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.


  1. Let me make my point about site selection and consideration of alternatives a little more plain. You know where the county owns another piece of vacant land steps from the Metro where a new men's homeless shelter could be built? COLLEGE PARK! It's not next to a subdivision, and is actually closer to Metro than the current site on Addison Road South. Now why is the county not considering this viable alternative? I think we all know the answer...

    1. Technically, the subdivision moved next to the Men's shelter, not the other way around.

  2. I think it should be noted that the men shelter was already at that location before the housing development. So it's really only to options, the housing is either going to expand or it's going to stay the same size. The doubt that the county is not going to move the shelter. That might add extra expense because now the men have to be relocated somewhere.