CSX Crossing Issues Threaten Cafritz Project







If anyone thought the Cafritz Project was a done deal, events over the course of less than one week have been enough to shake that belief.  Headlines taken from the Riverdale Patch show how quickly the narrative can change:

Jan 11: Cafritz Not a Done Deal, Riverdale Park Council Says

Jan 15: Planning Staff Recommends Disapproval of Cafritz Preliminary Plan

Jan 15: Cafritz Team Withdraws Preliminary Plan

All the controversy and hearings over Cafritz last year were to approve a rezoning plan that would allow the 37 acre property to be changed from single family detached residential to mixed use town center.  After the Prince George’s District Council approved the Cafritz rezoning plan last July, there were two other major steps requiring county approval before construction could begin on a Whole Foods, luxury hotel and nearly 1000 housing units: (1) Preliminary Plan of Subdivision, and (2) Detailed Site Plan.

The Preliminary Plan of Subdivision (PPS) was originally scheduled for review by the County Planning Board on Jan. 17th.  However, the Riverdale Park Town Council found issues with the proposed path of the hiker-biker trail and the crossing over CSX rail lines.  County Planning Board staff also found the proposal failed to meet several conditions required for passage and recommended disapproval of the PPS.  Shortly afterwards, the Cafritz development team decided to temporarily withdraw its proposal.

Of all the concerns raised with the Cafritz PPS, issues with the proposed CSX crossing are the most problematic.  Opponents have long argued that a project of this scale would only exacerbate traffic woes on Route 1.  Smart growth measures such as a hiker/biker trail extension and shuttles to College Park & Prince George’s Plaza Metro stations helped alleviate some concerns, but the CSX crossing was a key component to address Route 1 issues head on and win over many Cafritz skeptics, since it provided another path for future traffic.  The funding and timing of a CSX crossing was one of the final issues resolved last year before the rezoning plan was approved by University Park and Riverdale Park.  The CSX crossing is also featured prominently in the long list of conditions that were agreed upon before final approval of the Cafritz rezoning.

Last month, the mood was more optimistic, as the Cafritz development team shared an early version of the PPS with the Riverdale Town Council. The PPS specified that the CSX crossing would be an elevated bridge placed at a location involving the use of property belonging to the American Center for Physics (ACP).  At the time, the Cafritz team mentioned that ACP approval could be a potential stumbling block, but remained confident.  However, it turned out ACP wasn’t on board with this vision and eventually opted to launch its own investigation of the potential impacts of the CSX crossing.  No decision from ACP is forthcoming until its independent analysis is complete, which is predicted to take at least several months.  Further, ACP sent out a strongly worded letter about the CSX crossing to officials in Riverdale Park, University Park and College Park that included the following passage:

“The ACP Board is angry that a letter was provided at the Monday, January 14th, meeting of the University Park Town Council, which erroneously appeared to present ACP’s support for having a roadway across our property. That letter was never reviewed or authorized by the ACP Board.”

Shortly afterwards, the Cafritz development team decided to withdraw the PPS from consideration.  

This turn of events leaves Cafritz developers scrambling to satisfy the conditions of the rezoning approval while also meeting its own development goals, which called for construction to start by January 2014 and the opening of a Whole Foods Market a year later.  Though the Cafritz team has until the end of January to submit the PPS to the county, it may take months before they reapply.  If Cafritz developers can eventually reach an agreement with ACP or find a viable alternative location for the CSX crossing, their path towards groundbreaking becomes much clearer.  If not, the lack of a CSX crossing threatens to send the massive project back to square one.

November 2012 Development Update


The City of College Park has released its bi-monthly newsletter covering local development news.  Highlights from the latest edition include:

Domain at College Park

Mowatt Lane & Campus Drive

Status: Under Construction

Mixed-use residential development will have 256 multi-family units and 9,061 square feet of retail space. The first units are expected to be ready for move-in by summer 2013 with all units completed by summer 2014.  Four tenants are close to signing leases to occupy 5,181 SF of the ground floor retail space: Subway, Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt, Gateway Newstands, and Casey’s Coffee.

More details about the proposed retail businesses at the Domain can be found in this document.

Best Western

8419 Baltimore Avenue

Status: Under Construction

The Best Western project consists of a 50-room hotel with extended-stay suite facilities on the former site of the College Park Motel. Construction began late in 2011 and the estimated completion date is early 2013.

The Best Western hotel project was covered in this recent Diamondback article.

