Monday, December 16, 2013

Last Day to Submit Comments on Plan Prince George's 2035

Today is the last day to submit public comments on the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the county's update to its comprehensive countywide General Plan for future growth and development. The Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) held a joint public hearing with the Prince George's County Council on November 12 to receive oral comments on the draft plan. The written comment period was extended until 5:00 p.m. today, December 16, 2013.

County planners will review and digest all public comments received by the deadline and decide whether to recommend any additional amendments to the preliminary draft of the General Plan. If there are significant amendments, the planners and the County Council may schedule another joint public hearing in advance of adopting and approving a final document.

Because all comments must be received by 5:00 p.m. today, you should email or hand-deliver your comments to the council. Emails should be sent to, and you  must also send a hardcopy of your comments via mail to:

The Clerk of the County Council
County Administration Building
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772

My public comments are below:

December 15, 2013

Ms. Redis C. Floyd, Clerk
Prince George’s County Council
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Drive, Room 2198 
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772

Re:      Public Comments Regarding Plan Prince George’s 2035

Dear Ms. Floyd:

Please accept this correspondence as my written public comments regarding the preliminary draft of Plan Prince George’s 2035. This past summer, in advance of the preparation of the preliminary draft, I met with the Planning Department staff and shared with them a draft of a policy paper that I had written, which addressed several issues that I believed should be considered in the county’s General Plan update. That document, entitled Plan Prince George’s 2035: Thinking and Growing Smartly Downtown and Beyond, is available online at and is incorporated herein by this reference.

As I communicated to the staff during my meetings with them this past summer, and in my policy paper, I believe the Planning Department has done exceptional work in the planning and preparation of this preliminary draft. By and large, this plan sets out a bold vision for Prince George’s County’s future growth and development. 

I offer the comments below in an effort to ensure that the final draft of Plan Prince George’s 2035 remains closer to its overall goal of ensuring a county that “develops sustainably and equitably[;] . . . directs new development to existing transit-oriented centers; focuses public investment on its economic engines; capitalizes on and maintains its infrastructure; strengthens its established communities; and proactively preserves its natural, historic, and cultural  resources.”

Growth Policy Map (Map 1, pp. 12-16, 78)
  • Differentiate between local and suburban centers. Among the local centers, differentiate between those that are Metro-accessible and those that aren’t.
  • Reconsider the statement, “Suburban Centers will often be larger in size and may rely more on vehicular transportation.” 
    • Automobile-oriented suburban centers should not be larger than local, Metro-accessible centers.
    • Non-exiting suburban centers that aren’t currently connected to transit (e.g., Westphalia, Konterra, Brandywine) should not be designated.
  • The “Established Communities” area outside the Beltway is still too massive. It doesn’t differ substantially from the sprawling “Developing Tier” of the 2002 plan. More of this area needs to be moved to “Reserve Areas” or “Agriculture Areas.”
    • The existence of public water and sewer service shouldn’t be the only criterion by which land area is considered for “Reserve Areas.”
    • All areas outside of the Beltway that are identified in the 2005 Countywide Green Infrastructure Functional Master Plan as a Regulated Area, Evaluation Area, or Network Gap should be carefully evaluated for designation as a “Reserve Area” or “Agriculture Area” in this update to the General Plan.
    • If the area is presently undeveloped and is not served by existing roads (or roads that are bonded and fully funded for construction), then the area should be designated as a Reserve Area. 
    • If the undeveloped area consists of more than 25 contiguous acres of forest lands, it should be designated as an Agriculture Area.
    • Established Communities should be limited to platted subdivisions with existing (or bonded and fully funded) roads and constructed housing that occupies at least 25% of the lots of the subdivision.
Priority Investment Map (pp. 17-19, 189)
  • The Neighborhood Reinvestment Areas should be expanded to include any area that, as of October 1, 2013, was designated as a Maryland Sustainable Community (including any area previously designated by DCHD as a Community Legacy Area or Designated Neighborhood), Targeted Area, or Enterprise Zone. 
  • The six neighborhoods designated in 2011 in connection with the County Executive’s “Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative” (TNI) program represent only a miniscule sample of the county neighborhoods that “have experienced a marked decline in property values, critical services, and neighborhood amenities and an increase in crime.” Most of the areas inside the Beltway, including the entirety of the 20743 Zip Code (including the municipalities of Capitol Heights, Fairmount Heights, Seat Pleasant, and the surrounding unincorporated areas) fall within this category and are no less deserving of designation as Neighborhood Reinvestment Areas.
  • The state Sustainable Community, Targeted Area, and Enterprise Zone designations were intended to identify communities and neighborhoods in need of reinvestment. Additional funding from the state is available in all of these designated areas to assist with reinvestment and revitalization. All of the TNI areas fall within one or more of these state designations. It would make little sense for the General Plan not to include as Neighborhood Reinvestment Areas those locations that have already been designated  as Sustainable Communities, Targeted Areas, and Enterprise Zones. 

Generalized Future Land Use Map (pp. 79-81)

  • The “Residential Medium-High” category should be > 8 and <= 40 DU/Ac (instead of maxing out at 20). This will overlap with the “Residential High” category, whose minimum DU/Ac should remain at >20
  • All 15 Metro station centers should be designated as “Mixed Use,” not “Residential.”
Plan 2035 Regional Transit and Local and Suburban Centers (p. 83)
  • Reconsider the following statement: “In support of the Plan 2035 growth concept, the eight Regional Transit Centers (which include the Priority Investment Districts and Primary Employment Areas) are the focus of the county’s planned growth and mixed use development. The Local and Suburban Centers are secondary, and provide smaller scale opportunities for development. Because the employment and office growth that is anticipated over the next 20 years is limited and the counties’ retail market is saturated, it is important to focus the commercial growth to the Regional Transit Centers in the near term.”
  • While the county’s largest employers (e.g., major federal and state agencies) should be located at the Regional Transit Centers, the plan should not discourage the development of vibrant mixed-use centers at other Metro stations, where such development is feasible. 
  • Consider the following alternative language: “In support of the Plan 2035 growth concept, the county should focus its planned growth and mixed use development at regional and local centers that are well connected to rail transit. The county’s largest employers and retailers should be encouraged to develop at the eight Regional Transit Centers (which include the Priority Investment Districts and Primary Employment Areas). Smaller office and retail development should be directed to Local Transit Centers. Local or suburban centers that are not connected to rail transit should have only neighborhood-serving retail and very limited office uses, such as individual live-work condominium units.” 

