse retail downtown.”Added Mr. Wojahn.

Mr. Wojahn also sympathizes with concerns of the Old Town residents. “I understand the concerns of the residents, and I want to support the residents who have concerns about this project coming so close to their neighborhoods. “

Ms. Stullich, who represents the residents living in the area near the proposed development, went further in explaining the concerns of the local residents. “This project would double the number of undergraduate students living in Old Town, which is the neighborhood that already has the highest concentration of undergraduates and struggles the most with tensions between students and older residents.  The noise problem is pretty extreme, not just from the parties but also from hundreds of young people wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night looking for parties.  And then there are the problems with vandalism and public urination – it all seems to go with the wild party atmosphere.  It makes it sometimes a hard place for families to raise their children.  The noise enforcement officers and police have a hard time dealing with this situation as it is – we don’t need to make this problem even harder to handle.”

Ms. Stullich added – “It is not in students’ best interest to make Old Town so difficult for older residents to live in that they all move out.  Older residents help improve the safety of the neighborhood, because of Neighborhood Watch, because they know how to work with the police.  They watch out for the safety of their student neighbors.  Allowing this to become exclusively a student neighborhood would make the student residents vulnerable to even more crime.”

Ms. Stullich brushed off criticism against the opposition to the housing as “anti-student”. “I don’t think there’s an anti-student hysteria from me and the residents who oppose the development. We accept that students live in our neighborhoods and always will.  We’re simply trying to seek a balance.”

She said she likes what RTCP is doing in promoting smart growth. “I’m an environmentalist, but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-development.  I have been a strong supporter of all of the other recent student housing projects.  But it is important to have the right mix of development in the right places.” – she said.

Her counterpart in the district 3, council member Mark Cook supports the proposed development. ”  “It’s hard to understand why a council member would support a project that so many of his constituents believe would harm their quality of life.”– Ms. Stullich added with frustration. In an interview with the Diamondback, Mr. Cook said he is excited about the vision for the site, as “it represents a smart growth project that will improve the overall use of the land – much of which is now a sprawling parking lot.”

District 2 Council member Bob Catlin hasn’t seen a proposal for the project and says it’s premature to judge the project. “The only thing we (the City Council) have been asked to do by the developer is to allow the developer to pay a parking fee-in-lieu for about 175 parking spaces prior to the proposal being presented.  Some council members want to decide the fee-in-lieu at a later time.”

When asked about UMd’s letter of support for the project he said “It (the UMd) did send a letter- now I believe the University has (or it soon will) rescind that support.  RTCP knows about the original letter, but perhaps not about a possible reconsideration of that position.” Mr. Catlin added.

District 4 councilman Marcus Afzali also wants to see more before making his mind supporting  the proposed development, but he has sympathies for the residents’ concerns. “Right now community members are meeting with the developer so I don’t want to say too much because I want to give the residents of Old Town a chance to see what they can work out with them.  That being said I think the residents of Old Town have valid concerns that must be addressed before I would be willing to get on board.” – Marcus said to me in an email.

Afzali’s counterpart in District 4, Denise Mitchell opposes the proposed development. “I want to be clear that I was opposed to the concept of the project from the beginning” – Ms. Mitchell told me in her email. ” It is my view that there are many existing projects currently underway for the sole purpose of adding student housing off campus and in close proximity to the university.  Also, I felt as though the residents should have been conferred with before presenting this to Mayor and Council.” – Ms. Mitchell added.

The City Mayor Andrew Fellows also shares the residents’ concerns, but wants to hold off on taking a side. “I have thoughts but probably want to save them for public consumption.  I want to explore the matter in public at City Hall.  I will briefly note, though, that I do share the concerns of the residents.” – Mr. Fellows added.

Despite the divergent views from council members, the ultimate decision about the project will come from the County Council.  County councilman Eric Olson, who represents the area, has indicated that he has concerns about the development. When asked about UMd’s support for the development, Mr. Olson said “My understanding is that there are multiple perspectives on campus, so I do not read their letter as the final University position. And ultimately, the University does not make the decision on the project. “

Historic District Inching Through County Bureaucracy

Historic Houses in Old TownOne of the most important policies relating to the future of downtown College Park continues to make its way through a convoluted approval process that involves more lawyers than College Park Residents.

