Fearing Smart Growth (or Embracing it?)

Route 1 in CP
There’s an excellent column in today’s Washington Post that I think speaks directly to situation in College Park and inner suburban communities like it. The column, written by UMD architecture professor emeritus Roger K. Lewis, describes “favorably located but underdeveloped or unwisely developed land with potentially high real estate value” along blighted highways. From the column:

Aging, low-rise commercial structures with little architectural coherence or aesthetic quality are scattered throughout the area, along with extensive surface parking. Landscaping is minimal or neglected. Haphazardly deployed signage, lighting and utility structures add visual clutter.

Plans are afoot to radically transform this area, the premise being that it is a prime candidate for a makeover to accommodate future growth. But plans envision the redevelopment area becoming urban rather than suburban. Comfortable with the status quo, you fear that nearby urbanization will threaten your quality of life, spoil the character of your community, depress your property’s values and make traffic congestion unbearable.

Having worked on Smart Growth in College Park for almost 4 years, I am continually surprised just how resilient the opposition is to compact, infill development along the corridor. Perhaps I even underestimate the size of this opposition. In a recent email exchange with community members and local elected officials, my support for basic Smart Growth principles brought virulent opposition. Mary Cook, a local resident and former City Councilperson, went so far as to say that I was not “concerned with the future of College Park.” Tom Dernoga, outgoing District 1 County Councilman, railed against my pro-smart growth agenda and said my opinions reflects an “elitist (or purist) planning approach that has little meaning in the real world.” He went on to say that I was overstating my “position and ignoring the concerns of MANY people in the Route 1 Corridor.”
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Indeed there is a sizable contingent of people in College Park that are perfectly happy with the current land use pattern on Route 1. This group is organized and extremely effective politically (much to my chagrin). I’ve always believed those opposed to development are more organized and motivated for the simple fact that individuals are more apt to take the time to oppose something they perceive as immediately detrimental to their interests. Far fewer people are motivated to come out and actively support something that could provide them long term benefits.  NIMBYism thrives on the nuances of development, misinformation, suspicion and the backroom nature of planning. It manifests in insular citizen groups who scoff at outsiders and ostensibly carry the banner of “the community” as if the community is one monolithic group.

Our belief that the silent majority of the community supports the wholesale redevelopment of Route 1 is what keeps this site going (at a considerable expense of time and money to its writers). Perhaps we’ve misjudged the real sentiments of the community. In today’s column, Lewis says: “as new long-range plans are implemented in the coming decades, your property’s value will probably go up, your way of life and neighborhood character will be enhanced, and traffic congestion will not worsen.” Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job of conveying these points and showing how similarly situated neighborhoods maintain their suburban fabric but benefit tremendously from infill redevelopment.

RTCP has received an uncountable number of emails over the years from community members expressing gratitude for the work we do here. These people universally recognize that development on Route 1 will have a net positive effect on the City and acknowledge that the goals of Smart Growth aren’t achievable if our expectations of developers are unreasonable or don’t take into account financial realities. The majority of these emails are from long term residents who say that this site has made them hopeful for real change in College Park. Where before some had contemplated moving, folks have even gone as far as saying this site has given them the resolve to stay.

Please take a second to email this post to like-minded individuals and comment here if you support the vast majority of opinions we present on Rethink College Park. Share it on Facebook and Twitter. We’re especially interested in hearing from long term residents.
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7 thoughts on “Fearing Smart Growth (or Embracing it?)”

  1. This website is an excellent source for development news in College Park. I support the views expressed on this site because they coincide with the views I have which are to create a beautiful, sustainable, pedestrian-friendly College Park. I did both undergad and grad school at the University of Maryland, grad school being a Master’s in Real Estate Development and I hope to one day also be involved in further develop this great city!

  2. David,

    What a great post. These are all questions I’ve struggled with over the past four years – especially the notion that a few disgruntled people can call themselves the “community” and stand in the way of changes that can benefit a lot of people.

    (I wish those who lived in College Park could hear the things my classmates at U-Md. said and continue to say about their town. They probably wouldn’t be so quick to support the status quo if they knew that each year 6,000 grads go into the world calling College Park a “ghetto” – even if their impression of the place isn’t that accurate.)

    One of things we benefit from in Montgomery County is a long history of planning decisions that have yielded what we call “Smart Growth” today, namely the downtowns of Silver Spring and Bethesda. They’re the example for how to do Smart Growth well in a way that doesn’t harm surrounding neighborhoods. But without a precedent, even one just fifteen minutes away, College Park and Prince George’s County will have to go through the same battles we had here and in Arlington County to turn the ship around, so to say, and start making progress.

