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.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is Prince George’s going rogue with zoning bills?

Image by Shelly
For many decades, the Prince George’s County Council has deliberately not followed the same procedures when passing zoning legislation as it does when passing other legislation. Nothing in state or county law authorizes the Council to treat zoning bills differently than other bills. Nevertheless, because it has been doing so for so long, virtually no one seems to notice or complain. Perhaps that should change.

The Council’s short-circuited zoning procedures allow it to rush through often hugely consequential or controversial bills relating to land use and development in Maryland’s second-largest county without giving the public fair notice of bill amendments. Those procedures also deprive the County Executive of the right to review and approve or disapprove of zoning legislation. Additionally, by allowing most zoning laws to become effective immediately, rather than waiting 45 days as with other legislation, the Council thwarts the ability of citizens to petition zoning laws to referendum.

In this Trumpian era, where quaint notions like adherence to the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances are being tested almost daily in our federal government, we should also remember to examine how those principles can become frayed at the local level. After all, local laws often impact our daily lives much more than federal laws and policies.

Council's passage of the new zoning code was one recent example

Last year, for example, the Council enacted a comprehensive rewrite of the county’s 70-year-old zoning ordinance. To be sure, the rewrite effort was a massive and worthwhile undertaking, with an unprecedented level of public engagement over many years. Yet, between the formal introduction of the bill on September 25, 2018, and the public hearing when the Council enacted the bill on October 23, 2018 (the last session of the year), there were literally hundreds of pages of substantive amendments to the bill.

Several citizens urged the Council to hold off on final passage of the bill and to hold future hearings once the Council reconvened in 2019, so that the public could gain greater clarity regarding important changes in the bill. Even the bill’s sponsors acknowledged the breakneck speed with which the Council was moving to enact the zoning rewrite.

Following its decades-old custom, the Council did not send the enacted zoning bill to the County Executive for approval. Fortunately, the Council wisely included a delayed effective date provision, which will allow it an opportunity to cure any substantive or procedural defects before implementing the new zoning code.

The county charter governs how local bills become laws

Prince George’s County is a “charter county” under Maryland law, which means its governing authority derives from a specific organizing document adopted by the people of the county. According to Prince George’s Charter, the County Council must hold a public hearing not earlier than 14 days after a councilmember formally introduces a bill. However, if councilmembers substantively amend the bill during that hearing, they must re-notice the bill for another public hearing in the same manner as the originally introduced legislation.

Additionally, the Charter provides for a separately elected County Executive. When the Council passes legislation, it must send the enacted bill to the Executive, who has 10 days to decide whether to sign the bill into law or veto it. If the Executive vetoes the bill, the Council can override the veto by a two-thirds vote.

Ordinarily, a non-emergency bill becomes effective 45 days after the County Executive signs it into law or the Council overrides the Executive’s veto. However, if at least 10,000 voters sign a petition within 45 days of the law’s approval, the law’s effective date is suspended, and the people can vote directly on whether to approve or disapprove of a local law. The referendum election occurs at the next occurring general election, which are in November of every even-numbered year.

The Regional District Act grants Prince George’s authority to enact local zoning laws

The Maryland General Assembly grants counties (and most municipalities) the authority to enact local planning and zoning laws. In Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, a state law known as the Regional District Act (“RDA”) vests planning and zoning power in a bi-county agency known as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The Commission is composed of five appointees from each county, and each group of five commissioners is known as the “Planning Board” for their respective county. Similarly, the RDA designates each county’s County Council as the “District Council” for their respective county.

The RDA provides that each District Council may “by local law adopt and amend the text of the zoning law for that county,” as well as any accompanying zoning map. It defines “local law” as “an enactment of the legislative body of a local jurisdiction, whether by ordinance, resolution, or otherwise,” and states that the District Council’s lawmaking authority “is not intended to alter in any way the form or legislative mechanism that the applicable enabling authority requires for the local jurisdiction to enact the local law….”

In Prince George's County, enacted bills do not "become law" until the County Executive approves them or the County Council overrides the Executive's veto.

Any zoning law enacted in violation of the charter can be invalidated

So it seems clear that any zoning law that Prince George’s enacts must follow the same procedures as any other local law—right? Well, apparently not.