When it is implemented, the Old Town Historic District will require property owners within the designated area (shown on a map here) to apply to the County’s Historic Preservation Commission for a special permit before major construction, alteration, or demolition of any buildings. It is difficult, but not impossible, for a property owner to demolish a historic structure under the county’s law. A section of the district is sandwiched between East Campus and the Terrapin Trader facility, envisioned as a potential phase three to the East Campus project.

If implemented, the policy could effectively prohibit many of the ideas discussed during the College Park charrette, such as adding new development along corridors to connect the Metro station and Downtown. Although the criteria for new construction are designed to be flexible, the Design Guidelines prepared for the area by a city contractor describes the generally low-density character of the contributing resources. At the very least it would create additional regulations for any property owner seeking to develop in the area.

After it was approved by the city and HPC in 2006 the law has been appealed twice by a group including the Prince George’s Property Owner’s Association. Under county law, appeals relating to land use are first heard by the Zoning Hearing Examiner (ZHE). After the first appeal the ZHE ordered the city to take measures to better inform property owners including signs in the Old Town neighborhood. The decision from the second appeal was released on September 26th, and both parties have appealed the decision to the County Council. The council will hear the case at 10 a.m. on Monday, November 19th in Upper Marlboro. Issues of contention in the second appeal include what standards should apply to new construction, and whether a local advisory committee should weigh in on issues not concerning existing historic buildings.

Already a controversy has arisen about the long vacant Sigma Chi fraternity house, which county officials have prohibited the fraternity from demolishing. We hope property owners, renters, and others get involved now to learn about the impact of the policy so when it is implemented there are no surprises.

> Read the ZHE’s 9-26 Decision
> Our Old Town Historic District Library Page

East Campus Update

Proposed East Campus Office adjacent to Ritchie ColiseumThe East Campus Community Review Steering Committee has been meeting since August to hear from the developers and their consultants about a wide variety of issues surrounding the project. We have encouraged our readers to attend these meetings (and many have) and I am an official committee member of this committee. The meetings are preceded by a “student focus group” between graduate and undergraduate students and university officials.

While we have published several items related to the project, I thought it was time for a summary of some of the news that has been discussed at these meetings. Most of the supporting documents have been posted to the East Campus website, and offer a variety of additional information.

Two issues were discussed at the previous (October 8th) meeting about transportation. First, several members of the committee strongly opposed vehicular connections between Old Town and the East Campus project. As I described in a previous post, I believe these streets should be open and strategies used elsewhere to control traffic would alleviate resident’s fears. Second, Foulger-Pratt announced they wanted to design the project choosing the Paint Branch Alignment for the Purple Line. The Maryland Transit Administration’s preferred light rail route is straight through the project, the location that makes the most sense from a planning point of view. The route through the project has been assumed in all the discussions previous to this month. We strongly feel the reasons cited by Foulger-Pratt are not satisfactory and will present a full description of why after Monday’s meeting.

East Campus Routes

Here’s a summary of some of the most germane issues discussed. All of this is subject to change.

City Demands
The “city” (it is unknown who precisely this means) has submitted a letter with requirements for the project to the University and the developer. This document has not been made public, making it difficult for us to evaluate the nature of the requests. It seems clear the project will need some type of public financing (such as a TIF) and will need city approval and support.

The parking garages will be embedded within blocks where possible. While they had released graphics showing precise numbers of spaces, they declined to discuss them at last week’s meeting saying they wanted to wait until the traffic study had been completed. The developers are negotiating with county officials about the scope of the traffic study they will complete.

Specifically for graduate students, the project will include 75 units of 2 bedroom graduate housing priced at $900 per person, and 75 units containing five bedrooms that will rent at $650 per person. This is similar to was it required by the RFP. In total, the project will contain roughly 2,000 units of housing, all rental, although not designed specifically for undergraduates. This housing will be priced at “market rate.”