    I lived in College Park for four years and I loved every minute of it. But what I love even more is its potential – great, walkable neighborhoods, lots of history, easy access to Metro and local highways, and a major cultural institution right in your backyard – and how we can capitalize on all of those things to make it a truly great town.

  3. The question regarding smart growth depends on how much you trust the people planning it. For example, the purple line is clearly pushed as light rail because of the expected benefits from building high density development next to it. It was clearly said so at the MTA planning meeting last November and is given as the main reason why the bus option was ruled out. So who is going to say what gets built at these PL stations?

    All the capital improvements to make the areas surrounding the PL livable for walking etc.. don’t fall under the MTA’s remit. i.e. its money can can be diverted by the state to other projects or pay for the track when the PL goes over-budget, which we all know it will. Even in the two pictures you’ve posted of the light rail on other pages there’s no support for the overhead wires which seems a bit strange.

    Regarding suburban vs urban, then surely if you wanted to live in an urban area you would move into one. Changing the character of an established neighborhood to an urban one isn’t want most people want, particularly in silver spring where there seems to be some very dodgy numerical analysis to explain ridership (such as 1400 boardings per day at the Dale Station when there are only 425 detached homes within the standard walking distance. The only conclusion is that they want to build highrise buildings in an residential neighborhood to justify the boardings, even as they claim there are no such plans “at this time”).

    Personally I think the PL along Campus Drive makes sense, but MTA has already been shown it will cave to put the PL along the route of least resistance, not where its needed, and the proposed benefits to existing home owners may be over rated, like it was in Seattle (or Portland, I can’t remember which) that has seen significantly less ridership than predicted.

  4. Keep up the great work David. This site keeps me hopeful for, and positive about, the future of College Park. As a resident, I hope that one day Route 1 will become a destination instead of a thoroughfare. You can count me as one of the silent majority. I believe in your vision. I am not alone.

  5. I’m shocked that anyone would defend the status quo in College Park. Until starting work here, I never expected to encounter a place that would make me think back wistfully on my summer spent doing research in Auburn, Alabama. Hey, at least they have bike lanes and a walkable downtown! And there’s not an expanse of useless grass and a divided highway separating you from a decent lunch…

    Seriously though, given the vocal opposition, ignoring the issue of whether it’s really the majority, perhaps it would be good to start small, to get “smart growth” going in the areas directly adjacent the University, such as near University View, or near the metro station. Once people see how awesome it is, maybe they will change their minds and want it in their part of town too. I guess this is what’s already slowly happening, but is revitalizing the whole length of Route 1 realistic?

    In great college towns I’ve lived and worked in, the commercial areas right next to the university are what makes it nice and interesting. The “downtown” in College Park is a little too far away, too small, and not walkable enough. What’s a three lane bank drive-thru doing in my path to Chipotle? Why do I have to press a button and wait five minutes to get a walk sign?

  6. Well, I keep reading it, so obviously I like this this site 🙂

    That being said, I don’t support every viewpoint you post. There’s been a handful of things that you’ve posted that aren’t factually sound. You’ve also reposted Diamondback articles quite a few times. While there usually is a bit of truth to every Diamondback article, most aren’t well researched. I do really appreciate it when you post your sources, because that gives me chance to find more information about your topic.

    As for smart growth, I think that part of your answer lies in what you call “compact, infill development”. This is a suburban area. Surbanites tend to like things sprawling. Maybe they’d learn to like things more compact, but they’ve already grown used to a certain way of life. Another part of your answer I feel lies in money. We’re all going to have to help pay for any sort of redevelopment, in the form of taxes, patronizing new businesses, etc. We’re also going to have to pay for the public services to support new development (increased police force, etc).

    I’d really love to see some of the improvements listed on this site. I’m an avid biker; I’d love to be able to bike every where safely (a long while back you posted about possible bike lanes on Route 1). My concern is that once the improvements are done, the cost of living in the area is going to increase above what I can afford. I can barely afford to live here now. I’m seriously considering moving to somewhere more affordable.

  7. Folks on the Diamondback also get paid…. we don’t. Lots of times we cite high quality information that’s given to us by people that can’t be named. On the 20% of Campus Drive being pass thru traffic, contact Mike Madden at the MTA.

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