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.

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.

November College Park Development Update

The College Park Development Update is a bi-monthly newsletter prepared by the City of College Park Planning, Community and Economic Development Department covering development activity in the City. Please feel free to distribute this information as you see fit. Questions or comments can be directed to Economic Development Coordinator Michael Stiefvater at (240)487-3543 or msteifvater@collegeparkmd.gov.

Route 1 Event Seeks to Educate Residents about Redevelopment Opportunities

Route 1, College Park

According to City’s Economic Development Coordinator Michael Stiefvater, the City is working on an event concerning redevelopment opportunities along Route 1 and they want to begin publicizing it in order to give everyone some advanced notice.

The agenda is a work in progress, but the basic premise for the event is to educate residents on the current status of these opportunities, while collecting feedback on their vision for these sites.

There will be presentations by the Planning and Economic Development staff along with plenty of time for open discussion and questions. Here are additional details for the event:

Date: Saturday, November 19, 2011
Time: 8:30am to 12pm
Place: City Council Chambers

 

Cafritz development informational meeting – Tuesday Nov 1

An informational meeting on the proposed development at the 36-acre Cafritz property will take place Tuesday, November 1 at the College Park City Hall (4500 Knox Road). As most readers are aware, the Cafritz property is located adjacent to Route 1, immediately south of College Park and east of University Park. The meeting will include a presentation on the latest development plans from the Cafritz developers and provide an opportunity for a public Q&A.

wholefoods

The updated site plan (above), including a commitment from Whole Foods, has sparked discussion and debate throughout the region and in surrounding areas including the Calvert Hills neighborhood of College Park as well as the cities of University Park and Riverdale Park. While the prospect of a Whole Foods has garnered lots of positive attention, the most recent site plan resembles something similar to a 1970s suburban strip mall and leaves lots of questions about what “Future Development” will look like. This meeting will provide an excellent opportunity for residents to hear directly from the development team and weigh in on the conversation. Hope to see you there!

Eminent Domain of #1 Liquor in Question

#1 Liquor at University View

With the city council election only a few months away, and an increasing number of residents are voicing their opposition, the council may soon vote on a motion that will permanently put a stop to the negotiation to purchase #1 Liquor: College Park’s most infamous homestead holdout. The small parcel (8200 Baltimore Avenue) is sandwiched in between University View and the Varsity high rises, has been a point of contention for the council for years. In December 2009, the City Council authorized the City Manager to negotiate the acquisition of the property and turn it into a “pocket park” for general public use. The purchase would be funded by College Park’s allocation of the state’s localside Program Open Space (POS) money.

City council members who supported the motion in 2009, argued that the property was “an eyesore.” They also said that the purchase would be an opportunity “to improve that portion of Route 1 corridor“. The 2009 resolution allows the City to pursue the acquisition using all “actions necessary to proceed with condemnation if negotiations are not successful.” This meant eminent domain, or compulsory purchase by the government against the will of the landowner, was on the table if the store owner refused to make a deal.

However, opposition to the eminent domain option from the residents in recent days have forced some council members to soften or even reverse their support. One of these council members is Patrick Wojahn (Dist 1), who has come under fierce scrutiny for his original support for eminent domain from a small but vocal group of residents in his north College Park constituency.

I was on the fence initially about eminent domain, and after hearing what residents have had to say, I oppose it.” -wrote Mr. Wojahn in an email to his north College Park newsgroup.

However, Mr. Wojahn’s reversal on eminent domain option did not completely please the group of residents; they want the Council to stop negotiation with the #1 Liquor owner altogether.

The City should stop going after this particular business.  You [Mr. Wojahn] and Mr. Catlin keep saying the City should continue because the owner is still willing to negotiate [to sell]” – charged one resident.

I have not seen anyone on the council move to amend this item be removed” – continued the resident.

During the recent budget worksession, this topic was brought up and the City Manager (Mr. Nagro) said the only way to stop the negotiation would be for the Mayor and Council to do another vote to “unauthorize” it.

Mr. Wojahn’s counterpart in District 1, Councilmember Nagle, who has been a vocal opponent to the #1 Liquor purchase from the beginning,  has recently done just that. She has asked the city to unauthorize the City Manager from pursuing any further negotiations to obtain the property (arms-length or otherwise). The council will vote on that motion in next Tuesday’s (May 24) regular council session.

In the mean time, the debate on the property deal is intensifying. Most opponents to the idea of acquiring the property argue that “uglinesss” should never be the reason for purchasing the property.

.. if you want to get rid of it, why don’t you get rid of town hall or that vacant building that is an eyesore between Burger King and Taco Bell (on Rt. 1).” – said one long time residents.

If we are looking to make the city look good, there is nothing on US 1, in my opinion, from the IKEA corridor on down except the University of Maryland that looks attractive to anyone wanting to relocate to the city.” – continued the resident.

Council member Robert Catlin (Dist 2), who sponsored the 2009 motion disagrees. Catlin thinks location, and not the look, should be a major factor why the City should buy the property.

(The location of the property) is great because of the large population that will be living or passing through there.  It can be a place for people to buy food from the adjacent food establishments and enjoy eating outside or interact with people (like Dupont Circle). ” – said Mr. Catlin.

In addition to location, Mr. Catlin argues that  the property would make for a good bus superstop location, as it the southernmost point that southbound buses can stop to pick up passengers. He also points out that the current business owner is not the same business owner that was there when University View was built.

