North College Park to Discuss Proposed Book Exchange Development Tomorrow

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The proposal to turn the Book Exchange site into a 6-story mid-rise apartment building for students and professionals has stirred quite a bit of discussion among City’s southern inhabitants – University students and Old Town residents. Being so close to the campus, UMD, smart growth proponents and students would love to see this proposal go through. On the other hand, some long time residents fear that the proposed development is an invitation to more trouble for them – stuff like “late night parties, noise ” etc. will be very common, they think. While the project appears to be in line with the recently updated zoning for the property, but political opposition could delay the project considerably and ultimately quash it.

Does north College Park have anything to do with this property development? Directly the answer may be no, but indirectly, definitely yes. North College Park has a sizable student populations living in its houses. If more and more rental housing is built in the south, students will likely to leave north and concentrate closer to campus. This may or may not have an effect to the northern neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the four council members representing the north part of the city have been divided on the proposal. While District 1′s Chris Nagle supports the proposal, her counterpart in District 1 Patrick Wojahn does not. District 4′s Dennis Michelle is also against the proposal. The other District 4 council member and UMD graduate student Marcus Afzali is publicly undecided but skeptical.

Ilya Zusin, the developer of the proposed development will be at tomorrow’s North College Park Citizen Association (NCPCA)’s meeting (Oct 14). The session will start at 8:10pm. A detailed agenda can be found here.

Earlier this month, the members of the Old Town Civic Association overwhelmingly rejected the proposed development. Tomorrow’s discussion has been billed as an informational session for NCPCA’s members. This means that the members are unlikely to take an official position on the matter.

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. “

Meeting on Book Exchange Development Tonight

Please mark your calendars for
Monday, September 27th
7:30 PM
City Hall Council Chambers

A small committee of Old Town residents was set up to speak with the developer of the proposed Book Exchange Housing Project. That committee consists of Steve Brayman (former Mayor), Stephanie Stullich (city councilwoman for the area), Bob Schnabel (Stullich’s Husband), Chris Aubry (president of the Old Town Civic Assn.), and Bob McFadden. Not surprisingly, the group would like to see the project go in a different direction. That committee is meeting with the larger Old Town Civic Association to formulate an official neighborhood position that they will convey to the city council.

Email message from Old Town Civic Association President Chris Aubry:

Per the developer’s invitation, representatives from Old Town met with Ilya
Zusin twice since our meeting on August 25th to discuss development proposed
for the Maryland Book Exchange site.

Our meetings have ended and the committee would like to share its findings
with you so the Civic Association can determine its collective position. I
will then draft a formal letter to the City Council and mayor to notify them
formally of the Civic Association’s position.

See the staff at the window for a parking pass.

Please pardon the short notice but timing is tight and we must voice our
opinion so the city council can include it in their consideration.

Chris Aubry
President, OTCA

UMD Supports Book Exchange Development

A letter we got our hands on from UMD VP of Administrative Affairs to District 3 County Councilman Eric Olson indicates that UMD supports the Book Exchange Redevelopment Plan. In the past, UMD’s support has been a make or break for student housing projects in the city. The letter, dated August 25th, doesn’t specifically cite support for the undergraduate portion of the project, but does imply support for the plan in its entirety given its inclusion of housing for graduate students and visiting faculty. They’d like to see a Fall 2013 delivery. How do you read into the contents of this letter?

—>UMD’s Letter to Eric Olson

A Better Project is Always Just Around the Corner

“We need to create a housing balance and start attracting redevelopment that will help spur a greater variety of restaurants, stores and housing for professionals, graduate students, as well as undergraduates.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman

“When it comes to development, it’s important to have a balance. At this point, we’ve done so much to address [the demand for student housing], I’m worried about going too far in that direction.” ~ Stephanie Stullich, City Councilwoman

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That’s right, a better project is always just around the corner or so we’re so often told by our political leaders when it comes to the redevelopment of Route 1. It’s a theme we’ve examined time and time again on this site and a worldview that’s repeated by politicians and everyday citizens around the country over and over again during the development review process. Those sentiments become stronger in existing communities where the stakes are high and NIMBYism, complex economic and community impacts, and us-vs.-them thinking can hijack the dialogue and take our eye off the ball. The controversy erupting over the proposed redevelopment of the Maryland Book Exchange is no exception.

