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.

Friday, October 6, 2017

When Will Prince George’s Pull the Plug on Dead Development Projects?

If a development project was approved for construction prior to the Great Recession, but it still hasn’t been able to get off of the ground yet, isn’t it time to acknowledge that the project is just…dead? Well, yes, obviously! So why does the Prince George’s County Council have so much trouble letting go of these projects?

Again this year, as it has since 2009, the council has introduced legislation that would prevent approved-but-unbuilt development projects from expiring until at least December 31, 2018. Ordinarily, under county law, most new subdivision plan approvals are valid for only three years, and most site plan approvals are valid for only two years.

Most of the county’s backlog of deadwood development projects consists of large single-family detached residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and far away from transit. These are exactly the types of suburban sprawl projects that the county’s own planners have concluded are harmful.

According to planners, this glut of existing and planned low-density residential development makes it harder for the county to develop at the appropriate densities around its 15 Metro stations. That, in turn, puts the county at a competitive disadvantage with both millennial and older homebuyers who are looking for walkable urban development close to transit and with nearby amenities.

Additionally, studies show transit-oriented development (TOD) is a more fiscally sustainable form of development. Thus, the county council would do well to encourage new TOD projects around Metro, rather than clinging to far-flung sprawl projects in places that look like this:

Photo by Payton Chung
Moreover, there is no longer any market need for the county to keep extending the expiration dates on these long-stalled projects. The Great Recession has been over for quite some time now, and housing prices continue to rise in Prince George’s County. Indeed, County Executive Rushern Baker recently celebrated the county’s 61 percent increase in property values since 2010.

Lest you think that there’s no harm in extending the approvals on these dead projects, think again. Keeping old development projects in the pipeline significantly distorts the county’s true development landscape. That’s because the county still has to act as if all of the approved and unexpired development will in fact get built.

This means the county needs to plan and budget for more roads, water and sewer lines, schools, fire stations, and other public facilities to accommodate planned growth that has little possibility of ever happening. It also means new developers might be required to contribute to that new infrastructure, when it may not even be necessary for their particular projects. That puts an unnecessary burden and expense on new and otherwise viable projects, which ultimately discourages quality developers from building in the county.

The council will hold a public hearing on the latest extension bills, CB-97-2017 and CB-98-2017, on Tuesday, November 7, at 10:30 am. Please show up to testify and also contact the councilmembers to let them know your position on these bills.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Is Bias Tainting Prince George's Amazon HQ2 Bid?

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker recently identified three Metrorail station areas as potential locations for Amazon’s new “HQ2” headquarters complex. All of them are in the northern part of the county, even though 10 of the county’s 15 Metro stations are located in the less affluent and more heavily African American portions of the county, south of U.S. Route 50.

One such downcounty site—the Morgan Boulevard Metro station area in central Prince George’s—seems to meet more of Amazon’s requirements. Yet, it didn’t make the county executive’s list. Could implicit bias and structural racism be clouding county officials’ judgment in these types of economic development and land use decisions?

Baker proposed the College Park, Greenbelt, and New Carrollton Metro station areas as potential HQ2 locations. David Iannucci, Baker’s assistant deputy administrator for economic development, stated that these three north county sites “offer[ed] Prince George’s County its best chance to compete for Amazon’s headquarters” based on the factors set out in Amazon’s RFP. In particular, Iannucci touted the locations’ proximity to the University of Maryland campus and the presence of interested developers.

What Does Amazon Want?

As relevant here, Amazon says it needs (1) a huge amount of space (2) with direct access to mass transit and (3) not more than 2 miles from a major highway (4) that is immediately available for development beginning in 2019. The company envisions that its HQ2 site will have 50,000 employees and occupy 8 million square feet of space at full buildout. While the space need not be contiguous, Amazon specifies that recommended sites “should be in proximity to each other to foster a sense of place and be pedestrian-friendly.”

Although Amazon states that it “may consider” sites with existing buildings that could be retrofitted or expanded, it clearly provides that it “will prioritize certified or shovel-ready greenfield sites and infill opportunities with appropriate infrastructure and ability to meet the Project’s timeline and development demands.” The ideal greenfield site would have approximately 100 acres of developable space, according to the company.

