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.


3 comments:

  1. Putting the Amazon Warehouse near the stadium would be a negative.

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  2. I completely agree with Brad, especially the note about the old Landover Mall location being a great spot for it as there are lots of workers that could be available there; a shuttle could easily be run regularly from the Largo and Landover Metro stops to transport Metro riders to the sight. I was totally amazed that they would want to put such a warehouse type of structure in what the County Planning Department, in their mistaken wisdom saw as a prime spot for some more urban/suburban style housing, with no transportation options for the future residents. This was not a good choice, but once made, for them to change completely the Town Center concept into a warehouse district was unbelievably not Smart Growth. Sorry for the rant. It is just upsetting to me, a citizen who has worked for over 50 years for quality, smart economic and humane growth in our county, to see piecemeal text amendments continuing to "pop up".

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  3. Just found your blog. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights. I'm just getting up to speed on how zoning is done in PGC and had a question about "spot zoning". CB-017-2019 is a text amendment originally written to carve out an exception to the current existing low density A-R zone and allow higher density townhouses at freeway airport. When it was warned that the bill could be considered illegal "spot zoning", a couple adjustments to the text were made to allow for more than one property to fit the new criterion. How can this be done when the spirit of the bill was originally written for a specific property owner and the mods to address this concern seem to only address the letter of the law. At the end of the day the text amendment still benefits that particular property owner?

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