Tuesday, September 14, 2021

These “Sensible Communities” Redistricting Plans Provide Better Representation on the County Council for Prince George’s Diverse Population

September 14, 2021

for the Prince George's County Council.
Created with the Dave’s Redistricting web tool by Bradley Heard.

This article is Part 2 of a two-part series to help demystify the County Council redistricting process in Prince George’s County and explain the impact it can have on our lives. A version of this series appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

On September 1, the Prince George’s County Redistricting Commission submitted its proposed 2021 redistricting plan for the County Council. The council will hold a public hearing later this month to determine whether to allow this plan to take effect, or whether to enact its own plan. The Council must make its decision by November 30.

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the Redistricting Commission’s proposed plan and described how it disadvantages the lower-income and urbanized residents of the county who live inside the Beltway. We also showed how the commission failed to make a good-faith effort to equalize the population across the nine districts.

In this second part of the series, we discuss two potential alternatives that the County Council could consider: the “Sensible Communities” redistricting proposals prepared by citizen activist and Prince George’s Urbanist publisher Bradley Heard.

Alternative #1: Compact, contiguous districts that fairly represent urban and lower-income inner-Beltway communities

Bradley’s first proposed alternative, shown below, is based on a different set of criteria than those the commission adopted:

  • The sum of the largest and smallest districts’ deviations from an ideal district (i.e., the “maximum population deviation”) must be less than 3.5% — a significantly stricter criterion than that adopted by the commission.
  • All districts must be compact and contiguous. (Also required by the commission and the county charter.)
  • Precincts should not be split between districts. (Also required by the commission.)
  • Municipalities should not be split into multiple districts, and splits of census-designated places into multiple districts should be minimized.
  • The half-mile walksheds of the Metro stations along any of the county’s four Metro line segments should not be split into multiple districts.
  • Incumbents eligible for reelection should not be pitted against each other in a single district. (Not explicitly required by the commission, but their emphasis on a least-change map ensured it.)
  • The plan should not result in the denial or abridgement of the rights of any racial or language minority group to participate in the political process. (As required by the federal Voting Rights Act.)

(Download this KMZ file to view this map on Google Earth or Google Maps)

Bradley’s Alternative #1 plan divides the area inside the Beltway and some areas just outside it into five districts. Bradley’s proposed District 2 is very similar to the commission’s proposed District 2, and he divides the rest of the northern area inside the Beltway into District 3 and District 4. The northern Green Line corridor and the county’s most urban areas, including nearly all of its former streetcar suburbs, are divided between districts 2 and 3, while the Orange Line corridor, Lanham-Seabrook, and Glenarden are in District 5.

The Alternative #1 plan divides the central and southern portions of the county inside the Beltway almost entirely between District 6 (containing the Blue Line corridor, including the area around Largo) and District 7 (containing the southern Green Line corridor and Joint Base Andrews), except for the town of Forest Heights, which is contained in the northern tip of District 8.

The lower-income communities in the central and southern portions of the county inside the Beltway make up a majority of two districts in Bradley’s plan — districts 6 and 7 — instead of just one district, as they do under the commission’s plan. In addition, District 5 would  represent a lower-income area than it does today, providing more representation on the council for the county’s low-income communities.

The proposed districts in the Sensible Communities Alternative #1 plan also provide better representation for the denser parts of the county inside the Beltway. All five of the districts with substantial areas inside the Beltway have median population densities above the county’s median value of 4,000 residents per square mile: 11,000 and 8,000 residents per square mile, respectively, for districts 2 and 3 in the northern portion of the county, and 5,000 to 5,500 residents per square mile for the three central/southern districts.

Furthermore, Bradley’s proposed districts are generally more compact than those proposed by the Redistricting Commission. Also, because his inner-Beltway districts largely follow Metro corridors, they represent areas that have related public transportation and urban planning concerns. Being linked by Metro would also make it easier for transit-dependent residents to attend events hosted by councilmembers in their district.

Alternative #2: A majority-Hispanic district, but with split municipalities and CDPs

One issue that Bradley’s Alternative #1 map shares with the commission’s plan is the absence of a majority-Hispanic district. The district with the largest Hispanic population, District 2, has a voting-age population that is 49.5% Hispanic. Bradley’s second proposal, shown below, adjusts district boundaries, especially in the northern portion of the county, to allow District 2 to include nearly all of the county’s majority-Hispanic areas, giving it a voting-age population that is 54.5% Hispanic.

Sensible Communities Redistricting Map Alternative #2,
reated with the Dave’s Redistricting web tool by Bradley Heard.

(Download this KMZ file to view this map on Google Earth or Google Maps)

Unfortunately, achieving this majority-Hispanic district requires breaking a number of municipalities into multiple districts, and increasing the number of splits of census-designated places. It also produces substantially less-compact districts than the first alternative. Whether these trade-offs are worthwhile is an open question, but both of these “Sensible Communities” alternative maps have substantial benefits compared to the map being proposed by the redistricting commission.