Do the North County Sites Fit the Bill?

Do Baker’s three selected north county sites best match up to Amazon’s RFP? Let’s take a look.

College Park Metro Area. Image by Prince George's County.

The proposed College Park site, shown above, is an amalgamation of scattered parcels cobbled together to form approximately 128 acres. Most of the parcels already have buildings with active uses on them, which is clearly not the greenfield development scenario Amazon prefers. Additionally, portions of the site, such as the 25-acre Discovery District parcel in the northwest corner of the picture, are nearly a mile away from the Metro station by foot. That’s well outside the half-mile/ten-minute-walk station area. Finally, the site is more than three miles from the Beltway, which exceeds the maximum two-mile distance stated in Amazon’s RFP.

The Greenbelt Metro station area (not pictured), which the county had recently been marketing for the now-stalled new FBI headquarters project, has an approximately 80-acre surface parking lot that could potentially be available for immediate development. However, while the site is adjacent to the Capital Beltway, there is currently no convenient or direct access from there to the southbound inner loop of the Beltway. The Maryland State Highway Administration is nearing completion of the design phase for a reconstructed Beltway interchange, but it has not been funded or scheduled for construction and, therefore, won’t be ready by 2019.

New Carrollton Metro Area. Image by Prince George's County.

The proposed New Carrollton Station area, pictured above, promises Amazon more than 300 acres of developable space around the Metro/MARC/Amtrak/Bus station. The problem: pretty much none of that space is currently available—including an occupied residential condominium complex north of the station, an occupied office park south of the station, and adjacent WMATA and state-owned property on both sides of the station that is already promised to another developer. Additionally, because the space at New Carrollton is bisected by the Northeast Corridor rail lines, it would require construction of massive and expensive roadway infrastructure over the rail lines to make the area pedestrian friendly. None of those roads has been designed, engineered, or funded.

Thus, while each of these north county sites has great transit-oriented development (TOD) potential, none of them quite meets Amazon’s RFP requirements.

What About Morgan Boulevard?

Now let’s take a look at Morgan Boulevard. According to the county’s own estimate, this area (pictured below) has more than 225 acres of developable land within a 10-minute/half-mile walk of the Metro station.

Morgan Boulevard Metro Area. Interactive Map by Author.

More than half of that land is currently vacant, appropriately zoned for commercial development, and not otherwise committed to another massive project. Moreover, most of the vacant land closest to the station is owned by WMATA, which is actively supporting joint development opportunities with Amazon.

Additionally, unlike the north county station areas that the county recommended, Morgan Boulevard is connected to two Metrorail lines (Blue and Silver), providing direct transit access to downtown Washington, Reagan National Airport (and eventually Dulles International Airport), the Virginia Railway Express, and most of Northern Virginia. It is also within a mile of the Capital Beltway.

In other words, Morgan Boulevard appears to meet all of Amazon’s needs—and certainly does so to more of a degree than the three north county sites.

Is Bias to Blame for the Downcounty Snub?

So why did County Executive Baker not propose Morgan Boulevard for Amazon’s HQ2 site? When first asked, Iannucci simply asserted that the station area “did not rise to the level of” the northern county sites and “did not address enough of the RFP requirements” that Amazon put forth. Those excuses quickly fell apart when Iannucci was asked to identify the specific RFP deficiencies and to give concrete examples of how Morgan Boulevard supposedly did not match up to the north county locations.

Ultimately, Iannucci settled on the nebulous explanation that while the Morgan Boulevard station area met all of Amazon’s RFP requirements, the county nevertheless declined to recommend it as a potential HQ2 site because the Baker administration did not believe the area possessed a strong enough “potential to be transformed into the type of urban complex that Amazon apparently seeks.”

In other words, the Baker administration essentially refused to advocate for the centrally located Morgan Boulevard station area, even though it checked all of Amazon’s boxes, and instead chose to support three north county locations that plainly did not match up as well, if at all.

It’s true that Morgan Boulevard is located in a less affluent part of the county with a larger African American population. But do those socioeconomic and demographic factors trump any specific set of criteria articulated by Amazon and render Morgan Boulevard unworthy of consideration? Apparently so, in the minds of county officials.