Maryland Book Exchange

7501 Baltimore Avenue

Status: Approved Detailed Site Plan

The property is 2.71 acres and is currently home to the Maryland Book Exchange. A new student housing development will add 287 units, with a maximum of 855 beds (originally proposed as 341 units and 1,010 beds). The ground floor will have 14,300 square feet of retail, including the relocated Maryland Book Exchange as the anchor.

The redevelopment of the Maryland Book Exchange received final approval from the Prince George’s County District Council earlier this month. The approval is a result of recent compromises with the City of College Park to reduce the height along Yale Avenue, among other items. The project now consists of a six-story building on Route 1 that steps down along College Avenue.

The next step will be the submission of construction drawings to obtain a building permit. Construction could begin in the first half of 2013.

This development will join The Enclave, Mazza Grandmarc, and The Varsity as the fourth privately built student housing project to open since 2010. Along with the University View I & II buildings, those three completed projects have brought 3,458 beds to the Route 1 Corridor since 2005. As of September 2012, the occupancy rate for these units was reported at 94% by the management teams.

Details about the final approval of the Maryland Book Exchange project can be found in this Gazette article from earlier this month.

Cafritz Property at Riverdale Park

Along the East Side of US Route 1 at College Park’s southern boundary

Status : Preliminary Subdivision Review

Envisioned as a multi-phase project on 37.55 acres of land in Riverdale Park, the development team requested rezoning the property from R-55 to Mixed-Use Town Center in 2011. A vote on the rezoning request was not taken until February 2012, where the County Planning Board approved by a 5-0 vote. After numerous public hearings in April and May, the County District Council voted 7-2 in favor of the rezoning application on July 9, 2012.

The developer’s next move was to submit a Preliminary Plan of Subdivision on July 27, which is scheduled to be heard by the County Planning Board on January 10, 2013.

The first phase proposes a Whole Foods Grocery store, over 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, and 22,000 square feet of office space. The second phase proposes 995 residential units and a 120-room hotel.

A recap of the District Council’s approval of the Cafritz Project back in July can be found in this Gazette article.

University of Maryland – East Campus

SE Corner of Baltimore Avenue and Paint Branch Parkway

Status : Planned Project

The University of Maryland plans to redevelop 38 acres of land at the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and Paint Branch Parkway. Phase 1 of the project will occupy approximately 8 acres and is slated to include a 266-key conference hotel with 18,000 square feet of retail and a 700-space garage, two graduate student housing towers, and an additional 70,000 square feet of retail. There are also plans for a light rail station as part of the proposed Purple Line development. The University of Maryland is looking to begin construction in 2013.

This recent Diamondback article has the latest update about East Campus.

City Council Poised to Appeal Cafritz Development Decision

Cafritz development at Riverdale Park

In tonight’s regular meeting, the Council will vote on whether to appeal to the Prince George’s County Circuit Court of the final decision of the District Council to approve Zoning Map Amendment A-1 0018 for the Cafritz property development.

On July 12, 2012, the District Council took final action on this case and on July 18, 2012 mailed the written order of the Council to all persons of record. The deadline for appealing the decision is August 17, 2012.

The approved project includes the rezoning of 35.71 acres of property in the Town of Riverdale Park from R-55 (single-family residential) to M-U-T-C (MixedUse-Town Center) and amends the 2004 Approved Town of Riverdale Park Mixed-Use Town Center Zone Development Plan. The project, as approved, includes up to 1,915,320 million square feet of mixed-use development including retail, office, residential and hotel.

While good arguments could be made in regards to a few legal and technical issues in this case, the ultimate outcome may include a remand back to the District Council and then to the Planning Board at which time they would correct all of the defects. Based on the original 7-2 votes, it is likely that the project would again be approved. Also, the delay may cause the loss of the Whole Foods, something many residents may not prefer. Among other things, the Council will consider a modest legal cost ($25,000) and its impact on the relationship with our neighboring city Riverdale Park.

[Fazlul Kabir is a Council member of City of College Park (District 1). You can read his daily blog at KabirCares.org]

Cafritz Plan Approved 7-2


The District Council approves the Cafritz Plan by a vote of 7-2. College Park Patch reports that despite objections from the the City of College Park and from Councilman Olson to push forward a motion for denial, the vote to approve the zoning change for the Cafritz development was passed 7-2.

The 37-acre plan in Riverdale Park is slated to be the home of the first Whole Foods grocery store in Prince George’s County in addition to 900 units of multi-family housing, a 120-room hotel, and additional office space.