Both Alternatives Comport With “One Person, One Vote”

Unlike the Redistricting Commission’s proposed 2021 plan and the County Council’s current 2011 plan, both of Bradley’s Sensible Communities proposals make a good-faith effort to create districts with as nearly equal population as is practicable, in accordance with the mandates of the U.S. constitution and the county charter. 

The 2011 redistricting plan has a maximum population deviation of 7.30%, and the redistricting commission’s proposed 2021 redistricting plan has a maximum population deviation of 6.96%. By contrast, the Sensible Communities Alternative #1 plan has a maximum population deviation of 1.44%, and the Alternative #2 plan has a maximum population deviation of 1.36%.

Bradley’s two citizen-drawn County Council redistricting plans demonstrate that it was entirely possible for the Redistricting Commission and the County Council to have achieved dramatic reductions in population deviation in the current 2011 plan and the proposed 2021 plan, while still observing traditional redistricting principles. That they did not do so is strong evidence that other illegitimate or discriminatory factors were likely motivating their drawing of district lines.

Show your support for Sensible Communities

The County Council has tentatively scheduled the public hearing on the redistricting commission’s plan to occur on Tuesday, September 28. There will presumably be an opportunity for the public to submit oral or written testimony in connection with that hearing. However, you do not need to (and should not) wait until the public hearing to make your wishes known to the council. The earlier you can give your input, the more likely it is that you can actually have an impact on the process. 

The first thing you can do right now is to complete the feedback form on Bradley’s Sensible Communities page to let him know which plan(s) you support and to offer any further comments. He will be compiling a list of supporters and submitting it to the council. 

The second thing you can do, if you’re a Prince George’s County resident, is to write to the councilmember for your district and the two at-large councilmembers and urge them to support the Sensible Communities plans. 

Finally, please share your thoughts below in the comments, and share these posts with your friends to increase public awareness of this important once-a-decade task. 

Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to help make our democracy better.

Note: This article was modified to switch the labeling of districts 4 and 5 in the text and the graphics, so that District 4 relates to the Bowie district, as it does under the 2011 plan. 

Proposed Prince George’s County Council Redistricting Plan Disadvantages Lower Income and Inner-Beltway Residents

September 14, 2021

Members of the Prince George's County Council.
Image by Prince George’s County.

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series to help demystify the County Council redistricting process in Prince George’s County and explain the impact it can have on our lives. A version of this series appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

On September 1, the Prince George’s County Redistricting Commission submitted its map of proposed County Council districts based on 2020 census results to the County Council. Unfortunately, the proposed redistricting plan replicates serious flaws in the current County Council district map that harm lower-income and urban inner-Beltway communities and that increase the political power of the wealthiest, least-dense, and least-urban parts of the county.

As two Prince George’s County residents from north and central/south county with a keen interest in the redistricting process, we thought it would be helpful to do a series of articles that helps clarify and demystify the process; explain the impact it can have on our lives; and suggest viable alternatives. 

What is Redistricting?

Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative district lines. It takes place every 10 years, following the national census, at the federal, state, and local level. Each jurisdiction has its own unique rules and processes. (For a deeper dive on redistricting, check out the All About Redistricting website maintained by the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.) 

The way that district lines are drawn can determine who is eligible to run for office, whether certain neighborhoods or community interests will be adequately represented, and whether some Black, Hispanic, and low-income communities will have a fair opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. 

Maryland’s statewide redistricting has been the subject of a great deal of media and academic attention, largely because of the way state lawmakers have historically drawn heavily gerrymandered congressional districts to ensure that seven of Maryland’s eight US House seats are likely to favor Democratic, rather than Republican, candidates. By contrast, very little attention is being paid to the ways in which county and municipal legislative districts are being drawn in Maryland. 

The redistricting process in Prince George’s County

As required by the county charter, the County Council must hold a public hearing on the redistricting commission’s proposed plan between September 16 and October 1 (i.e., within 15-30 days of receiving the plan). Then, it has until November 30 to decide whether to allow the commission’s plan to become law, or to draw its own plan.

The county charter requires that council districts be “compact, contiguous, and equal in population.” However, the redistricting commission decided early on that it would be guided by one primary goal: “least change”  — i.e., making only the minimum changes necessary to ensure that the population deviation among the existing council districts does not rise to the level where they would be legally presumed to be in violation of the “one person, one vote” principles inherent in the US Constitution. 

In the end, the redistricting commission elected to retain the 2011 redistricting plan, with the exception of five precincts that it moved to reduce population disparities among the districts. Specifically, two precincts in Adelphi were moved from District 1 to District 2; one precinct in Glenn Dale was moved from District 3 to District 4; and two precincts in District Heights were moved from District 6 to District 7.

