Friday, December 4, 2020

County’s Homeless Shelter Expansion Proposal is a Case Study in Mismanagement


Existing shelter facility. Photo by M-NCPPC.


A coalition of single-family homeowners near the Addison Road–Seat Pleasant Metro Station is seething about a proposed $16.8 million reconstruction and expansion of an existing men’s homeless shelter facility on Addison Road South in Capitol Heights. The Prince George’s County Planning Board is scheduled to review the proposal in a virtual public meeting on December 10.

The current shelter, Prince George’s House, was constructed in 1987. It is essentially a bolted together set of prefabricated modular buildings, comprising 5,700 square feet, with a 36-bed capacity. The shelter is the only county facility that provides emergency and transitional housing for single male residents who are experiencing homelessness.

County officials are proposing to construct a one-story, 25,000 SF replacement facility—more than quadruple the size of the existing building—on the same site. The new facility would be fully ADA-accessible and would include additional space for existing services such as an onsite clinic, kitchen, and library. Once the new building is completed, the county proposes to demolish the existing modular building and replace it with surface parking lots and a basketball court. Despite the increase in building size, the proposed facility would add only 20 beds, for a total capacity of 56.

Architectural rendering for new shelter. Image by M-NCPPC. 

Site plan for new shelter. Image by M-NCPPC.

Homeowners Allege Foul Play by County

The homeowner coalition, “One Addison United,” is comprised mostly of residents of two relatively new subdivisions abutting Prince George’s House—The Park at Addison Metro and Brighton Place—and two older subdivisions across Addison Road South: Rolling Ridge and Wilburn Estates. (Full disclosure: the author resides less than 1,000 feet from Prince George’s House, in another nearby subdivision, and has met with OAU’s organizers; however OAU had no input into this article, which is the exclusive work, analysis, and opinion of the author.)

According to a flyer that OAU distributed in advance of a hastily scheduled county webinar presentation on December 1, the group is dismayed by the “stunning lack of transparency from the County regarding this project.” They claim county officials intentionally tried to dodge the required procedures for public outreach and public hearings by the Planning Board and instead pursued a fast-track, behind-the-scenes administrative review by planning staff in 2019.

Additionally, OAU makes an economic justice argument that it is fundamentally unfair of the county to place an expanded homeless shelter next to some of the area’s newest and most valuable real estate, on one of the main planned mixed-use corridors for the Addison Road Metro Station area. The community is already economically distressed—lacking basic amenities such as grocery stores, banks, and sit-down restaurants within walking distance of the Metro station—and OAU fears the shelter will bring down neighborhood property values and further hamper economic development prospects in the area.

The Development Review Process for County Projects

In its filing with the Planning Board, the county’s Office of Central Services—which is responsible for site selection, land acquisition, construction, design, and maintenance related to county buildings—stated starkly that the county had made “no outreach” to the community, because its proposed new and expanded homeless shelter was going to be located on the same site as the existing Prince George’s House.  

The county’s December 1 webinar evinced a similar unwillingness by county officials to engage meaningfully with the public concerning the proposed new men’s shelter. In the face of obvious community outrage at being kept in the dark about this project, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Health, Human Services, and Education, Dr. George Askew, politely but firmly set the stage at the outset of the presentation by saying that this project “is moving forward” and “will happen.” Similarly, the county’s Director of Central Services, Jonathan Butler, declared that “We are beyond the design phase of this project” and that the county was ready to begin construction as soon as possible on the existing site.

Unfortunately for the county, that is not how the process is supposed to work.

State law mandates that all governmental entities (federal, state, and local) must submit plans for “locating, constructing, or authorizing” any public building or structure to the Planning Board for “mandatory referral review,” and that the Planning Board must hold public hearings and make advisory recommendations for approval or disapproval of any such activity. The Planning Board reviews proposed activities for consistency with applicable comprehensive plans and zoning requirements; neighborhood compatibility regarding size, shape, scale, height, arrangement, and design; safety and efficiency of pedestrian and vehicular access; and other environmental factors.

Following the Planning Board’s mandatory advisory review, Prince George’s County’s laws require that the County Council (sitting in its administrative capacity as the District Council for zoning and land use matters) specifically review and approve or disapprove any public building, structure, or use proposed by the county government. The Council must independently consider the relationship of the project to applicable comprehensive plans; the impact of the project on the area affected; the availability of other, more appropriate sites; and the relative need for the facility.

Importantly, the county’s laws also require that county and municipal government entities (as distinct from federal and state entities) must adhere to all applicable zoning and development review requirements and administrative procedures, just like any other private property owner. In this case, that means the county should follow the same detailed site plan procedures applicable to private property owners.

The detailed site plan procedures address all of the standards relevant to the Planning Board’s mandatory review, and also provide the public with specific notice, comments, and hearing rights. However, unlike in private development review cases, the Planning Board is not the ultimate decider. The District Council retains the authority to apply its own judgment and make its own findings based on the record, because state law provides that the ultimate decision whether to proceed with a county project must rest with the county government itself.

As discussed below, the county has flouted many of these legal requirements.

The County Skipped the First Step: Site Selection

The Planning Board’s procedures make clear that the mandatory referral process may be multi-staged, such as when a project is “initially reviewed by the Planning Board at site selection, and later for approval of the proposed design of buildings and site improvements.” Moreover, the procedures provide that “All site selections…must be submitted for Mandatory Referral before they are finalized.”

Here, the county did not bother to submit the issue of site selection to the Planning Board. Indeed, it did not engage in a site selection process at all. As the county’s Director of Social Services, Gloria Brown Burnett, explained at the December 1 webinar, there was never any consideration or discussion about placing the new homeless shelter anywhere other than the site of the existing Prince George’s House.

