Development: Encourage, Not Impede

GUEST POST Matthew Popkin is a graduate student in the School of Public Policy and is running for City Council in District 3. He can be reached at

Driving down Route 1, it becomes obvious that College Park lacks amenities and quality development. For years, developments have been opposed or poorly integrated into the city. As a result, while the University of Maryland has been an attraction and destination, our downtown has paled in comparison. I’m running for city council because with the right collaboration between the city and the University, along with proactive efforts to welcome well-planned development, College Park can become one of the most desirable college towns in the country.

Look at the Knox Boxes. For decades, these units have been an overpriced eyesore. There is now a serious proposal to revitalize the complex. “Knox Village” should provide undergraduate and graduate housing as well as a high quality restaurant, retail, and an outdoor gathering space that is much needed. Ensuring that this happens in a timely fashion is critical.

On the contrary, we have made no progress on the abandoned Sigma Chi fraternity house on Norwich Road. Despite the owners’ serious intentions to redevelop it, the City Council has rejected multiple ideas, leaving a boarded up, broken into, deteriorating structure for over fifteen years. This is unacceptable. In my first month on the council, I will invite the owners, neighbors, and city staff to discuss our options. We will bring our ideas to the civic associations and City Council for review and work to make this house more than just a neglected eyesore.

Downtown College Park should have a grocery store that we can access without getting in a car or on a bus. For someone who doesn’t have a car, getting food is a frustration that takes money and time. The US Department of Agriculture agrees, having declared much of College Park a “food desert” — a dense, relatively low income community over a mile from a grocery store. A grocery store would reduce traffic along Route 1 and provide access to healthy food.

Last spring, I created a pilot bus service that went directly from student apartment complexes to the Beltway Plaza Giant to address the problem. This program would be unnecessary if the city would work with the grocery stores that have already expressed interest in building a location here in the city.

Ultimately, we need to create a town center that fosters a sense of community. Silver Spring and Hyattsville went through this transformation with much success, but College Park lags behind by not having a movie theater or classy dining options. We need to bring together the owners of property along Route 1 from College Ave. to Guildford Road to work with the City and University with regard to amenities and aesthetics and survey the community to convey what College Park desires. Many opportunities are on the horizon so long as the process and governance does not hinder aspirations. With such a town center, we will be able to showcase College Park – to prospective students, families, faculty, and our Big Ten peers.

Overall, we need to alleviate traffic, incentivize development, improve safety, and better connect the region by welcoming the Purple Line and Capital Bikeshare. We need to facilitate, not impede, those who want to work to build a better College Park.

 All of this infrastructure will take time to implement and build, but we need to start now. Long-term improvements to the community will be well worth it and enhance the charm and character of the city. Within a few years, Downtown College Park could rival Rockville Town Center, Downtown Silver Spring, and Hyattsville, but we have to be welcoming and proactive to transform College Park into that great college town.


Calvert Hills Access to Cafritz

The opinions expressed in this piece represent the views of the author and not Rethink College Park or its other contributors.

In conversations about the Cafritz property, I have often wound up conversations about how the property will relate to the community around it. Two basic models can be followed – the urban street grid or the suburban pod. Street grids have a lot going for them, most notably on walkability. You can get a lot further in a one kilometer walk on a grid than in pod.

Street Grid Walkability
How far you get walking 1km in either a suburban (left) or urban (right) street layout.

Grids also have an impact on traffic. When there are only a handful of roads to travel on, a problem on any one of them creates tremendous impact. Grids create alternative routes and spread out the traffic more, relieving pressure. In short, there’s a reason humans have built cities on this pattern for millenia.

Although College Park itself, particularly Old Town and Calvert Hills, leans towards the grid, it exists amid a series of pods. Calvert Hills is itself a pod, with Riverdale Park another pod, University Park a third, Hyattsville and Berwyn and University Town Center all pods further away.

Many in the communities surrounding Cafritz have rightly pushed for both a connection southward into Riverdale Park, and a bridge Eastward across the CSX tracks. Both of these links would increase site access in general and help provide connection alternatives to Route 1 and East-West Highway. With these connections already under consideration, County planning staff have also suggested studying a connection Northward into Calvert Hills.

Area in the red box suggested for study as a combined vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle link

I live in Calvert Hills and like the idea of having a way to leave the neighborhood that does not involve Route 1. A connection between Calvert Hills and Cafritz would provide direct access South into Riverdale Park and East across the planned CSX Bridge. I do not know what all the potential impacts would be but I believe it is worth studying because more informed choices tend to be better chocies.

