We thought our readers might be interested in a fiery email debate going on between Tom Dernoga, the District 1 County Councilmember leading the effort to prevent the use of form-based codes (FBC) in northern College Park, and myself. Our respective screeds each lay out a fairly complete case against and for the use of form-based codes north of MD-193 in College Park (Dernoga’s portion of the city).
Tom’s basic argument is that the county’s planning department (MNCPPC) is not to be trusted and that county political figures and citizens should maintain their current influence on development projects at all stages of the development review process. Tom’s viewpoint comes from his nearly 8 years on the County Council and time as a Citizen Association President and pro-bono lawyer for citizen groups before that. The Washington Post once called him: “The Lawyer Who’s Wanted When Development is Not.”
My argument is that this system leaves too much power in the hands of individual County Councilmembers and their most vocal (often ill-informed) constituents. This creates uneven development standards across council districts and I believe goes a long way towards explaining why there is so little development activity in Northern College Park…. despite plenty of development interest. I argue that form-based codes will de-politicize the process while still providing opportunities for public input. I’ve included the two most recent and productive emails in the exchange between Dernoga and myself, so keep in mind that there may be references to earlier emails that aren’t included here (for the sake of brevity). Please read and consider carefully before commenting.
Email from County Councilmember (and Chair) Tom Dernoga to RTCP Editor David Daddio
I find it interesting that you are the voice of the nameless that disagree with me.
But, the irony of this discussion is that due to your own lack of knowledge, you are painting me as anti-density and anti-growth (I guess), when that is hardly the case. I do not question density – I question where you put it. I question whether you do so in the face of long-time residents who see no value in certain density-based proposals. Not all density is good density.
And, while you want to portray me as anti-density and in the pockets of residents (OMG!), they may disagree with you. On this very plan, I have been pushing and prodding these same residents to accept more density than they want, and in locations that they do not like. I have been more of a negotiator than a power grabber.
And, as you ponder a response, please consider:
1. College Park – i.e, the Univ of Md – is a great example of bad TOD/Smart Growth. I find it interesting that you spend so much time bashing me and a small segment of Route 1 with limited Smart Growth opportunity while you ignore the large-sized failure in front of you – and, in front of a Metro station. The design is all wrong, and I have taken this up with the Univ with no success, and I have and do support density in that location.
2. On my watch, 5/6 North College park projects have been approved, although only 2 have been built. We can debate whether it is the economy or too much big brother. You mention in your earlier argument that my amendments for the Sector Plan doom ground floor retail, but (1) Summit proposed 750 apts with no retail, and I got them to revise their plans to 500+ apts and retail with a smattering of office; (2) I have pushed Mazza to have retail; (3) JPI East was originally approved by CP and MNCPPC with no retail and in the face of serious resident opposition – I pushed JPI to get a reasonable amount of ground floor retail, but the economy did them in (and, not to mention they made a bad deal overpaying for the land); (4) I pushed ground floor retail on JPI West in the face of opposition from CP staff. So, am I wrong to push ground floor retail? None of these projects lacked density – did they? If so, where would the other units go? These developers want 4-story, stick-built projects to avoid the expense of steel, etc. They have little to no more room to go up. Where would you put the additional units? Reduce the already reduced parking to make room? Where will the new residents park their cars?
Also, please do not forget that I am supporting a number of density projects on Route 1 just south of Rt 193, and it has been my push for a little more density and redevelopment (including another high-rise) at Seven Springs. Could you give credit where it is due?
3. this brings up a serious concern of residents which drives much of the opposition, and which you do not address in a serious manner: traffic congestion and parking. Density without adequate transportation makes no sense and will generate endless opposition that will undermine the TOD/Smart Growth efforts. This is at the heart of opposition. The Sector Plan provides no solution to this and neither do you. Hence, you have residents that you believe fail to comprehend Smart Growth who sure comprehend what will adversely affect them and their property values. MDOT won’t address Route 1, MDOT and WMATA won’t address real bus service. None of these projects are walkable to Metro. So, under these circumstances, more density yields more trips on a congested road system with no solution. This is what is driving your average citizen. Then, there is parking.* Most of these projects are under-parked for need – they may be properly parked for Smart Growth policies, but that won’t quell the citizen opposition when long-time residents can’t find parking on their own street.
