Mon 27 Nov 2006
Bulldozers and cranes are a common sight around the Prince George’s Plaza Metro station these days. In some spots, the construction will be pedestrian- and transit-oriented in ways that are unprecedented in Prince George’s County, Md.
The story of the Prince George’s Plaza Transit District begins with its major thoroughfare, East-West Highway. When the segment was built in 1956, it was part of an inner beltway connecting Hyattsville to Bethesda. Meanwhile, Interstate 95 was planned to run from the Outer Beltway (I-495) into D.C. The intersection of the two highways would be a prime location for commercial development, and so the area was platted with a system of superblocks and collector streets. A regional, enclosed shopping mall called Prince George’s Plaza opened in 1959.
On a neighboring lot, developer Herschel Blumberg commissioned famed architect Edward Durell Stone to design a trio of office towers. The first 10-story tower was completed in 1963. (Stone won other commissions in DC and went on to design the National Geographic building and the Kennedy Center.)
Stone had for years been a critic of suburban sprawl. “We should be inspired by the Mediterranean countries which have, as you know, compact villages, towns with houses built wall to wall and privacy obtained by cloistered walled gardens, courtyards and atriums” he said. “And in planning compactly this way we will save the open countryside.” Blumberg, influenced by Stone’s ideas, envisioned a town center on his land with a mix of office and retail uses.
The planned extension of Interstate 95 was blocked by citizen protests and was officially stopped in 1977. For decades, commercial development was desultory. Blumberg’s office towers were surrounded by parking lots instead of pedestrian-oriented spaces. A few other low-density office and light industrial projects were built in the area. Bordering the commercial lots, however, about 1500 suburban garden apartment units were built from the 1950s to the 1970s. These complexes continue to provide a stock of relatively affordable housing.
Anticipation of the Metro Green Line sparked a new round of planning activity. In 1992, a Transit District Development Plan (TDDP) was released by Parris Glendening’s county planning department after five years of preparation. The plan offered a good, albeit sketchy, vision of the area redeveloped as a high-density, mixed-use pedestrian district. Its illustrations showed widely-spaced towers surrounded by walkable plazas.
The Prince George’s Plaza Metro station opened in 1993, but the expected development failed to materialize over the following years. Although the mall owners fielded several inquiries, the requirements of the TDDP were said to be too “onerous.” But then a new county administration brought a new impetus for action. The TDDP was amended in 1998 “To correct any excessive regulations which discourage development.” On some parcels, mixed-use requirements were dropped and suburban retail formats were permitted. A large amount of development resulted, including a Home Depot, a new Target store attached to the enclosed mall, a small retail center, and a Giant supermarket in another retail facility. In addition, Blumberg built a fourth office tower and 5-story parking structure to house the National Center for Health Statistics (an agency of the federal Centers for Disease Control).
Most of the new development flagrantly mismatched the goals of the TDDP. In typically optimistic language, the TDDP stated a goal “To encourage placement of buildings so that they define the space, create a pedestrian friendly environment and minimize views of parking areas.” In reality, the standard-format Home Depot was built alongside the usual four acres of parking; the Giant was part of a strip mall fronted by one and a half acres of parking. A small strip mall directly across the street from the Metro station had a corner building as required, but its main corner entrance currently is kept locked. The auto-oriented character of the 836,000-square-foot enclosed mall was reinforced when the Target was appended to it.
The county’s own upgrade of an important collector (Belcrest Road) did not match the street designs illustrated in the TDDP; the clear width of the sidewalks is only four feet along several segments — inadequate for the planned population levels. Good pedestrian-oriented design features planting strips and on-street parking to protect pedestrians from grit, splashes, noise and potential collisions with wayward vehicles. But in most of the district, sidewalks are adjacent to the street instead of being buffered by planting strips as the plan recommends. Throughout the district there is no on-street parking, reflecting a suburban pattern designed to maintain fast, free-flowing traffic.
Development now underway in the area is mixed in quality. Further additions to the enclosed mall and its outparcels are reinforcing the insular, auto-oriented design of the facility. In that case, there is no expectation of any gradual introduction of mixed use or vertical development, nor any improvement in street connectivity to create smaller blocks and more pedestrian-friendly connections with surrounding lots.
The Blumberg development, now called University Town Center, or UTC, will be a high point. At age 82, the developer says he is finally realizing his original hopes for the site. The development is one of the more ambitious suburban retrofits in the U.S., with 242,000 square feet of retail space, over 900 residential units, up to 2,200 student housing units and 1 million square feet of office space in addition to the existing 1.6 million square foot office campus. It will have 2.5 million sq ft of residential, retail and commercial uses in total, including a 14-screen multiplex, a “life style” Safeway, and luxury condos. UTC’s student housing tower opened this fall. At 16 stories it is the landmark of the district, and students from DC and Maryland colleges have brought immediate changes to the character of the neighborhood.
The plan of UTC bears a family resemblance to the Silver Spring Downtown development — which is not surprising as both were designed by the architectural firm RTKL. Both developments share an inward focus on a central retail spine flanked by blocky, mixed-use structures, with a design character that more closely resembles a lifestyle center than a traditional urban district. UTC’s central street will be lined with frequent storefronts and will have a plaza suitable for performances. Some internal streets have already been built to a pedestrian-friendly 18-foot width, although they don’t have on-street parking.
The Metro station parcel will also be a bright spot. Metro’s surface parking lots are being redeveloped into the Metropolitan Shops: 160,000 square feet of retail, 250,000 square feet of office space will wrap around a new parking structure. Some awkward circulation patterns are forced by the site conditions, and the big-box storefronts facing East West Highway lack any pedestrian attraction, but the design has an acceptable level of walkability given the constraints.
On the other side of the same block, the Mosaic at Metro apartment complex is currently under construction. It’s the product of unusual financing: HUD provided a $46 million mortgage including a ground lease with WMATA. It is the first HUD-financed deal of its type in the Mid-Atlantic region. The 5-story complex of 260 luxury apartments will be targeted to an upscale market, and will be notable for the fact that it wraps around the Metro station itself.
From the smart growth perspective, the district has both striking flaws and successes. On the negative side, most construction is suburban and auto oriented in design and function. The plan generally sticks with the original superblocks, making walking somewhat inconvenient. The frontages tend to be of the suburban type with berms, driveways, infrequent doorways, and blank or mechanically repetitive facades at ground level. Thoroughfares are wide and designed for fast traffic at heavy volumes. With certain exceptions, it adds up to a pretty bland pedestrian experience where walking is a chore.
On the positive side, there’s an excellent variety of uses; more and more, the district is becoming a destination. There will be affordable and luxury housing, and nearby, many civic institutions, natural park areas and a regional bike trail. Density is increasing, there is a good jobs-to-housing balance, and the Metro station is an increasingly important multimodal transportation hub.
The district offers a lesson: Avoid halfway measures. The interim strategy of allowing non-conforming urban design is questionable — the mall becomes more mall-like and the big boxes and strip mall will remain auto-oriented for many years to come, all of which works against good pedestrian orientation and puts a drag on further development as a pedestrian-oriented district. A proactive strategy may work better: Seek those who share the plan’s vision. Don’t passively wait to receive proposals from developers and tenants who only wish to continue the status quo suburban patterns.