Certainly, the existing 2.63-acre site could accommodate a sprawling one-story suburban style 25,000 SF building, with significant surface parking, as the county is proposing. However, the site could also just as easily accommodate 500,000 SF of dense urban multistory mixed-use development—perhaps with a much-needed grocery store on the ground floor. Thus, one question worth considering is whether the county’s proposed low-density building, with a floor-area ratio (FAR) of only 0.22, is an appropriate and economically viable use for an essentially vacant large parcel of land within a half-mile of a Metro station.

There are many other, smaller, vacant or substantially vacant lots within a half-mile of Metro stations in the county that could accommodate a more compactly designed 25,000 SF building. Some of these parcels are doubtless already owned by the county, or could easily and cheaply be acquired. A proper site selection process requires that the county engage in the appropriate due diligence to investigate potential alternatives and bring forth several of them for consideration.

This approximately one-acre decommissioned surface lot, a similarly short
walking distance from the Addison Road Metro Station, is one of several sites that
could also be suitable for the new shelter. Image from GoogleEarth.

Another question the county would do well to ponder is whether a 56-bed men’s facility is adequate to meet the significant need for emergency, transitional, and permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness in Prince George’s County. At the December 1 webinar, Assistant Director of Community Services Renee Ensor-Pope revealed the startling statistic that of the 618 total requests for emergency shelter that the county received from single men last year, the county turned away 494 of them (80%) because it lacked sufficient capacity. Given those figures, it seems unwise and irresponsible to spend $16.8 million to increase capacity by only 20 beds.

Regardless of whether the county ultimately decides to pursue the 56-bed option or a larger facility, the same site selection principles apply: one should not simply assume, without any data, due diligence, or public input, that the existing location of Prince George’s House is the appropriate location for a new facility to serve homeless populations.

The County Bungled the Second Step: Site Design

In addition to its many process-related deficiencies in connection with this proposed new homeless shelter, the county’s proposed building design is hopelessly flawed. The county’s comprehensive plans for the Addison Road Metro Station area call for new urbanist designed multistory, vertical mixed-use urban buildings along Addison Road South, within walking distance of Metro.

Building façades are supposed to be placed at and should open up to the sidewalk. Buildings should also occupy most of their lot frontages along the major street, so that they form a continuous building edge with a consistent setback, which helps define the public zone of the street. Automobile parking is generally to be provided on-street, underground, or above street level in a structured parking facility. However, if surface parking cannot be avoided, it must be placed behind the building façade, not visible from the street.

The county’s proposed building design for the new men’s shelter ignores all of those comprehensive plan regulations. Its proposed building is a one-story, suburban styled building that adheres to virtually none of the principles of new urbanism. The building is set back 25 feet from the Addison Road South street edge, has no doors or windows on that side of the building, and does not occupy most of the frontage on that street. Instead, the county has flanked the building with unsightly and large stormwater management ponds on either side of the building instead of applying more appropriate urban stormwater management design techniques.

On the Ernie Banks Street frontage, instead of being pulled up to the sidewalk, the entire building façade is set back far from the street and blocked either by strip mall-style surface parking lots or stormwater management ponds. The rear half of the parcel is almost exclusively consumed by an unsightly amalgamation of pavement (either for surface parking or a basketball court) and stormwater management ponds.

In short, the county’s proposed site design reflects a waste of valuable land in every direction, wholly incompatible with urban transit- and pedestrian-oriented land use principles.

Not surprisingly, the county’s uninspired building design also does not meet the minimum benchmark for LEED Silver qualification from the U.S. Green Building Council, even though a 2007 executive order mandates that new county buildings achieve that minimum qualification. And to be clear: it is entirely possible for the county to construct an economical, new urban designed, LEED Silver certified building for the homeless that complies with the county’s comprehensive plans for the Addison Road Metro Station area.

In 2004, for example, the City of Austin, Texas, constructed the similarly sized Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) for $5 million (approximately $7 million in 2020 dollars):

Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (Austin, TX)

This three-story, 26,800 SF American Institute of Architects award-winning building accommodates 100 beds, as compared to the 56-bed facility that Prince George’s proposes. It also includes a large common-use room, showers and locker rooms, laundry facilities, a computer room, an art studio, and offices for various community-support agencies, in addition to a large commercial kitchen and dining room. All that at 42% of the cost of the $16.8 million facility that the county is proposing for the Addison Road South site. (For additional details on the ARCH development, this helpful case study is worth a look.)

Rather than modeling appropriate compliance with community plans and county procedures, the Office of Central Services is here demonstrating some of the worst characteristics of private developers, who all too often seek to build anything they want, anywhere they want, regardless of what the law says. This is precisely why public engagement and public notice are crucial components of the development review process. A proper public engagement process could have brought all these issues to light at a much earlier stage.

The County Should Own Its Errors and Do the Right Thing

Toward the conclusion of the December 1 webinar, as tempers began flaring increasingly in the chat box, DCAO Askew urged participants to remember that we are each other’s neighbors and family, and that we should approach this proposed homeless shelter with that spirit in mind.

It was a good sentiment to express, but County Executive Alsobrooks and Dr. Askew should first ensure that their subordinates take that advice. Tempers are flaring, after all, because the county mishandled this project. It did so by not engaging with the public, not exercising due diligence in the site selection and building design processes, and not following the law. In the spirit of family, and as responsible public officials, the county should therefore hit the pause button, withdraw the current mandatory review application, and begin this process anew—the right way.

There is no reason that Prince George’s County cannot improve vital services and facilities for individuals experiencing homelessness in a way that also adheres to the applicable law and comprehensive plans, and that respects and honors the public’s right to participate in good faith in the affairs of government.


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.