Saturday, July 4, 2020

"Washington Redfins" is a Non-Racist Football Name We Can Be Proud Of

FedEx Field, located in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is the home stadium of the Washington Redskins football franchise. This weekend, FedEx joined the ever-growing crowd of corporations, civic leaders, and decent human beings in requesting the team to change its racist moniker. Despite team owner Dan Snyder's years of resisting a name change, the team has now promised to "undergo a thorough review of the team's name."

In 2013, a similar groundswell of effort from numerous public officials—including former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, former U.S. Representative Donna Edwards, and President Barack Obama—failed to pursuade Snyder. Many progressive media outlets began refusing to refer to the team's official name. Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer penned a powerful op-ed declaring that common decency, not mere political correctness, dictated the abandonment of a name that has become “tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.” Still, Snyder refused to budge.

Although the team's recent promise to "review" the team's name is no guarantee that the name will change, Washington's football team has much more incentive to do so now than it did in 2013. In seven short years, the nation has legalized gay marriage, banned employment discrimination against LGBTQ people, established a near-zero-tolerance approach to harassment of women in the workplace and beyond, torn down Civil War monuments to traitorous Confederate generals, retired state flags containing Confederate battle insignia, and held weeks-long mass demonstrations in the wake of police violence against unarmed Black Americans.

We have also witnessed four years of negative consequences from a divisive, racist, polarizing president who has focused on building border walls, separating Latino children from their families, denigrating people of color at every opportunity, and even stoking violence against peaceful protesters. As a result, Americans have increasingly become more attuned to—and oposed to—symbols and acts of race- and geneder-based insensitivity and violence.

Over the years, we have seen no shortage of suggestions for alternate names for Washington’s football team. Krauthammer and others prefer simply shortening the name to the “Skins,” which many people commonly do already. Some local residents mounted an under-the-radar effort to rename the team the "Washington Bravehearts." Another worthy contender is the "Washington Redtails," honoring Black Tuskeegee airmen.

One of the more hilarious (and vegan-friendly) proposals, offered by PETA, is to keep the name “Redskins” but change the logo to a potato:

But who wants to root for a frigging spud?! We need a mascot that connotes power and might, one that evokes fear and trepidation in opponents—something exotic, yet familiar. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the Washington Redfins!

As described by the New South Wales government in Australia, “Redfin are a popular sport fish…because of their fighting qualities and taste. However, they are also voracious predators of other fish and invertebrates…and can devastate native fish populations…. For these reasons, redfin are considered a serious pest.”

Talk about a fearsome little fish! Yet, they are sporty, they fight well, and they taste good. What more can we ask in a mascot? We could even keep the same fight song and tune, making only the simplest of modifications in the lyrics:
Hail to the Redfins. Hail, victory.
Pride of the Nation, [or, “Potomac war fish,”]
Fight for old D.C.!

It's time, Washington football fans, to start swimming with the mighty Redfins!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How Could We Better Use College Park Airport?

Image by M–NCPPC.
College Park Airport in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is the world’s oldest continually operating airport. Sadly, it’s also likely one of the most squandered public assets in the Washington region. Virtually no one uses it, despite its prime location near transit and the University of Maryland. But with a few commonsense upgrades and the proper public focus, we could change that.

Wilbur Wright originally established College Park Airport in 1909. He used it to train the first United States military officers to fly an airplane. Today, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M–NCPPC), a state agency operating in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, owns and operates the airport and its accompanying aviation museum.

One could not ask for a more ideal location for an airport. It is within a quarter-mile walk of the College Park–University of Maryland rail station, which provides multimodal transit access to WMATA’s Metrorail and Metrobus network, the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) MARC commuter rail, and the future MTA Purple Line light rail. It also sits less than a mile from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus.

College Park Airport. Annotations by Author.
Despite its great legacy and its uber-convenient location, College Park Airport sees only about 3,200 takeoffs and landings annually—less than nine flights per day. By contrast, the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg sees about 48,000 takeoffs and landings annually, or just over 131 flights per day.

What would it take to transform College Park Airport into a more vibrant economic development and transportation engine for the Prince George’s County and the Washington Metropolitan Area?

General Aviation vs. Commercial Service

Currently, the FAA categorizes College Park Airport as a general aviation airport because it has no common carriers offering passenger service to the public between specific locations according to a published schedule, and it has fewer than 2,500 annual passenger boardings (“enplanements”).

General aviation airports serve a variety of passenger-carrying flights, such as skydiving or sightseeing tours, medical transport, air taxi services, private and corporate planes, and charter planes. They also serve non-passenger-carrying aircraft such as those used by flight schools, the military, recreational fliers, and cargo transport.

Airports that have more than 2,500 annual enplanements and have common carrier-scheduled passenger service between specific locations are classified as commercial service airports. Scheduled passenger flights are usually separated from other general aviation services in a separate commercial terminal, because the passengers and baggage on scheduled commercial flights are subject to heightened security screening and safety regulations that do not apply to general aviation flights.

Both commercial and general aviation services use a variety of aircraft sizes—helicopters, small single-engine piston planes, twin-engine business and commuter turboprops, regional jets, and jumbo jets. However, not all airports have the runway lengths and strengths to accommodate all sizes of aircraft.