Growth Policy #1, Table 15: Growth Management (p. 90)

  • Separate out the local centers from the suburban centers, and change the following DU percentages to:
    • Local Centers - 25% (15,750 DUs)
    • Suburban Centers - 9% (5,670 DUs)
    • Established Communities - 5% (3,150 DUs)
    • Rural & Agricultural: 1% (630 DUs)

Thank you for the opportunity to offer these public comments. Should you have any questions or need additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me. 

Sincerely yours,
/s/ Bradley E. Heard
Bradley E. Heard

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Hail to the Redfins… Fight for Old P.G.!”

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr
Let’s face it: the Washington Redskins may officially be DC’s football team, but their home stadium, FedEx Field, is in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Like any good hometown fans, we yearn for the team to be successful, as they were (finally) Sunday, with their 45-41 victory over the Chicago Bears.

But beyond the gridiron, the Skins and their owner, Dan Snyder, can make Prince George’s and the Washington region even prouder by (1) heeding the call to change the team’s offensive name, and (2) advocating for an inside-the-Beltway extension of the Purple Line to Alexandria, via FedEx Field.

Introducing the “Washington Redfins”!

Last week, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker joined the increasing chorus of public figures urging the Skins to change their name. “For me, if it’s offending anyone…I think you should consider changing the name,” he said. Baker’s comments echoed those of President Obama, who earlier this month said that he too would think about changing the team’s name.

Maryland Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, whose district includes FedEx Field, has cosponsored legislation that would ban trademark protection for any name that includes the word “redskin” or any of its derivatives. Progressive media outlets are increasingly refusing to refer to the team by their official name. Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer believes it’s time to let the name go—not because of political correctness, but because common decency dictates the abandonment of a name that has become “tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.”

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. Another proposal, recently resurrected by PETA, is to keep the name “Redskins” but change the logo to a potato:

Image by PETA.

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 and…a Class 1 noxious species in [the country].”

Image by New South Wales (Australia) government.

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.!

Let’s say goodbye, once and for all, to the team’s current offensive moniker and start swimming with the mighty Redfins!

UPDATE (10/25/2013): Since posting this, The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson has joined the chorus of those urging a change in the team's name. Also, The Onion put out a stinging, epithet-charged piece attacking team owner Dan Snyder's insensitivity. And the Washington City Paper is reporting about a possible under-the-radar effort to rename the team the "Washington Bravehearts."

Making a Play for the Purple Line at FedEx Field

Another way that Prince George’s hometown football team can help itself and also be a good corporate citizen is by advocating for an inside-the-Beltway extension of the Purple Line from New Carrollton to Alexandria, via FedEx Field.

As currently planned, the Purple Line will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton, with 11 stops in Prince George’s County. However, county planners have already begun to think about possible extensions of the Purple Line that would go to National Harbor, and then across the transit-ready Wilson Bridge to Eisenhower Avenue or King Street Station in Alexandria.

The county’s 2009 Master Plan of Transportation recommended a feasibility study for an outside-the-Beltway Purple Line extension that would serve Largo Town Center, Prince George’s Community College, the proposed Westphalia Town Center development, Joint Base Andrews, Branch Avenue or Suitland Metro, and the Oxon Hill/National Harbor area.

In 2012, the county’s Transitway Systems Planning Study considered three potential alternative alignments for a Purple Line extension. One proposal (PLX1) had the line running primarily inside the Beltway. Two others (PLX2 and PLX3) proposed a largely outer-Beltway route. Interestingly, two of the proposed routes (PLX1 and PLX2) would have allowed the Purple Line to serve FedEx Field and Morgan Boulevard Metro Station on the Blue Line. Yet, the study ultimately favored the proposed outer-Beltway alignment that did not serve FedEx Field.

Earlier this summer, I proposed a fourth possible alignment for the Purple Line extension. This inner-Beltway route would serve Largo Town Center Metro, FedEx Field, Morgan Boulevard Metro, Penn/Mar Shopping Center, Branch Avenue Metro, Marlow Heights Shopping Center, and National Harbor/Oxon Hill before heading across the Wilson Bridge.

Image by Maryland Transit Administration.
It would be a tremendous demonstration of corporate leadership and responsibility if the newly-named Redfins were to advocate strongly with Prince George’s County and Maryland Transit Administration officials for a Purple Line extension to FedEx Field on an inner-Beltway alignment. Taking such a stand in favor of sustainable and transit-oriented development growth principles could be transformative for the county and beneficial to the team.

Instead of relying solely on parking revenues on game day, the Redfins owners could redevelop the vast ocean of surface parking at FedEx Field into a vibrant mixed-use community that produces income on a daily basis, and even more so on game days. Similarly, other owners of existing automobile-oriented commercial property along the proposed light rail route would be able to redevelop their aging commercial centers into more profitable, compact, and walkable urban places.

Step up to the scrimmage line, Mr. Snyder. Prince George’s County needs you in the game!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

TOD in Prince George's Can Reduce Pressure on Metro

Photo by MDGovpics on Flicker
Development around Metro is putting pressure on the transit system, especially on the region's west side. Building around Prince George's County's 15 underused Metro stations could help bring Metro into balance, but only if county leaders are willing to do it.

