“Unbelievable” is the only way to describe the scene at the County Council chambers this morning in Upper Marlboro. The developer of the proposed 630 bed graduate student housing project Mazza Grandmarc (LOCATION) finally came before the Council almost a year after Councilmen Dernoga “called up” the project for review. They poured over the Detailed Site Plan in painstaking detail – covering everything from architectural critiques to storm water management and (unsubstantiated) traffic concerns. The talks at times became extremely heated – especially between Dernoga and the applicant’s lawyer.
What the Council came to realize is that the their Planning Board Staff (as is their job) and the City of College Park had already brokered a series of laudable and complex compromises with developer since 2004. The meeting also confirmed what everyone else in attendance already knew – there was no conceivable reason to stall the project in May 2006. The Council seemed to be desperately trying to justify the yearlong delay of the project, but in the end they came up woefully short.
Still, they decided to take the project “Under Advisement” which means that they can review it for a maximum of 60 days to determine: (1) approval of the project, (2) approval with conditions, or (3) outright rejection of the project. Several issues were raised, but the most serious for the Council seemed to be:
- The project’s failure to meet minimum (at least 75% coverage) brick facade requirements as laid out the Sector Plan
- The project’s lack of “green” building standards
The Council’s contention was that the developer’s proposed brick coverage (45% total and 100% on the visible portions) is not sufficient and that the Planning Board erred in waiving the Sector Plan’s 75% brick coverage requirement. The developer agreed to make this costly addition to their plan although some members of the council indicated that they expected 100% coverage on all sides. Portions of the building which the council argued should be bricked are completely hidden by a dense forest leading many to wonder: what is the point of such a wasteful use of money and natural resources? Ironically, the brick will replace what was proposed as Hardiplank – an attractive and environmentally sound cement siding product made from ground sand and cellulose fibers. Not even the University View was required to have 100% brick coverage and that project is actually visible on more than just one side.
Councilmen Dernoga was particularly adamant about Mazza’s lack of “Green” Building standards. He pointed again to Route 1 Sector Plan Guidelines which suggest developers explore green building practices. Yet as College Park Planner Director Terry Schum rightfully noted, that section and many other sections of the Sector Plan are simply guidelines that cannot be enforced as mandates. Such a line of reasoning prompted Dernoga to ask if “the sector plan counts for anything?” It’s widely expected that the county will require at least a Silver LEED rating for new buildings, but no such law is on the books at this time and the Mazza developer probably can’t legally be held such a standard. The Council certainly didn’t have to wait until today to indicate that they expected either of these changes to the project.
So what’s the takeaway point from this mess? We’re not sure, but it’s definitely concerning when one man (Tom Dernoga) can stand in the way of a major student housing project in the height of the University’s worst housing crunch in 20 years. Not only is Dernoga delaying woefully needed Graduate Student beds, but he used the project force a change to a State law that gives incentives for other student housing projects in College Park. When the Mazza developer first stepped foot on the project site in the Summer of 2001 he never could have predicted that it would take 6 years to come to this point. In the interim he had to deal with an unimaginable number of site constraints (common to College Park) and political hurdles. While it appears that the project will eventually go forward, it won’t open for students until Fall 2009 or 2010 if all goes according to plan. Of course things never go according to plan in College Park.