College Park Airport would likely qualify as a “nonhub primary” commercial airport if it began scheduled passenger service. This means that it would generate at least 10,000 annual (or just over 27 daily) enplanements, but less than the threshold for categorization as a “small hub primary” airport, which is currently around 450,000 annual (or 1,232 daily) enplanements.

At those passenger volumes, College Park Airport would obviously not pose a significant threat to the three nearby large hub commercial airports (Reagan National, BWI-Marshall, and Dulles). However, it would provide some needed additional capacity for short-haul commercial flights at another rail transit-accessible location near downtown Washington, DC.

Longer Runway and Additional Facilities Needed

The airport’s existing 2,600 x 60 feet runway can only accommodate small propeller-powered aircraft such as the Viking Twin Otter or the Pilatus PC-12. To be feasible as a commercial service airport and to enable more options for larger general aviation aircraft, the runway would need to be wider and longer.

As indicated in the above picture, the likely runway expansion path would be southeastward, across the Northeast Branch tributary, toward Kenilworth Ave, to achieve a dimension of approximately 4,500 x 150 feet. This would require careful civil engineering (e.g., construction of a concrete culvert below the runway subgrade) to preserve the water flow in the tributary.

The runway pavement would also likely need to be strengthened to better accommodate double-wheeled aircraft of up to 100,000 lbs. This would permit a broad range of mid-sized 10-12 seat business jets, such as the Cesna Sovereign, as well as large 50-90 seat commercial turboprop aircraft, such as the ATR 42, ATR 72, and Dash 8-400, to service College Park Airport at their maximum takeoff weights.

Billy Bishop City Airport. Photo by PortsToronto.
Although all four of the major U.S. commercial carriers have phased out their turboprop fleets in favor of regional jets, there are some signs turboprops could see a resurgence, given their higher fuel efficiency, lower operating costs, and ability to serve airports with shorter runways.

Even today, smaller U.S. commuter carriers, like Silver Airways, and larger Canadian carriers like Porter Airlines, have significant turboprop operations. Indeed, Porter’s home base, Billy Bishop City Airport in Toronto (pictured above), serves about 2.8 million domestic and international passengers annually—about the volume of an American small hub like Savannah, GA, or Albany, NY. All of those passengers fly on turboprop planes, since Billy Bishop’s longest runway is just under 4,000 x 150 feet.

Funding and Land Are Available

Through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Maryland’s Aviation Grant Program, funding for runway and taxiway reconstruction, airfield lighting and signage, apron construction, terminal buildings, and similar improvements (including related planning) at small commercial and general aviation airports is available at up to 95% of the costs.

Fortunately, M–NCPPC already owns and controls the land adjacent to the airport that would be necessary for the development of commercial and enhanced general aviation services at College Park Airport. The current 70-acre general aviation and museum facility could expand to about 125 acres, to allow sufficient space to construct a commercial passenger terminal and ramp, a control tower, and facilities for fixed-base operators (FBO), maintenance, fire and rescue services, aircraft hangars, transient aircraft parking, and visitor and rental car parking.

The State of Maryland and Prince George’s County own some neighboring parcels that could also be dedicated to the airport complex. Other privately owned land adjacent to the airport could be used for hotel construction and other compatible facilities.

If a new commercial passenger terminal is built, it should have at least six ramp spaces for simultaneous enplaning and deplaning. The terminal should be equipped to process international passengers, most of whom would likely be coming from Canadian ports. Instead of expensive jet bridges, the airport could use simple accessible boarding ramps at each ramp space.

Environmental and Security Considerations

Former Mount Rainier councilman Brent Bolin, a community and environmental activist, attorney, and nonprofit executive, sees the potential benefits of expanding services at College Park Airport, but also worries about the potential for adverse environmental impacts, such as the elimination of or restriction of access to parkland and recreational facilities around the Northeast Branch in the area of the airport.

Without question, any major transportation infrastructure project could potentially result in adverse environmental impacts. This is why federally mandated environmental analysis, which evaluates alternatives and considers mitigation options, is part of the process.

It is certainly true, for example, that the airport expansion would result in the loss of some parkland and recreational areas in the immediate vicinity of the airport. However, ample parkland and recreational facilities would remain in easy walking or biking distance. Rerouting the popular Anacostia Tributary Trail around the extended runway is one easy mitigation measure that could be employed to maintain access to those nearby facilities.

Photo by MSP Metropolitan Commission.
Similarly, airport noise is always a serious concern for residents of the area surrounding an airport. Indeed, a National Institutes of Health study describes airport noise as “one, if not the most detrimental environmental effect of aviation.”

Obviously, there is no way to eliminate airport noise completely. However, there are many ways to mitigate the impacts of such noise. One such measure, which is already in place at College Park and Reagan National airports, is to restrict the times that aircraft can take off from the airport. At College Park, takeoffs are generally prohibited between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am.

National security and the potential for terrorism necessarily are priority concerns with airline travel in the National Capital Area. Ever since September 11, 2001, the FAA has established a Flight Restricted Zone within 15 nautical miles of Reagan National Airport. College Park Airport is within that zone and, accordingly, must adhere to certain enhanced security protocols. Pilots flying into and out of the airport must pass a TSA background check.