Sadly, others in my neighborhood disagree. Councilmember Stullich, encouraged by certain hysterical Calvert Hills residents, fired off an e-mail Saturday decrying County staff for even daring to suggest studying the matter. Posters on the local listserve conjured visions of a giant “through way[sic]” which would “destroy” Calvert Hills, slammed County staff “who do not live here” as liars, and dismissed the idea of study even while acknowledging the general principle that connectivity provides benefits. The sheer ferocity of the opinions gave me pause and I realized that I was not reading a rational discussion – it was about faith.

Planning decisions have an emotional component. We all make value judgments that are not strictly rational. I dislike brutalist architecture and I will not for a minute pretend that this based in fact. It is taste, which is emotional. We ask for trouble, however, when we let emotion become everything. One can claim that a link between Calvert Hills and Cafritz would create a huge new highway, destroy the neighborhood, increase crime or unleash a plague of frogs, but merely asserting it does not make it so. That is the entire point of study – to gather the best facts and best forecasts possible so that we know what the impacts of our decisions are.

I have no idea if a connection between Calvert Hills and Cafritz makes sense. I do not have any facts to make an informed decision. If, like me, you prefer to make your decisions based on evidence and not supposition, I encourage to contact Councilmember Stullich, the City Council and the Planning Board and encourage them to support rational decision making.

Councilmember Stullich’s original e-mail is available below the jump.

Continue reading Calvert Hills Access to Cafritz

City and Book Exchange Developer at Impasse

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At the October 4th City Council worksession (video above), councilmembers, city planning staff, and R & J Company, LLC were at loggerheads over the developer’s proposed 6-story building on the site of the Maryland Book Exchange downtown. Lying just below the surface are community concerns over the fact that the mid-rise building would contain 830 undergraduate beds and approximately 170 beds marketed to graduate students and young professionals across the 341 units. The City’s agenda tonight incudes a motion recommending that the County Planning Board reject the detailed site plan for the project.
Book Exhange elevation from College Ave
Keep in mind that the city (both council and staff) fill an advisory role. The County Planning Board and Council have the final say. Eric Olson on the County Council could definitely delay the project, but ultimately this does not come down to a popular vote no matter how much elected officials at both the city and county level would like it to. The developer is mostly within the intent and bounds of the zoning for the property and could seek relief in the court system. Their hard line approach seems to indicate and intent to do just that. As usual, the press coverage and political pronouncements overlook the legal and regulatory framework underlying the development review process.

The Prince George’s County Planning Board will  hear the case on Thursday, November 3rd in Upper Marlboro. It will be very interesting to watch how the Book Exchange project progresses through the process seeing as this is the first project to be proposed since the adoption of the updated Route 1 Sector Plan in summer 2010. Some of the disagreement stems out of the lack of precedent for these new regulations.

There is definitely a gap between what the Sector Plan says and what the City’s staff wants it to say. Most (but not all) of the items listed in the city’s staff report are of questionable relevance. The developer’s argument that the building doesn’t need to be “stepped-back” from the Old Town neighborhood is pretty specious.


Zusin Files Plans for Book Exchange Redevelopment with County

Book Exhange elevation from College Ave
On July 14th, R & J Company, LLC filed a detailed site plan to build a 6-story apartment building on the site of the Maryland Book Exchange at the corner of College Ave. and Route 1 in Downtown College Park (SEE RENDERINGS). From what we can tell, the details of the proposal are basically the same as they were last fall:

  • 341 units
  • 14,366 SF of ground floor retail (with a little less than 10,000 leased by the Maryland Book Exchange in a new space)
  • 321 parking spaces underground (the City Council nixed a request by the developer to pay for fee in lieu parking in the city’s empty public garage two to the south of the site)
  • LEED Silver at a minimum

Although proposed to be constructed as one building, developer Ilya Zusin envisions a structure that would from an architectural standpoint “read” as two buildings from College Avenue. The two sections would not be connected internally and have separate entrances. About 2/3 of the units would be contained in the section on the Route 1 side of the parcel and contain approximately 830 dedicated student beds. The remaining 1/3, with about 170 bedrooms, would be marketed to professors, graduate student, and young professionals.