Planning Board Approves Cafritz 4-0

The Prince George’s County Planning Board approved the Cafritz rezoning by a 4-0 vote yesterday evening. Board Chairman Elizabeth Hewlett had recused herself from the matter because in her work as a

Cafritz Site against the larger area. From Cafritz Tract, LLC

land use attorney she had consulted with Cafritz (She also recused herself from board proceedings in January). The Patch’s John Davisson posted a thorough blow by blow of Thursday’s hearing which can be found here. The proposal will next go to the District Council, which is made of up the members of (but not the same as) the Prince George’s County Council. The date for that hearing has yet to be set.

The conditions for the rezoning did go through additoonal changes since the previous hearing – the full changes are available here. Most changes were gramatical or technical. Notable changes include

  • Requiring plans for Baltimore Ave/Van Buren signalization, crosswalks and bicycle parking with the Detailed Site Plan, rather than the building permit applications
  • A requirement to put all utilities underground
  • An explicit requirement to send plans for the Baltimore Avenue buffer to University Park
  • More explicit process for turning over roads to the Town of Riverdale Park
  • Requirement for SHA preliminary approval for Baltimore Ave/Van Buren signalization before issuing a grading permit.
  • More explicit requirements for the staging of the Van Buren and Maryland Avenue extensions
  • Inclusion of Riverdale and University Parks in working to create a Transportation Demand Management District

In many ways, the Planning Board stage served as the appetizer. I’m sure we’ll get a big full meal of debate when the project moves to the District Council.


College Park Development Update – January

The 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. This edition features updates on the Maryland Book Exchange redevelopment, Domain at College Park, Cafritz Property, and The Varsity. If you have any questions or would like to subscribe, please feel free to contact Michael Stiefvater at (240) 487-3543 or mstiefvater@collegeparkmd.gov.

Traffic: Is it worth the worry?

On Thursday night, I listened to a few of the comments in front of the Prince George’s County Planning Commission regarding the proposed development of the Cafritz site. Not surprisingly, many of those opposed to the current version of the project cited increased traffic as their central argument. While listening, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of us are so terrified of traffic that we are willing to let a great opportunity pass us by.

One opponent, a resident of University Park, explained how her trip to pick up her children at a school in the Berwyn neighborhood in College Park has taken up to 30 minutes (a distance of about 2 miles) when University of Maryland is in session. Because of her concern about additional traffic, she is willing to forgo the opportunity of having a highly regarded grocery store and new development within walking distance of her home.

While I agree that 30 minutes is a long time to travel two miles in a car, I suspect that this is not an everyday occurrence. However, let’s assume the development is built as planned and she must endure the burden of additional time to pick up her children. Is she worse off? I argue no.
cafritz property 2011
To start, on nice days, she has the opportunity of hopping on a bicycle and riding to school with her children . . . or letting them go alone if they are old enough. While Route 1 is big and wide, crossing at a signalized intersection is simple enough and the College Park Trolley Trail leads directly to the school. It’s a perfect opportunity to get some exercise and enjoy the day.

Now, let’s think of the benefits of having a quality, mixed-use development within walking distance of your home. Here’s a scenario as an example. Mom finds out she is out of milk while making dinner. She doesn’t want to leave hot items on the stove so she sends her children out to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery. The children can walk to the store and return within 15 minutes. The children have the opportunity to gain a little independence and self-confidence while Mom can continue with dinner preparation.

Here’s another example. It’s Saturday morning and in a few hours you are heading to a friend’s house for an afternoon cook-out. You have several errands to complete before joining your friends in a few hours. You hop on your bike and ride to the new town center at the Cafritz property. You arrive within 10 minutes and park your bike out front of the coffee shop. You sit down, relax, read the newspaper or chat with a neighbor, then walk to the grocery to pick up some tasty dip for the cook-out. You also pick up that tape measure you’ve needed at the adjacent hardware store. You hop back on your bike and head home. You were gone for an hour and you still have time to get some things down around the house.
Palo Alto bicycle commuter
I’m sure everyone can think of another example that may be relevant to their life. To me, the benefits are clear. You don’t have to spend 20 minutes driving over to Silver Spring, searching for a place to park, then driving all the way home again. Instead, you get some exercise, finish your errands quicker, and have a much more enjoyable morning.

Some of you may still be thinking, “But, what about the traffic?” Here is my response. Whether it be in a car, on a bus, or on the platform waiting for the train, traffic (congestion) is a part of life when you live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, and it will continue to be so as the region grows and College Park and Route 1 redevelop. For those of us living adjacent to a variety of goods and services, we will have the benefit of a variety of transportation options to reach our destinations (walk, bicycle, transit, car).