The redistricting commission’s proposed 2021 county council districts
, based on 2020 census data. 
Map drawn by D.W. Rowlands using the Dave’s Redistricting web tool.

Unfortunately, the redistricting commission’s “least change” proposal replicates the problems with the current County Council districts: several districts are quite oddly shaped, and nearby communities that share common interests are not particularly well-represented. Additionally, as discussed below, the proposed 2021 County Council redistricting plan dilutes the voting strength of lower income and urban communities inside the Beltway and fails to provide equally populated council districts as required by the county charter.

The redistricting commission’s proposed 2021 districts disadvantage lower-income populations

Prince George’s County is incredibly diverse, with both some of the Washington, DC region’s lowest-income census tracts inside the Beltway and some of the nation’s highest-income majority-Black census tracts outside the Beltway. Since the 2020 census redistricting data that was released earlier this month does not include income data, we approximated each of the proposed districts with 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimate data.

The central and southern portions of inner-Beltway Prince George’s County (south of US Route 50) are divided into four districts: Districts 5, 6, 7, and 8, although this area has a population of roughly 215,000 residents — enough to make two ideally-sized districts of 107,500 residents each. The median resident of this area lives in a block group with a median household income of $65,000 per year — well below the county’s median household income of $85,000 and only 63% of the DC metro area’s median household income of $103,750.

Despite the fact that this is an area of concentrated low incomes, only one of the four districts that cover this area — District 7 — has a median block group with a household income below $75,000 per year, while two — District 6 and District 8 — have median block groups with household incomes well above the $85,000 median household income for the county.

This type of blunting of lower-income inner-Beltway populations can be highly problematic, because it can reduce the voice, influence, and perspective of that demographic on the council, which can skew legislative decision-making in a way that does not represent the interests of the whole county.

The proposed districts are also bad for urbanism

The residents living inside the Beltway comprise about 43% of the county’s population. That is equivalent to almost four ideal districts of 107,500 residents. However, the Redistricting Commission’s proposed plan divides this area into eight districts. (Only District 9 has no extension within the Beltway.) This grouping of districts is bad for urbanism and public transportation, because it does not reflect the true densities of the county’s inner-Beltway urban core.

The median resident inside the Beltway lives in a block group with a density of 7,500 residents per square mile; yet only one inner-Beltway district, District 2, reflects a population with a median resident density of 7,500 or higher. In fact, only three of the county’s nine districts — districts 2, 3 and 7 — have median residents living at population densities higher than the county median population density of 4,000 residents per square mile.

This “cracking” of high-density areas is particularly notable in the lower-income areas inside the Beltway in Districts 5, 6, 7, and 8, as discussed above. The median resident of these four districts inside the Beltway lives in a block group with a density of 6,000 residents per square mile. Only District 7, with its median density of 7,000 residents per square mile, has a median density higher than the county median of 4,000 residents per square mile.

Likewise, only 45% of central and southern county inner-Beltway residents live in single-family detached housing; yet only one of the four districts — again, District 7 (encompassing Capitol Heights, District Heights, Seat Pleasant, Suitland, and surrounding communities)  — has a clear majority of residents not living in single-family detached housing.

The northern portion of the county inside the Beltway has a similar, albeit less severe issue with density cracking. While District 2, which is made up of some of the most-urban parts of the county, has a median density of 11,000 residents per square mile, the other three northern districts that extend inside the Beltway — districts 1, 3, and 4 (encompassing Laurel, Bowie, Hyattsville, College Park, Greenbelt, and surrounding areas) — have median densities of 4,000, 6,500, and 3,000 residents per square mile, respectively. However, the portions of these three districts inside the Beltway, plus the outside-the-Beltway portion of the city of Greenbelt (all of which is in District 4), have the population of an ideal-sized district and a median population density of 8,000 residents per square mile

If the portion of the county inside the Beltway were divided into four more-compact districts instead of the eight districts it is split among now, it is likely that all four seats would represent areas with median densities of at least 6,000 residents per square mile, and that the two northern districts would have median densities of at least 8,000 residents per square mile: a much stronger voice for density and transit than we have today.

The 2021 plan does not equalize population among the districts

The primary purpose of redistricting after every decennial census is to ensure that legislative districts at the federal, state, and local level all comport with the “one person, one vote” requirements of the US Constitution. That principle requires that districts be equally sized, so that no one person’s voting strength is greater than anyone else’s.

To figure out what the “ideal district population” is, one takes the total population of the jurisdiction, as determined by the most recent census, and divides it by the number of districts in the legislative body. So, for the Prince George’s County Council, based on the county’s 2020 total population of 967,201, the ideal population for each of the nine council districts is 107,467 people.

Of course, it is impossible to achieve mathematical precision when drawing districts. Therefore, the Supreme Court clarified in the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims that lawmakers must “make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts…as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” For congressional districts, the sum of the numeric deviation of the smallest and largest districts (i.e., the “maximum population deviation”) typically has to be under one percent.