Unlike recently approved and constructed, dense student housing projects on Route 1 to the north, this proposal is immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood – Old Town College Park. Although the vast majority of Old Town is rental housing, there is still a contingent of about two dozen residents vehemently opposed to siting any student housing on the east side of Route 1 downtown. Even without the student housing component, a 6-story building would be far taller than anything in the immediate vicinity (with the exception of the city’s parking garage which is slightly shorter).

A letter dated October 1, 2010 from Old Town Civic Association (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 project will no doubt be one of the most controversial development proposals in recent memory for the city. Despite the opposition and the public perception that the development approval is up for popular vote, Zusin’s project appears to be perfectly within the bounds of the zoning for the property. That is the basic reality of the situation and the Route 1 Sector Plan, but that doesn’t mean the project can’t be obfuscated by politics and end up in a drawn out court battle. The project will go before the Prince George’s County Planning Board on October 20th.

WashPo Covers Back Room ‘Dernoga Money’

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George’s County Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.

Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.

Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present “Dernoga Money” at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.

“Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?” …

“You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we’d] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?” Dernoga said. “I found it greedy on the part of the property owners.”

Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a “drop in the bucket,” he said.

Dernoga’s shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park (and have appeared multiple times on this blog), on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county’s top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.

Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.

After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to “revisit” the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.

College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga’s actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn’t make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we’re stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city’s tax base.

Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George’s council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George’s County.

City Scrambles to Spend Speed Camera Money

The College Park City Council seemed to be taken off guard Tuesday by $350-600,000 in city speed camera funds that must be committed to “public safety” projects (including pedestrian infrastructure). The money must be committed in the next two months or it will be returned to the state. The relatively large sum (equivalent to 10% of the city’s total budget) was perfectly foreseeable when the cameras were authorized last November, but for whatever reason no project prioritization conversation has occurred until this week.

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Unfortunately, various neighborhood factions (see video above) will inevitably descend upon City Hall attempting to eke out their “fair” (read: small) share of the money in the coming weeks. The city as a whole would be much better served by a small number high-value, cost-effective investments that will save lives. A pedestrian activated HAWK signal where the Trolley Trail crosses Paint Branch Parkway or a full traffic light at Route 1 and Hartwick Road come to mind. The latter project would also expand accessibility to floundering businesses on the east side of Route 1 in Downtown. Each project would cost about $80-100,000. City staff should immediately begin conversations with the state to assess the feasibility of planning such projects on non-city roads in the expedited timeline (Funds must be committed by June 30th). The City Manager has done a tremendous disservice to the community by not already having these conversations.

On a similar note, we continue to be dismayed but the relative lack of attention being paid to the impending State Highway Administration (SHA) Route 1 crosswalk reconstruction project from Albion Road to Paint Branch Parkway. That initiative is going to be a major missed opportunity if SHA is left to run with whatever their highway engineers feel like doing. Traffic camera money could easily be used to supplement or complement those propsoed state investments and perhaps even extend them north of Paint Branch Parkway towards the emerging mixed-use district there.

The University of Maryland at I-95

Image via Flickr user eddie.welker

The same university that worried about how a light rail line could endanger its students as they walk between classes is now looking to turn I-95 into a primary campus thoroughfare.

Maryland Senate President Mike Miller wants to merge the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park with the professional schools at the University of Maryland Baltimore. It is not clear where this idea came from, but in a message to the UMCP community,  President Wallace Loh appeared to be dutifully following Miller’s request to make it so. Members of the university senate, which plays an important role in campus governance, reported that this proposal came out of the blue. Reporting by the Gazette and others indicates that the proposal has the support of Governor O’Malley, and describes some of the rationale for the proposal.

The motivations quoted so far by the media are not very compelling. One oft-cited fact is that the combined universities would have research expenditures of around $1 billion per year, and would rank as high as 10th in the nation. Both universities have a good number of strong programs. The implication is that this will lead to yet more research dollars—hence, jobs—and also more prestige for the university. This is not very persuasive. Is there any evidence that individual research grant proposals from College Park will be more favorably reviewed because of the merger. Not very likely. Continue reading The University of Maryland at I-95

Councilmembers Criticized by WaPo for Opposing Baker Reform Bill

Photo of Rushern Baker by Flickr user herrvebah

When County Executive Rushern Baker introduced a reform bill to “clean up the county council,” most councilmembers criticized it. Members became worried about potential loss of vote for several years on development projects requested by campaign contributors, as the Gazette reported.