When socioeconomic and demographic factors work to rob an otherwise qualified community of the opportunity to compete on fair and equal terms for a prized transit-oriented economic development opportunity, it’s often because the people making the decision are being negatively impacted by the dual scourges of implicit bias and structural racism.


It matters not that Prince George’s County is a majority African American county, or that County Executive Baker is an African American man. Internalized biases can be pervasive and toxic, even when the decision maker is a member of the affected minority or class group.

In order to combat implicit bias and structural racism, one first must be willing to acknowledge their existence, and then not be afraid to call them out if they are present. This is true for county administrators and citizens alike.

We must be willing to question and challenge the bases and motives underlying TOD site selections like these that unfairly exclude two-thirds of the transit station areas in the county, even when many of those stations would objectively meet the applicable site selection criteria.

UPDATE (10/20/2017): According to a press release issued yesterday, County Executive Baker added a fourth north county site in his official Amazon submission. That site, Konterra Town Center East, is a shining example of the county's failed economic development strategy, which often prioritizes outer-Beltway sprawl development over bringing transit-oriented development to the county's 15 Metro stations (again, two-thirds of which are in central and south county). Konterra indeed has the space Amazon may want, but it doesn't have direct access to a Metro station--a major requirement stated in Amazon's RFP for its HQ2 site. That county officials apparently value Konterra over a south county site like Morgan Boulevard, which meets all of Amazon's requirements, demonstrates how strong the north county bias is.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bring Amazon’s “HQ2” to Prince George’s County

Amazon's Seattle HQ. Photo by Kiewic.
Online retail giant Amazon is shopping around for a second headquarters location in North America that is transit-adjacent and has enough land to accommodate up to 50,000 employees. The Morgan Boulevard Metro station area in central Prince George’s County, Maryland, could be a very viable contender in the National Capital Region.

Amazon’s bombshell solicitation dropped early Thursday morning. The company wants to create a co-equal headquarters—dubbed “HQ2”—in a large metropolitan area with more than a million people and with ample access to a talented technical/professional workforce. The ideal campus site would be adjacent to mass rail transit, within two miles of major highways and arterial roads, within 30 miles of a population center, within 45 minutes of an international airport, and large enough to accommodate 8,000,000 square feet of office space at full buildout. In terms of urban design, Amazon is prioritizing walkability, sustainability, and internet connectivity.

The company plans to invest over $5 billion in the lucky community over the initial 15 years of the project, and it wants to move quickly. To that end, Amazon is prioritizing sites that are already zoned for commercial and mixed-use development and that have the requisite utility infrastructure in place. They also want the permitting process to be quick. And, of course, they also want to know what incentives the jurisdiction is willing to offer for this huge opportunity.

Think Regionally, Not Locally

Naturally, large urban areas across the United States and Canada will all be clamoring for Amazon’s attention. Several pundits, including Brookings, place the Washington Metropolitan Area high in the rankings of possible contenders. Already, several area jurisdictions have expressed interest, but the question is whether and how these jurisdictions will be able to put their parochial concerns aside and advocate in the best interests of the Washington region as a whole.

Amazon has requested that each metropolitan area coordinate with its respective jurisdictions and submit one consolidated RFP response that identifies the best suitable sites that the region has to offer. All proposals are due October 19.

If there is to be any hope of the region’s jurisdictions acting as a team, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) probably should take the lead in preparing the regional submission to Amazon. These are the bodies usually charged with setting and articulating regional priorities.

Morgan Boulevard Station Checks All of Amazon’s Boxes

Setting aside all the jurisdictional posturing, there are really precious few locations in the Washington region that have existing rail transit access, land area, and proximity to downtown Washington, DC, that Amazon’s HQ2 proposal requires. The Morgan Boulevard Metro Station area in central Prince George’s County is one of them.

Morgan Blvd Station Area. Click for Interactive Map.

