Squashing the Vision

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s the definition of insanity. ~ Albert Einstein

The community’s vision for Route 1 is to have a compact, dynamic, mostly 4-6 story mixed-use corridor. That vision has been formally codified in the Route 1 Sector Plan – the primary zoning document for College Park – for the better part of a decade. As one planner put it recently, the community’s long term vision for Route 1 is to create “a network of sustainable, transit-supporting, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented, medium- to high-density neighborhoods.” This basically translates to housing (and some office) on top retail which fronts streets and wide sidewalks (depicted below) all along the corridor. Increased traffic would be handled by a more frequent, more reliable Route 1 bus service with “superstops” shared by the various transit agencies and sited in areas with the highest concentration of planned development… a vision set out in a recent transportation study completed for the City.

route1illustrativeplanThe basic vision I describe above for Route 1, passed by the County Council in 2002, was not some grand and unattainable pie-in-the-sky plan foisted on the community by the University or RTCP. It was the product of dozens of public visioning sessions, meetings, negotiations, compromises and a recognition of true market realities. Unfortunately in the 8 years since 2002, the plan has produced only one true mixed-use project on Route 1 – the University View – and a particularly poor example of one at that. Other better projects are now under construction, but many more have faltered, were squandered by politicians or were never even attempted thanks the confusing and uncertain regulatory regime the Sector Plan put in place and the peculiarities of Prince George’s County politics.

The problems of unclear regulation and political obstructionism in the development process were identified in 2006 by an EPA Smart Growth Assistance team and are well documented on this website. The College Park City Council requested a minor Sector Plan Update in late 2006/early 2007 to correct these problems and “achieve the vision” for a reinvigorated Route 1. That update process is nearing completion as you read this. According to former Mayor Steve Brayman, the City’s intent was to implement a tool called form-based codes and that was the primary impetus “for redoing the current plan.” For the non-planners among us, form-based codes are a modern zoning tool that allows more consistency and predictability in the development review process while largely taking the opportunity for politicization by elected officials out of the planning process. They also force developers to stick to the plan.

Instead of a minor plan amendment, the City has found itself with full-blown Sector Plan Update that is scheduled for approval by the County Council in the next couple months. The update was produced over an 18 month period and included several community meetings and visioning sessions. It puts in place laudable “form-based design regulations” that, for instance, would to some degree avoid the atrocious and anti-urban pedestrian experience that the retail segment of the University View exhibits. That said, we at RTCP are extremely concerned that the proposed update to the Sector Plan only add to the existing compendium of requirements, goals and objectives (the Sector Plan, the Zoning Ordinance, and the Landscape Manual) but provide none of consistency and predictability of a true form-based code. City Councilman Catlin said as much in today’s Diamondback about many of the elements of the new plan: “In many ways, they make redevelopment more difficult.” More from the article:

In many cases, the proposed impediments to development seem like small snags. For instance, a zoning change in North College Park could add a cumbersome process for adding retail, and another change downtown could restrict future Route 1 development between Calvert Road and Guilford Road to single family homes.

Catlin also raised concerns about a proposed revision that would restrict redevelopment on parcels of less than half an acre.

Though the proposals may seem trifling in isolation, cumulatively, Catlin said they will make it harder for developers to bring smart growth to College Park.

Later on:

David Daddio, founder of the development blog Rethink College Park, said form-based codes were merely an outlet to speed up development and remove the politics that sometimes draw out the process.

“What we have now is a highly politicized process with all this grandstanding at the end, and it creates a situation where developers don’t want to build because they don’t know what they’re getting into,” Daddio said. “Developers don’t have faith that they can get anything through in College Park.”

Perhaps the most worrying part of the Sector Plan Update is a recent amendment to the plan (Amendment 5) proposed by County Councilman Tom Dernoga that precludes indefinitely the use of true form-based codes north of MD-193 in College Park. The County Council could still ultimately adopt them south of 193. In the long term form-based codes are the only way we’ll realize the community’s vision for a compact, walkable, transit-ready, sustainable Route 1 in our lifetimes….

Successful implementation of form-based codes transformed downtown Arlington in less than a decade. Without a form-based code, it took nearly that long for a single apartment building, the Mazza Grandmarc, to earn the county’s approval, Catlin pointed out. (Diamondback)


6 thoughts on “Squashing the Vision”

  1. Local developers already do not want to do projects along Route 1 because they feel it is the most difficult place to get anything approved and what the County is doing is just going to make it work. What can we do to prevent these actions that will stand in the way of making Rte 1 “a network of sustainable, transit-supporting, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented, medium- to high-density neighborhoods.”?

  2. Some comments on form-based codes & zoning.

    To be correct it is a modern tool only a far as urban planning is a moder endeavor. (It exists now for more than a century.) This kind of approach to urban planning and development was (an maybe still is) the basis of urban planning and regulations in Germany. The approach have been adapted by Austria, Hungary and other Eastern and Central European countries as well.

    On one hand, the approach — once the goals and whereabouts are established and accepted by the local community — is welcomed both by the public and the developers. It provides a kind of predictability for the future, as well as direct measures for economic feasibility.

    On the other hand, current practices provide a legal framework for negotiations with developers, which (under ideal conditions) should be used to benefit residents. Taking the option for negotiations away might be a loss, unless ‘the perfect’ master/zoning plan is in place. Also, form-based codes do not remove politicization completely, rather move them to the background as obscure negotiations, or similar practices…

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