When MNCPPC, its world-class consultants, CP planning staff and UofM get around to addressing traffic congestion, it will be easier to sell your density arguments.
*For some reason, one of your emails last week blamed me for over-parking Mazza. I think you should look to MNCPPC and the developer for that. I may have a bad memory, but I do not recall addressing parking with that case. I am guilty of questioning parking ratios and waivers that do not appear to be fact based, but driven by squeezing more units into a project to compensate for the developer overpaying for the land. E.g., JPI.
4. As I noted last night, please review Greenbelt Metro before calling me anti-density. That project was originally approved as an automobile-based shopping mall near a Metro. I forced it into re-design to make the transit station the development hub (unlike College Park Metro which is surrounded by parking garages and parking lots). I took flack from CP Council members because one member lived 300′ away on the other side of a park and he and his neighbors felt that small-footprint 8-12 story office buildings right on top the station would be too imposing (while at the same time proposing a 5-story JPI East literally in residents’ back yards). I supported increasing density at Greenbelt because it makes real sense there. I support it at CP Metro if someone would design it right.
5. The “downzoning” that I am suggesting is for some marginal properties that I believe have limited redevelopment value due to their location and small size (for most of them). I disagree with the “expert” planners’ proposal to make the walkable node at Hollywood. Based on approved plans, designs and likelihood of progress, the walkable node should be at Cherokee.
6. I believe that the most significant reason that redevelopment isn’t happening on Route 1 is that property owners over-value their land, and MNCPPC, CP staff and others promote policies that encourage these owners to hold on to a dream of making a big killing. When developers do the math, they can’t make their 4-story stick-built projects work without unrealistic density, minimal parking, limited contribution to improving the road system and being allowed to ignore their impact on congestion. The 2002 Sector Plan spoke of the need to assemble properties, but allowing small hotel projects to be crammed onto 1-acre properties up and down Route 1 discourages assemblage and reasonable pricing, and giving every property owner MUI at 48 units to the acre supports neither assemblage nor reasonable pricing. You can scoff at me and say that I have an anti-density mindset that will prevent redevelopment for a decade, or you could look at the ridiculous land values and recognize that those only work if we decide to ignore congestion and parking realities.
7. As for Subtitle 27A – it is not all you make it out to be, and the Sector Plan has a form based code facsimile. One thing that you do not appreciate is the level of distrust that the public has for MNCPPC and the Council (and, in some cases, the City government). That distrust is based on decades of observation and is not entirely ill-founded. And, to your point that this Sector Plan was to promote Form Based Code as desired by College Park staff, etc, well, the public has repeatedly said that they are not on board with that. One problem that I have with your positions is that you believe that non-resident staff and “expert” consultants know better about developing/redeveloping an area than the residents. Apparently, you have not been present at the various public forums over the past 8 years where the public clearly has some issues with your points.
So, I will close by repeating my point – are you so happy with what you see south of Route 193 and at College Park Metro in terms of Smart Growth that you should ignore what’s going on there (dumb growth right at a Metro station) and focus on a “downzoning” a handful of small properties near Hollywood? Frankly, I believe that you are missing the forest for the trees.
And, as I note specifically, I have tried to work with residents and developers to overcome each side’s concerns and allow for projects with reasonable density. So, call me names and accuse me of being a lameduck power-grabber if you will. I think you still have a way to go to be fully up to speed on what is going on with development in the area.
Tom Dernoga, Chair
Prince George’s County Council (District 1)
PS: I fail to comprehend your point about Brandywine, Upper Marl and Waldorf. If you mean that they are places of terrible sprawl, I would agree. Waldorf is the worst – it’s in Charles County (and, on occasion I have given advice to residents in South County about some of that sprawl). Brandywine I have voted against on multiple occasions, and on others held my nose (after complaining internally) and voted along with District courtesy.