The Council has previously claimed that a 1973 ruling from Maryland’s high court means that it does not have to follow the same procedures when passing zoning laws. That case held that no provision of a local charter could override the Regional District Act. However, that case does not apply here, because the Charter is not seeking to override the RDA. Rather, the Charter simply defines how to enact local laws in Prince George’s County.

Generally, if a legislative body does something that it is not authorized to do, the action is void from the outset and, therefore, of no legal effect. However, the timelines for challenging any particular legislative enactment may be short. Typically, an aggrieved party must file a judicial review action in the Circuit Court within 30 days of the Council’s final action. There may be ways to challenge the invalid law later, but the Council may try to assert that the legal challenge is too late.

Ultimately, though, the Prince George’s County Council should not wait for a legal challenge to modify its procedures. Instead, it should just follow the requirements of the County Charter when it passes zoning legislation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Proposed Housing Caps in Prince George’s New Zoning Code Threaten Mixed-Use Development

Photo by Plainurban on Flickr
As part of its effort to create a new, modern zoning ordinance to replace its bloated and antiquated half-century-old code, Prince George’s County is proposing a series of new mixed-use zones to encourage more development around transit. That’s good news—but if these new zones are going to thrive, they need to include more homes.

The current legislative draft proposes five mixed-use “Transit-Oriented/Activity Center” zones, all of which encourage walkable urbanism and transit-oriented development at varying scales. These zones “strongly encourage” mid-rise (generally three to seven stories tall) mixed-use buildings, with apartments or condos located above shops, businesses, or offices.

Unfortunately, the county is also proposing restrictive caps on the number of dwelling units allowed in mixed-use zones. If developers are not able to include enough housing in their projects to get a good return on their investment, it will be nearly impossible for them to justify the higher costs and greater hassle of constructing mixed-use buildings in the county.

The Region is Looking for More Homes, Not More Offices

As a result of prevailing market forces in the Washington region, Prince George’s is not likely to see many mixed-use buildings with multiple stories of office space above retail in the foreseeable future—particularly outside of its three “downtown” Metro station areas at Largo Town Center, New Carrollton, and Prince George’s Plaza.

The region’s office market is already significantly oversupplied, and its 14.2% office vacancy rate is among the highest in the nation. Businesses and organizations are increasingly requiring fewer square feet per worker than they did in the past. Open floor plans, use of electronic data over paper files, and the increasing popularity of telework are all shrinking offices.

Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr

For these reasons, the success of Prince George’s efforts to bring more mixed-use, transit-oriented development into the county will hinge on its ability to encourage developers to focus on building apartments and condominiums over lower-floor retail and office uses.

Fortunately, there is a significant unmet need in the region for multifamily housing near transit, particularly for millennials and seniors. In addition, a recent change in the International Building Code now allows developers to build five- or six-story wood-framed mixed-use buildings over a concrete podium of one or more stories, up to 85 feet high. Using wood framing on the upper levels of mid-rise buildings, rather than steel or concrete, helps to bring down construction costs. The concrete podiums can accommodate ground-floor shops, offices, or parking.

The Housing Caps in the New Code Could Scare Off Developers

Ironically, although the stated goal of the new zoning ordinance is to facilitate more mixed-use development, the housing caps proposed in the new code are actually more restrictive than the ones in the current code.

For example, in the Local Transit-Oriented (LTO) zone, where half of the county’s 15 Metro stations will be located, housing densities are capped at 40-60 dwelling units per acre. Essentially that means that in a modest mid-rise building on a one-acre lot, with four stories of apartments over one story of retail, the apartment or condo units could be in excess of 2,500 square feet each! That’s bigger than the median size of newly constructed single-family detached homes, which is 2,426 square feet.

Density caps are a bit larger within a quarter mile of the Regional Transit-Oriented (RTO) zones, where the larger downtown Metro stations will be. But even those densities—ranging from 80-120 dwelling units per acre—are not conducive for the type of high-rise development contemplated for those zones.

The Palette at Arts District Hyattsville. Image from Google Earth.

To give a real-world example, consider The Palette, located in Arts District Hyattsville. This mid-rise mixed-use building has four stories of apartments over a multi-story concrete podium containing parking. Its site plan states that there are 198 multifamily units of varying sizes in the building, which sits on a 1.85-acre lot. That creates a residential density of 107 dwelling units per acre.

