Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 3, Prince George's County, where's the there?

Cross Like Your Life Depends on It
Flickr photo by Gavin Baker, who writes: Feeling safe in Prince George's County -- "a livable community". This is directly across from the Prince George's Plaza Metro station and the Mall at Prince George's. Shoppers must traverse a pedestrian bridge over a four-lane highway, then a large surface parking lot.

Some of the people at the conference were from Prince George's County and they were desperately trying to figure out what Montgomery County has that they don't. This came out in a Post article that happened to run a week ago Saturday, "Forum focuses on 'smart growth'."

Someone speaking commented that PG County has more heavy rail stations than Montgomery County--MoCo has 12 (two shared with DC) and PGCo has 15 (two shared with PG, and Fort Totten, which I didn't count as a PG station, through bus service also serves MoCo and through bus and taxi service, also serves PGCo).

Both counties have a number of railroad stations, Rockville and Silver Spring in MoCo offer Amtrak connections (plus MoCo is building a $150 million integrated transit center), as does New Carrollton in PG County. But most of the stations in both places are focused on travel to DC or Baltimore and typically don't offer a lot of intensification potential because they are distantly located.

But Matt Johnson and I were talking about this and a variety of other things yesterday and we both agree that most of the smart growth advocates wailing about the need to do smart growth and transit oriented development in PG County miss the most basic point.

Smart Growth and TOD strategies for the most part, start with place, start with already extant centers.

For the most part, every one of the transit stations located in PG County is disconnected from place. So you have to start from scratch.

You know the Gertrude Stein line "there is no there there."

That's PG County's biggest problem.

Compare the "there value" of Montgomery County and how the subway system leverages (and extends) this value.

Takoma station, located in DC, serves Takoma Park, and is in the commercial district. Silver Spring station is in the heart of Silver Spring (although a couple blocks from the old heart), Wheaton station could be located better, but is in the heart of Wheaton, Friendship Heights serves the Friendship Heights district of DC and Maryland, Bethesda serves the Bethesda Urban District, Rockville serves the City of Rockville. That's half the stations right there.

But White Flint and Twinbrook stations are in densifying areas, plus Shady Grove has the potential for urbanization. They certainly have the components in place to support identity development and the creation of more balanced "places."

PG County has little of that. Greenbelt station is a tough connection to the City of Greenbelt, and that's one of the best connections. College Park station is a few blocks from College Park town, but there isn't much there anyway. PG Plaza has potential, but it's still very much disjoint, a bunch of disconnected developments that don't have much placemaking value, even if you have an array of commercial amenities including quality retail, some decent restaurants (I like Hank's American Tavern), a cinema, a couple of civic assets (public library, fire station) and transit service.

As Matt said, the spatial organization of New Carrollton makes the ability to weave transit within lifestyle and behavior is almost impossible. West Hyattsville has opportunities, but requires major redevelopment and spatial planning. There have been big plans for TOD at Greenbelt, but that would do little for areas around the county where intensification is needed.

(It was interesting, although he never discussed the why, but Shyam Kannan warned about doing transit oriented development comparable to how its been done so far at Fort Totten in DC, which because of the spatial organization there, is more like an outlying suburban station like Greenbelt than it is an urban station.)

One of the interesting things that Dan Sloane said in response to a question from the moderator is that you have to "appear to lavish attention on those areas that you are trying to develop as mixed use, exciting places."

He went on to say make sure you're doing things like promoting walkability, incorporate bike infrastructure, and making public investments there so that investors and potential residents know that the locality is committed to making it happen.

Contrast this to what PG County is doing in terms of its major development priorities, a stated interest in TOD notwithstanding:

• National Harbor--no heavy rail transit--it could come if they made it a priority but it will cost billions;
• Konterra--no heavy rail transit--too far from the core to ever get heavy rail transit;
• the FedEx Stadium, which is used only a few times each year;
• Boulevard at Cap Centre, a somewhat failing retail development that was located on a developable parcel, but not in a location that offered much in the way of place and placemaking value;
• cutbacks on investments in pedestrian and bicycle activities and limited interested in repositioning away from the automobile and towards sustainable transportation.

The county needs to focus on place values, and improving transportation and transit opportunities there.

However, while I would argue that PG County is screwing it up now, the Purple Line, and station planning in association with the Purple Line, allows Prince George's County to reposition, refocus, and change its land use and transportation planning paradigm towards transit-supportive mixed use development that creates communities, instead of what they are doing now, which is constructing buildings and projects all over the county with very little focus on connecting these projects to transit and developing and intensifying the quality of place.

Rte. 1 (Rhode Island Avenue) offers Prince George's County one of its biggest opportunities, although a streetcar/light rail system on the corridor is probably necessary to pull it off.

Like what has happened in Arlington County along the Wilson Boulevard corridor, or in the core of DC, it will take at least two decades before some of the results of changes will be evident. But then there is multiplicative positive impact. (It speeds up.)

The best thing PG County could do in the short run would be to have another "smart growth forum" but focused on generating "lessons learned" so far from "transit oriented development" around PG Plaza, so that they can do a better job in the future.

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