Doug Duncan on East Campus

Terp Weekly Edition, a radio program on WMUC, aired a 3.5 minute interview (3.1 MB, mp3) with Doug Duncan last week discussing his goals for East Campus.
In the interview, Duncan held Silver Spring as a model for redevelopment in College Park. The downtown Silver Spring development, which he helped orchestrate when he was Montgomery County Executive, transformed the downtown from a mere “pass through” to a real destination. Duncan implied that the main goal of the East Campus development project is to give the city a strong town center, since, as he aptly put it, “College Park does not have that.”

Duncan is optimistic on the town’s potential for attracting business, since the “market is already in place.” When confronted with criticisms that downtown Silver Spring is bland and dominated by national chains, Duncan acknowledged the need to build a town with “unique character” and a “healthy mix of local and national” businesses.

Whether or not this mix comes to fruition is hard to tell, but when glancing at the project’s list of retail tenants, there are quite a few familiar faces.

3 thoughts on “Doug Duncan on East Campus”

  1. I believe the issue of retail composition will determine whether East Campus emerges as just another slick outdoor mall populated by national chain formula retail–indistinguishable from countless similar developments across the U.S.–or as something truly distinctive and interesting and exciting. There is definitely potential for the latter outcome, but there is also tremendous inertia driving any project like this toward the formula retail outdoor mall model. National and regional chains are what developers are comfortable with and know how to do and they often seem genuinely unable to grasp why many of us don’t view these “upscale” chains with the same enthusiasm they do. In the absence of crystal clear, carefully formulated guidelines determining the proportions of different types of retail to be located in East Campus, the very best we can hope for is another chain-dominated Silver Spring (which, it should be noted, is viewed as impressively rich in local independent businesses by the folks who developed Silver Spring and are now planning East Campus). However, I am hopeful (if not optimistic, given the resistance already expressed by the East Campus development team) that the University and our elected officials can work with the developers to come up with retail guidelines that will help us take advantage of the truly extraordinary opportunity this project represents.

  2. Mr. Shapiro, you’re right!

    However, the incentives for choosing chain tenants over local retail are strong:

    1. A chains has a proven business model and the credit to sign leases before a single spade even hits the dirt; a chain typically has the financial credit to take on such a new business liability. For the developer, having leases already signed before the building is built makes it easier for the developer to get financing for the project.

    2. Chains provide a predictable outcome for the project, providing a familiar point of reference when marketing the project to local planning boards, citizen groups, and potential customers.

    There are several ways to encourage the leasing of space to local businesses:

    1. Incentivize the flooding of the market with new retail space. If the supply surges without a commensurate surge in demand, the rent per square foot should drop. For College Park, however, it may require the construction of more space than is possible to build in our lifetimes!

    2. Simply mandate set-asides as part of a development deal.

    3. Provide property tax breaks to landlords who lease to local businesses. This tilts the market slightly in favor of quirky and unproven businesses that make a town unique. (However, if the tax break is merely slight, it may not make much of a difference).

    4. Mandate the construction of inherently lower-rent retail space, i.e. construct small, oddly shaped stores that are automatically unsuitable as prime real estate for chains. For instance, the store might be located below ground level or the entrance might require walking 10 feet down an alley.
    Method 1 is the most sustainable, since it doesn’t require constant intervention in the market. Method 4 is the most interesting since it would mix the types of businesses locationally, rather than ghettoizing and creating a low-rent district.

    For East Campus, though, it appears so far that we will have to rely on the good word of the developer and of Mr. Duncan.

  3. In fact, Leo Shapiro uncovered an interesting dimension of this at one of the recent East Campus community steering committee meetings, in what was perhaps the most testy exchange to date. The developers are apparently inclined to count a local business owner who opens a Subway franchise among their “local businesses”. When Leo objected that this isn’t what residents mean by ‘local’, a member of the development team accused him of being discriminatory. Whatever the merits of these two views of what counts as local, this showed clearly that residents and developers may have different things in mind when they talk about promoting local businesses. This also might mean that some of Eric Fidler’s interesting strategies for supporting local businesses (#2 and #3 in particular) could miss the target, unless carefully implemented.

    Audiences at the various East Campus meetings are constantly told about the successes of Silver Spring (which are very real). But whereas Silver Spring was developed to compete against local centers like Rockville and Bethesda, East Campus is supposed to help College Park go toe-to-toe with Ann Arbor, Charlottesville, [insert your favorite college towns here…]. That’s a different game entirely.

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