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.)