Under the newly-proposed mixed use zones, The Palette could neither be built in Arts District Hyattsville nor near most of the county’s non-downtown Metro station areas, because the development would exceed the applicable density caps.

Remember, even on a one-acre lot, it would be possible to build 200 apartments at 750 square feet each in a mid-rise, four-over-one-story mixed-use building. That is larger than most one-bedroom apartments currently built in this region. Alternatively, a developer could build 125 units at a more generous 1,200 square feet each, which is roughly in between the nationwide median square footage for multifamily rental (1,088 SF) and multifamily for-sale (1,494 SF) units.

Check out this PowerPoint by architect Tim Smith to see other examples of attractive mid-rise mixed-use buildings at densities over 100 dwelling units per acre.

The County Can Easily Fix This

A recent county-commissioned survey of developers found that the county’s comparatively low property values, high development impact fees, and cumbersome development review processes combine to make Prince George’s one of the most expensive places to build in the region. Likewise, even with the recent changes in the International Building Code discussed earlier, mixed-use development is still much more expensive to accomplish than traditional suburban sprawl. Imposing these low housing caps will only make it harder and less economically feasible for developers to build in the county.

Prince George’s has been working for nearly four years to develop this new zoning ordinance. It will bring a lot of essential changes to the county, and there is no reason why the county cannot pass this legislation this fall. Before it does so, however, the county should amend these mixed-use zones to allow more housing units to be built in mixed-use developments.

One solution would be for the county to eliminate the caps altogether in the new mixed-use zones. Charlotte’s mixed-use TOD zones take this approach by imposing minimum, but not maximum, residential density requirements.

Another approach (one that I urged the County Council to adopt) would be to calculate both residential and non-residential density limits based on a more flexible floor area ratio (FAR) standard, which is what DC does. This allows developers to divvy up the available square footage into the number of homes and shops that makes the most market sense.

With the housing density caps proposed in the new zoning ordinance, it is reasonable to anticipate that many profit-minded developers may simply choose not to build mixed-use buildings in Prince George’s County. The County Council should fix this.

The County Council is still taking comments on the proposed zoning ordinance. If you would like to weigh in with your thoughts on this or other issues, you may submit your written comments by email or via regular mail addressed to the Clerk of Council, CAB - 2nd Floor, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772.

A version of this post appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Residents Want to See Development at Deanwood Metro

Deanwood Metro Station Parking Lot. Image by Google Earth.

WMATA held a public hearing last week on its proposal to eliminate the commuter parking lot at the Deanwood Metro Station and offer the 1.6-acre site for potential joint development. The public’s message to Metro was clear: they want to see mixed-use development on that site, but it needs to be the kind of the development that responds to the needs and desires of the current community, first and foremost.

As I discussed earlier this month in my post on Greater Greater Washington, the transit agency attempted to market this site twice before, in the late 1990s, but received no interest from developers. Now, nearly 20 years later, Deanwood is getting a lot of developer interest—so much so that residents are complaining about unsolicited knocks at the doors of their homes from speculators looking to buy their property.

About 75 community members from the District and neighboring Prince George’s County packed the meeting room at the Deanwood Recreation Center to participate in Wednesday’s hearing. WMATA’s public hearing docket describes a possible joint development scenario that would contain 160 multifamily dwelling units and 10,000 square feet of retail space. However, the selected developer would ultimately be responsible for proposing the actual type and scale of development and then obtaining the necessary approvals from the District of Columbia government.

Community’s Vision: Grocery-Anchored Retail and Market-Rate Housing

Based on the residents’ comments at the hearing, WMATA’s initial vision for the redeveloped Deanwood Metro parking lot may be a tad too small. In particular, residents wanted to see a larger retail component than the 10,000 square feet that Metro envisioned. Nearly all of the speakers stated that they wanted to see a full-service grocery store as part of this development, along with other neighborhood-serving commercial uses such as a coffee shop, bank, and perhaps a medical office. Likewise, Ward 7 councilmember and former mayor Vincent Gray has been a fierce advocate for more and better quality grocery stores in the area. According to industry estimates, the median size for a grocery store in 2015 was 42,800 square feet.

