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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Town Centers in PG: Ur Doing It Wrong

Prince George's County, Maryland. I've called it home the last five years of my life. It is a county of promise and potential. With an unparalleled demographic of wealthy minorities and a wide ethnic diversity coupled with a 312 year historical heritage, there's no lack of culture here. With a population rapidly approaching one million, there's a quality tax base as well. What the county lacks-- more than any other county that touches Washington, DC-- is a sense of place throughout.

But that's all changing, right? Largo Town Center, Konterra, Bowie Town Center, National Harbor, Woodmore Towne Centre, and other developments are sprouting up all over the county. They are walkable retail districts that create a sense of place. But unfortunately, you only get that sense of place when you hop in the car and drive to those places (with the exception of Largo, which is on the terminus of the Blue Line).

I absolutely despise it when developers throw "Town Center" at the end of an isolated retail development that is completely car oriented and disconnected from the surrounding areas. I especially hate it when it's spelled "Towne Centre". But let's ingore that for a second...

These areas are a good start for PG, I believe. But acres of surface parking and a big box store mar sites like Woodmore Towne Centre. But surface parking can always be built upon, and big box stores can either be integrated into their surroundings (like in DC USA) or transformed into other uses. Most of the surface parking is probably mandated by some horrible parking minimum over which the developers have no control anyway. What I find most disconcerting with the layout here is that there is only one direct street connection with Glenarden, the municipality in which this development lies. To me, this sends a message. It is not integrated into the community. It is its own entity for other people who will drive there from wherever else. Largo Town Center is even worse. Despite it's own Blue Line Metro station, the development is little more than an island of retail in a sea of parking

Glenarden, Woodmore Towne Centre, and the Landover Gateway development area all lie on a corridor that may wind up being a stop on the Purple Line eventually. Largo Town Center came along with a Metro station. What about other greenfield developments in PG? Konterra is built somewhat near a MARC station along Route 1, but the town center is about a mile away from this station and the design on the tract does not engage the MARC station. National Harbor, the bustling upscale community on the Potomac across from Alexandria, is grossly underserved by Metrobus and is grossly isolated from rail service.

This is bad, but it is much worse when considered with the lack of development around Metro and MARC stations in Prince George's County. Walkable, mixed use development is planned and/or starting to trickle in around Greenbelt, Capitol Heights, and a few other stations, but are they really doing it right anywhere? Sort of. Prince George's Plaza ought to be the model around which new developments in PG are modeled. The surface lots are being replaced by towers hosting a diverse demographic. The area is widely connected to the surrounding areas, helping push development in downtown Hyattsville. PG Plaza definitely isn't all the way there yet, but it's closer than anywhere else.

What makes good development even better is interconnectivity. Largo shows us that just a transit stop doesn't give you a truely great sense of place. National Harbor might prove that no matter how mixed-use, walkable, and upscale a place may be, isolation makes it somewhat of a kitschy novelty location. The ingredients are there. The County just needs to take advantage of it.

I am planning to attend Envision Prince George's on October 3rd at University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference Center in Adelphi. Thanks to Richard Layman for highlighting this event. Better days lie ahead for Prince George's, and I'm hoping to get a glimpse of that at this event.


Dan Reed said...

Having briefly worked in University Town Center (adjacent to Prince George's Plaza) I can't begin to tell you how frustrating all that development around the Metro station there is. They're all little self-contained fortresses - very little contribution to surrounding streets, no interconnection between projects, very little coordination whatsoever as an entire urban district, not to mention less-than-spectacular architecture. It looks like a cheap and desperate attempt to keep up with the Joneses in Montgomery County. But instead of creating the next Bethesda or Silver Spring, Prince George's County has approved a slightly denser version of the same suburban crap they've been doing for decades now.

Dave Murphy said...

I agree, Dan... It has wide streets to cross, lots of chain retail, open parking lots, a lack of street frontage, and the towers tend to be isolated without much sense of place. It's not Bethesda or DTSS, but it's probably the closest thing they have to in in Prince George's. I think it will be up there with the great suburban downtowns one day soon, it just needs the effort.

Andy said...

There are tremendous opportunities for mixed-use, Transit-Oriented Development in Prince George’s County. There are 2,230 undeveloped acres within half a mile of the 15 Metro Stations in the county, according to a March 2008 analysis by the Maryland Department of Planning. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority itself owns 397.4 acres of land at its stations in Prince George's, with significant development potential. Acres of surface parking can be replaced with structured parking, freeing up land for TOD. However, only one of the 15 stations has a joint development project under construction – at Prince George’s Plaza - on 24 of those 397.4 acres.

With TOD, the region can better leverage the investment in the Metro system. The federal, state and local governments have collectively invested about $24 billion (in 2004 dollars) to build the Metro rail system. While there is rush-hour crowding on Metrorail, there is still available capacity. Inbound trains are often overcrowded during the morning commute, but largely empty outbound. By locating job centers at suburban Metro Stations, we can create reverse commutes, using those empty trains. Mixed-use development would also spread the transit demand to off-peak times. While those driving to stations must get there before the parking fills - condensing demand in the morning - those walking to Metro would have more flexibility about when they arrived at the station. And with retail, entertainment and housing located near transit, TOD also increases off-peak transit ridership on evenings and weekends.

By 2030, our region will have added 1.2 million jobs and 1.6 million people. Projections show that based on current development patterns – the vast majority of that growth will occur outside transit station areas; 70% of the housing and 80% of the jobs will locate outside transit station areas, according to the Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board (TPB). However, by better concentrating growth at station areas we can increase projected transit ridership by 7.9 percent and decrease severe highway congestion by 4.6%, according to the TPB’s Regional Mobility and Accessibility Scenario Study

WMATA’s Prince George’s County Metro Stations also present opportunities to bridge the social and economic gaps in the region, the disparities described in the Brookings Institution report the “Region Divided.” Brookings found that the job growth rate was higher on the western side than the eastern. One result of this trend is that people living on the eastern side have longer commutes – costing time and money and creating transportation challenges. The TPB scenario study showed that by locating more job growth on the eastern side of the region, we could see an increase of 8.8 percent in transit ridership and 2.7 percent reduction of severely congested highways.

Andy said...

And in the interest of full disclosure...I work for the Maryland Department of Transportation on Transit-Oriented Development issues in the Washington region.

Enid said...

I am a Glenarden resident and I've been really looking forward to Woodmore. I saw employment postings recently for the Wegmans that is scheduled to open in October. I thought to myself, "How is this possible considering I haven't seen anything? I mean I live right here." As I turned onto the beltway just today, my husband got a glimpse of the massive project through the trees.

Personally, I've never been a fan of The Blvd. I hate the parking over there plus I don't like the way it's hidden. It's easier now that they've opened exit 16 but prior to that, if you didn't know exactly where it was located, then good luck trying to find it. Woodmore seems to be the same way. Do we not want people to shop there? I don't get it. But I'm glad to know that I'm not the only person who feels this way.