The FAA and TSA would need to determine whether any additional security measures, akin to those in place at Reagan National, would be needed in connection with scheduled commercial air service at College Park Airport.

How to Make This Happen

It seems almost inconceivable that the idea of expanding services at College Park Airport has not come up for serious discussion before. College Park mayor Patrick Wojahn said that he does not recall any discussions of potential commercial services at the airport during his tenure in city government. Nor has independent internet research by the author yielded any information regarding any recent discussions or studies of the issue. Current airport manager Lee Sommer did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

M–NCPPC completed an airport land use compatibility and safety study in 2000 that found no significant issues in connection with College Park Airport. That study highlighted the airport’s significance to aviation history: “Probably no other field in aviation can boast of such a significant clientele or such an amazing list of achievements as College Park Airport.”

But the airport is more than just a historical artifact. It is a fully operational facility with a prime location near public transit. It is a potential source of jobs and economic development in Prince George’s County. Corporate travelers and tour groups, in particular, would appreciate having a general aviation facility close to DC that can handle larger planes. Likewise, U.S. commuter air carriers and Canadian carriers that operate commercial turboprop planes would appreciate the additional commercial capacity and the proximity to DC that College Park Airport could provide.

Working in consultation with experienced outside aviation planning consultants, the professional planners at M–NCPPC can produce a strong airport master plan with short-, medium-, and long-term benchmarks that meets the community’s increasing air transportation needs, protects its natural resources, promotes neighborhood safety, and appropriately leverages the distinguished legacy and the huge economic development potential of the world’s oldest airport.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Amazon Westphalia: A Case Study in Rogue Zoning

Proposed Amazon Warehouse Building in Westphalia. Image: M-NCPPC.

Rumor has it that Amazon is planning to build a massive four million square foot distribution warehouse in the heart of Westphalia Town Center in southern Prince George’s County, near Joint Base Andrews. This comes as a shock to residents of the developing community, who were promised a walkable, transit-oriented environment with a vibrant mix of offices, stores, and restaurants.

In recent weeks, the Prince George’s County Council has rammed through a series of significant changes to the zoning ordinance to authorize and justify placing a huge industrial building in the middle of a planned suburban town center. The Council enacted these zoning changes without submitting them to the County Executive for approval and without allowing the standard 45-day period for the public to decide whether to petition the ordinances for a referendum, in violation of the county charter.

In addition, because these zoning changes apply only to Westphalia and benefit only its owner, Walton International, and the intended purchaser, Duke Realty, they likely violate state laws prohibiting “spot” or “contract” zoning. Sadly, the potential illegality of these ordinances has not deterred the council members in the least. Rather, it is just the latest example of their rogue method of enacting zoning legislation.

The Developers' and County Council’s Bait-and-Switch

Amazon’s proposed distribution center is five stories and 85 feet high, with a footprint exceeding 820,000 square feet, for a total of approximately 4.1 million square feet of warehouse space. That equates to a land area of about 16 football fields arranged in a 4 x 4 configuration, or about 5 contiguous city blocks. By contrast, the length of each of side of the Pentagon is about 300 feet shorter and the height about 14 feet shorter than this proposed warehouse. Surrounding the building on the 78-acre site will be 1,786 automobile parking spaces, 200 truck loading spaces, and 65 loading docks.

Proposed Site Plan for Amazon's Westphalia Warehouse. Image: M-NCPPC

Anyone reading the preceding paragraph can easily see that Amazon’s proposed building is neither walkable, mixed-use, nor transit-oriented. Yet, the developers and the County Council have colluded to shoehorn this project into this legacy “mixed-use transportation-oriented” (“MXT”) zone by theorizing that Westphalia needs a major employment use to catalyze development and that the county could benefit from the projected 1,500 jobs this facility would bring.

The Council’s zoning amendments create a fancy new term—“merchandise logistics center”—to describe this distribution warehouse, and then allow this industrial use in Westphalia’s MXT zone, despite the land use requirements for this area as set forth in the 2014 General Plan and the 2007 Westphalia Sector Plan.

Incidentally, this flurry of zoning activity is all taking place under the current, soon-to-be-expiring zoning ordinance. The Council passed a comprehensive zoning ordinance rewrite last year, but it has not taken effect yet. Under the new ordinance, which seeks to implement the county’s general plan, Westphalia is contemplated to be designated as a mixed-use “Town Activity Center” (“TAC”) zone. Warehouse uses and excessive surface parking of the kind in this planned Amazon facility are not permitted in the TAC zone. Additionally, the maximum permitted block length in the core of the TAC zone is 600 feet—less than a third of the length of the proposed Amazon Westphalia facility.

The original vision for Westphalia Town Center. Image: M-NCPPC

Thus, even before the new zoning ordinance can take effect, the County Council is already busy at work poking holes in it. The Council is continuing its practice of passing indiscriminate zoning ordinance text amendments to permit things the original ordinance prohibited—adding extraneous definitions and footnotes that create exceptions that allow particular developers to build something that would otherwise be prohibited, or that allow particular council members to bring pet projects to their districts. None of this bodes well for the new zoning ordinance, or for the overall land use and development policies of the county.

