Monday, May 14, 2018

Seat Pleasant Plans for a Smart and Excellent Future

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

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

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

A City of Substantial Resources and Daunting Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goal: Shared Prosperity and Non-Displacement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 comments:

  1. I can't believe you quoted a Slate article on gentrification...a stretch. Multifamily housing will be a challenge for a tiny municipality such as SP, but mixed housing types will help attract young professionals. The city seems headed for success in implementing its revitalization plan. But alas SP must be careful to implement dual measures (that are not exactly contradictory of each other) to both encourage growth and revitalization and prevent "too much" displacement. Yes, natural displacement will occur and yes it is needed - however the key is not too much or too fast. Inclusionary zoning laws such as income based deed restrictions used on new single family homes that the city is developing, property tax exemption for seniors, encourage middle-income/workforce housing using the city's housing trust fund, prevent large scale, "luxury" type developments - encourage mixed-income multifamily.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I believe that gentrification will take place in communities near the bus and subway lines along the DC border.

    ReplyDelete