Frankly it’s not going to help anyone to fall back on class warfare and scapegoating. We need to be talking solutions: namely how can we pragmatically achieve Smart Growth in College Park and avoid perpetuating the same mistakes made in the 2002 Sector Plan. This email chain is getting a bit unwieldy, but I’d like to keep rolling with many of the interesting points you brought up in your last email.
On Delaying Route 1 Redevelopment North of MD-193 (for a Second Decade)
I am very pleased with what I see south of 193 and applaud your support for those projects (District Courtesy of course). On the half of Route 1 in College Park not in your District we have the rational and timely redevelopment of the corridor into a pedestrian, transit-ready, mixed-use district. Again, we’re talking about one half of Route 1 in College Park where your Amendment to the sector plan would prevent the implementation of Form-Based Codes(FBC). That’s unfortunate, since more clarity (via FBC) on what can be built where is exactly what we need to make College Park a great college town. I believe the disparity between the development activity to the north and south of 193 has more to do with politics and the differing approach of two councilmemebers than it does with inherit advantage that sites closer to UMD have. Consistent regulations, consistently enforced. That’s what it will take for the timely redevelopment of Route 1 and that’s exactly what’s missing on your end of Route 1. Incidentally it’s also what’s needed to tamp down value expectations for area landowners.
Please do provide some examples of newly constructed 4-story, stick-built projects with ground floor retail. I’m having trouble coming up with any successful project in an area similar to North CP. I would think it’s very hard for a developer to make ground floor retail in such a project financially-feasible. While you did force retail in both JPI projects, neither of them were 4 stories….. and none of them were built thanks to your politicking at the end instead of clear ground rules at the beginning. Those plans are gathering dust over at MNCPPC while the lots remain as a blight on the community…. but at least that Hillcrest brothel was torn down. The JPI West lot consolidation has since fallen through, never to return. Why is it that the perfect development always seems just around the corner? We’ve pilfered away $100 million in private investment in the community because there are no clear ground rules. That’s not something anyone should be proud of.
Politicization of Planning and the Small Group of Your Constituents Who are Engaged
Mazza includes a 1:1 ratio of beds to parking spaces at the insistence of the small group of your constituents who are engaged. When you called up Mazza to the District Council you were busy attacking other less important aspects of the plan. Who knew the prospect of permit parking in adjacent neighborhoods was a reason to thwart Smart Growth?
With Mazza you managed to destroy any semblance of a development review process by hinging the project on a bill in Annapolis and drawing out its final approval for years. Everyone was on board locally (MNCPPC, CP City Council, North CP Citizens association), but that consensus wasn’t enough for you…. so you made an 11th hour insistence on LEED-style certifications and mostly got your way in Annapolis. The LEED move was unethical (and possibly illegal), but you couldn’t resist. The developer coalesced because he couldn’t afford a lengthy/costly court fight. If I were a developer I’d never seek out a project in such a toxic and unpredictable environment. Would you?
Mazza, as you know, will include a one-story retail segment likely with a false second story. That’s a poorly scaled centerpiece from which to launch the Hollywood Rd. “Walkable Node”. The situation at Mazza could be rectified by allowing 4-5 stories of grad student housing on top of the Mazza retail if the developer successfully purchases the adjacent parcels he is attempting to. No further parking would be necessary or prudent, but I’m sure there would be zoning impediments and ample opposition from the small group of your constituents who are engaged. Mull it over and let me know.
I’m a firm supporter of public participation. As I stated in a previous email, Rethink College Park has made tremendous strides towards public participation and engagement on Smart Growth issues in the city. That said, it’s important to know when to defer to experts and when it’s appropriate for community sentiments to prevail. There are examples scattered throughout this email where citizen planning leads to poor Smart Growth outcomes. Would you let the few people that live along the Capital Crescent Trail reroute the entire Purple Line?
We must not forget that people spend 8 hours a day (and whole careers) thinking about and working through planning issues. 27A (the county code that allows Form-based codes) is not a panacea, but it does move us in the direction of more consistency in the development review process and more deference to city and county planners…. something that has been sorely missing these last few years. 27A is a move in the right direction.