What Should Happen With Westphalia and Amazon’s Proposed Warehouse

The County Council and the Westphalia developers are correct to point out that the market prospects are bleak for dense mixed-use office and retail development in that area, which is outside of the Beltway and far away from transit. But that reality is not new. The development concept for Westphalia Town Center has always been a fanciful pipe dream, conceived originally out of developer and county official corruption, then later by developer greed, the parochial interests of multiple District 6 council members, and undisciplined land use policies that facilitate massive suburban greenfield development instead of focusing on developing around Metro stations and in the urbanized inner-Beltway areas of the county.

Rather than continuing to pursue an ill-advised development concept, the county should commence a comprehensive community planning process to revise and replace the 2007 Westphalia Sector Plan. The new sector plan should seek to preserve or restore the rural character and natural resources of the areas that are currently substantially undeveloped, such as the previously planned town center core where the Amazon warehouse is now being proposed.

At the same time, the new sector plan should seek to define a more realistic vision for success in the areas of Westphalia that are currently being developed. The focus should be on walkability and recreational facilities within the residential areas and also multi-modal connectivity between residential and designated neighborhood commercial areas. Smaller scale vertical mixed-use development should be encouraged in the neighborhood commercial areas.

In addiiton, the county should still vigorously pursue the development opportunity for the Amazon distribution center, but instead direct it to a more appropriate location. A prime location (no pun intended) for this facility would be the old Landover Mall site, which is adjacent to the Beltway and has ample transportation infrastructure already in place to support a 24-hour merchandise distribution center.

Aerial view of Landover Mall site, with proposed rail transit station. 
The eastern portion of the site, closest to the Beltway, could be rezoned into the Industrial Employment (IE) zone under the new zoning code. The western portion, closest to Brightseat Road, could be zoned into the Commercial Neighborhood (CN) zone, which would also permit multifamily residential mixed-use and live-work unit development. A bus or future rail transit facility could be placed in the center of the development. Structured parking for the Amazon warehouse could be provided either in the neighborhood commercial area or the industrial area. Of course, these modifications would require a revision to the Landover Gateway Sector Plan.

Weigh In At This Week’s Planning Board Hearing

The Planning Board will meet on Thursday, July 18, at 1:00 pm, in the First Floor Hearing Room at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro to consider the Detailed Site Plan application for the Westphalia distribution warehouse. You can review or download the DSP materials here.

If you have concerns regarding the way the County Council enacted these zoning changes, or with the substance of the proposal, this is your time to speak up. You first must register to become a party of record in connection with DSP-19008 Snapper (Westphalia). Then you can appear and speak at the hearing or email your written comments prior to the hearing to Mr. Jeremy Hurlbutt, Master Planner, who is assigned to review this file. You may also mail or fax your comments to him prior to the hearing at: MNCPPC, Urban Design Section, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772; fax: 301.952.3749.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is Prince George’s going rogue with zoning bills?

Image by Shelly
For many decades, the Prince George’s County Council has deliberately not followed the same procedures when passing zoning legislation as it does when passing other legislation. Nothing in state or county law authorizes the Council to treat zoning bills differently than other bills. Nevertheless, because it has been doing so for so long, virtually no one seems to notice or complain. Perhaps that should change.

The Council’s short-circuited zoning procedures allow it to rush through often hugely consequential or controversial bills relating to land use and development in Maryland’s second-largest county without giving the public fair notice of bill amendments. Those procedures also deprive the County Executive of the right to review and approve or disapprove of zoning legislation. Additionally, by allowing most zoning laws to become effective immediately, rather than waiting 45 days as with other legislation, the Council thwarts the ability of citizens to petition zoning laws to referendum.

In this Trumpian era, where quaint notions like adherence to the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances are being tested almost daily in our federal government, we should also remember to examine how those principles can become frayed at the local level. After all, local laws often impact our daily lives much more than federal laws and policies.

Council's passage of the new zoning code was one recent example

Last year, for example, the Council enacted a comprehensive rewrite of the county’s 70-year-old zoning ordinance. To be sure, the rewrite effort was a massive and worthwhile undertaking, with an unprecedented level of public engagement over many years. Yet, between the formal introduction of the bill on September 25, 2018, and the public hearing when the Council enacted the bill on October 23, 2018 (the last session of the year), there were literally hundreds of pages of substantive amendments to the bill.

Several citizens urged the Council to hold off on final passage of the bill and to hold future hearings once the Council reconvened in 2019, so that the public could gain greater clarity regarding important changes in the bill. Even the bill’s sponsors acknowledged the breakneck speed with which the Council was moving to enact the zoning rewrite.

Following its decades-old custom, the Council did not send the enacted zoning bill to the County Executive for approval. Fortunately, the Council wisely included a delayed effective date provision, which will allow it an opportunity to cure any substantive or procedural defects before implementing the new zoning code.