Morgan Boulevard easily meets all of Amazon’s location criteria. As you can see from the purple and brown shaded areas on the interactive map linked above, the station sits virtually undeveloped on 56 acres of land zoned for mixed-use development. It is adjacent to one of the county’s major arterial roads, Central Avenue (MD-214) and within one mile of the Capital Beltway. Additionally, the station is only 9.5 miles and 20 minutes from downtown Washington via Metrorail’s Blue and Silver lines.

BWI-Thurgood Marshall International Airport is a short 30-45 minute drive away from Morgan Boulevard. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is even closer, and it is directly accessible via Metrorail. Once construction Metro’s Silver Line is complete, Morgan Boulevard will also directly connect to Dulles International Airport.

Across Central Avenue, slightly southwest of the station and within its half-mile walkshed, sits a vacant 27-acre parcel of commercially zoned land that may be developed with mixed uses. (This is the red shaded area on the map.) This area could provide additional expansion capacity for Amazon in future phases of HQ2’s development. And if that’s not enough, the yellow shaded area directly across Central Avenue from the station provides another approximately 54 acres of industrially zoned space that the county’s land use plans envision for walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment.

Image by Tape.

Locally, Prince George’s County has begun to improve its historically labyrinthine permitting process around its 15 Metro stations. Amazon would be able to avail itself of the county’s expedited transit-oriented development procedures.

In terms of financial benefits, Prince George’s County has some of the lowest property values in the Washington region; thus, Amazon would be able to keep its land acquisition costs to a minimum. Also, much of the Morgan Boulevard site is controlled by WMATA or the county, which significantly lessens the need for property assembly. Finally, there are a host of existing incentives available to Amazon from the state and county for developing around Prince George’s inner-Beltway Metro stations.

The Washington region would be hard pressed to come up with potential Amzaon HQ2 locations that provide more of an all-around good deal than the Morgan Boulevard Metro Station area. At a minimum, this area should be included among the top three sites in any regional RFP response to Amazon.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Purple Line is Not What Prince George’s Needs

Image adapted by author; original from MTA
With 15 Metrorail stations and 8 MARC stations, Prince George’s County already has substantial rail transit infrastructure to facilitate tremendous economic growth, walkable urban development, and regional connectivity. Yet, virtually all of these station areas have remained underdeveloped and poorly utilized for decades.

The solutions to this predicament are multifold, but they certainly do not include introducing 11 new Purple Line light rail stations to the county mix. Instead, the county should invest in a more robust local bus system and in its exiting rail transit station areas.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile, 21-station light rail project proposed by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to provide more direct east-west connections between Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton. Ten of the stations would be in Montgomery County, and eleven would be in Prince George’s. The light rail system would connect to WMATA’s Red, Green, and Orange Metrorail lines, but would not be owned or operated by Washington’s regional transit authority.

Last August and again earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) could not move forward with awarding federal funds to the Purple Line until the agency conducts the requisite study to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Senior U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon’s orders provide that the SEIS must address what impacts WMATA’s continuing ridership decline (including this year) and ongoing safety issues might have on the Purple Line.

Move Beyond the “Purple Haze”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, MTA, and many public officials and citizens in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were outraged by the court’s rulings, and they fear that the Purple Line project may well be permanently derailed by the delays that an SEIS would cause.

Yesterday, Maryland appealed Judge Leon's decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. No one knows yet how quickly the appellate court will rule or whether the state's appeal will ultimately be successful.

If the Purple Line is indeed dead, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise for Prince George’s County. The Purple Line has always been more of a “purple haze”—an extravagance and distraction that the county does not need and that diverts essential public resources and attention away from the real solutions to the county’s transit and economic development inadequacies.

Image adapted by author; original by Michael Phams 
This is not to say that light rail is never an appropriate transit solution. Indeed, I have previously enthusiastically supported light rail expansion in my childhood hometown region. But adding a multibillion dollar light rail system in this particular area of northern Prince George’s County—which is already quite well served by WMATA heavy rail, MTA commuter rail, and regional and local buses—is an imprudent use of public resources.

(The nonprofit group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and others have offered many reasons why the Purple Line also may not be a good deal for Montgomery County, the bi-county region, and the State of Maryland as a whole; but this post is focused specifically on Prince George’s County.)