If we don’t want traffic to dominate our lives, we have to start thinking about transportation and land use differently. Driving should take a back seat to walking and cycling for shorter trips. Public transportation can take care of longer trips within the metropolitan area. With this mentality, we can create more vibrant communities and worry less about the traffic on our roads.
Which is Most Efficient?
In the case of the Cafritz development, rather than fret about traffic, think of the benefits of having more amenities closer to home. Rather than fight to deny opportunities for new development, fight for better public transportation and sidewalks. When you have better access to goods and services closer to your house, you will have to drive less. You can spend more time doing the things you want to do, rather than sitting in traffic.

City Council Rejects Book Exchange, Opposes Cafritz

During a four hour meeting Tuesday night, the College Park City Council rejected the Maryland Book Exchange site plan and voted to oppose the Cafritz Property rezoning.

The Council voted unanimously to reject the revised detailed site plan for the Maryland Book Exchange. The detailed site plan describes the specifics of a development project, including height, footprint, materials to be used, and architectural design. Councilmembers took offense to the plan as “hardly modified” from a previously rejected site plan. While the revised site plan reduced building height along Yale Avenue from six stories to four, councilmembers argued it still went above the two to three stories permitted by the Route 1 Sector Plan.

In a six to two roll call vote, the Council voted to send a letter to the Planning Board opposing the rezoning of the Cafritz Property from R-55 (residential, single family homes) to M-U-TC (mixed use town center). The motion made by Councilmember Stullich received the support of Councilmembers Dennis, Mitchell, Stullich, Wojahn, Day, and Afzali, and was opposed by Councilmembers Kabir and Catlin. At time of posting the text of the motion is not available electronically.

The Council heard from and questioned the developers, as well as Mayor John Tabori of University Park and Mayor Vernon Archer of Riverdale Park. University Park voted Monday evening to support the Cafritz Rezoning 4/3, while Riverdale Park voted Tuesday to support the rezoning unanimously. Both towns made their support contingent on a set of consensus conditions. The conditions were negotiated during twelve meetings held over the holiday among representatives from all three municipalities and the Cafritz developers. Councilmember Stullich served as College Park’s lead representative in the discussions.

Mayor Tabori emphasized that he had begun as a skeptic of the project, particularly of the traffic studies and the site’s transit orientation. He argued that the major weaknesses in the proposal had been addressed and noted that this was the first time a developer in Prince George’s County actively supported creating a Transportation Demand Management District. Developer opposition had stalled efforts to get a TDMD covering PG Plaza. Mayor Archer echoed Mayor Tabori’s support, observing that through the consensus conditions, the muicipalities had exchanged their power to stop the project entirely for significant influence over how it evolved.

Thirteen members of the public spoke for opposing the rezoning, including one visitor from University Park. Opponents of the rezoning emphasized concerns over traffic, unreasonably high density on the site, and questioned the desirability of any type of mixed-use development on the site, expressing a preference for single family homes. Several speakers also indicated distrust of the developer in general, specific anger over past behavior and a belief that the consensus conditions had been negotiated behind closed doors without public input.

Four members of the audience spoke against the letter of opposition, including your author and one visitor from Riverdale Park. Supporters of the rezoning pointed out that many concerns could be addressed during later stages of the process, that the consensus conditions adequately addressed community concerns, and that opposition now would limit the City’s ability to influence future proposals on the site. One speaker emphasized that change in the community was inevitable and better treated as an opportunity to adapt.

In discussion among the Council, Councilmember Catlin critiqued Councilmember Stullich’s stated objections to the rezoning, deeming them either irrelevant or already handled by the consensus conditions. Councilmember Kabir said he has struggled to support the project because of concerns over traffic and the mechanism for College Park to be involved in the M-U-TC process. In his view, the city got exactly what it asked for and his concerns were addressed. Councilmembers Wojahn and Afzali expressed conflicted feeling over the motion, indicating that while the Cafritz plans had come a long way, too many issues remained outstanding for them to feel comfortable with it. A similar sentiment came from Coucnilmembers Mitchell and Day, who both specifically cited concerns over density on and traffic generated by the site.

The Cafritz rezoning proposal will be heard by the Planning Board this coming Thursday, at 12:30pm at their office in Upper Marlboro. Public comments are welcome and the agenda can be found here.

Update: The post originally described the College Park Council vote as six to four. The vote was actually six to two, and the post has been corrected.

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

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.