The county charter governs how local bills become laws

Prince George’s County is a “charter county” under Maryland law, which means its governing authority derives from a specific organizing document adopted by the people of the county. According to Prince George’s Charter, the County Council must hold a public hearing not earlier than 14 days after a councilmember formally introduces a bill. However, if councilmembers substantively amend the bill during that hearing, they must re-notice the bill for another public hearing in the same manner as the originally introduced legislation.

Additionally, the Charter provides for a separately elected County Executive. When the Council passes legislation, it must send the enacted bill to the Executive, who has 10 days to decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it. If the Executive vetoes the bill, the Council can override the veto by a two-thirds vote.

Ordinarily, a non-emergency bill becomes effective 45 days after the County Executive signs it into law or the Council overrides the Executive’s veto. However, if at least 10,000 voters sign a petition within 45 days of the law’s approval, the law’s effective date is suspended, and the people can vote directly on whether to approve or disapprove of a local law. The referendum election occurs at the next occurring general election, which are in November of every even-numbered year.

The Regional District Act grants Prince George’s authority to enact local zoning laws

The Maryland General Assembly grants counties (and most municipalities) the authority to enact local planning and zoning laws. In Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, a state law known as the Regional District Act (“RDA”) vests planning and zoning power in a bi-county agency known as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The Commission is composed of five appointees from each county, and each group of five commissioners is known as the “Planning Board” for their respective county. Similarly, the RDA designates each county’s County Council as the “District Council” for their respective county.

The RDA provides that each District Council may “by local law adopt and amend the text of the zoning law for that county,” as well as any accompanying zoning map. It defines “local law” as “an enactment of the legislative body of a local jurisdiction, whether by ordinance, resolution, or otherwise,” and states that the District Council’s lawmaking authority “is not intended to alter in any way the form or legislative mechanism that the applicable enabling authority requires for the local jurisdiction to enact the local law….”

In Prince George's County, enacted bills do not "become law" until the County Executive approves them or the County Council overrides the Executive's veto.

Any zoning law enacted in violation of the charter can be invalidated

So it seems clear that any zoning law that Prince George’s enacts must follow the same procedures as any other local law—right? Well, apparently not.

The Council has previously claimed that a 1973 ruling from Maryland’s high court means that it does not have to follow the same procedures when passing zoning laws. That case held that no provision of a local charter could override the Regional District Act. However, that case does not apply here, because the Charter is not seeking to override the RDA. Rather, the Charter simply defines how to enact local laws in Prince George’s County.

Generally, if a legislative body does something that it is not authorized to do, the action is void from the outset and, therefore, of no legal effect. However, the timelines for challenging any particular legislative enactment may be short. Typically, an aggrieved party must file a judicial review action in the Circuit Court within 30 days of the Council’s final action. There may be ways to challenge the invalid law later, but the Council may try to assert that the legal challenge is too late.

Ultimately, though, the Prince George’s County Council should not wait for a legal challenge to modify its procedures. Instead, it should just follow the requirements of the County Charter when it passes zoning legislation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Proposed Housing Caps in Prince George’s New Zoning Code Threaten Mixed-Use Development

Photo by Plainurban on Flickr
As part of its effort to create a new, modern zoning ordinance to replace its bloated and antiquated half-century-old code, Prince George’s County is proposing a series of new mixed-use zones to encourage more development around transit. That’s good news—but if these new zones are going to thrive, they need to include more homes.

The current legislative draft proposes five mixed-use “Transit-Oriented/Activity Center” zones, all of which encourage walkable urbanism and transit-oriented development at varying scales. These zones “strongly encourage” mid-rise (generally three to seven stories tall) mixed-use buildings, with apartments or condos located above shops, businesses, or offices.

Unfortunately, the county is also proposing restrictive caps on the number of dwelling units allowed in mixed-use zones. If developers are not able to include enough housing in their projects to get a good return on their investment, it will be nearly impossible for them to justify the higher costs and greater hassle of constructing mixed-use buildings in the county.

The Region is Looking for More Homes, Not More Offices

As a result of prevailing market forces in the Washington region, Prince George’s is not likely to see many mixed-use buildings with multiple stories of office space above retail in the foreseeable future—particularly outside of its three “downtown” Metro station areas at Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, and Prince George’s Plaza.

The region’s office market is already significantly oversupplied, and its 14.2% office vacancy rate is among the highest in the nation. Businesses and organizations are increasingly requiring fewer square feet per worker than they did in the past. Open floor plans, use of electronic data over paper files, and the increasing popularity of telework are all shrinking offices.

Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr

For these reasons, the success of Prince George’s efforts to bring more mixed-use, transit-oriented development into the county will hinge on its ability to encourage developers to focus on building apartments and condominiums over lower-floor retail and office uses.

Fortunately, there is a significant unmet need in the region for multifamily housing near transit, particularly for millennials and seniors. In addition, a recent change in the International Building Code now allows developers to build five- or six-story wood-framed mixed-use buildings over a concrete podium of one or more stories, up to 85 feet high. Using wood framing on the upper levels of mid-rise buildings, rather than steel or concrete, helps to bring down construction costs. The concrete podiums can accommodate ground-floor shops, offices, or parking.

The Housing Caps in the New Code Could Scare Off Developers

Ironically, although the stated goal of the new zoning ordinance is to facilitate more mixed-use development, the housing caps proposed in the new code are actually more restrictive than the ones in the current code.