I don’t expect you to jump at my proposal to abandon Amendment 5 since that would be a direct contradiction to your brinkmanship approach to development in College Park. I do insist that this issue be further investigated in whatever way the City Council deems fit. I’m open to suggestions from those CCed on this email list. Form-based codes were the original impetus for taking a second look at the sector plan in the first place. Let’s not, in the 11th hour of this process, place limits on ourselves just because you and a small group of your constituents who are engaged dislike the idea.
Given the increase in the student population moving to CP (as UMD continues its transition from a commuter to a residential school), these developments will not appreciably change the Route 1 traffic picture (despite the claims of the most vocal of your constituents). Let’s put the student housing projects aside.
I agree with your statement that “Density without adequate transportation makes no sense.” Let’s take that one step further and consider what happens if we only put significant density near high-investment transit stations and stick by the concept that once a single-family home neighborhood is built, it can never be infringed upon. That of course is exactly the situation we have now in all the suburbs ringing DC. People have to live somewhere, so developers build the housing out in Brandywine, Upper Marlboro and yes even out in Charles County. There’s little diversity of choice in housing types, so everyone lives in the suburbs, crams the already congested arterials (like Route 1) to get to work and school, and then there is hyper-gentrification in DC. Yes, you can develop around transit stations more densely, but even if that battle is won there won’t be enough space to accommodate the population increases we are looking at.
Despite the concern of some residents, we’re not talking about building Ballston on Route 1. We’re talking about a much smaller scale of development along with a lower-investment, but still reliable bus service. Add to that alternate through-traffic routing, improved bicycle and pedestrian circulation and wayfinding, the Purple Line, and specific parking and Transportation Demand management (TDM) strategies. These things have to be phased with development to make each sustainable. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Adequate transportation doesn’t automatically mean more density and vice-versa. Fortunately, Mazza and these other student housing projects will institutionalize frequent Shuttle-UM bus service on Route 1 at no cost to the community. With Mazza complete, UMD will have developer funds to restart it’s Route 1 Shuttle-UM service that it closed down last year (for lack of ridership).
On Rethink CP ‘Being in Lockstep with UMD’ and Part of the “UMD Elite”
As you may know, RTCP has been a harsh and vocal critic of UMD on a number of occasions… including on the specifics of their East Campus plan. Rob Goodspeed sat on the East Campus Community Steering Committee and took a particularly vocal stance on the plan to cordon off the proposed East Campus road system from Old Town…. another example of when local resident input leads to poor planning outcomes. We also took issue with University’s unconscionable approach to the Purple Line within the development and I believe Rob’s work helped lead to a workable compromise there.
Perhaps our most far-reaching move against the University had to do with their continued insistence that the Purple Line go anywhere but Campus Drive…. against all the advice of MTA’s transit planners. That’s yet another great example in CP where ill-informed folks (this time the UMD administration) decided they are professional planners. I played a pivotal role in bringing this issue to the forefront of debate on campus and out of the “smoky” backrooms. RTCP broke the story, assembled the opposition, got Washington Post coverage (twice) and rang the alarms. I was extremely disappointed to hear yesterday that UMD is now making moves to close Campus Drive in the near term to both cars AND buses in an apparent attempt to pre-empt a Campus Drive Purple Line alignment. Fortunately, thanks to the groundwork RTCP has laid, students are already rallying against this latest episode in the campus Purple Line saga.
On the CP metro we’re in total agreement for once. The University has failed to live up to it’s ideals with the M-Square project. I’d welcome any advice from you or Eric on ways RTCP can help move the vision for that area from a suburban office park to a lively, mixed-use district deserving of the Purple Line. I criticized the UMD administration on M-Square even before the launch of Rethink College Park in June 2006. There is of course plenty of other blame to go around for the state of the area around the CP metro station …. WMATA, politicians at the time, airport regulations, local opposition, etc.
Co-Founder and Editor
Rethink College Park