Questions to Ponder

A guest blogger joins us today to pose some excellent questions. We share former Hyattsville council member Chris Currie’s thoughts on the Cafritz property and other area developments below (previously posted to HOPE list).

My views on urban planning were largely formed as a child witnessing the growth of suburban Detroit. It was a clinic on what not to do to create healthy, vibrant communities. One particular memory I have from my late teens was a newspaper report on the rapid advance of commercial blight in Detroit’s inner suburbs. At that time, experts said that the commercial dead zone was expanding outward from Detroit at the rate of one mile per decade. The primary reasons? Unrestrictive zoning and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of flat, buildable greenfields in southeastern Michigan. There was no incentive to redevelop existing retail/office districts when it was so cheap, easy and profitable to build new ones.

That reminds me a little of the prevailing conditions in the inner-Beltway Route 1 area. Look first at what EYA is trying to do. They had to buy existing commercially-zoned land at the premium price such sites command. Then they had to raze existing structures and do environmental abatement. Then they had to create a development proposal within the constraints of a detailed zoning master plan, with all of its attendant expensive conditions. Now they are trying to lure wary retailers with incentives and somehow they also have to turn a profit. (The way they are doing that is by maximizing the number of housing units, but that’s another story.)

Then look at the Cafritz property. Zero cost basis for the land. A rare greenfield tract in a developed area–a clean site almost ready to build on. The zoning is R-55 for single family detached residential, but the owners will apply to have it rezoned to fit nicely with whatever it is they want to do there.

Now it is easy to see what Mayor Bill Gardiner means about Cafritz having “competitive advantages” over Arts District Hyattsville, Riverdale Park Town Center or University Town Center (UTC). And why he–and others–are concerned about the potential adverse impacts of creating new, cheap-to-develop commercial districts in an area where the existing centers are struggling and vulnerable–particularly on Rte. 1. The laws of economics indicate that our under-served area will attract new retailers to serve the existing and emerging market. But where we will allow them will have very much to do with whether the final result is a vibrant, sustainable community or another sad rerun of the failed development patterns on Route 1 from time immemorial.

The rumors are that Whole Foods wants a location close to the University of Maryland. That doesn’t surprise me. Several years ago, when I learned Wegman’s Food Market was planning to enter the Washington market, I called their site selection manager and talked up the (then) Lustine tract. Unsurprisingly, he told me that our income levels were too low and the site not quite large enough (they wanted 18 full acres). But he did ask me how far the site was from the university campus, telling me that they would relax the demographic requirements to get a site close to the school. He said that upscale grocers typically do better near college campuses.

Whole Foods has a choice between the Cafritz property and the East Campus site, which is contiguous to the campus and in an existing commercial district. The latter site is also better situated with respect to income and educational attainment levels within a three-mile radius. The chief advantage of Cafritz would seem to be the low cost of the development and therefore the more greatly discounted prospective rents. If I’m on the site selection team for Whole Foods, I’m thinking this: Play Cafritz’s low-ball offer against East Campus to strengthen my negotiating position and get a better deal on the site I really want.

If that’s the scenario, is Cafritz the loser? Not necessarily. Whole Foods is the lure that gains community acceptance for a radical up-zoning of the parcel, which in turn allows for much greater returns on other development. Building stores, offices and condos will make them more money than single-family homes. (But rest assured they would make good money either way.)

Therein lies my chief concern. Right now there is a very successful, economically productive single-family residential district nearly surrounding the Cafritz property. It’s not an urban residential district–it’s a more suburban model. One that values lower density, less congestion, low crime, quiet and serenity. If you develop a high-density mixed-use center in the middle of it–particularly one anchored by a big-box tenant–you are going to permanently alter the character of that community. There will be significant impacts in terms of traffic, noise, crime, litter and light pollution. Impacts that are tolerable in a more urban setting, such as Arts District Hyattsville, but much less so in that community. There is a danger that the surrounding neighborhoods might begin to decline (even as other communities’ commercial districts also decline as a result of competition from the new commercial center).

Although one might argue that from Hyattsville’s parochial point of view, we shouldn’t be too concerned about maintaining the character of that community if new amenities can be put there that will serve ours, I would respond that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two now that can be damaged if everyone is not careful. Hyattsville is primarily a community of “starter housing”–and is becoming ever more so with the influx of new townhomes, condos and apartment housing. I think we all know families who have moved to University Park or College Heights as their families have grown. There is an increasing shortage of “move-up housing” here in Hyattsville, which makes it all the more important for community stability (all of our Route 1 communities share a common thread) to have such options nearby. In terms of the overall housing mix, putting high-quality single-family-detached homes on the Cafritz site will help restore balance to our market, while putting more high-density attached or multifamily housing will make the imbalance worse than it already is.

And we should also not forget that the prospective customers for new retail at UTC and Arts District Hyattsville (and patrons of Renaissance Square’s forthcoming YMCA) may come from new homeowners in the Cafritz development, as customers for places like Franklin’s do now come from those neighborhoods north of East-West Highway.