For example, in the Local Transit-Oriented (LTO) zone, where half of the county’s 15 Metro stations will be located, housing densities are capped at 40-60 dwelling units per acre. Essentially that means that in a modest mid-rise building on a one-acre lot, with four stories of apartments over one story of retail, the apartment or condo units could be in excess of 2,500 square feet each! That’s bigger than the median size of newly constructed single-family detached homes, which is 2,426 square feet.

Density caps are a bit larger within a quarter mile of the Regional Transit-Oriented (RTO) zones, where the larger downtown Metro stations will be. But even those densities—ranging from 80-120 dwelling units per acre—are not conducive for the type of high-rise development contemplated for those zones.

The Palette at Arts District Hyattsville. Image from Google Earth.

To give a real-world example, consider The Palette, located in Arts District Hyattsville. This mid-rise mixed-use building has four stories of apartments over a multi-story concrete podium containing parking. Its site plan states that there are 198 multifamily units of varying sizes in the building, which sits on a 1.85-acre lot. That creates a residential density of 107 dwelling units per acre.

Under the newly-proposed mixed use zones, The Palette could neither be built in Arts District Hyattsville nor near most of the county’s non-downtown Metro station areas, because the development would exceed the applicable density caps.

Remember, even on a one-acre lot, it would be possible to build 200 apartments at 750 square feet each in a mid-rise, four-over-one-story mixed-use building. That is larger than most one-bedroom apartments currently built in this region. Alternatively, a developer could build 125 units at a more generous 1,200 square feet each, which is roughly in between the nationwide median square footage for multifamily rental (1,088 SF) and multifamily for-sale (1,494 SF) units.

Check out this PowerPoint by architect Tim Smith to see other examples of attractive mid-rise mixed-use buildings at densities over 100 dwelling units per acre.

The County Can Easily Fix This

A recent county-commissioned survey of developers found that the county’s comparatively low property values, high development impact fees, and cumbersome development review processes combine to make Prince George’s one of the most expensive places to build in the region. Likewise, even with the recent changes in the International Building Code discussed earlier, mixed-use development is still much more expensive to accomplish than traditional suburban sprawl. Imposing these low housing caps will only make it harder and less economically feasible for developers to build in the county.

Prince George’s has been working for nearly four years to develop this new zoning ordinance. It will bring a lot of essential changes to the county, and there is no reason why the county cannot pass this legislation this fall. Before it does so, however, the county should amend these mixed-use zones to allow more housing units to be built in mixed-use developments.

One solution would be for the county to eliminate the caps altogether in the new mixed-use zones. Charlotte’s mixed-use TOD zones take this approach by imposing minimum, but not maximum, residential density requirements.

Another approach (one that I urged the County Council to adopt) would be to calculate both residential and non-residential density limits based on a more flexible floor area ratio (FAR) standard, which is what DC does. This allows developers to divvy up the available square footage into the number of homes and shops that makes the most market sense.

With the housing density caps proposed in the new zoning ordinance, it is reasonable to anticipate that many profit-minded developers may simply choose not to build mixed-use buildings in Prince George’s County. The County Council should fix this.

The County Council is still taking comments on the proposed zoning ordinance. If you would like to weigh in with your thoughts on this or other issues, you may submit your written comments by email or via regular mail addressed to the Clerk of Council, CAB - 2nd Floor, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772.

A version of this post appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Residents Want to See Development at Deanwood Metro

Deanwood Metro Station Parking Lot. Image by Google Earth.

WMATA held a public hearing last week on its proposal to eliminate the commuter parking lot at the Deanwood Metro Station and offer the 1.6-acre site for potential joint development. The public’s message to Metro was clear: they want to see mixed-use development on that site, but it needs to be the kind of the development that responds to the needs and desires of the current community, first and foremost.

As I discussed earlier this month in my post on Greater Greater Washington, the transit agency attempted to market this site twice before, in the late 1990s, but received no interest from developers. Now, nearly 20 years later, Deanwood is getting a lot of developer interest—so much so that residents are complaining about unsolicited knocks at the doors of their homes from speculators looking to buy their property.

About 75 community members from the District and neighboring Prince George’s County packed the meeting room at the Deanwood Recreation Center to participate in Wednesday’s hearing. WMATA’s public hearing docket describes a possible joint development scenario that would contain 160 multifamily dwelling units and 10,000 square feet of retail space. However, the selected developer would ultimately be responsible for proposing the actual type and scale of development and then obtaining the necessary approvals from the District of Columbia government.

Community’s Vision: Grocery-Anchored Retail and Market-Rate Housing

Based on the residents’ comments at the hearing, WMATA’s initial vision for the redeveloped Deanwood Metro parking lot may be a tad too small. In particular, residents wanted to see a larger retail component than the 10,000 square feet that Metro envisioned. Nearly all of the speakers stated that they wanted to see a full-service grocery store as part of this development, along with other neighborhood-serving commercial uses such as a coffee shop, bank, and perhaps a medical office. Likewise, Ward 7 councilmember and former mayor Vincent Gray has been a fierce advocate for more and better quality grocery stores in the area. According to industry estimates, the median size for a grocery store in 2015 was 42,800 square feet.