However, courts allow more flexibility in drawing state and local districts. Maximum population deviations over 10% are presumptively unconstitutional, but if the maximum deviation is below 10%, the person challenging the plan must show that illegal, discriminatory, or illegitimate factors caused a greater-than-necessary deviation.

The Redistricting Commission’s proposed 2021 plan has a maximum population deviation of 6.96%. That is because they were working from a “least change” perspective in modifying the 2011 plan, which itself had a maximum population deviation of 7.30%. But even the commission’s hired consultant, Stanford Law professor Nate Persily, conceded that a “least change” plan easily could have been drawn with maximum population deviations well under 2% without splitting precincts.

In our next article, we will review a couple of alternative redistricting proposals for the Prince George’s County Council that provide better representation for the lower-income and more densely populated inner-Beltway portion of the county, and that provide more compact, contiguous, and equally populated districts, in keeping with the US Constitution and the Prince George’s County Charter.

Monday, July 12, 2021

COVID-19 Infects Prince George’s Redistricting Commission

The Prince George’s County 2021 Redistricting Commission will hold its first virtual public hearing on Monday, July 19, 2021, at 5:00 pm, to receive public testimony regarding potential changes to the boundaries of the nine County Council districts. There’s just one problem: neither the Commission nor the public (nor anyone else) has the Census population data needed to draw districts. Without court action to extend the applicable county charter deadlines, the Redistricting Commission will not be able to do its work.

Every ten years, following the national census, state and local jurisdictions must go through the laborious task of redrawing their district lines to ensure that each congressional, state legislative, local legislative, or school board district contains roughly the same number of people. This is because the U.S. Constitution’s “one person, one vote” principle requires that each person’s voting power in a jurisdiction should be roughly equivalent to that of any other person living in the same jurisdiction.

In an ordinary census cycle, the U.S. Census Bureau would deliver state-level reapportionment population data, which details the number of seats each state gets in Congress, to the President by December 31 of the year the census was taken (i.e., the year ending in “0”). The Bureau would then deliver the decennial redistricting data—detailing block-level population data for the entire country—to the states by the first quarter of the year following the census (i.e., the year ending in “1”). States and localities would then use those data to redraw district lines.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 threw a huge monkey wrench into that timeline for this cycle. The Census Bureau did not release the congressional reapportionment data until April 26, 2021, and is currently not expecting to release complete decennial redistricting data to the states until September 2021. As the Bureau itself recognized, the delayed release of redistricting data may make it impossible for states and localities to comply with applicable constitutional or statutory deadlines relating to redistricting.

County’s Redistricting Timeline Can’t Accommodate Census Delay

Prince George’s County’s charter mandates that the Redistricting Commission must submit a redistricting plan to the County Council no later than September 1, 2021. The Redistricting Commission’s plan becomes law effective November 30, 2021, unless the County Council takes some action to change the Commission’s plan.

For this census cycle, however, the Redistricting Commission will not be able to submit a plan to the County Council by September 1, because the Census Bureau will not release decennial redistricting data to the states until later that month. In addition, Maryland law requires that the state reallocate incarcerated citizens to their address of residence prior to incarceration after receiving the decennial redistricting data from the Census Bureau. Maryland’s Secretary of Planning estimates that the adjusted redistricting numbers will not be available until approximately 30 days after the state receives the redistricting data from the Census Bureau—i.e., sometime in October.

In the absence of actual redistricting data for the 2020 census, the Redistricting Commission’s current plan is to draw its proposed County Council maps using a dataset compiled by a private data analytics firm, Haystaq DNA, founded by former Obama presidential campaign operative Ken Strasma. The Redistricting Commission’s consultant, Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily, says that the Haystaq data is based on the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) from 2019.

Unfortunately, as Professor Persily and the County’s own lawyers have recognized, the Haystaq dataset cannot be relied on to draw a legal redistricting plan, because it is both out of date and not based on an actual count of the population. In April, a coalition of more than 50 civil rights organizations issued a statement opposing the use of ACS data in the redistricting process and urging line drawers to await the Census Bureau’s release of the decennial redistricting data this fall.

Thus, the Redistricting Commission will need additional time to prepare and receive public input on a proposed County Council district map. A revised deadline of November 15, 2021, should allow sufficient time for the Commission to prepare a map for the Council. Then, the Council should have until January 15, 2022, to hold hearings and determine whether any changes are necessary to the districting map.

This timeline would still give candidates who wish to run for the County Council sufficient time to know which council district they will reside in prior to the February 22, 2022, deadline for filing certificates of candidacy.

Court Action Likely Needed to Extend Deadlines

Unfortunately, Prince George’s County did not request and the Maryland General Assembly did not pass any legislation during its 2021 session to alter local charter deadlines that conflict with the Census Bureau’s delayed timeline for releasing redistricting data to the states. Therefore, the County will now have to rely on the judiciary to provide the necessary relief.

