It’s Time to Rethink the Book Exchange Proposal

When I became aware of new development coming to the Maryland Book Exchange site I thought, “Great! We are finally getting some student housing downtown.” So many of the previous development had been farther north that this project looked to be right in the sweet spot giving real incentive for tenants (most of which will be students) to abandon their cars and help revitalize downtown.
Then I heard about grumblings from the City Council and other residents of Old Town on the project: — “Its too large.” — “There will be a thousand students roaming the streets of Old Town looking for parties.” — “It doesn’t fit in with the residential neighborhood.”

My initial reaction? Give me a break.

Why is it OK to have multi-story student centered development everywhere  else but downtown? This is  exactly where we need this type of development. Right at the front door of the campus.  Contributors to this blog and others in North College Park felt the same.  What about the “residential area” to the east? Please. The first true single family homes do not appear until a full block east on Princeton Ave. What exactly are the city staff and the council thinking? The vote against this new development has only added to the fodder for those that feel that the city and the council are dead set against any development in their backyard.

Conceptual representation of a stepback transition.

Then I actually took a hard look at the Route 1 Sector Plan for myself. The Sector Plan is a great blueprint for how development along the Route 1 corridor should proceed. Then I watched the presentation given October  where both sides were presented and came away with a change of heart.

This building as proposed does not fit within the guidelines of that plan especially when it comes to the stepback transition requirements for development adjacent residential neighborhoods.  The basic argument from the developer is that 1) this site is not in Old Town, which it is, and 2) The immediately adjacent parcels are not residential, which could be argued either way although they are certainly residential in character. While the developer “conceded” a small stepback transition (pictured above), the Sector Plan clearly calls for a more substantial one.

City Councilman Afzali gave probably the most passionate defense of adhering to the step back requirements on the plan. (Starting at 1:27 in the video).

“I feel like the applicant and their lawyers are trying to use technicalities to ignore something that was obviously the intention of the sector plan…… When you look at the surrounding community to say that this is not in opposition to the Sector Plan is quite frankly ridiculous.”

The disapproval from the City Council of the Book Exchange project is not a vote against development, it is a vote against poor development. Even the updated proposal with the sloped roof design is far from acceptable. When is comes to development in College Park, I’m solidly in the “Build Baby Build” camp; however, we must not allow the well thought out guidelines to be brushed aside for the sake of squeezing in as many tenants as possible. In any case, this issue is in the hands of the Prince George’s County Council. The County Planning Board has already approved the plan. The City has filed an appeal and maybe a combination of additional conditions and the threat of dragging this issue out in court will be enough for the developer to redesign his proposal before barreling ahead. Time will tell.

10 thoughts on “It’s Time to Rethink the Book Exchange Proposal”

  1. the giant Varsity and View I and II being right across the street from Town Hall Liquors/the strip mall containing DP Dough.

  2. Most all the high rise development north of Paint Branch is zoned “Mixed Use Infill” and is not right next to a residential zone.

  3. I’d give this piece more regard if not for the dishonest preface. Clay Gump is pals with the politicians on College Park’s city council and has been used as a rubber stamp by them before. His argument against the project stands regardless of this relationship.

    But I have one question: why a five-story garage right next door to housing and not a six-story residential project right across from campus?

  4. Other reasons, in addition to Clay’s, as to why
    student housing built to the north has moderately high density, are to (1) support a variety of retail uses in the ground floor of new development, (2) provide easy access to parking and/or car storage on campus, (3) not greatly increase the pedestrian crossings of Route 1 (a lot of pedestrian fatalities crossing Route 1 over the years), (4) provide a lot of student housing as soon as possible (given the severe shortage from 2001 to 2011), and (5) allow for other redevelopment uses near campus in this area (such as the planned hotels and other “regular” housing, such as apartments and condos).

  5. It is pretty crazy to justify the Book Exchange project by using the parking garage example. The Book Exchange project is 50% taller than the parking garage and has more than three times the footprint, so its mass is 5 times greater than the parking garage.

    The parking garage heighth was downsized, in part, because of concerns about its height. The existing garage footprint is small for a parking garage. Other sites were reviewed for the garage but all had fatal flaws.

    We had no expressed opposition to the garage design. The garage increased downtown retail space, and provided needed parking. Its location was next to City Hall and an adjacent three story office building and a four story apartment building.

    The project went through the County’s planning review process without objection, while the Maryland Book Exchange proposal was panned by the University, the City Planning staff, the county planning staff and the county’s historic review commission.

  6. Nick,
    Ouch. Guess I’ll put my rubber stamp away. Actually I’ve never talked to anyone on the council about the project. Nobody asked me to write anything. The only reason I wrote that post is because I was truly for the project until I actually watched the session from October and I felt that if it was possible I was feeling conflicted about it I’m sure others were as well. This is actually a good example of how any project has many shades of grey.

    That being said it does seem weird that there was no opposition to the parking garage. Although if instead of parking spaces it was filled with beds I’m sure that would be a different story.

  7. Very informative Clay. I’d agree that the best thing for the area is additional student housing. This will probably lead more students moving out of the houses in the surrounding neighborhoods, which then relates to your first article of UMD wanting more employees to live within College Park. You make excellent points about the size of the structure and that the right project needs to be selected. With all this new housing, I think there should also be consideration of infrastructure. It really bugs me when I spend 25-30 minutes trying to get from Paint Branch to 95 on non-game days.

  8. I don’t think increasing high-rise housing options will lead to less kids living in Old Town. Kids who want to live in a house will live in a house, regardless of the other options available. Apartments and houses are two very different lifestyles.

  9. I am a graduate student in Calvert Hills. I don’t particularly want to live next to undergraduate students, but this is a college town, the housing near the campus should have college students. It was the same deal when I lived in State College, PA, the town depended on the students, but the long time residents did everything they could to keep students away, even if they lived right by campus. Where does this college town denial come from?

    Also, College Park desperately needs to provide high density housing for students downtown. I’ve never seen a University town so lacking in student housing near its campus. It’s a simple choice: If you want to prevent the downtown from further decay and lower the number of students commuting to campus by automobile (creating traffic), you must build some moderate high rises downtown. There is no other way around it.

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