City Councilwoman Stephanie E. Stullich said Tuesday that “building more student housing has been a priority” but noted major new and planned projects will add more than 4,300 beds in off-campus housing within the next few years. ~ From the Washington Examiner (9/14/2010)

The local political establishment has been taken by the idea that there is too much student housing being built in College Park and that it’ll ultimately be at the peril of other types of development that can bring variety and interest to the community. This line of thinking, if taken to it’s logical conclusion, could really destroy the momentum of redevelopment in the city. It’s a mindset and position that purports to understand what the community needs, but ignores that projects need to be economically viable in order to be achievable. When the Book Exchange went up for sale last spring, it wasn’t high end condos, retail and office developers, or boutique hotels inquiring about the property. It was national and regional student housing developers seeking to cash in on a potential for a smart growth, urban infill redevelopment student housing project just across from UMD’s south gate.

Why are we surprised that a private developer has come along, put this property under contract and proposed a student housing project completely in line with the zoning for the property? What precedent does that set for the local development community if our politics are completely at odds with the policies on the books? What right does anyone have to decide what types of people can fill what types of property when the public has already gotten together and agreed on the intensity of development allowed at a site?

route1illustrativeplanIt should come as no surprise to anyone that a student housing proposal is exactly what we got at the Book Exchange. RTCP is not making the argument that it’s an unreasonable public policy goal to want to attract professionals and graduate students to downtown College Park that will in turn diversity the retail offerings. What’s unreasonable is to expect such a housing proposal to materialize against the realities of the market. UMD in partnership with the City and County are embarking on a highly ambitious, publicly-assisted and financed project with the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative. That public assistance along with the sheer size of East Campus makes new housing products in downtown marketable to the general population and therefore financially feasible. There is no such opportunity in place for a purely private project like the one being proposed for the Book Exchange site. What this property does have working to its advantage is its location in an Impact Fee Waiver zone that gives incentives for private developers to build housing for University of Maryland Students in specified areas near campus. Let’s work from the proposal in front of us today instead of holding out for a pure high-end apartment building or condo proposal on the site, which may not materialize for 5 years or more if ever.

We do believe it’s a worthy end to get non-undergraduate housing and other types of retail in College Park. That’s only achievable with a)public financing or b)a mix of housing in one project that includes a sizable portion of student beds which make the project financially feasible. On this project, the developer Ilya Zusin has already committed to marketing roughly 17% of this project to non-undergrads. That 17% would be housed in a self-contained building to the rear of the site. Given that Zusin qualifes for the school facilities impact fee waiver, which reduces his development costs substantially, we think it’s worth looking at ways that he can blunt community criticism and set aside some portion of the other 83% of beds (255 units) specifically for graduate students for some period during the annual leasing process once the complex is built. This arrangement could be similar to how the Mazza Grandmarc operates, but flaws in that system should be examined and addressed to ensure graduate students do ultimately occupy the units intended for them.

On the retail side, Zusin seems legitimately interested in delivering some sort of small grocer to the complex. We suggest that he look at ways of attracting the Maryland Food Co-op, currently located in the Student Union, into the ground floor of his complex along Yale Avenue. These would be good faith efforts on the part of the developer to avoid having the barrel through the county planning process without political support. These efforts would hopefully avoid the need for a lengthy and expensive (for the developer and county) court fight. The Maryland Book Exchange plans to lease the 10,000 square feet of retail on Route 1. It’s great that we can retain this local retailer in the community.

Ultimately, its worth remembering that student housing doesn’t create more students. UMD’s undergraduate population is stable and is actually lower now than it used to be. Multiple private student housing projects have been and are currently being built in College Park. Once complete, they will effectively drain many of the student renters from single family home neighborhoods. Since many of these units are designated student housing, they are separate from the larger rental market and rents will have to be low in order for beds to fill up. Yes, there will still be some students left in neighborhoods, but there will be a dramatic locational shift. Students get cheaper, better housing in a vibrant urban corridor. Neighborhoods get students out and into a slim, transit-ready section of the city along Route 1 as well as access to new retail. Everyone wins.

“Possibilities to add convenience, intensity and cheer in cities… are limitless” ~ Jane Jacobs

City Councilwoman Stephanie E. Stullich said Tuesday that “building more student housing has been a priority” but noted major new and planned projects will add more than 4,300 beds in off-campus housing within the next few years.