The Circuit Court for Prince George’s County or an appropriate federal court could order those new deadlines upon the filing of a proper petition. Ideally, the County itself will take the necessary steps to ensure that the Redistricting Commission is allowed to carry out its important governmental function. Alternatively, any citizen and registered voter in the county could likely make the request.

Either way, any court action should be filed quickly, as the deadlines are fast approaching.


Friday, December 4, 2020

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

Existing shelter facility. Photo by M-NCPPC.

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

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

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

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

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

Homeowners Allege Foul Play by County

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

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

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

The Development Review Process for County Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The County Skipped the First Step: Site Selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The County Bungled the Second Step: Site Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (Austin, TX)

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

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

The County Should Own Its Errors and Do the Right Thing

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

"Washington Redfins" is a Non-Racist Football Name We Can Be Proud Of

FedEx Field, located in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is the home stadium of the Washington Redskins football franchise. This weekend, FedEx joined the ever-growing crowd of corporations, civic leaders, and decent human beings in requesting the team to change its racist moniker. Despite team owner Dan Snyder's years of resisting a name change, the team has now promised to "undergo a thorough review of the team's name."

In 2013, a similar groundswell of effort from numerous public officials—including former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, former U.S. Representative Donna Edwards, and President Barack Obama—failed to pursuade Snyder. Many progressive media outlets began refusing to refer to the team's official name. Even conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer penned a powerful op-ed declaring that common decency, not mere political correctness, dictated the abandonment of a name that has become “tainted, freighted with negative connotations with which you would not want to be associated.” Still, Snyder refused to budge.

Although the team's recent promise to "review" the team's name is no guarantee that the name will change, Washington's football team has much more incentive to do so now than it did in 2013. In seven short years, the nation has legalized gay marriage, banned employment discrimination against LGBTQ people, established a near-zero-tolerance approach to harassment of women in the workplace and beyond, torn down Civil War monuments to traitorous Confederate generals, retired state flags containing Confederate battle insignia, and held weeks-long mass demonstrations in the wake of police violence against unarmed Black Americans.

We have also witnessed four years of negative consequences from a divisive, racist, polarizing president who has focused on building border walls, separating Latino children from their families, denigrating people of color at every opportunity, and even stoking violence against peaceful protesters. As a result, Americans have increasingly become more attuned to—and oposed to—symbols and acts of race- and geneder-based insensitivity and violence.

Over the years, we have seen no shortage of suggestions for alternate names for Washington’s football team. Krauthammer and others prefer simply shortening the name to the “Skins,” which many people commonly do already. Some local residents mounted an under-the-radar effort to rename the team the "Washington Bravehearts." Another worthy contender is the "Washington Redtails," honoring Black Tuskeegee airmen.

One of the more hilarious (and vegan-friendly) proposals, offered by PETA, is to keep the name “Redskins” but change the logo to a potato:

But who wants to root for a frigging spud?! We need a mascot that connotes power and might, one that evokes fear and trepidation in opponents—something exotic, yet familiar. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the Washington Redfins!

As described by the New South Wales government in Australia, “Redfin are a popular sport fish…because of their fighting qualities and taste. However, they are also voracious predators of other fish and invertebrates…and can devastate native fish populations…. For these reasons, redfin are considered a serious pest.”

Talk about a fearsome little fish! Yet, they are sporty, they fight well, and they taste good. What more can we ask in a mascot? We could even keep the same fight song and tune, making only the simplest of modifications in the lyrics:
Hail to the Redfins. Hail, victory.
Pride of the Nation, [or, “Potomac war fish,”]
Fight for old D.C.!

It's time, Washington football fans, to start swimming with the mighty Redfins!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How Could We Better Use College Park Airport?

Image by M–NCPPC.
College Park Airport in Prince George’s County, Maryland, is the world’s oldest continually operating airport. Sadly, it’s also likely one of the most squandered public assets in the Washington region. Virtually no one uses it, despite its prime location near transit and the University of Maryland. But with a few commonsense upgrades and the proper public focus, we could change that.

Wilbur Wright originally established College Park Airport in 1909. He used it to train the first United States military officers to fly an airplane. Today, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M–NCPPC), a state agency operating in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, owns and operates the airport and its accompanying aviation museum.

One could not ask for a more ideal location for an airport. It is within a quarter-mile walk of the College Park–University of Maryland rail station, which provides multimodal transit access to WMATA’s Metrorail and Metrobus network, the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) MARC commuter rail, and the future MTA Purple Line light rail. It also sits less than a mile from the University of Maryland’s flagship campus.

College Park Airport. Annotations by Author.
Despite its great legacy and its uber-convenient location, College Park Airport sees only about 3,200 takeoffs and landings annually—less than nine flights per day. By contrast, the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg sees about 48,000 takeoffs and landings annually, or just over 131 flights per day.