The current liquor store owner is free to lease space elsewhere in College Park. ” – he argued.

In response to the argument that the City will be losing precious tax dollars from a legitimate business, Mr Catlin said: “The $1,500 in revenue derived from the store is insignificant in the city’s budget, especially when considering that the redevelopment here generates hundreds of times more revenue than was generated here before redevelopment.

What could we buy [with POS money], only church property?” – asks Mr. Catlin.

Some residents want the City to spend the fund to purchase the property in the design and rehabilitation of Duvall Field project in north College Park. The City originally received $300K as part of State’s Program Open Space (POS) fund, however it could not use the money due to a related fund from a Greenbelt south core development project.

Others have a different perspective on how the purchase should be viewed,

Program Open Space is neither a highway beautification fund nor a blight reduction tool. The park idea is a farce. A fraction of an acre ‘pocket park’ on the #1 Liquor site will not meet the city’s conservation or public recreation goals, especially in light of the fact that the 5-acre North Gate Park (another POS project) is about to open just to the south.” – said the Rethink College Park editor David Daddio.

Daddio thinks the North Gate Park parcel would make an excellent location for a bus super stop for the emerging North Gate District.

Indeed POS funds could be used for the purchase; but let’s not pretend that there is a park deficit in the city.” – said Daddio.

Though it is unclear at this moment how the Council will vote next week, intense lobbying by the opposing residents may sway the minds of the council members. If there is a tie, Mayor Fellows will cast his vote to break the tie. Mr. Fellows who supported the original 2009 motion is also undecided.

We have not established what that cost to the City might be.  I do understand the concerns of a significant number of residents, and they are a factor in my consideration. ” – said Mr. Fellows.

In the mean time, opponents to the purchase plan are hoping that the upcoming November election could swing the Council decision next week.

Real Route 1 Bus Service – Time to Seize Opportunity

At the city council meeting last Tuesday, council members Marcus Afzali and Patrick Wojahn were able to get Route 1 Bus integration/consolidation on the agenda for the next City-University Partnership meeting. The idea originated from a 2008 City-contracted transportation study of Route 1 in College Park (RTCP discussion/ analysis HERE), which envisioned bus “super stops” around development nodes on Route 1, common branding of service across the three area transit providers, and other transportation demand management strategies designed to reduce congestion and increase accessibility. Unfortunately, thus far, the only tangible thing that came out of that $150,000 consulting report was a reworking of the Prince George’s TheBus Route 17 along Route 1 which provides a miserable 40 minute headways (wait time between buses). City efforts for more systematic coordination of transit service have thus far been thwarted by limited funding, WMATA intransigence, and lackluster participation by UMD. With the impending completion of two more student housing projects on Route 1, however, there may be light at the end of the tunnel… and soon.
Paint Branch Pkwy @ Route 1, Looking at future Hotel site

New Hall Ings Bus Canopy Construction
A super stop under construction in Bradford, England

As currently planned, two new separate Shuttle UM routes serving the Varsity and Starview Plaza student housing developments opening this fall. When you consider the already completed University View and Mazza GrandMarc, that means by August there will be four developer-funded routes servicing each development individually for an annual total payment of about $500,000 to Shuttle-UM for four projects housing about 3,500 student. Alone, each route has (or will have) pretty bad headways (U-View and The Varsity- 10-20 minutes, Mazza 25-30 minute, Starview somewhere in between), especially for nights and weekends. Three or even all four routes could easily be consolidated to provide much more frequent service along most of Route 1 (3-5 minute headways during peak hours, roughly 10 minute headways for nights and weekends). Such a service could form the backbone of north-south transit service along Route 1, which is already available to non-UMD affiliated city residents.

Shuttle-UM_Bus
The idea behind transit coordination and consolidation is simple. People do not care what name is on the outside of the bus. They care how much it costs, where it goes, and how quickly they can get to their destination. Unfortunately, the current haphazard provision of bus service in the city means that people have only a limited notion of the services available. Transfers between service providers are almost unheard of. Students ride Shuttle-UM, area residents/faculty/staff ride WMATA and Shuttle-UM, and pretty much nobody rides (or has even heard of) TheBus. The concept behind bus super stops, is that a few high profile bus shelters along a corridor could raise the profile of transit and help people understand and take advantage of all transit options and transfer opportunities regardless of transit operator.

Real-time bus arrival information
Real time bus display in Singapore.

Up until now, there really has not been the density of passengers needed to justify frequent bus service along Route 1. Indeed, UMD scuttled service from Ikea to downtown Hyattsville two years ago for lack of ridership. However, with the completion of several student housing projects all along the corridor (each paying Shuttle-UM to provide individual service to campus), there are the makings of regular transit service again. Eventually, beefed up bus stops sporting real time displays could further complement already high student trasit ridership from these new dense, transit-ready development popping up all over town. We attribute the high ridership of the University Town Center and University View routes to student finances, the price and difficulty of parking at UMD, and the relatively close proximity of these projects to campus. There is lots of potential. Unfortunately, August is just three months away and this conversation has not even really begun. The council meeting last Tuesday reflected the limited understanding that city elected officials and planning staff have of the opportunities as well as the nascent stage that the conversation is at despite the three years that have passed since the Route 1 Transportation Study.:
Continue reading Real Route 1 Bus Service – Time to Seize Opportunity

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.

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.

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