In a recent Washington Post article, Jonathan O'Connell details how a flurry of new office and apartment development is causing congestion on the Red and Orange Lines and in the Rosslyn tunnel. While Metro is planning $6 billion worth of system upgrades, that won't completely solve the problem.

What needs to happen, says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is that Prince George's needs to step up to the plate and start developing its 15 Metro stations. Today, Metro has to "run largely empty trains to those stations in the mornings and back from them in the evenings." By attracting large employers like the FBI to the county's Metro stations, Metro can fill those seats, increasing fare revenue and easing congestion.

O'Connell notes that there is exceedingly low demand in the DC area for office and multifamily residential development in locations far from Metro. There are at least 25 "major apartment projects" being built near Metro stations right now, and approximately 84% of the 5.5 million square feet of office development currently under construction in the region is within a five-minute walk of Metro. Nearly all of that TOD is occurring outside of Prince George's County.

By focusing major office and residential development at its Metro stations, Prince George's County has a huge opportunity to help restore balance to the regional transportation network, dramatically increase its tax base, and improve the overall quality of life for its residents. But to realize this opportunity, the county must put the kibosh on sprawling edge city developments like the proposed Westphalia Town Center. How can we make this happen?

The county is currently updating its comprehensive General Plan, which defines its long-range policies for guiding future growth and development. The preliminary draft of that plan recommends a divided growth strategy that relies both on transit-oriented development at Metro, MARC, and future Purple Line stations, and automobile-oriented development inside and outside of the Beltway.

Of particular concern is that the draft plan contemplates additional automobile-oriented mixed-use development at existing outer-Beltway locations like Bowie and Brandywine, as well as at new suburban greenflied sites like Konterra and Westphalia. None of these locations is connected to transit. As Jonathan O'Connell explains, such a drivable suburban growth strategy doesn't make sense for Prince George's County or for Metro.

By adding mixed-use neighborhoods to inside-the-Beltway stations in Prince George's, Kirby says Metro can "sell the same seat twice." For example, let's assume that the new regional medical center comes to Largo Town Center, as expected.

Now-empty trains headed to Largo could instead fill with hospital workers; when they get off, commuters heading into DC could take their place. And if Prince George's were to build another mixed-use center at a closer-in Blue Line station, such as Capitol Heights or Addison Road, Metro could earn revenue from a commuter coming from Potomac Avenue or Benning Road, and also from a different commuter going out to the medical center in Largo.

Such a coordinated growth strategy is far cheaper, more sustainable, and frankly more realistic, than building new Metro stations to reach the new sprawl. Yet, Prince George's County stubbornly clings to its sprawl past. I continue to believe that the county's leaders can change their ways if they pay attention to and learn lessons from other jurisdictions that have successfully implemented TOD. But the county's actions over the past few weeks suggest that they simply lack the political will or courage to change.

Short of "voting the bums out" of office, what strategies would you use to get Prince George's current leadership to make the dramatic shift from sprawl to TOD?

(This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Prince George's Releases Preliminary General Plan Draft

Image from M-NCPPC
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has released its preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the county's decennial update of its comprehensive General Plan. The General Plan defines the long-range policies for guiding future growth and development within the county.

The Prince George's County Council and M-NCPPC will hold a joint public hearing on the preliminary plan on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 7:00 pm in the council chambers, 1st Floor, County Administration Building, in Upper Marlboro. You may register to speak at the public hearing (for up to 3 minutes), and you may also submit more detailed written public comments. Written comments must be received by November 27. See the official hearing notice for additional details.

I haven't had a chance to go through this preliminary draft yet, but I look forward to doing so, and I urge county residents to do the same.

Earlier this summer, I prepared a policy paper that describes where and how I would like to see the county grow over the next 20 years. I shared a draft of this paper with the Plan PGC235 planning team, so that they could have the perspective of an inner-Beltway county citizen who strongly supports and advocates for smart growth, transit-oriented development, and revitalization of existing communities. I'll be interested to see whether and to what extent this preliminary draft of the General Plan embraces that perspective.

Each General Plan update presents a new opportunity for the county to rethink its priorities and commit to a renewed vision of growth and development in the county. Although our county's current leadership may seem hopelessly hardwired to a suburban sprawl-centered growth strategy, it's important to remember that our leaders can change their perspective—or, if necessary, we can change our leaders.

Either way, it's important for us as citizens to ensure that Plan Prince George's 2035 reflects our smart growth and transit-oriented development values. Again, please take time to review and comment on the preliminary draft of Prince George's General Plan.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Four TOD Lessons Prince George’s Can Learn From Atlanta

Photo by beardenb on Flickr.
Prince George's County has stubbornly stuck with sprawl, preferring development outside the Beltway and away from transit. Could it learn a new way to grow from Atlanta, which is swiftly metamorphosing from "Sprawlanta" to new urban paradise?

A recent study from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger finds that most of metropolitan Atlanta's growth now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. Close-in walkable neighborhoods, especially those near rail stations, are now home to 60% of Atlanta's office, retail, apartment and institutional development.

But how did Atlanta get there, and how could Prince George's do the same? By creating plans and sticking to them, coordinating people and resources, making the case for smart growth to developers, and embracing the possibilities.

Talk is cheap, actions matter

In Atlanta, city officials are fully committed to carrying out a bold vision for transit-oriented development. It centers around the Atlanta Beltline, a comprehensive revitalization effort that will turn a 22-mile historic and virtually abandoned railroad corridor surrounding the city into a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit. In addition, the city has partnered with MARTA, the regional transit agency, to redevelop more of the areas around existing transit stations and also to augment regional rail transit with local streetcar and bus routes.

As Cheryl Cort discusses in her review of M-NCPPC's Where and How We Grow policy paper, Prince George's County lacks a unified vision and growth policy. While county officials talk a great deal in the abstract about the need to focus on TOD and Metro station development, their actions reveal that they have very little understanding of or concern for what it would take to do so.