What would it take to transform College Park Airport into a more vibrant economic development and transportation engine for the Prince George’s County and the Washington Metropolitan Area?

General Aviation vs. Commercial Service

Currently, the FAA categorizes College Park Airport as a general aviation airport because it has no common carriers offering passenger service to the public between specific locations according to a published schedule, and it has fewer than 2,500 annual passenger boardings (“enplanements”).

General aviation airports serve a variety of passenger-carrying flights, such as skydiving or sightseeing tours, medical transport, air taxi services, private and corporate planes, and charter planes. They also serve non-passenger-carrying aircraft such as those used by flight schools, the military, recreational fliers, and cargo transport.

Airports that have more than 2,500 annual enplanements and have common carrier-scheduled passenger service between specific locations are classified as commercial service airports. Scheduled passenger flights are usually separated from other general aviation services in a separate commercial terminal, because the passengers and baggage on scheduled commercial flights are subject to heightened security screening and safety regulations that do not apply to general aviation flights.

Both commercial and general aviation services use a variety of aircraft sizes—helicopters, small single-engine piston planes, twin-engine business and commuter turboprops, regional jets, and jumbo jets. However, not all airports have the runway lengths and strengths to accommodate all sizes of aircraft.

College Park Airport would likely qualify as a “nonhub primary” commercial airport if it began scheduled passenger service. This means that it would generate at least 10,000 annual (or just over 27 daily) enplanements, but less than the threshold for categorization as a “small hub primary” airport, which is currently around 450,000 annual (or 1,232 daily) enplanements.

At those passenger volumes, College Park Airport would obviously not pose a significant threat to the three nearby large hub commercial airports (Reagan National, BWI-Marshall, and Dulles). However, it would provide some needed additional capacity for short-haul commercial flights at another rail transit-accessible location near downtown Washington, DC.

Longer Runway and Additional Facilities Needed

The airport’s existing 2,600 x 60 feet runway can only accommodate small propeller-powered aircraft such as the Viking Twin Otter or the Pilatus PC-12. To be feasible as a commercial service airport and to enable more options for larger general aviation aircraft, the runway would need to be wider and longer.

As indicated in the above picture, the likely runway expansion path would be southeastward, across the Northeast Branch tributary, toward Kenilworth Ave, to achieve a dimension of approximately 4,500 x 150 feet. This would require careful civil engineering (e.g., construction of a concrete culvert below the runway subgrade) to preserve the water flow in the tributary.

The runway pavement would also likely need to be strengthened to better accommodate double-wheeled aircraft of up to 100,000 lbs. This would permit a broad range of mid-sized 10-12 seat business jets, such as the Cesna Sovereign, as well as large 50-90 seat commercial turboprop aircraft, such as the ATR 42, ATR 72, and Dash 8-400, to service College Park Airport at their maximum takeoff weights.

Billy Bishop City Airport. Photo by PortsToronto.
Although all four of the major U.S. commercial carriers have phased out their turboprop fleets in favor of regional jets, there are some signs turboprops could see a resurgence, given their higher fuel efficiency, lower operating costs, and ability to serve airports with shorter runways.

Even today, smaller U.S. commuter carriers, like Silver Airways, and larger Canadian carriers like Porter Airlines, have significant turboprop operations. Indeed, Porter’s home base, Billy Bishop City Airport in Toronto (pictured above), serves about 2.8 million domestic and international passengers annually—about the volume of an American small hub like Savannah, GA, or Albany, NY. All of those passengers fly on turboprop planes, since Billy Bishop’s longest runway is just under 4,000 x 150 feet.

Funding and Land Are Available

Through the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Maryland’s Aviation Grant Program, funding for runway and taxiway reconstruction, airfield lighting and signage, apron construction, terminal buildings, and similar improvements (including related planning) at small commercial and general aviation airports is available at up to 95% of the costs.

Fortunately, M–NCPPC already owns and controls the land adjacent to the airport that would be necessary for the development of commercial and enhanced general aviation services at College Park Airport. The current 70-acre general aviation and museum facility could expand to about 125 acres, to allow sufficient space to construct a commercial passenger terminal and ramp, a control tower, and facilities for fixed-base operators (FBO), maintenance, fire and rescue services, aircraft hangars, transient aircraft parking, and visitor and rental car parking.

The State of Maryland and Prince George’s County own some neighboring parcels that could also be dedicated to the airport complex. Other privately owned land adjacent to the airport could be used for hotel construction and other compatible facilities.

If a new commercial passenger terminal is built, it should have at least six ramp spaces for simultaneous enplaning and deplaning. The terminal should be equipped to process international passengers, most of whom would likely be coming from Canadian ports. Instead of expensive jet bridges, the airport could use simple accessible boarding ramps at each ramp space.