Another longtime Deanwood senior citizen resident said it would be nice for the development to have a neighborhood bar/restaurant where younger professionals could gather for a nice meal or a happy hour. At the same time, residents did not want a retail mix that would encourage excessive noise generation in the neighborhood. Also, while most commenters supported the complete elimination of the Metro commuter lot, as Metro is proposing, many felt that DDOT would need to step up its enforcement of neighborhood parking restrictions, to keep street parking available primarily for the use of area’s existing residents and guests.

Most commenters stressed that the residential component of the Deanwood mixed-use development should focus on market-rate housing units, rather than income-restricted affordable housing units. They believe that Deanwood already has some of the most inexpensive market-rate housing in the Washington region and that Ward 7 has seen a number of new mixed-used, mixed-income developments constructed near the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road Metro stations that primarily consisted of affordable housing units. Including more market-rate housing in this development would support the new retail development that the community wishes to see, commenters said.

My Proposed Development Scenario Largely Parallels the Community’s Vision

As a resident of the demographically similar inner-Beltway portion of Prince George’s County that borders Ward 7, I concur with many of the Deanwood residents’ views and expressed concerns. Accordingly, my written comments to WMATA propose a joint development scenario for the Deanwood Metro parking lot that largely incorporates those ideas.

Jenkins Row - A Grocery-Anchored Mixed-Use Development
Near Potomac Ave Metro. Image by Google Earth.

Like WMATA and the Ward 7 Economic Development Advisory Council, I believe the Deanwood Metro site can support “medium-density residential/low-density commercial” development. The District of Columbia’s Comprehensive Plan defines “medium-density residential” as “midrise (typically four- to seven-story) apartment development,” and “low-density commercial” as one- to two-story commercial uses.” WMATA’s proposed development scenario falls on the low-end of that scale; mine falls toward the upper end.

My proposal would use MU-6 zoning, a medium/high-density mixed-use zone that focuses on residential development but that also allows for up to 139,392 SF of non-residential development on the Deanwood Metro site. That is more than enough room for the 50,000 SF grocery store (with pharmacy, bakery, deli, ready-to-eat foods, beer/wine, and a coffee shop), 17,500 SF of additional retail uses, and 54,000 SF underground parking garage with 150 spaces that I propose.

With respect to the residential component, I echo the community’s belief that the development should focus on market-rate housing units. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate and consistent with smart growth principles to include some affordable housing units near every transit station. Therefore, my proposal calls for 325 total multifamily units, with 20% of them as affordable units—i.e., 260 market-rate units (284,250 SF) and 65 affordable units (63,750 SF). Even with this number of affordable units, my proposal contains at least 100 more market-rate units than WMATA’s original development concept.

Let WMATA Know What You Think Before July 2

WMATA is accepting public comments on its Deanwood Metro joint development proposal until 9:00 am Monday, July 2, 2018. It is important that the agency hear your views.

You can submit public comments online—either in a text box or there is an option to upload a PDF file—or via mail to the Office of the Secretary, WMATA, 600 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Remember to include the docket number (R18-01) in your correspondence.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Seat Pleasant Plans for a Smart and Excellent Future

The small-yet-spunky city of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, located on the District of Columbia border in central Prince George’s County, touts itself as a “Smart City of Excellence.” In keeping with that moniker, city officials are embarking on a master planning process designed to help determine how and where the city should grow and develop over the next generation.

The city recently hosted an impressive community charrette to give stakeholders an opportunity to weigh in with their views on Seat Pleasant’s future. Approximately 60 people came out to the meeting, held on May 9 at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center. About half of the attendees resided outside of the city limits—which isn’t so surprising given the city’s small population (4,700) and small land area (less than 0.75 square miles). There were a mix of older and younger stakeholders present, and everyone seemed invested and engaged in the process. Roger Weber, a senior urban planner in the Washington, DC, office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, facilitated the charrette.

Notably, this master planning process is being commissioned by the Seat Pleasant municipal government and not by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), the bi-county state planning agency that operates in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Unlike in other counties in Maryland, municipalities in these two counties do not possess independent planning and zoning authority, so official community plans must be developed by MNCPPC and approved by the relevant county council. Nevertheless some of these municipalities still choose to develop their own independent advisory plans, so that they may better help to shape the relevant MNCPPC community plan. Such “ground-up” planning is especially helpful for communities like Seat Pleasant, where MNCPPC has not updated the official small area (or “sector”) plan in more than 18 years.

A City of Substantial Resources and Daunting Challenges

Founded near the turn of the 20th century as one of the county’s early streetcar suburbs, Seat Pleasant has an enviable array of physical and natural resources. The whole town is within easy walking or biking distance of two Blue/Silver Line Metrorail stations (Addison Road-Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights). Most of the city’s residential neighborhoods are laid out in a grid, on quiet tree-lined streets with single-family homes. There is a huge park in the center of town and several nearby indoor recreation centers. Two major state highways—Central Avenue (MD 214) and Martin Luther King Jr. Highway (MD 704)—run through the city, and the city’s main commercial corridors are located next to those two highways.