Another longtime Deanwood senior citizen resident said it would be nice for the development to have a neighborhood bar/restaurant where younger professionals could gather for a nice meal or a happy hour. At the same time, residents did not want a retail mix that would encourage excessive noise generation in the neighborhood. Also, while most commenters supported the complete elimination of the Metro commuter lot, as Metro is proposing, many felt that DDOT would need to step up its enforcement of neighborhood parking restrictions, to keep street parking available primarily for the use of area’s existing residents and guests.

Most commenters stressed that the residential component of the Deanwood mixed-use development should focus on market-rate housing units, rather than income-restricted affordable housing units. They believe that Deanwood already has some of the most inexpensive market-rate housing in the Washington region and that Ward 7 has seen a number of new mixed-used, mixed-income developments constructed near the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road Metro stations that primarily consisted of affordable housing units. Including more market-rate housing in this development would support the new retail development that the community wishes to see, commenters said.

My Proposed Development Scenario Largely Parallels the Community’s Vision

As a resident of the demographically similar inner-Beltway portion of Prince George’s County that borders Ward 7, I concur with many of the Deanwood residents’ views and expressed concerns. Accordingly, my written comments to WMATA propose a joint development scenario for the Deanwood Metro parking lot that largely incorporates those ideas.

Jenkins Row - A Grocery-Anchored Mixed-Use Development
Near Potomac Ave Metro. Image by Google Earth.

Like WMATA and the Ward 7 Economic Development Advisory Council, I believe the Deanwood Metro site can support “medium-density residential/low-density commercial” development. The District of Columbia’s Comprehensive Plan defines “medium-density residential” as “midrise (typically four- to seven-story) apartment development,” and “low-density commercial” as one- to two-story commercial uses.” WMATA’s proposed development scenario falls on the low-end of that scale; mine falls toward the upper end.

My proposal would use MU-6 zoning, a medium/high-density mixed-use zone that focuses on residential development but that also allows for up to 139,392 SF of non-residential development on the Deanwood Metro site. That is more than enough room for the 50,000 SF grocery store (with pharmacy, bakery, deli, ready-to-eat foods, beer/wine, and a coffee shop), 17,500 SF of additional retail uses, and 54,000 SF underground parking garage with 150 spaces that I propose.

With respect to the residential component, I echo the community’s belief that the development should focus on market-rate housing units. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate and consistent with smart growth principles to include some affordable housing units near every transit station. Therefore, my proposal calls for 325 total multifamily units, with 20% of them as affordable units—i.e., 260 market-rate units (284,250 SF) and 65 affordable units (63,750 SF). Even with this number of affordable units, my proposal contains at least 100 more market-rate units than WMATA’s original development concept.

Let WMATA Know What You Think Before July 2

WMATA is accepting public comments on its Deanwood Metro joint development proposal until 9:00 am Monday, July 2, 2018. It is important that the agency hear your views.

You can submit public comments online—either in a text box or there is an option to upload a PDF file—or via mail to the Office of the Secretary, WMATA, 600 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Remember to include the docket number (R18-01) in your correspondence.

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.

Friday, October 6, 2017

When Will Prince George’s Pull the Plug on Dead Development Projects?

If a development project was approved for construction prior to the Great Recession, but it still hasn’t been able to get off of the ground yet, isn’t it time to acknowledge that the project is just…dead? Well, yes, obviously! So why does the Prince George’s County Council have so much trouble letting go of these projects?

Again this year, as it has since 2009, the council has introduced legislation that would prevent approved-but-unbuilt development projects from expiring until at least December 31, 2018. Ordinarily, under county law, most new subdivision plan approvals are valid for only three years, and most site plan approvals are valid for only two years.

Most of the county’s backlog of deadwood development projects consists of large single-family detached residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and far away from transit. These are exactly the types of suburban sprawl projects that the county’s own planners have concluded are harmful.

According to planners, this glut of existing and planned low-density residential development makes it harder for the county to develop at the appropriate densities around its 15 Metro stations. That, in turn, puts the county at a competitive disadvantage with both millennial and older homebuyers who are looking for walkable urban development close to transit and with nearby amenities.