Read more at the Washington Examiner: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/local/College-Park-student-housing-development-meets-resistance-860399-102906834.html#ixzz0zbvK6200

Olson, Stullich, NIMBYs Oppose Book Exchange Housing Plan

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“My initial reaction is that they’re not going to be able to build student housing at this site,” he said. “I think that the space could be better used.” ~ Eric Olson, Dist. 3 County Councilman

Back in July, the Diamondback had an article talking about development plans to turn the Book Exchange lot into student housing.  After reading the College Park Patch and speaking with County Councilman Eric Olson and the developer Ilya Zusin, we got a better image of what is being proposed – a 6-story, 334-unit primarily student apartment building with 14,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. We also got a sense of the politics that are beginning to erupt around this high profile downtown CP project that’s proposed just across the street from the front entrance to UMD. These politics could very well thwart the project all-together.

The proposal comprises 109 units geared towards visiting professors, young professionals, and graduate students (mainly singles with some doubles) and 225 marketed to undergraduates (mainly quads). While proposed as one building, the development would read like two with different facades and lobbies if constructed. There would be about 830 dedicated student beds all housed within the part of the site closest to Route 1. The 109 unit building (roughly 170 beds) would have a different entrance and be located at the rear of the site backing up to Yale Avenue. 10,000 square feet of the retail space would be taken up by the Book Exchange itself with frontage on Route 1. Another store would locate on the College Avenue side.


View Larger Map

According to the Patch and other sources, a small group of vocal residents are concerned about the addition of hundreds of new students in Old Town. They fear increased noise and traffic. District 3 County Councilman and College Park smart growth champion Eric Olson, who ultimately determines what takes place on the site, seems to be leaning towards the view of long term residents who oppose student housing at the site. That’s a surprising position for Olson given the pro-student and smart growth platform that swept him into office. Some of Olson’s non-student constituents turned out for a meeting August 25th in Old Town College Park and stated their preference to see a “Trader Joe’s, a boutique hotel, or even apartments aimed at area professionals” on the site rather than student housing.

While we agree that it’s less than ideal that every residential product being built in College Park these days is student housing, it’s difficult to deny the smart growth implications of such an infill project. The site is literally across the street from the main entrance to UMD at the corner of Route 1 and College Ave. It’s also difficult to ignore the precedent being set here. While projects like this can always be killed one way or another politically, there is really no legal ground to oppose it under the current zoning regime. This project conforms completely with the spirit and language of the Route 1 Sector Plan that was just updated by the County Council this summer. Politicians don’t need to get into the business of deciding who can live where; especially given the character of established zoning and housing incentives in College Park. I believe it sets a bad precedent if Olson ultimately quashes the first development proposed under the updated Route 1 Sector Plan. We can’t let latent and unfounded anti-student housing hysteria stand in the way of smart growth in College Park.

UMD has the wherewithall and momentum to build the non-student housing on East Campus that Olson and others desire for the community. One private developer with a 2.6-acre site does not. Indeed, UMD is refusing to build any undergraduate beds in its East Campus Redevelopment Initiative and will be bulldozing 650-beds of affordable undergraduate student housing over the next 5 years to make way for that project. UMD intends to infuse a critical mass of retail and high end residential that can draw in young professionals with the East campus Redevelopment Initiative that Olson and others desire. As more student high rises come online, the Old Town neighborhood will begin get drained of its student residents and houses will likely turn over to non-student young professional hoping to locate near the College Park metro station.
Artists' Renderings for East Campus Most recent renderings of the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative.

The location of the Book Exchange site between Fraternity Row, a group of sorority houses and the entirety of the UMD nightlife scene makes it nearly impossible to finance a true residential product for young professionals at this point. Anything that departs substantially from what the developer has proposed here simply will not be built. There is no market for it. The 109-unit non-student section was already a pretty big concession for the developer to make considering the economy.

Furthermore, to blunt criticism the developer has offered to help the city annually to expand noise and code enforcement. They’ve also agreed to get the project certified LEED Silver or Gold and build an associated 150 bike space (covered). Because of traffic concerns, they will reserve spaces for car sharing (Zip Car) and provide free bikes for students that have none. Zusin would build between 141 and 315 spaces under the project depending on if the city lets him pay fee in lieu for space in their newly constructed garage just down the road. The project will likely reduce traffic during rush hour given that almost all its residents will walk to campus or utilize Metro day-to-day. They’d be using the provided parking for car storage. To top it all off, the city currently receives $18,000 per year in property tax from the Book Exchange. They’ll receive around $250,000 annually if the project goes forward.

What exactly are we fighting against here? Tell us what you think.

UPDATE:
Sources indicate that UMD is also opposed to this project. While we’re looking for more information, their position likely stems from fear of unfilled student beds on campus due to private competition off campus. Unfortunately for students, that translates to higher rents.