Retail Mix
The “anchor tenants” at the project include roughly 175,000 square feet of retail. They are a movie theater (now perhaps replaced by the Birchmere Theater), a gym, book store, and grocery store. The preferred grocer mentioned is Whole Foods. There will also be a childcare center for children under 3 years old. Other tenants will include a variety of restaurants, neighborhood retail, and destination retail. There will be no bars in the project.

Other Considerations
The project will be under the jurisdiction of the UMD police. The developer has committed to a LEED Silver standard, although hedged about whether they would commit to applying to the USGBC for the official certification.

Historic District Nears Final Approval

Sigma Chi Frat HouseWith College Park’s Old Town Historic District nearing final approval with county officials, the first public controversy regarding a property in the district has emerged.

Historic District Hearing AnnouncementWe had previously reported that the Old Town Historic District faced an additional hearing with the Prince George’s County Zoning Hearing Examiner’s (ZHE) Office. In response to complaints from some landlords and others who object to the district, the ZHE had already ordered the city to re-post signs announcing the creation of the district in the Old Town neighborhood. After months of delay, we recently received this notice announcing the hearing will be held on Thursday, April 19th in the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

The Diamondback reported that the long vacated (and burned) Sigma Chi fraternity wants to demolish their building, located at 4600 Norwich Road. The fraternity argues the structure is damaged and doesn’t fit modern student’s needs. Meanwhile, preservationists like District 3 Councilperson Stephanie Stullich argue the 1930s colonial revival structure contributes to the character of the neighborhood and can be salvaged. The county’s Historic Preservation Commission generally only permits demolitions in rare cases, but does not regulate the interior design of structures. The HPC will hear the case on April 17th at 7:00 p.m., during their April meeting where two other applications for work permits in College Park will considered, both for fences.

Once the district is approved the city will be forming a local advisory committee, so property owners interested in having feedback in the process should stay tuned.

> Library: Old Town Historic District
> View a map of the properties included in the district

‘Preferred’ Route to Metro Identified

The University of Maryland’s Department of Public Safety has recently established the ‘preferred’ route from the University of Maryland Campus to the College Park Metro stop through a partnership between the University of Maryland and the City of College Park. This route has been given increased lighting, additional emergency phones and landscaping improvements in order to improve public safety and eventually clarify a walking route from the Metro station to the university.

The Department of Public Safety recommends (for your safety):

  • Avoid walking alone
  • Avoid using electronic devices that impair your senses
  • Use police escorts
  • Keep your eye on the blue-light phones
  • Stay away from suspicious vehicles and persons

Hopefully this first preferred path is only the start to a network of ‘safe’ roads in College Park. While we’re glad that there is interest in clarifying the pedestrian-heavy route between the campus and the metro, there are plenty of other well-traveled roads to the metro that are not included in this plan. Knox and Hartwick Roads in particular, both connect to major student housing (students are likely the most at risk group) areas on the west side of Route 1, angle towards the metro on the east side, and are some of the most recognizable street names in the city. Neither of them are part of this preferred path. Knox Road would be the most logical path for late nighttime bargoers. We also question the rational for identifying the west half of Calvert Road as a preferred route from campus. Calvert Road does not come within several blocks of campus and also fails to connect with most of the major student developments closest to campus.

Hopefully the future plans of the Department of Public Safety include programs that would increase the amount of foot traffic along these pedestrian routes. Lighting and new landscaping is great, but more ‘eyes on the street’ in sparsely populated Old Town would help reduce crime over the long term.

CP’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Route One Traffic

Berwyn Maze2.jpgAs anyone familiar with College Park’s neighborhoods knows, in some neighborhoods officials gone to great lengths to limit traffic on residential streets. Although most were developed with interconnected, gridiron street networks, over the years many streets have been cut off totally or made one way.