Additionally, studies show transit-oriented development (TOD) is a more fiscally sustainable form of development. Thus, the county council would do well to encourage new TOD projects around Metro, rather than clinging to far-flung sprawl projects in places that look like this:

Photo by Payton Chung
Moreover, there is no longer any market need for the county to keep extending the expiration dates on these long-stalled projects. The Great Recession has been over for quite some time now, and housing prices continue to rise in Prince George’s County. Indeed, County Executive Rushern Baker recently celebrated the county’s 61 percent increase in property values since 2010.

Lest you think that there’s no harm in extending the approvals on these dead projects, think again. Keeping old development projects in the pipeline significantly distorts the county’s true development landscape. That’s because the county still has to act as if all of the approved and unexpired development will in fact get built.

This means the county needs to plan and budget for more roads, water and sewer lines, schools, fire stations, and other public facilities to accommodate planned growth that has little possibility of ever happening. It also means new developers might be required to contribute to that new infrastructure, when it may not even be necessary for their particular projects. That puts an unnecessary burden and expense on new and otherwise viable projects, which ultimately discourages quality developers from building in the county.

The council will hold a public hearing on the latest extension bills, CB-97-2017 and CB-98-2017, on Tuesday, November 7, at 10:30 am. Please show up to testify and also contact the councilmembers to let them know your position on these bills.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Is Bias Tainting Prince George's Amazon HQ2 Bid?

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker recently identified three Metrorail station areas as potential locations for Amazon’s new “HQ2” headquarters complex. All of them are in the northern part of the county, even though 10 of the county’s 15 Metro stations are located in the less affluent and more heavily African American portions of the county, south of U.S. Route 50.

One such downcounty site—the Morgan Boulevard Metro station area in central Prince George’s—seems to meet more of Amazon’s requirements. Yet, it didn’t make the county executive’s list. Could implicit bias and structural racism be clouding county officials’ judgment in these types of economic development and land use decisions?

Baker proposed the College Park, Greenbelt, and New Carrollton Metro station areas as potential HQ2 locations. David Iannucci, Baker’s assistant deputy administrator for economic development, stated that these three north county sites “offer[ed] Prince George’s County its best chance to compete for Amazon’s headquarters” based on the factors set out in Amazon’s RFP. In particular, Iannucci touted the locations’ proximity to the University of Maryland campus and the presence of interested developers.

What Does Amazon Want?

As relevant here, Amazon says it needs (1) a huge amount of space (2) with direct access to mass transit and (3) not more than 2 miles from a major highway (4) that is immediately available for development beginning in 2019. The company envisions that its HQ2 site will have 50,000 employees and occupy 8 million square feet of space at full buildout. While the space need not be contiguous, Amazon specifies that recommended sites “should be in proximity to each other to foster a sense of place and be pedestrian-friendly.”

Although Amazon states that it “may consider” sites with existing buildings that could be retrofitted or expanded, it clearly provides that it “will prioritize certified or shovel-ready greenfield sites and infill opportunities with appropriate infrastructure and ability to meet the Project’s timeline and development demands.” The ideal greenfield site would have approximately 100 acres of developable space, according to the company.

Do the North County Sites Fit the Bill?

Do Baker’s three selected north county sites best match up to Amazon’s RFP? Let’s take a look.

College Park Metro Area. Image by Prince George's County.

The proposed College Park site, shown above, is an amalgamation of scattered parcels cobbled together to form approximately 128 acres. Most of the parcels already have buildings with active uses on them, which is clearly not the greenfield development scenario Amazon prefers. Additionally, portions of the site, such as the 25-acre Discovery District parcel in the northwest corner of the picture, are nearly a mile away from the Metro station by foot. That’s well outside the half-mile/ten-minute-walk station area. Finally, the site is more than three miles from the Beltway, which exceeds the maximum two-mile distance stated in Amazon’s RFP.

The Greenbelt Metro station area (not pictured), which the county had recently been marketing for the now-stalled new FBI headquarters project, has an approximately 80-acre surface parking lot that could potentially be available for immediate development. However, while the site is adjacent to the Capital Beltway, there is currently no convenient or direct access from there to the southbound inner loop of the Beltway. The Maryland State Highway Administration is nearing completion of the design phase for a reconstructed Beltway interchange, but it has not been funded or scheduled for construction and, therefore, won’t be ready by 2019.

New Carrollton Metro Area. Image by Prince George's County.