Residents celebrate at Seat Pleasant's Goodwin Park. Image by Author.

Arguably, the city’s most valuable natural resource is its acres upon acres of vacant or underutilized land within proximity of Metro and along the two state highways. This land is ripe for redevelopment and, if properly honed and leveraged, could be the key to the city’s economic prosperity in the years ahead.

At the same time, Seat Pleasant has a number of challenges. It is currently one of the most racially homogeneous and socioeconomically distressed communities in Prince George’s County and the Washington Metropolitan Area. Its population is 86% African American and 9% White, with 12% of the total population identifying as Hispanic. According to the Census Bureau’s 2012-2016 American Community Survey, the city’s median household income ($51,930) is only 68% of the county’s ($75,925) and 55% of the metropolitan area’s ($93,804). Similarly, the city’s poverty rate (15.7%) is 61.9% higher than the county’s rate (9.7%) and 86.9% higher than the metropolitan area’s (8.4%). Median home values in Seat Pleasant ($175,000) are 67% of the county’s ($261,400) and 45% of the metropolitan area’s ($387,400). Finally, the city’s educational attainment rate, as measured by the percentage of the population who have bachelor’s degrees or higher (15.2%), is only 48% of the county’s (31.5%) and 31% of the metropolitan area’s (49.4%).

The age and diversity of Seat Pleasant’s housing stock is also at somewhat of a disadvantage relative to Prince George’s County and the Washington metropolitan area. Of the 1,814 housing units in the city, only 159 (8.7%) have been built since 1980, and virtually none since 2009. Additionally, only 71 units (3.9%) are in large multifamily buildings with more than 10 units, whereas such buildings constitute approximately 25% of the housing stock in the county and the region.

In his introductory remarks at the charrette, Seat Pleasant’s mayor, Eugene W. Grant, identified a couple of other challenges for his city: a lack of new, modern retail and commercial development and an exodus of existing large merchants. It has been more than 30 years since the opening of the city’s most recent and largest commercial development, the Addison Plaza Shopping Center, located just off of Central Avenue about a quarter-mile from the Addison Road Metro Station. Two years ago, that shopping center lost its major anchor tenant, a Safeway grocery store. Although other retailers eventually filled that space, the lack of a convenient grocery store was a huge loss to the Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights communities.

Seat Pleasant is not alone in its struggles. Indeed, planners at MNCPPC noted in the 2010 Subregion 4 Master Plan for central inner-Beltway Prince George’s County that current socioeconomic conditions in the area placed it at a tipping point of instability. “Unless the cycle of disinvestment is reversed through an intervention strategy,” the county noted, these communities “will not recover.”

The Goal: Shared Prosperity and Non-Displacement

The current master planning effort in Seat Pleasant is part of the city’s intervention strategy for reversing the cycle of disinvestment within its borders. Through the plan, the city hopes to define more clearly where and how it would like the city to grow and redevelop. Presumably, this will also help guide city decisionmaking as to where to direct future municipal infrastructure investments.

Mayor Eugene W. Grant and planner Roger Weber. Image by Author.
Mayor Grant is steadfast in his determination that any future economic prosperity in Seat Pleasant must inure to the benefit of current city residents first and foremost. He noted in his introductory remarks at the charrette that he welcomes the day when a new and demographically diverse group of residents come to call Seat Pleasant home; however, he doesn’t want their arrival to come at the expense of the city’s current inhabitants. In particular, the mayor noted with pride that many of the city’s senior citizens have invested in and contributed to the city for more than 30 years, and that these longtime residents deserve to see a return on their investment.

To be sure, the influx of more affluent residents (of whatever race) and the resulting increases in property values—what people commonly call “gentrification”—can sometimes be a challenge for communities like Seat Pleasant. The fear is that the increase in wealth will drive existing residents out. But the research shows that such fears are typically overblown. The greater risk for communities like Seat Pleasant, as MNCPPC and other researchers have noted, is that the cycle of disinvestment in these communities will continue, and that these communities will eventually wither into intractable concentrations of poverty.

As the comments in the charrette revealed, current Seat Pleasant residents want what most communities want: well-stocked grocery stores, sit-down restaurants, and other crucial neighborhood-serving retail; safe, well-lit, walkable, and bikeable communities; a variety of housing and employment options; and recreational and cultural amenities. To get these things, the city will need to significantly increase its population, provide more modern multifamily housing close to transit, and improve its overall economic demographic profile. There is no reason the city cannot accomplish these things in a manner that doesn’t displace current residents. Indeed, those current residents will be able to share in the city’s new prosperity—and deservedly so.

In a future post, I will explore one particular opportunity site near the Addison Road Metro Station that could be a strong catalyst for Seat Pleasant’s future economic development. In the meantime, the city’s planning contractors will continue to hammer out a broader vision for Seat Pleasant’s future. Mayor Grant stated that he would like the planners to present a full report to him and the city council no later than July.

What are some of your ideas for how Seat Pleasant can best grow and develop in the next several years? What do you think are the best redevelopment opportunity sites in the city? Let us know in the comments!

This post has been updated to fix typos and correct Census data calculations.