M-NCPPC staff is in the process of revising the county's General Plan, the official road map that is supposed to guide the county's growth and development through 2035. However, it remains to be seen whether the County Executive and County Council will actually commit themselves to carrying that vision forward, instead of just paying lip service to it.

Proper coordination of personnel and resources is essential

In Atlanta, the planning, building, and housing offices are organized within one department, Planning and Community Development, with a single commissioner. The commissioner's office provides leadership, policy direction, and centralized staff support for all three offices. A single quasi-independent development authority, Invest Atlanta, promotes the revitalization and growth of the city and serves as the city's economic development agency.

The staff of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Photo from the agency's website.

Invest Atlanta created a separate entity to implement the Atlanta Beltline vision called Atlanta Beltline, Inc. Atlanta's mayor and appointees from the city council, city school board, and Invest Atlanta serve on its board. These organizations and offices coordinate extensively with the public.

In Prince George's County, it's unclear who is responsible for developing and carrying out any TOD priorities. The planning, redevelopment, housing, and economic development functions are scattered across various independent agencies, including M-NCPPC, Economic Development Authority, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Authority, and the Revenue Authority, each of which has a separate board of directors.

Two different division heads within the county executive's office interact with these agencies. None of the agencies have any meaningful engagement with the public, except for M-NCPPC, the bi-county planning agency established by state law.

Encourage the development community to embrace smart growth

In Atlanta, city officials appear to have leveraged their good working relationships with the development and real estate communities such that they have become willing partners in the city's smart growth transformation. Take a look at Mariwyn Evans' fascinating account of how the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors (ACBR) worked to educate its fellow members and community leaders about the benefits of transit-oriented development, and also to promote smart growth as one of its top legislative priorities.

Plans for TOD at a MARTA station. Image from the City of Atlanta.

ACBR even helped create an extensive redevelopment action plan for the Edgewood-Candler Park MARTA Station, which is located in an older, formerly distressed neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Both before and after the plan's creation, ACBR worked with city, MARTA officials, and community groups to ensure that the plan would become a reality.

MARTA, in turn, worked with a developer to acquire and develop the Edgewood-Candler Park station in a public-private partnership. Once the new development is finally built, ACBR's members will again play an integral role by brokering the various leasing deals.

Unfortunately, Prince George's County has a long and tortured history of corruption that discourages many good and honest developers from doing business in the county. Additionally, the county's development review process is overly-politicized as a result of the council's discretionary "call-up" procedure, which allows the council to delay or demand changes to projects previously approved by M-NCPPC.

These hindrances make it cost-prohibitive and otherwise undesirable for reputable developers and real estate professionals to bring quality transit-oriented projects to the county. Instead, developers pursue the easiest, cheapest option: greenfield sprawl development.

Embrace the possibilities!

The biggest lesson that Prince George's County should learn from Atlanta is that it is possible within a relatively short amount of time to effect fundamental change in the county's growth and land use policy. And that can change the way ordinary citizens, political leaders, developers, and real estate professionals alike see the future of their communities.

Prince George's County's political leaders can decide that they are going to embrace and follow a true smart growth strategy. They can decide to reorganize the various agencies and departments in a way that maximizes accountability and unity of vision and purpose.

County leaders can decide to stop funding, focusing on, and advocating for suburban sprawl projects. They can decide to invest heavily in the revitalization of the county's established, economically distressed inner-Beltway communities, so that they can become more attractive to prospective residents and economically viable to prospective developers and retailers. That includes improving the county's public schools as well.

Revitalization areas along Metro's Blue Line in Prince George's County. Image from M-NCPPC.

Prince George's can take meaningful steps to cultivate positive relationships with the development and real estate communities. This includes de-politicizing and eliminating any appearances of impropriety, unfair dealing, and corruption in the development review process.

In the current climate, it's hard to imagine the Prince George's County Association of Realtors or the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association taking an active role in facilitating TOD in the county. Indeed, as demonstrated just a few days ago, these organizations frequently are among the fiercest advocates of maintaining the suburban sprawl status quo. Yet, the example of ACBR in Atlanta illustrates that such a collaborative, pro-smart growth approach is possible.

Like Atlanta, Prince George's County has all the building blocks necessary to develop thriving, transit-oriented, and sustainable walkable urban places that could rival any other jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region. The only thing the county has to fear is itself.

Will Prince George's County's leaders be bold enough to embrace a new way, or will they continue with business as usual? Will the county's citizens demand accountability from their leaders, or will they continue to elect and reelect individuals who are committed to replicating yesterday's vision of the county as a sprawling bedroom community?

The answers to these questions will determine the county's fate for the next generation.

(This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What If Prince George’s Took Atlanta’s Approach To TOD?

Photo by Frank Kehren on Flickr
Once known for sprawl, Atlanta has become a bastion of smart growth and transit-oriented development. In our region, it could be a model for Prince George's County, which struggles with the same issues.

New research from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger reveals that most of the Atlanta region's office, retail and rental residential construction now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. The study, The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta, is a follow-up to previous research of the DC area and reveals several fascinating facts about Atlanta's development landscape during the most recent real estate cycle, from 2009 to the present.

Leinberger, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission, said it was as significant as the announcement of the closing of the American frontier after the 1890 census. "This is indicative that we're seeing the end of sprawl," he declared.

The study generally follows the same methodology as the DC study, and found similar results. Like in the DC area, Metropolitan Atlanta's 36 established and emerging WalkUPs are located on less than one percent of the region's total land area. 29 of them are located within the I-285 Perimeter, Atlanta's version of the Capital Beltway. And they're 16 times more densely developed than the rest of the region, in terms of gross floor area ratio (FAR).

More than 60% of the Atlanta region's income-producing property, which includes office, apartment, retail, institutional and all other non-for-sale real estate, is located in the 36 WalkUPs. Meanwhile, 73% of the development in established WalkUPs and 85% of the development in emerging WalkUPs occurred near MARTA rail stations, the region's transit authority.

