Local leaders have really put themselves in a quandary over the Book Exchange controversy. An array of officials who are reliably pro-smart growth have teamed up with Old Town Civic Association (OTCA) in an effort to quash the proposed 6-story project that could bring 830 student beds to downtown College Park—along with roughly 170 beds geared towards graduate students and young professionals. They think the site could be better used. The debate has become almost farcical. Handpicked neighborhood committees are staking their positions, and misinformation and hysteria abound in ways not seen with any other project.
The developer has not submitted formal plans or even presented the concept to the City Council, but the battle lines are drawn. The preponderance of the key decisionmakers, including county councilman Eric Olson, are squarely in the camp opposed to the project. At the starting gate, the project seems almost destined for a court battle; it’s completely within the zoning, but opposed by most of the local political establishment. The basic realities of the situation and the Route 1 Sector Plan (area zoning) have taken a backseat to an anti-student hysteria brewing among a handful of the most politically active and vocal Old Town residents.
A letter dated October 1 from OTCA (READ HERE) to the City effectively sums up the basis for the adjacent neighborhood’s opposition:
“We shall be completely marginalized and without hope should this project go forward.”
Later: “OTCA believes the influx of up to 1,000 more undergraduates would symbolize ‘kiss of death,’ for College Park’s downtown, as the likelihood of more upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops would forever be lost to sandwich shops and fast food venues, the market of choice targeted to undergraduates. If downtown is completely dominated by undergraduate residents, it will not attract more diverse retail. If this project goes forward, the opportunity to change the nature of downtown will forever be lost.”
The letter concludes with: “We cannot support the proposed development at the Maryland Book Exchange, as it is likely to have grave and irreversible impacts on our community.”
The basic premises of the opposition to the Book Exchange Redevelopment are faulty. City councilwoman Chris Nagle, who supports the project, describes the situation best:
“The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town. I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings. The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.”
A unanimous vote (24-0) on Septemeber 27th, 2010 by OTCA recommended the proposal not go forward. Unfortunately, those who are supposed to be voices of reason in the community are playing to the deepest fears of a neighborhood that has convinced itself its very future is in jeopardy. This gut emotion stems from the development’s proximity to the neighborhood, not from any reality of its potential impacts on the community. In fact, the project would create the exact reverse effect of what residents fear: It will contribute to draining students out of single-family homes.
We’re not saying that there isn’t room for adjustments around the edges. We’ve already proposed that the developer seek the Maryland Food Co-op as a retail tenant and look at ways to better ensure graduate students can comfortably occupy part of the complex. That said, if Olson, other local leaders, and OTCA can’t answer the following key questions, then the project should be allowed to proceed:
1) OTCA’s letter states that “the influx of at least 835 undergraduates will profoundly and negatively impact our neighborhood, as this new population will swell the ranks of the house parties that are already straining our nerves and the resources of the city.” Does the completion of this project affect Old Town any differently than the completion of about 2,200 beds in the South Campus Commons complex just up Knox Road from Old Town? Furthermore, would OTCA be as vehemently opposed to the redevelopment of the Knox Boxes (estimated net increase of 1,600 beds) or the potential redevelopment of the Applebee’s parking lot as student housing?
2) OTCA estimated that the student population of Old Town is 1,100 and that the proposed building would “instantly almost double that population.” In fact, the student population in the immediate area (which includes Knox Boxes, South Campus, Fraternity Row, New and Old Leonardtown) is about 4-5 times larger than that estimate. It’s critical that the OTCA take into account similarly situated student housing located in close walking distance to downtown and Old Town if the intensification of the party scene is a concern. Considering the existing population, the effective student population in the area will nowhere near double. Given the above, what specifically about student housing at the Book Exchange site makes it “likely to have grave and irreversible impacts” to Old Town?
3) The University of Maryland is embarking on its massive 38-acre redevelopment at the corner of Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway that will bring high-end retail and housing immediately adjacent to Old Town. Since the proposal of this project in 2006, UMD has been consistent in its refusal to put any undergraduate housing on East Campus. In fact, as part of the project, Old and New Leonardtown and its 650 affordable undergraduate beds immediately adjacent to Old Town will be razed. The completion of the proposed Book Exchange redevelopment, when taking into account East Campus, will result in virtually no net increase in student beds adjacent to the neighborhood. Has OTCA factored this into its calculations?
4) Is there specific text in the Route 1 Sector Plan which Olson, other members of the committee, and county officials use to support the claim that the proposed project does not conform to its (the sector plan’s) substance?
5) The Route 1 Sector Plan (recently approved after a lengthy public process) calls for a pedestrian-friendly, transit-ready, mixed-use transformation of the Route 1 corridor. The Book Exchange site is zoned for a 4-6 story building with ground floor retail fronting the sidewalk on Route 1. If the community prevents Zusin’s development from being constructed, what other development product or products are financially feasible for the site, and when is it feasible to build them?
6) The OTCA and Stephanie Stullich (the area’s city councilwoman) have repeatedly mentioned the massive number of (new) student beds built in College Park over the last decade. This is not the result of increasing enrollment at UMD, but a direct product of the university’s continued transition to a residential school and its emergence as a top “research 1 university.” Indeed, 1,100 beds were completed this fall and 2,300 more will be finished by Fall 2011. Still, Zusin is proposing approximately 830 dedicated undergraduate beds at the Book Exchange site. Another very large project is about to be proposed at the Koon’s Ford site. Yet another expansion of University View is approved to bring 900 beds to 8400 Baltimore Ave. Do Olson, local leaders, and OTCA take issue with the development community’s market research that indicates continuing strong demand for this type of housing?
7) Stephanie Stullich and others in Old Town have championed a number of purely private student housing projects between UMD’s North Gate and Greenbelt Road. In all, almost 3,200 beds have been completed or will come on line there by next fall. Another 900 in the University View complex could bring that total to more than 4,000 beds. Is this controversy simply a case of NIMBYism?
8) If construction of student housing isn’t the long term solution to what ails Old Town—that is, a glut of student renters living in single-family homes—then what is?