Route 1: A Main Street by Default

Route 1

A recent article in The Diamondback commended the rise of mixed-use development on our university’s main street, as it should. After years of housing shortages and blight, College Park is finally being rejuvenated. But in current discussions of College Park’s redevelopment, there is a huge elephant in the room: Route 1 itself.

Dangerous and traffic-clogged, our principal road hardly functions as a hub of campus life. A typical main street is lined with independent businesses for meeting friends, street furniture for sitting and chatting and wide sidewalks for leisurely strolls. Route 1, however, is a different story. As evidenced by the constant rotation of restaurants in Terrapin Station, this street has managed to extinguish business in our downtown corridor. Lacking infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, this unsafe road seems set on exterminating our human population, as well.

Two major factors contribute to an establishment’s success. The first is population density, a store’s customer base. The second is foot traffic, the stream of pedestrians from which stores can fish out these customers. Clearly, College Park has the population density to support a bevy of businesses, yet we are lacking the foot traffic. Why? Because traversing Route 1 on foot is a death-defying feat. Anyone who has tried to cross Route 1 at Hartwick Road knows I’m not being hyperbolic.

Sadly, the ills of Route 1 are not unique to College Park. In Hyattsville, where Route 1 also serves as the default main street, the city has been trying to bring life back to a strip that was, until recently, dominated by vacant lots and used car dealerships. While the development project is anchored by a Busboys and Poets and features intriguing locally owned businesses, the speed and noise of Route 1’s traffic prevents Arts District Hyattsville from becoming a comfortable environment for spending an afternoon.

Particularly telling is a bench located outside of Busboys. Instead of facing outward toward the expansive view of the surrounding neighborhoods, as benches typically do, it faces inward toward an unsightly brick wall. Hyattsville’s developers are trying to build public space that fosters a thriving community and economy, yet these four lanes of traffic make that impossible to do.

Route 1 is in desperate need of traffic taming — steps that would retain the street’s automobile capacity, yet make the road more comfortable for pedestrians. By narrowing lanes of traffic as currently planned, we could finally widen sidewalks, install bike lanes/cycle tracks and add street furniture and greenery. These measures would attract College Park residents from their homes to the street, helping to repopulate our downtown corridor and ensure the success of our new businesses.

Roads are the building blocks of our communities, and it is simply impossible to build community around six lanes of traffic. We cannot continue to herald new businesses when they come to town, yet neglect to create an environment where they can thrive. The establishments in the new mixed-use high rises require a Route 1 that accommodates both cars and people.

There is nothing “new” about Route 1. It remains a main street by default, not by definition.

8 thoughts on “Route 1: A Main Street by Default”

  1. Excellent article. For years the Route 1 “revitalization” has been MTA’s unwanted step child. It has been a kind of chicken-or-the-egg problem. When East Campus was first being proposed I remember the thinking then was that major development along Route 1 would create the catalyst to finally do something about the entire road.

    Like Krystie points out we really need a main street that is friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Maybe the new proposed gas tax will help fund improvements to Route 1. I certainly hope so.

  2. The problem is, what then happens to all of the vehicle traffic that currently uses Route 1? These people are all not going to magically switch to public transportation, in fact, almost none of them will. So you “tame” Route 1, and send more cars to Kennilworth, which is already jammed. OK, how about BW Parkway, well the problem there is that it was originally designed as a “calm” parkway but now must function as an interstate, without the infrastructure. A single car breakdown can block and entire lane due to the lack of shoulders.

    The truth is that if you take out lanes from Route 1, you will make traffic far worse, with no guarantee of any of the positives you talk about. A “tamer” Route 1 will not magically make more “independent” businesses appear. The reality is that college students today are more mobile than before, like to drive, nearly all come from the suburbs where they grew up driving, and have no real interest in a viable “downtown.”

    I lived in East Lansing, MI, which has a nice walkable downtown, and businesses pleaded for more parking to compete with a shopping mall several miles away. Even in Ann Arbor, the quintessential college town, downtown merchants talked about how difficult it is to survive on just students, they need outside customers which means competing with the malls and shopping centers, and that means less traffic and more parking. This is the world we live in, like it or not.

    Look at Ledo’s, the city’s great redevelopment project. Ledo’s, by its own admission, does not consider students a significant part of its business. That means people coming by car. So making Route 1 traffic worse would probably kill them.