Multifamily rental housing drove real estate growth in established WalkUPs, which captured 88% of the region's multifamily units. And established WalkUPs are home to 50% of the Atlanta region's newly constructed office space.

Leinberger describes the Washington and Atlanta metropolitan areas as "peas in a pod" and "as comparable as any two large metropolitan areas in the country," in terms of population, character, development form, traffic, rail transit, and status as government and regional capitals.

Prince George's today looks like Atlanta yesterday

As comparable as the Washington region may be to metropolitan Atlanta, Prince George's County most resembles Atlanta in its sprawling past. The county has just three of the region's WalkUPs, even though it has 15 Metrorail stations, more than any other suburban jurisdiction.

Blighted conditions at Prince George's Addison Road Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) reports that over the past decade, more than 60% of Prince George's non-residential, income-producing development has occurred outside of the Beltway, in automobile-oriented locations far away from transit.

Additionally, nearly 80% of the approved-but-unbuilt residential development in Prince George's County consists of single-family homes planned for automobile-oriented outer-Beltway suburbia. Only 11% of the nearly 17,000 housing units in the pipeline are of multifamily homes, and only one-third of those, or 616 units, are planned for inside the Beltway.

Rather than revitalizing and developing around Metro stations and inside the Beltway, Prince George's County prefers to tout greenfield edge cities like Westphalia, or to promote elaborate automobile-oriented venues like a proposed billion dollar Bellagio-style casino or a Tanger Outlets center. M-NCPPC has long warned that unless the county reverses course, it will be ill-equipped to handle future market demand and get left behind.

Glimmers of hope for smarter growth

That's not to say that there aren't occasionally glimmers of hope for smarter growth in Prince George's. In recent months, the county has voiced support for two significant proposed transit-oriented developments: a new regional hospital at Largo Town Center and an FBI headquarters building at Greenbelt. Unfortunately, the county's overall approach to TOD tends to be unfocused and haphazard.

Additionally, as M-NCPPC has noted, the county's occasional TOD successes are vastly overshadowed and undermined by its continued support of massive sprawl projects, which thwart the county's ability to concentrate growth in the right places. It is the proverbial problem of "one step forward, two steps back."

There are lots of local examples of how Prince George's could grow differently, notably Arlington County, which has become a national model for how to embrace TOD. But Atlanta's burgeoning TOD transformation may hold even better lessons for the county.

In my next post, I will talk about what Prince George's could learn from them.

(This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Prince George’s Zoning Committee Doubles Down on Sprawl Bills

Photo by FadderUri on Flickr

Instead of taking the opportunity to significantly reduce the pipeline of residential sprawl development by simply taking no action and letting dormant projects expire, a council committee voted to move forward on bills that would extend the validity periods for those projects for another two years.

As discussed in last week’s post, 80% of the approved residential development in the Prince George’s County pipeline consists of low-density single-family homes located outside of the Beltway and away from mass transit.

County planners warn that this is the wrong type of development, in the wrong place, and that it puts the county “at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors.” They urged lawmakers to recalibrate county development priorities to focus on compact, mixed-use development near transit. Sadly, county council members weren’t listening.

Davis’s Bills: 2-Year Extension, Backed by Developer Interests

Photo by Prince George's County
As originally drafted, CB-70 and CB-71 would have granted only a one-year extension, which would have effectively grandfathered some projects approved as far back as January 2003 until December 31, 2014. But in a curious and brazen move, the bills’ sponsor, District 6 council member Derrick Leon Davis, moved to amend the bills to grant a two-year extension to those projects, until December 31, 2015.

Davis’s amendment was likely prompted by the parade of developers’ representatives who showed up to last week’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) committee meeting to testify in favor of the bills. According to the committee minutes, seven developer attorneys testified: Thomas Haller, Larry Taub, Norman Rivera, Ed Gibbs, AndrĂ© Gingles, Mike Nagy, and Chris Hatcher. Additionally, two lobbyists from the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association testified: Marcus Jackson and Kenneth Dunn.

One of the developer attorneys, AndrĂ© Gingles, raised eyebrows this past December by suggesting that council member Eric Olson, who was in line to become the next council chair, was “too Arlington” for Prince George’s County. And one of the lobbyists, Marcus Jackson, was a longtime legislative liaison for disgraced former county executive Jack Johnson, as well as a former policy analyst to District 8 council member Obie Patterson.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and I submitted written comments in opposition to the bills; however, our voices were clearly drowned out by the din of developer representatives who supported the extensions.

Ultimately, 4 of the 5 PZED committee members voted in favor of Davis’s amended bills: PZED chair Mel Franklin (District 9), PZED vice chair Karen Toles (District 7), council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5), and council vice chair Obie Patterson (District 8).

The committee’s lone dissenting vote was from council member Eric Olson (District 3), who expressed concern that the legislation did not provide any incentive for developers to move forward with their projects.

Olson’s Alternative Bill: 6-Month Extension If Permits Immediately Obtained

Photo by Prince George's County
Olson has drafted an alternative validity extension bill, CB-75, which would grant an extension of not more than 6 months to any dormant project that applies for and obtains required grading or building permits prior to the expiration of the existing validity period. The 6-month period would run from the date the building or grading permit is issued. The PZED Committee voted unanimously to forward this bill to the full council.

As currently drafted, Olson's bill does not have a sunset provision. Instead, it sets up a new procedure where developers could obtain an automatic 6-month extension of site plan validity periods for any project that is able to obtain a building or grading period prior to the expiration of its then-current validity period. Olson believes this new procedure will properly incentivize serious developers to keep their projects on schedule.

How to Make Public Comments

CB-70, the Davis bill extending the validity period for site plans until December 31, 2015, is scheduled to be formally introduced during the council’s October 8 legislative session. It’s unclear when Davis’s companion bill relating to subdivisions, CB-71, or Olson’s 6-month extension bill for site plans, CB-75, will be introduced, as these do not (yet) appear on the agenda. CB-71 and CB-75 are to be introduced on October 15.