Baker introduced the bill after former county executive  Jack B. Johnson was arrested on a series of dramatic corruption charges. His wife and current council member Leslie Johnson was also arrested after her husband was recorded by the FBI telling her to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and hide $80,000 in suspected bribes in her bra.

Baker’s first reform bill would ban council members from voting on any project request from a developer who has contributed to their campaign or slate in the past three years.

The second bill would prohibit councilmembers themselves from calling for review of a development site plan. According to a news release from Baker, reported in the Gazette, the second bill was drafted “to address prior instances of ‘pay to play’ where council members have ‘called’ up cases for purposes to seek concessions from developers.”

Councilman Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville and Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro have opposed the proposed bill, while others also have criticized Mr. Baker for “lavish spending” during his inauguration sworn-in ceremony as county executive.

Council members’ opposition to Baker proposed reform plan however drew a sharp criticism from the Washington Post. In an editorial last Friday,the Post wrote:

The truth is that Prince George’s recent ethics record is so horrendous—and the resulting failures of economic development have inflicted such long-term damage—that radical surgery is required. Prince George’s needs to go the extra mile to prove, most of all to its residents, that it’s cleaning up its act. And yes, it needs to go further than its neighbors. If the council blocks Mr. Baker’s reforms, it will have itself to blame for the county’s continued second-class status and subpar economic performance.

The “call up” issue in the bill would prevent the tactics council members used to use to stymie projects. There are many different kinds of “pay to play.” Some for campaigns, others are shakedowns to make politicians look good to their constituents. Critics say such tactics ultimately harm the development review process.

State Delegates will be voting on the proposed bill. So far. Dels. Justin Ross (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville and Barbara Frush (D-Dist. 21) of Beltsville have both expressed support for the legislation. A public hearing on the bill will be held on the bill coming this Saturday (Feb. 12).

Ehrlich Transportation Plan Unsuitable for College Park

light rail
Light rail transit in Portland, OR (image via the Rethink College Park Flickr Page).

Before casting your vote today, please consider what you would like your commute and that of future College Park residents to look like. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob L. Ehrlich surely has: His transportation platform, as outlined below, does not help actualize the vision of the modern college town that we all would like College Park to be.

More buses? The key to Ehrlich’s transportation platform is halting construction of the Purple Line light rail extension to the Metro system. The Purple Line would transverse Washington suburbs, connecting the Orange Line at New Carrollton to the Red Line at Bethesda. The route would have five stops in College Park—just outside the city limits at UMUC, in front of Stamp Student Union, East Campus, the existing Green Line metro stop, and on River Road at M-Square—quickly carrying local faculty and staff to campus, students to internships in D.C., and all residents to the businesses it would attract along the Route 1 corridor. Instead of investing in this speedy, commercially-viable transit system, Ehrlich would like to create a “rapid bus service” along the route, adding to the deluge of buses and shuttles that already hurdle up and down Campus Drive and get caught in mid-afternoon traffic across the region. Even The Diamondback, which endorsed Ehrlich yesterday morning, noted that when it comes to the Purple Line, Ehrlich’s plan is “less popular, less efficient, and less environmentally friendly.”

Roads over rail? Last week, Ehrlich promised to completely halt construction of the Purple Line if he gains office, claiming, “the dollars aren’t there”. While he cannot find money for light rail, there seems to be ample dollars available for roads. Ehrlich intends to divert the $80 million that O’Malley has dedicated to light-rail engineering to local road projects. Ehrlich has long given preference to roads over transit, beginning construction of the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector during his term, while spurning the $1.6 billion light rail project. As Ehrlich’s representative on the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority board Robert J. Smith told The Washington Post, Ehrlich’s complaints of funding woes for the Purple Line are an attempt to “delay the project” and direct “all money available” to the Intercounty Connector, a nearly completed freeway marked by its environmental infirmity. In College Park, where nearly 50% of students come to campus by some other means than alone in a car, Ehrlich’s antiquated, autocentric scheme is unsuitable for the needs of the campus community.

Simply, when it comes to transportation, Bob Ehrlich does not have the needs of College Park in mind. While the Purple Line surely faces other obstacles in the reluctant University of Maryland administration, the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Councils have already agreed to the project, proving that the need and the desire for modern transit is here. All we need now is a visionary governor who will bring our ideal of a livable, vibrant college town to fruition.

For a similar viewpoint, read architecture professor emeritus and Purple Line NOW president Ralph Bennet’s guest column, “Fear the purple,” in The Diamondback.