The proposed New Carrollton Station area, pictured above, promises Amazon more than 300 acres of developable space around the Metro/MARC/Amtrak/Bus station. The problem: pretty much none of that space is currently available—including an occupied residential condominium complex north of the station, an occupied office park south of the station, and adjacent WMATA and state-owned property on both sides of the station that is already promised to another developer. Additionally, because the space at New Carrollton is bisected by the Northeast Corridor rail lines, it would require construction of massive and expensive roadway infrastructure over the rail lines to make the area pedestrian friendly. None of those roads has been designed, engineered, or funded.

Thus, while each of these north county sites has great transit-oriented development (TOD) potential, none of them quite meets Amazon’s RFP requirements.

What About Morgan Boulevard?

Now let’s take a look at Morgan Boulevard. According to the county’s own estimate, this area (pictured below) has more than 225 acres of developable land within a 10-minute/half-mile walk of the Metro station.

Morgan Boulevard Metro Area. Interactive Map by Author.

More than half of that land is currently vacant, appropriately zoned for commercial development, and not otherwise committed to another massive project. Moreover, most of the vacant land closest to the station is owned by WMATA, which is actively supporting joint development opportunities with Amazon.

Additionally, unlike the north county station areas that the county recommended, Morgan Boulevard is connected to two Metrorail lines (Blue and Silver), providing direct transit access to downtown Washington, Reagan National Airport (and eventually Dulles International Airport), the Virginia Railway Express, and most of Northern Virginia. It is also within a mile of the Capital Beltway.

In other words, Morgan Boulevard appears to meet all of Amazon’s needs—and certainly does so to more of a degree than the three north county sites.

Is Bias to Blame for the Downcounty Snub?

So why did County Executive Baker not propose Morgan Boulevard for Amazon’s HQ2 site? When first asked, Iannucci simply asserted that the station area “did not rise to the level of” the northern county sites and “did not address enough of the RFP requirements” that Amazon put forth. Those excuses quickly fell apart when Iannucci was asked to identify the specific RFP deficiencies and to give concrete examples of how Morgan Boulevard supposedly did not match up to the north county locations.

Ultimately, Iannucci settled on the nebulous explanation that while the Morgan Boulevard station area met all of Amazon’s RFP requirements, the county nevertheless declined to recommend it as a potential HQ2 site because the Baker administration did not believe the area possessed a strong enough “potential to be transformed into the type of urban complex that Amazon apparently seeks.”

In other words, the Baker administration essentially refused to advocate for the centrally located Morgan Boulevard station area, even though it checked all of Amazon’s boxes, and instead chose to support three north county locations that plainly did not match up as well, if at all.

It’s true that Morgan Boulevard is located in a less affluent part of the county with a larger African American population. But do those socioeconomic and demographic factors trump any specific set of criteria articulated by Amazon and render Morgan Boulevard unworthy of consideration? Apparently so, in the minds of county officials.

When socioeconomic and demographic factors work to rob an otherwise qualified community of the opportunity to compete on fair and equal terms for a prized transit-oriented economic development opportunity, it’s often because the people making the decision are being negatively impacted by the dual scourges of implicit bias and structural racism.

It matters not that Prince George’s County is a majority African American county, or that County Executive Baker is an African American man. Internalized biases can be pervasive and toxic, even when the decision maker is a member of the affected minority or class group.

In order to combat implicit bias and structural racism, one first must be willing to acknowledge their existence, and then not be afraid to call them out if they are present. This is true for county administrators and citizens alike.

We must be willing to question and challenge the bases and motives underlying TOD site selections like these that unfairly exclude two-thirds of the transit station areas in the county, even when many of those stations would objectively meet the applicable site selection criteria.

UPDATE (10/20/2017): According to a press release issued yesterday, County Executive Baker added a fourth north county site in his official Amazon submission. That site, Konterra Town Center East, is a shining example of the county's failed economic development strategy, which often prioritizes outer-Beltway sprawl development over bringing transit-oriented development to the county's 15 Metro stations (again, two-thirds of which are in central and south county). Konterra indeed has the space Amazon may want, but it doesn't have direct access to a Metro station--a major requirement stated in Amazon's RFP for its HQ2 site. That county officials apparently value Konterra over a south county site like Morgan Boulevard, which meets all of Amazon's requirements, demonstrates how strong the north county bias is.