The result is what one local resident calls a “traffic labyrinth” where visitors are often bewildered and ask for directions to find a house or even to find the exit. Ironically, the parochial interest in reducing traffic on residential streets may be causing larger traffic headaches on Route 1. Hierarcheal street systems designed around collector roads are notorious for their congestion, since the collector road must carry high volumes of traffic and the entire system is highly sensitive to any problems with the connector roads. In plain English, grid systems like Washington, D.C., allow more drivers to get to more places with fewer back-ups. Urbanists have long argued that grid street designs encourage walking, since the many connections allow walkers to take the shortest routes.

How can College Park get more connected? The boldest plan might involve opening many streets at once for a test period to measure the impact. Because this approach would likely prove politically and financially unfeasible, a more selective approach could work. Although open only to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, the city’s Trolly Trail we discussed yesterday connects the various segments along the old route of Rhode Island Avenue, enhancing access to many neighborhoods. We hope the city better marks and promotes this recently developed trail.

We also strongly support introducing a grid street system in the East Campus development connecting both to Route 1, Paint Branch Parkway, and the Old Town neighborhood. (Indeed, many early proposals used in university documents show such a design) We think additional intersections on Paint Branch Parkway in particular could slow traffic in the area, enhance walkability, and ease traffic congestion on Route 1.

2006 Student Charrette Images Online


Although it has taken a bit longer than we expected, we finally completed locating and uploading digital copies of many of the plans and drawings produced during the 2006 SGA College Park Charrette. We have created a library page for the event spearheaded by former SGA president Andrew Rose and containing a presentation he created summarizing the outcome of the forum and charrette events. That page contains one image from each team, all of the images are viewable through our Flickr account.

Many of the drawings contain ideas about how to better connect the College Park Metro Station to campus for pedestrians, ideas that could be threatened or complicated by the College Park Historic District now under consideration. Some of the teams also tackled East Campus – a project we expect the University to announce a development partner for this semester.

Historic District Considered Near Downtown

College Park StreetcarA proposed Old Town College Park Historic District could prevent or slow new, pedestrian-scale development connecting the campus and downtown to the Metro station. The proposed district includes structures on both sides of Calvert Road, a street several groups from last spring’s design charrette targeted for dense development to create a pedestrian corridor running from the Metro station to downtown, the Knox Road area, and the campus.

If approved, the historic district would require all property owners within the district boundary — whether or not their property was identified as “historic” — to obtain a special “Historic Area Work Permit” from the County before engaging in any type of Historic Houseconstruction. Owners of “historic” properties would be eligible for tax credits/incentives on approved restoration and construction projects. When the City Council approved the nomination at their May 9, 2006 meeting several citizens spoke against the proposal, calling the additional permits that would be required a “hardship,” “headache” and “hassle,” and complaining it could be difficult to find contractors familiar with historic district restrictions. Several speakers cited a poll that found a majority of homes in the proposed district area did not want the district, although the minutes record the Old Town Civic Association submitted a letter in support of the district.

According to information provided to us by city planner Elisa Vitale, the historic district was conceived in 2000 by city officials and approved in 2004 by the county. However, she describes what happened after an appeal:

The HPC decision was appealed and the case was forwarded to the Zoning Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner heard the case, and issued her decision in November of 2005. This decision upheld the designation of the area as a historic district as appropriate, but recommended that the case be remanded to the HPC due to failure of HPC staff to follow notice requirements. On March 13, 2006, the District Council heard oral arguments on the ZHE’s recommendation. On March 27, 2006, the District Council issued an order of remand and returned the case to the HPC. The HPC held a second a public hearing on the proposed district on June 1, 2006, and again voted in favor of designating the district. The HPC also adopted the revised
Design Guidelines.

However, the June 1 decision has been appealed and will return to the Zoning Hearing Examiner. They have not yet set a hearing date, although we will post here when we hear when the date is set. We imagine this issue has proven so controversial because it involves not only historic preservation but also the property values of property owners, and whether or not the number of renters will increase in the neighborhood.

To read more about the restrictions of a Historic District, see the proposed design guidelines for Old Town, or view a map of the proposed district visit the new Old Town Historic District page in our library.