    Would they be replaced by your mythical “independent” cool college-town store? Maybe, or maybe they property would sit vacant like about 25% of downtown College Park is at any time.

    So you would have a walkable and bikeable downtown, with even fewer businesses, which would then drive even more businesses out of College Park. The viscous cycle would continue.

    Oh yeah, plus if you kill Route 1, you also kill the only currently-viable part of College Park, the Ikea and Home Depot shopping centers which rely 100% on automobile traffic and always will.

  3. The article specifically talks about retaining capacity, not reducing lanes. SHA plans to narrow the lanes on Route 1, which are too wide and encourage people to drive well above the speed limit. At the same time, SHA and MNCPPC plans envision widening sidewalks, installing cycle tracks, and reducing curb cuts to advance mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented, medium- to high-density neighborhoods.

  4. The retail vacancy rate in College Park last month was six percent. That doesn’t count leases that were recently signed for the old Santa Fe Bar on Knox Road and the forner Varsity Grill Restaurant, the Showcase Furniture building, and the former Jordan Kit building on Route 1. So the actual vacancy rate by the spring may be well under five percent.

  5. Glad someone is finally taking over the former Santa Fe property. Will it be another bar/restaurant?

  6. @cprealist People will “magically” switch to walking, biking, and public transportation if they live in, or commute to, an area that has easy, competitive access to such modes. You point out that the BW Parkway is already congested. So is the Beltway, and the Purple Line would serve as a competitive mode of transportation to that interstate. Over time, the population in and around DC is only going up, and land is a limited resource.

    If we expand the highways, without expanding any other mode of transport, an induced demand to drive is created. A greater strain is placed on corresponding arterial roads (such as Route 1), which in turn may need to be widened to take on the extra traffic. Development becomes more oriented around cars, which spurs more roads and traffic. The result is sprawl and an ironic lack of place for areas that attract people. Congestion and commute times increase, and tax revenue per square unit decreases. This would all be very bad news for College Park and the University, which both have an interest in devoting as much space as possible to people and businesses.

    It’s a given that College Park will need its roads. Unfortunately, not everyone has good access to transit (even with a Purple Line), and transit can’t get everywhere reliably. But there is something to be said for reliable sidewalks and dense growth. They take away car congestion, put eyes on the street to reduce crime, and increase revenue and business.

  7. Well done. I agree with most of what’s said here.

    One quibble with this part: “Hyattsville’s developers are trying to build public space that fosters a thriving community and economy, yet these four lanes of traffic make that impossible to do.”

    Route 1 certainly makes it very challenging, but does that really make it impossible ? It’s a common situation: trying to redevelop a center city area, but with a busy highway running right through the middle of it. The same issue is in Arlington, Silver Spring, Rockville, White Flint, and even Tyson’s Corner & beyond. There’s “only” four lanes of highway traffic to deal with in Hyattsville, but more in Arlington, Rockville, Silver Spring, and other places. Yet it can be done.

    Change moves so slowly and imperceptibly, sometimes it seems like it won’t ever happen. It pays to be in it for the long haul. The changes and level of investment in the Hyattsville Arts District have been incredible. Just a few years ago, there was little reason to go down there other than visit Franklin’s. Now with all the townhomes going in, Busboys & Poets, YES market, there’s a lot of momentum that can hopefully lead to more investment and eventually fill in the abandoned buildings there with real businesses.

    Even in College Park, opening up the Varsity & University View II last year with their associated businesses have lead to new energy by the University. You can see foot traffic along Route 1 that wasn’t there before. It gets people thinking about what could happen if East Campus ever gets off the ground.

    But I definitely agree with the main premise: Route 1 is a default main street and that’s a drag on the communities struggling to redevelop along there. If the SHA ever got around to making those changes, it would be huge. Moving the sidewalks back from the road, so you aren’t inches away from cars, narrowing the lanes, and extending the median would make it much more walkable experience. It’s interesting: College Park has a lot of interesting attractions & businesses, but the aesthetics can be very bad and it discourages people from exploring the area on foot. If Route 1 could become somewhat attractive and pedestrian friendly, that could “flip the script” and change a lot of people’s perceptions of College Park.

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