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.

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.

Speaking of Eminent Domain… City Looks to Seal the Deal on #1 Liquors

U View and #1 Liquor
Apparently, the city’s patience with #1 Liquors is wearing thin. After nearly a decade of begging, prodding, and cajoling tactics, councilmembers are starting to contemplate eminent domain proceedings on College Park’s most infamous homestead holdout. According to the Diamondback the city would like to acquire the parcel in order to create “a park”:

The council voted last night to try to buy the property or to try to get it condemned if its owner refuses to sell. Some View residents said they would miss the store’s convenient location and were skeptical of plans to create such a tiny park.

The lot is a questionable location for a new park seeing as the City-University partnership is creating the 5-acre North Gate Park just south of the liquor store where Paint Branch Stream Northgate District (looking towards campus)passes under Route 1. But the plan may be the city’s only real means to get rid of the squat one-story building in the emerging North Gate Development District. The store would be surrounded on three sides by major development in the area that includes the University View’s nearly complete complex and Mark Vogel’s planned 700-bed Varsity Student Housing project. The area is but one small glimmer of hope in College Park’s otherwise grim real estate environment. Perhaps the store owner would have been wise to take an offer for a ground floor retail spot in the University View’s new building. They would have had a captive audience of literally thousands of students in complexes either planned, approved, or already built.

Incidentally I just did a lengthy post at TheCityFix.com about eminent domain and a recent New York State court case that has catapulted the controversial issue back into the public spotlight. As I explain in the post, the tool can benefit communities, but it has several pitfalls. Councilwoman-elect Christine Nagle put it well in her quote in the Diamondback article where she expressed her disagreement with the city’s plan to remove businesses it “just doesn’t like”:

“We’re just starting Route 1 redevelopment,” Nagle said. “How many little parks are we going to have? Every time someone doesn’t make a deal?”

Continue reading Speaking of Eminent Domain… City Looks to Seal the Deal on #1 Liquors

What’s New in CP

As many are well aware, RTCP is in semi-hibernation mode at the moment. We’re planning on a kickoff meeting to discuss the future of the site sometime in May. Until then there are a couple tid-bits to report despite the dampened state of the real estate market. Thanks to everyone who continues to email and post comments about all the great changes coming to the city….

-> Starview Plaza – The Diamondback reports that Starview Plaza is progressing through the early stages of the approval process. The project, which sits just north of College Park Carwash, has languished for years (at least 5?) and the underlying land is owned jointly by the City and University. Originally planned as a hotel, the developer now plans a 500-Beleagured Starview Projectbed mixed use student housing project with an impressive LEED Silver rating. As the Diamondback reports, there has been much debate over exactly what materials should be used on the facade. The Sector Plan requires 75% brick and as the Mazza Grandmarc debate showed us, the city and the county in particular hold tightly to that standard regardless of how visible certain parts of the building are. The choice is between hardyplank – a composite of recycled materials which helps a buildings LEED rating – and brick (an energy-intensive material) on the least visible parts of the building. Let’s hope the county council departs from its absolutist ways by avoiding unneccessary delays…

southwest district phasing-> Campus Construction – The University has released an updated campus construction map, which shows progress on several different projects we’ve blogged about over time. The new journalism building is progressing, the Tyser Tower expansion at Byrd Stadium is underway, and improvements to the Southwest quad and in front of the business school are coming to a close. Also, North Gate Park, a project mired in bureaucracy, funding constraints, and development SNAFUS for the better part of four years is scheduled to start construction this summer. North Gate Park is a joint venture between the city and university and was designed by undergraduate students. 

-> Parking – Recognizing the serious burden that parking requirement place on private developers of student housing, UMD-DOTS via the university’s strategic plan has agreed that students at select off-campus housing complexes can park on-campus. This is a smart move that we think could pay serious dividends by encouraging more student housing. Building lots on Route 1 are small and shallow, thus making the provision of suburban-style parking ratios extremely difficult for dense mixed-use projects. Hopefully the city/county can capitalize on this new policy to implement their Transportation Demand Management plans.

-> Purple Line – There are signs that Campus Drive advocates are making serious inroads. More to come shortly.

North Gate Park – A new era of collaboration?

norhgateprofile

Last week we reported on the imminent construction of North Gate Park – a project coordinated by the City-University Partnership and whose final design was derived from a 22-student sophomore Landscape Architecture class competition. Add in some grants, several organizations, and some very meaningful stakeholder participation and out comes a project whose benefits can’t be emphasized enough.

The park will provide a bus shelter and much needed pedestrian link to campus while respecting the Paint Branch’s forested stream buffer and incorporates sustainable design and building materials. It will contain a rain garden to reduce runoff, environmental interpretive signs, and an orchard for your gorging pleasure. Since our first post we’ve spoken with Jack Sullivan, the instructor and assistant professor who worked closely on the North Park effort (see more details). He was kind enough to send us this pamphlet with some other great schematics of the project. We hope North Gate Park will be a powerful model and constant reminder of how different members of the community can and do work towards common goals.

With technical and artistic expertise, academic curiosity and scholarship, and unbounded enthusiasm, students have created a beautiful, comfortable and sustainable design.

North Gate Park downsized, groundbreaking expected soon

Northgate ParkUniversity officials are in the final planning stages of the long awaited North Gate Park: a combination pedestrian bridge and environmental restoration project – all on a 5 acre lot between the university’s North Gate and Jerry’s Sub on the Paint Branch Stream. The university is waiting for final approval from the Maryland Department of Environment and FEMA since the project is located within the 100-year floodplain. The final price tag is still unknown according to Richard Poley of Facilities Management, but the state couldNorthgate Park potentially contribute $830,000 once the final bids from contractors come in. The university would pay any price difference.

Although the new project is less ambitious than originally planned, with just one bridge and a ‘less elaborate’ entrance, Poley told us he felt that it still held true to the plan that emerged from an undergraduate landscape architecture design competition in 2004.

John Porcari, Vice President of Administrative Affairs, speculated to us earlier this month that the second bridge and other additions to the park may not be pursued until plans for a luxury hotel just north of the park are confirmed. Two condominium projects north of University View, including the approved North Gate Condos, along with the East Campus Development Initiative will inevitably make this now underused parcel a vital pedestrian link and public space for students and city residents alike. North Gate Park is a great example of how different levels of government combined with some student idealism can go a long way towards improving College Park.