Photo by Sarah Voisin, WashingtonPost
According to the council’s standard legislative process, once a bill is introduced, a public hearing before the full council is scheduled to occur “not earlier than 14 days after introduction.” Therefore, there is still time to let the council know what you think about these bills.

You should direct any written comments to the Clerk of the Council, and copy the individual council members, whose email addresses you may find in the Maryland Manual. You may also make limited oral public comments at the hearing, which will occur Tuesday, November 19, 2013, at 10:00 am.

CORRECTION: After receiving additional clarifying information from Councilmember Olson, this article was updated to reflect that the lack of a sunset provision in CB-75 was intentional and not a possible drafting error, as previously suggested by the author. The article was also updated to include the scheduled public hearing date and time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Should Prince George’s Continue to Validate Sprawl?

Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr
The approvals for many long-ago approved, but still-unbuilt, single-family suburban sprawl projects in Prince George’s County are set to expire on December 31, 2013. But for the fifth year in a row, the County Council is considering legislation that would extend the validity periods for those developments for yet another year. Is this a good idea?

On Wednesday, October 2, the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider three bills that would toll all deadlines for preliminary subdivision, site plan, and design plan approvals. The practical effect of these bills (CB-70-2013, CB-71-2013, and CB-75-2013) is that development plans that were approved as far back as January 2003 would remain valid through December 31, 2014.

By law, most preliminary subdivision plans are valid for only 2 years, and most site plans are valid for only 3 years. Some subdivision and site plans are valid for up to 6 years. However, for the past 4 years, since 2009, the County Council has passed bills that suspended these validity periods by a year. Thus, any development plan that was valid on January 1, 2009, has basically gotten a 4-year extension. These bills would give them yet another year of validity.

The extensions were originally designed to provide flexibility to developers, in light of the economic downturn that hit the housing market so hard. Council members believed the extensions would “help prevent the wholesale abandonment of approved projects and activities due to the present unfavorable economic conditions.”

But today, in 2013, the housing market in Prince George’s is steadily rebounding. Thus, there’s no longer an economic rationale for continuing to extend these deadlines. Moreover, recent analysis by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) suggests that it might be good to let some of these projects expire.

Additional sprawl housing disadvantages the county

Nearly 80 percent of the existing approved residential development in the Prince George’s County pipeline consists of low-density single-family residences located outside the Beltway, far away from transit. County planners have warned that this level of sprawl development is damaging to the county’s overall transit-oriented development goals and puts the county at a distinct disadvantage for attracting new residents in the future.

Pipeline Development as of December 2011. Image by M-NCPPC.

First, this type of scattered development makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.” Second, the construction of additional suburban single-family housing units is not helping the county to meet future market demand for new housing.

Relying on two separate studies of housing demand conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and George Mason University, county planners expect that Prince George’s will need to add up to 52,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. However, to meet the forecasted demand, more than 60% of these units (i.e., more than 31,200 units) will need to be multifamily units located in compact, walkable communities near transit. That means only about 20,800 new single-family units will be needed in the county over the next two decades.

M-NCPPC warns that “[w]ithout a recalibration of county priorities and policies that promote TOD and high-quality, mixed-use development, it is likely that the county will be at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

Letting the validity periods expire may be best

So what should the county do with its current development pipeline? According to M-NCPPC, as of December 2011, there were 14,991 approved single-family housing units in the pipeline. That accounts for nearly 70% of the projected future need for single-family housing in the county over the next 20 years. Eighty-eight percent of those approved housing units, or 13,247 units, were located outside of the Beltway, away from transit. Only 7%, or 1,105 units, were located inside of the Beltway.

I couldn’t find any figures from M-NCPPC that detail how many of the pipeline units remained valid only as a result of the various extension bills passed by the council since 2009. However, it’s safe to assume that a significant portion of those projects were approved prior to 2009, since there were fewer development projects moving forward in the height of the Great Recession.

The county’s land use policies have changed significantly since 2009. New subregional master plans and/or area master plans are in place for almost all significantly populated areas in the county. Additionally, the county has adopted stronger stormwater management standards and complete streets policies. And the county is currently revamping its General Plan. Many of the older single-family developments in the pipeline are not in line with these new and forthcoming land use policies.

By simply taking no further action to extend the validity periods on preliminary subdivision plans, site plans, and design plans, the County Council could significantly reduce the backlog of pipeline development. This is a step that M-NCPPC believes would serve the county well. In addition to helping slow down suburban sprawl, such a move would also allow previously proposed-but-unbuilt developments to be reevaluated under current land use policies.

If you believe the county should not take further action to validate sprawl, please take a moment to urge the PZED Committee to table CB-70, CB-71, and CB-75. You can address your comments to PZED Chair Mel Franklin (, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown ( and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone (

Saturday, September 28, 2013

How Can Prince George's Grow in the Right Places?

Photo by author.
In a June town meeting at the University of Maryland, Prince George's County planners asked the community where the county's downtowns are. That meeting inspired me to think more broadly about where and how the county as a whole should grow in the coming years, which I look at in a recent policy paper.

Titled Plan Prince George's 2035: Thinking and Growing Smartly Downtown and Beyond, my paper is a response to an ongoing update of the county's General Plan, branded Plan Prince George's 2035. County planners envision most future growth taking place in a few "downtowns" around the county. Earlier this year, prior to hosting the June town hall meeting, the planning staff released two reports of their own, Where and How We Grow and Typology and Prioritization.

But are planners selecting the right areas for new downtowns, and should we focus on them at the expense of other areas? And will emphasis on "new towns" in greenfield areas undermine the plan's goals? These are the issues I look at in my paper.

After reviewing the project team's two reports and attending the town hall meeting along with 300 other community members, I initially had some questions about the criteria that the planners used to rank potential downtowns.