I think there are a number of good things that are emerging from the community feedback process–like the Trolley Trail, historical markers, retention of a tree buffer on Route 1, etc. They are all consistent with having a development with lower-density housing as its primary component. We should be careful, in my opinion, not to focus on one retailer, nor should we view this development in isolation–away from the context of the character of surrounding neighborhoods and from nearby commercial centers.–Chris Currie

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4 Comments

Filed under Cafritz Property, College Park, Developers, Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, Route 1 Corridor, University Park

4 responses to “Questions to Ponder

  1. That’s interesting, Chris.

    It is probably good advice not to become blinded by the prospect of one chain store. The gossip among developers appears to be that Whole Foods is bound to go to East Campus.

    In my opinion, that would be a mistake, however, since the Whole Food target consumers living at the south end of College Park, University Park, Riverdale, and Hyattsville would be having a difficult time reaching East Campus during the semester. Between Guilford Road and East Campus, College Park can be quite bottled up.

    Of course, it is always possible that Whole Foods would more than compensate that loss by selling to university commuters who might be shopping on their way home.

    I would love to see their marketing data.

    If you could wave a magic wand, what are some aspects of the Cafritz development that you would want? What is your advice to the civic associations and the neighbors?

  2. Colin Phillips

    Thanks to Chris for a very interesting and thoughtful commentary. He is certainly right that the Cafritz development should be considered in the context of surrounding neighborhoods, commercial centers, and jobs. But the local context is rapidly changing, and this could make a big difference to the concerns that he raises. The series of planned developments along the Green Line and Route 1 corridors, combined with the area’s existing strengths (mass transit, UM, recreation), are likely to stimulate demand for housing and push area house prices even higher. Therefore, it’s quite possible that neighborhoods that today provide ‘starter homes’ will become inaccessible, creating a greater need for housing that’s compatible with local salaries than for the ‘move up’ housing that Chris describes.

    Whether we like it or not, the developments at UTC, East Campus, and Cafritz will probably bring in the kind of low-risk national and regional chains that developers like to rent to. In Silver Spring, this kind of development has provided a catalyst for creative, independent restaurants and other businesses in neighboring areas. Closer to home, Riverdale Park and Hyattsville town centers would be natural venues for similar creative development, especially if they are formally linked to Cafritz, East Campus and other areas by the Trolley Trail. So there’s a good chance that these developments could help rather than hinder existing neighborhood centers. As for the issue of whether more urban development might cause decline in existing residential neighborhoods, this is an interesting question, for which Silver Spring may again be a useful model. Is there evidence on whether the residential neighborhoods close to downtown Silver Spring have experienced decline or crime increases (in tandem with skyrocketing house prices)?

  3. crcurrie

    Colin, that’s an excellent question and identical to one posed to me privately by a member of the Hyattsville HOPE listserv. The short version of my response is that downtown Silver Spring is much less like University Park, Calvert Hills et al. than like east Hyattsville on steroids. I haven’t kept up with the local issues in Silver Spring but I recall that a decade ago there was a lot of angst among longer-term residents in those neighborhoods about impacts of the increasing redevelopment downtown. The rise in property values since is an indication to me that those residents are being replaced by affluent newcomers who relish the urban vibe.

    I wouldn’t expect the same to happen in the neighborhoods north of East-West Highway, however. University Park with big-box retail and multifamily housing is not Arts District Hyattsville — it’s just University Park with more noise, traffic, congestion, crime, etc. A community that closed off Queens Chapel Rd. is not one that is likely to find these impacts amenable. The area is fundamentally suburban, not urban, and nothing that Cafritz does will fundamentally change that character — it can only enhance or detract from it.

    I say that as a person who truly likes the pretty, bucolic character of the northern neighborhoods and also the dynamism of what Hyattsville is becoming. I think there should be a place for both, and I think we should be careful of development that tends to thwart both their destinies.

  4. crcurrie

    Hellmut, to respond to your question about my own wish list for the Cafritz property, I guess at this point I favor some combination of high-quality single-family detached housing (like the Mitchell & Best development slated for College Heights Estates) and perhaps townhomes between the Trolley Trail and the railroad. I favor the Trail, of course, as well as a forest buffer between the development and Rte. 1.

    Re: advice for the surrounding neighbors: I’m more reluctant to go there. As a couple of readers have written me, there are a diversity of views in these neighborhoods. I probably stereotyped them a little in my original post, based on the physical characteristics of the neighborhoods and the people I know who have moved from Hyattsville north — who probably chose those neighborhoods for different reasons than other residents who came from elsewhere.

    Ultimately, while I believe in making a strong argument based on what I consider to be sound urban planning principles, it is still up to the communities themselves to determine the character of their growth. If the consensus in the community is for a high-density, mixed use urban neighborhood at that location, and that’s what the developer wants to build, then so be it. My main concern is that all of the consequences of any decision are thoroughly vetted. This blog has done a huge service in that regard.

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