Environmental and Security Considerations

Former Mount Rainier councilman Brent Bolin, a community and environmental activist, attorney, and nonprofit executive, sees the potential benefits of expanding services at College Park Airport, but also worries about the potential for adverse environmental impacts, such as the elimination of or restriction of access to parkland and recreational facilities around the Northeast Branch in the area of the airport.

Without question, any major transportation infrastructure project could potentially result in adverse environmental impacts. This is why federally mandated environmental analysis, which evaluates alternatives and considers mitigation options, is part of the process.

It is certainly true, for example, that the airport expansion would result in the loss of some parkland and recreational areas in the immediate vicinity of the airport. However, ample parkland and recreational facilities would remain in easy walking or biking distance. Rerouting the popular Anacostia Tributary Trail around the extended runway is one easy mitigation measure that could be employed to maintain access to those nearby facilities.

Photo by MSP Metropolitan Commission.
Similarly, airport noise is always a serious concern for residents of the area surrounding an airport. Indeed, a National Institutes of Health study describes airport noise as “one, if not the most detrimental environmental effect of aviation.”

Obviously, there is no way to eliminate airport noise completely. However, there are many ways to mitigate the impacts of such noise. One such measure, which is already in place at College Park and Reagan National airports, is to restrict the times that aircraft can take off from the airport. At College Park, takeoffs are generally prohibited between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am.

National security and the potential for terrorism necessarily are priority concerns with airline travel in the National Capital Area. Ever since September 11, 2001, the FAA has established a Flight Restricted Zone within 15 nautical miles of Reagan National Airport. College Park Airport is within that zone and, accordingly, must adhere to certain enhanced security protocols. Pilots flying into and out of the airport must pass a TSA background check.

The FAA and TSA would need to determine whether any additional security measures, akin to those in place at Reagan National, would be needed in connection with scheduled commercial air service at College Park Airport.

How to Make This Happen

It seems almost inconceivable that the idea of expanding services at College Park Airport has not come up for serious discussion before. College Park mayor Patrick Wojahn said that he does not recall any discussions of potential commercial services at the airport during his tenure in city government. Nor has independent internet research by the author yielded any information regarding any recent discussions or studies of the issue. Current airport manager Lee Sommer did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

M–NCPPC completed an airport land use compatibility and safety study in 2000 that found no significant issues in connection with College Park Airport. That study highlighted the airport’s significance to aviation history: “Probably no other field in aviation can boast of such a significant clientele or such an amazing list of achievements as College Park Airport.”

But the airport is more than just a historical artifact. It is a fully operational facility with a prime location near public transit. It is a potential source of jobs and economic development in Prince George’s County. Corporate travelers and tour groups, in particular, would appreciate having a general aviation facility close to DC that can handle larger planes. Likewise, U.S. commuter air carriers and Canadian carriers that operate commercial turboprop planes would appreciate the additional commercial capacity and the proximity to DC that College Park Airport could provide.

Working in consultation with experienced outside aviation planning consultants, the professional planners at M–NCPPC can produce a strong airport master plan with short-, medium-, and long-term benchmarks that meets the community’s increasing air transportation needs, protects its natural resources, promotes neighborhood safety, and appropriately leverages the distinguished legacy and the huge economic development potential of the world’s oldest airport.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Amazon Westphalia: A Case Study in Rogue Zoning

Proposed Amazon Warehouse Building in Westphalia. Image: M-NCPPC.

Rumor has it that Amazon is planning to build a massive four million square foot distribution warehouse in the heart of Westphalia Town Center in southern Prince George’s County, near Joint Base Andrews. This comes as a shock to residents of the developing community, who were promised a walkable, transit-oriented environment with a vibrant mix of offices, stores, and restaurants.

In recent weeks, the Prince George’s County Council has rammed through a series of significant changes to the zoning ordinance to authorize and justify placing a huge industrial building in the middle of a planned suburban town center. The Council enacted these zoning changes without submitting them to the County Executive for approval and without allowing the standard 45-day period for the public to decide whether to petition the ordinances for a referendum, in violation of the county charter.

In addition, because these zoning changes apply only to Westphalia and benefit only its owner, Walton International, and the intended purchaser, Duke Realty, they likely violate state laws prohibiting “spot” or “contract” zoning. Sadly, the potential illegality of these ordinances has not deterred the council members in the least. Rather, it is just the latest example of their rogue method of enacting zoning legislation.

The Developers' and County Council’s Bait-and-Switch

Amazon’s proposed distribution center is five stories and 85 feet high, with a footprint exceeding 820,000 square feet, for a total of approximately 4.1 million square feet of warehouse space. That equates to a land area of about 16 football fields arranged in a 4 x 4 configuration, or about 5 contiguous city blocks. By contrast, the length of each of side of the Pentagon is about 300 feet shorter and the height about 14 feet shorter than this proposed warehouse. Surrounding the building on the 78-acre site will be 1,786 automobile parking spaces, 200 truck loading spaces, and 65 loading docks.