Their quantitative analysis tool gave a higher priority in the top 10 list to places like Cheverly, Suitland, and Riverdale, which aren't really suitable for intense development, than to places that are, like Greenbelt and Largo. Other stations previously recognized as prime development opportunities, like Morgan Boulevard and Addison Road, didn't show up anywhere in the top 10. It didn't make sense to me that certain site-specific factors, such as the presence of available land for development and re-development and the absence of steep slopes, flood plains, and other barriers like railroad lines and highways, did not factor in more prominently in the diagnostic tool.

More broadly, though, I was concerned about what appeared to be a near-singular focus on the county's "downtown"-capable Metro station areas, to the exclusion of other station areas. I was also concerned that the preliminary recommendation to include a "new town" center typology in the General Plan Update seemed to be tacitly endorsing the troubling concept of non-transit-oriented, outer-Beltway greenfield developments like Westphalia, which are contrary to the county's stated land use priorities and basic smart growth principles.

Focus on the whole county, not just downtown

In Thinking and Growing Smartly, I attempt to more fully examine the questions posed by the M-NCPPC project team's earlier two policy papers: where and how should we grow, and how should our transit stations interact with each other to form a coherent growth strategy? To reach those threshold questions, I explore a number of issues:

Change the classification of land: Today, Prince George's County uses an amorphous, three-tier system to classify different parts of the county as either "Developed," "Developing," or "Rural." The project team has sensibly indicated that it intends to adopt and implement the place categorization guidelines developed by the Maryland Department of Planning in connection with PlanMaryland, the statewide development plan.

Those guidelines classify land into one of five categories: Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas, Established Community Areas in Priority Funding Areas, Future Growth Areas, Large Lot Development Areas, and Rural Resource Planning Areas.

I recommend that Targeted Growth and Revitalization Areas should cover only areas that are within: a 1/2-mile radius around around existing Metro and MARC rail stations, designated 1/2-mile districts along General Plan-designated transitways, and transit-accessible areas in designated Maryland Sustainable Communities and Maryland Enterprise Zones. Future Purple Line stations that aren't in one of those areas already would become Future Growth Areas. All of those areas should be built under the county's new form-based zoning requirements.

Define the place typologies: I generally agree with the planners that different place types belong in a hierarchy that describes the desired land use mix, housing and employment types and targets, and densities. However, the densities that county planners initially proposed are generally too low to support heavy and light rail. They also don't distinguish between areas within 1/4 mile of a transit station, where densities should be highest, and areas within 1/4 and 1/2 mile.

I propose five distinct place typologies, each with their own recommended densities, most of which are higher than those originally proposed by the project team. In descending order, they are: Central Business Districts, Major Urban Districts, Neighborhood Urban Districts, Special Use/Employment Districts, and Transitway Districts.

Rethink greenfield sprawl: Rather than endorsing greenfield sprawl projects like Westphalia and Konterra by according them their own "new town" category, the county should rethink and rezone those areas before major development occurs there, which would further undermine the county's transit-oriented development goals. Those land areas are not in a Priority Funding Area, Enterprise Zone, or Sustainable Community; therefore, they should be classified as either Large Lot Development Areas or Rural Resource Planning Areas.

Use Transitways to connect and revitalize the county: I also recommend 17 "Transitways" where the county should provide frequent bus service to connect major population centers to existing rail transit stations and major commercial and government centers.

A map of 17 proposed transitways. Click for an interactive map.

Through the master planning process, the county should designate various Transitway Districts as focus areas for revitalization and intensive infill development. This would be a good solution for aging or deteriorated automobile-oriented commercial sites like Penn/Mar Shopping Center, Iverson Mall, and Langley Park Shopping Center.

Incentivize private sector development: I recommend that the county take a two-pronged approach to encourage more high quality jobs and development. First and foremost, the county should implement the necessary structural reforms that will foster a more sensible, faster, and less politicized development process. That includes placing appropriate restrictions on growth outside of targeted areas, streamlining the development review process, rewriting and simplifying the zoning ordinance, and eliminating the dreaded "council call-up" review of individual site plans.

Secondly, the county should focus public investment on those high-potential stations most in need of infrastructure improvement to catalyze private sector interest. Three good places to start would be New Carrollton, Addison Road, and Capitol Heights, which are older and less-prepared for new development than their counterparts on the Green Line and the Blue Line extension to Largo. They've also received less interest from public sector institutions, like the FBI or the University of Maryland Medical System's new regional hospital, which could bring jobs that stimulate the local economy.

Image from M-NCPPC

The planners need to hear from us

The Planning Board is expected to release its preliminary draft of Plan Prince George's 2035 in October 2013. It's important for the public to review this draft thoroughly and to give the planners our feedback, so that the plan can truly reflect the values of the community.

I had the pleasure of meeting with the M-NCPPC project team back in August, to discuss an earlier draft of my Thinking and Growing Smartly policy paper. Kierre McCune, lead coordinator on the Plan Prince George's project, was happy to receive and discuss the paper, and noted that he was particularly pleased to see that at least someone outside of the Planning Department had taken the time to read through the project team's prior materials and provide thoughtful feedback. Similarly, planner Sonja Ewing remarked that citizens often don't realize the value in providing this kind of feedback to the planners. She said it is helpful for the team to hear and be continually challenged by an outside-the-bubble perspective.

What are your thoughts as to how Prince George's can think and grow smartly? You can let county planners know by emailing them or following them on Twitter @PlanPGC2035.

(A version of this article appeared on Greater Greater Washington on August 20, 2013.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Westphalia: A Bad Deal for Prince George's County

Westphalia Groundbreaking. Photo by Walton Group.

Even the developers of the proposed Westphalia town center project in Prince George's County realize that it's a fool's errand to build a sprawling edge city on a rural greenfield that's disconnected from transit. But will county leaders figure it out?