Fund a Better County Bus System

If Prince George’s officials are genuinely concerned with improving transit access in the county, the first thing they should do is improve the county’s anemic local bus system. Local and express buses have the capacity to serve even the most densely populated areas in the county that are not already within a half-mile of an existing Metrorail or MARC station. Indeed, buses are better equipped to reach the county’s current scattered population.

Currently, Prince George’s “TheBus” system has only 28 routes to serve its 487-square-mile area. It generates a meager 3.7 million trips per year, or 4 trips per capita, and does not operate in the late evenings or on weekends.

By contrast, in similarly-sized and -populated Montgomery County, the local “Ride On” bus system has 78 routes serving its 494-square-mile area, and generates an impressive 26 million trips per year (with 86,000 trips on a typical weekday), or 27 trips per capita. Even in tiny Arlington County, the “ART” local bus system has 17 routes covering its 26-square-mile area, and generates 2.8 million trips annually, or 13 trips per capita.


Prince George’s annual operating budget for bus transit services is approximately $25 million, as compared to Montgomery’s $125 million. Over the next six years, Prince George’s plans to spend only about $2.1 million in capital expenditures on bus transit, as compared to the $98.2 million that Montgomery plans to spend on buses and bus stops alone over that same period.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s has agreed to pay $120 million over the next six years toward the construction of the Purple Line, which will run only in a small sliver of the comparatively affluent northern part of the county.

Stated another way, over the next six years, Prince George’s County is planning to spend less than two percent of its planned capital investment in the Purple Line on countywide bus transit. This shocking inequity in transit expenditures should have true transit advocates picketing in droves at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

Image by Ben Schumin
It’s also worth noting that federal funding for buses and related infrastructure is available from FTA, at the same 80% match rate as light rail funding. Thus, if Prince George’s focused more of its attention on developing a robust local bus system, it would likely find a willing partner in the federal government.

Purple Line supporters may rightly argue, “Why can’t we just do both—have the Purple Line and improve our bus system?” Well…we could, in theory. But there hasn’t been much political will over the years to improve the county’s bus infrastructure, so it is hard to see how that resolve would magically appear after the county shells out $120 million for the Purple Line. The better strategy would be to take care of the longstanding countywide need for more and better buses first and then evaluate whether the Purple Line still makes sense.

Manage Sprawl and Strategically Invest in Existing Station Areas

Similarly, with so many underdeveloped rail transit stations around the county (including in the Purple Line corridor), it strains credulity for officials to suggest that the county needs light rail in order to spur economic development. In fact, according to the county itself, the opposite is true: the Purple Line could actually harm Prince George’s economic growth prospects.

The county’s current comprehensive plan, Plan Prince George’s 2035, discusses the somewhat enviable dilemma the county currently faces by having too many mixed use activity “centers,” most of which are located near existing Metrorail stations. The plan contends that having too many centers can actually “undermine economic growth” by spurring scattered development that will make it difficult “to achieve the density, intensity, and form necessary to support successful mixed-use, walkable communities and economic generators” at any one center.

Image by M-NCPPC
Already, without the Purple Line, the county has 28 designated centers, 19 of which are located at existing Metrorail and MARC stations. The county predicts that it will not have enough projected growth over the next 20 years to develop all of those stations. So logic dictates that building 11 new Purple Line stations is actually contrary to the county’s stated land use and growth policies.

One thing the county could and should do to improve its ability to grow its exiting transit station areas is to reduce its pipeline of dead sprawl projects and redirect some of that projected growth capacity to its existing Metro station areas. The county should also take more of a leading role (including financially) in redeveloping and revitalizing its neighborhood-scaled gateway station areas near the District of Columbia border.

Prince George’s future transit prosperity begins not with light rail, but with more local buses—running frequently, on time, seven days a week, and connecting citizens countywide to important county destinations and to the 23 Metrorail and MARC stations already constructed in the county. Likewise, Prince George’s economic development potential does not depend on new light rail transit stations, but rather lies in its existing Metrorail and MARC stations. So instead of brooding over the possible demise of the Purple Line, let's rise up and fight like hell for the county’s true transit and economic development priorities!