Proposed Site Plan for Amazon's Westphalia Warehouse. Image: M-NCPPC

Anyone reading the preceding paragraph can easily see that Amazon’s proposed building is neither walkable, mixed-use, nor transit-oriented. Yet, the developers and the County Council have colluded to shoehorn this project into this legacy “mixed-use transportation-oriented” (“MXT”) zone by theorizing that Westphalia needs a major employment use to catalyze development and that the county could benefit from the projected 1,500 jobs this facility would bring.

The Council’s zoning amendments create a fancy new term—“merchandise logistics center”—to describe this distribution warehouse, and then allow this industrial use in Westphalia’s MXT zone, despite the land use requirements for this area as set forth in the 2014 General Plan and the 2007 Westphalia Sector Plan.

Incidentally, this flurry of zoning activity is all taking place under the current, soon-to-be-expiring zoning ordinance. The Council passed a comprehensive zoning ordinance rewrite last year, but it has not taken effect yet. Under the new ordinance, which seeks to implement the county’s general plan, Westphalia is contemplated to be designated as a mixed-use “Town Activity Center” (“TAC”) zone. Warehouse uses and excessive surface parking of the kind in this planned Amazon facility are not permitted in the TAC zone. Additionally, the maximum permitted block length in the core of the TAC zone is 600 feet—less than a third of the length of the proposed Amazon Westphalia facility.

The original vision for Westphalia Town Center. Image: M-NCPPC

Thus, even before the new zoning ordinance can take effect, the County Council is already busy at work poking holes in it. The Council is continuing its practice of passing indiscriminate zoning ordinance text amendments to permit things the original ordinance prohibited—adding extraneous definitions and footnotes that create exceptions that allow particular developers to build something that would otherwise be prohibited, or that allow particular council members to bring pet projects to their districts. None of this bodes well for the new zoning ordinance, or for the overall land use and development policies of the county.

What Should Happen With Westphalia and Amazon’s Proposed Warehouse

The County Council and the Westphalia developers are correct to point out that the market prospects are bleak for dense mixed-use office and retail development in that area, which is outside of the Beltway and far away from transit. But that reality is not new. The development concept for Westphalia Town Center has always been a fanciful pipe dream, conceived originally out of developer and county official corruption, then later by developer greed, the parochial interests of multiple District 6 council members, and undisciplined land use policies that facilitate massive suburban greenfield development instead of focusing on developing around Metro stations and in the urbanized inner-Beltway areas of the county.

Rather than continuing to pursue an ill-advised development concept, the county should commence a comprehensive community planning process to revise and replace the 2007 Westphalia Sector Plan. The new sector plan should seek to preserve or restore the rural character and natural resources of the areas that are currently substantially undeveloped, such as the previously planned town center core where the Amazon warehouse is now being proposed.

At the same time, the new sector plan should seek to define a more realistic vision for success in the areas of Westphalia that are currently being developed. The focus should be on walkability and recreational facilities within the residential areas and also multi-modal connectivity between residential and designated neighborhood commercial areas. Smaller scale vertical mixed-use development should be encouraged in the neighborhood commercial areas.

In addiiton, the county should still vigorously pursue the development opportunity for the Amazon distribution center, but instead direct it to a more appropriate location. A prime location (no pun intended) for this facility would be the old Landover Mall site, which is adjacent to the Beltway and has ample transportation infrastructure already in place to support a 24-hour merchandise distribution center.

Aerial view of Landover Mall site, with proposed rail transit station. 
The eastern portion of the site, closest to the Beltway, could be rezoned into the Industrial Employment (IE) zone under the new zoning code. The western portion, closest to Brightseat Road, could be zoned into the Commercial Neighborhood (CN) zone, which would also permit multifamily residential mixed-use and live-work unit development. A bus or future rail transit facility could be placed in the center of the development. Structured parking for the Amazon warehouse could be provided either in the neighborhood commercial area or the industrial area. Of course, these modifications would require a revision to the Landover Gateway Sector Plan.

Weigh In At This Week’s Planning Board Hearing

The Planning Board will meet on Thursday, July 18, at 1:00 pm, in the First Floor Hearing Room at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro to consider the Detailed Site Plan application for the Westphalia distribution warehouse. You can review or download the DSP materials here.

If you have concerns regarding the way the County Council enacted these zoning changes, or with the substance of the proposal, this is your time to speak up. You first must register to become a party of record in connection with DSP-19008 Snapper (Westphalia). Then you can appear and speak at the hearing or email your written comments prior to the hearing to Mr. Jeremy Hurlbutt, Master Planner, who is assigned to review this file. You may also mail or fax your comments to him prior to the hearing at: MNCPPC, Urban Design Section, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772; fax: 301.952.3749.