William Doherty, CEO of Canadian firm Walton International Group, recently spoke to local business leaders about the proposed 480-acre development in southern Prince George's, which will have 4.5 million square feet of office, 1.4 million square feet of retail, 600 hotel rooms, and 5,000 homes. Walton wants to lure the new FBI headquarters as well.

Doherty acknowledged that Westphalia's location was a problem. "There will be 15,000 jobs at Westphalia…and there is no [transit] service," he said. He wants the county or state to build a $75 million bus rapid transit line to the Branch Avenue Metro station and a $150 million new interchange at Pennsylvania Avenue and Suitland Parkway. Doherty said Walton is even "willing to" pay a portion of the cost.

County and state officials have shown no willingness to back away from this ill-advised project. In fact, they're planning to help the developers out by building expensive new infrastructure at public expense, even as the county's 15 Metro stations languish from underdevelopment.

Westphalia was born of bad policy and corrupt politics

Former county executive Jack Johnson and former council chair Jim Estepp first conceived Westphalia with former District 6 county councilman Samuel Dean and two developers, Patrick Ricker and Daniel Colton. In 2007, they worked to secure the approval of an elaborate master plan that upzoned this rural area into a major regional mixed-use center.

Five years earlier, the county had adopted its 2002 Approved General Plan, which stressed transit-oriented development around Metro stations and revitalization of existing communities inside the Beltway. The 2005 Countywide Green Infrastructure Master Plan identifies most of Westphalia as an area of countywide environmental significance, given its vast forest lands.

Although the 2002 General Plan had identified Westphalia as a "possible future" community center, it in no way suggested that the area should be prioritized for development ahead of the county's existing Metro stations and its existing inner-Beltway communities. Indeed, developing at Westphalia at that juncture seemed to be contrary to all of the county's stated development goals and priorities. Nevertheless, the 2007 Westphalia Sector plan sailed through the Planning Board and the County Council.

Then came the Great Recession, which pretty much stalled all significant development projects across the region, good and bad. And if that wasn't enough, toward the end of 2010, the FBI arrested county executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, bringing to light the long-running federal corruption and bribery investigation of the Johnson administration, arising out of a series of development-related schemes. The Johnsons, Patrick Ricker, and many others pled guilty and went to prison, while Colton still awaits sentencing.

Walton swooped in to resurrect a failed idea on the cheap

The Great Recession and the corruption scandal had left the Westphalia project all but dead on the vine. Ricker and Colton had defaulted on their loan, and Wells Fargo had foreclosed on the property. This would have been a perfect time for the county to reevaluate the Westphalia plan and the suburban sprawl strategy that undergirded it.

Unfortunately, a bad idea doesn't die that easily. Shortly after Rushern Baker's election as county executive in 2010, his administration signaled that Westphalia would continue to receive significant county backing. In June 2011, Baker's spokesperson Scott Peterson said, "the [Westphalia] development is important to the residents of the community and the county, and we'll be working hard to keep the project on line."

In February 2012, Walton purchased the property from Wells Fargo for $29.5 million, with the full blessing of the Baker administration. Aubrey Thagard, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development, stated that the administration was "encouraged by [Walton's] approach in terms of the quality of development that would come to Prince George's County."

Walton has already secured a $150 million commitment from Governor Martin O'Malley to build the Pennsylvania Avenue/Suitland Parkway interchange. While the county leadership supports Greenbelt over Westphalia for the FBI headquarters, it still enthusiastically supports the creation of a new edge city that District 6 councilmember Derrick Leon Davis hopes will one day rival the county's largest city, Bowie.

Councilman Derrick Leon Davis at Westphalia groundbreaking. Image from YouTube.

The county's support of Westphalia will continue to stifle real TOD

At a groundbreaking ceremony in June, Councilmember Davis sated that Westphalia represented a "new era in Prince George's County." But it's really just a continuation of the same "business as usual" approach that has resulted in the county having 15 of the least developed Metro station areas in Greater Washington and virtually no transit-oriented walkable urban places.

It's also the reason that the county now has more than 2,000 miles (and more than 5,000 lane-miles) of roadways that it is responsible for maintaining. Many of these existing roads lack sufficient lighting, sidewalks, and pedestrian signaling, even around Metro stations, which often leads to deadly results.

Westphalia will require scores of miles of additional roads that the county will have to maintain. And a project as large as Westphalia would siphon away most of the development opportunities around nearby Metro stations, like Largo Town Center and Branch Avenue, for decades to come.

Westphalia's proximity to 6 Metro stations. Click for interactive Google map.
Westphalia is also fairly close to the former Landover Mall site, which has been shuttered for more than a decade and is now in need of new investment. While the Landover Mall site is also not Metro accessible, it is at least inside the Beltway, already has the roadways and other infrastructure to support dense mixed-use development, and doesn't require developing farmland.

Councilman Davis suggests that it's possible for Prince George's County to "walk and chew bubble gum" at the same time: that is, to support suburban edge city projects like Westphalia while simultaneously supporting TOD at places like Largo Town Center, both of which are in his district. But the hard truth is that the county cannot successfully pursue sprawl development and transit-oriented development at the same time.

County planners note that growth in the wrong places causes the county to "miss significant opportunities to better utilize our transit infrastructure and capture forecasted regional demand for new housing and jobs." Furthermore, sprawling development patterns put the county in an economic bind by causing it to expend crucial resources "to expand, duplicate, and maintain new infrastructure, in addition to maintaining the existing infrastructure in mature communities."

I suggested in my recent policy paper that the county should rezone Westphalia to a rural or very low density zone and focus its attention on bringing true high-quality transit-oriented development to its Metro stations, in keeping with its stated development priorities. It will take an incredible amount of political courage and will for county leaders to do so, given their previous full-throated support of this project.

Likely the only way they would even consider doing it is if there were a significant response from the community for a new direction. Knowing my fellow citizens, that's a very tall order indeed.

(A version of this article appeared on Greater Greater Washington on September 23, 2013.)