The sky is not falling: hand-wringing about commercial real estate foreclosures in PG County, but missing what really matters
Today's Post has an article about foreclosure on some property at the University Town Center in Hyattsville, in the vicinity of the Prince George's Plaza Metro Station, "Commercial foreclosures threaten Prince George’s tax base."
What is happening is the over-leveraged properties end up in the hands of people with more capital, and life goes on.
I remember how these additions to the landscape were heralded in the Gazette (e.g., "Movies Return to Hyattsville after 30 years" and "Tenants to move into University Town Center" from 2007) at the time they opened.
Note that this isn't the first "TOD" project that is failing. The heralded Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland, California isn't doing very well either. See "Five keys to successful retail in a transit-oriented development" from New Urban News.)
In both cases, I would argue it has to do with not strengthening truly urban design qualities, those focused on "walkability," complemented by the right mix of uses, enough housing, and density.
(This is a nice piece on walkability, "Reclaiming the Walkable City" from Frameworks, the journal of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.)
I think this is an important lesson to understand, given the big push in Prince George's County to better leverage the opportunity for "transit oriented development," which is discussed in the comment thread to this GGW entry, "New hospital a prime opportunity for TOD in Prince George's."
Interestingly, I might argue that the problems with the "transit oriented development" around PG Plaza Metro Station derive from the fact that the design framework for this development was created 50 years ago, when the planning for what became the WMATA system began, and when planning practices were decidedly oriented to big blocky buildings common to urban renewal planning. Walkability wasn't a factor in design at all.
This aerial is from a write up on the area from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Even though the subway station is there, the area was never designed to become walkable and connected, just dense.
The Washington Business Journal had an article about the history of this area in 2007, "Back to the future: Herschel Blumberg and his brother snagged a world-class architect to design New Town Center in Hyattsville, promising to change the way Washington developed. So why did it take nearly 50 years to build?." (The Post mentioned this history in a short brief in 2005.)
From the article:
In the mid-1950s, Blumberg was the quintessential thirty-something developer, gushing with ideas and a bank account more suited to buying a house than developing a city. He and his brother, Marvin, nascent home builders at the time, bought 140 acres in Prince George's County from Baltimore contractor Isadore Gudelsky, a family acquaintance.
Residential. Commercial. Leisure. A subway stop and an exit off the highway. It would have it all. They convinced Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous and controversial architects of the time, to devise the master plan for the mini-metropolis. Stone, based in New York, was working on designs for the Kennedy Center at the time.
Dubbed New Town Center, the $78 million project was like a slice of downtown in the suburbs. It would feature the biggest office building in the suburbs, the tallest residential tower, a planned complex with no equal in the region. Cars on one level. Walkers on another. A public plaza with a skating rink, a movie theater and all the retail you could want one level down.
While it will take a long time to fix the urban design of that area, eventually it will most likely succeed. But if it had put the right urban design in place at the outset of the project, likely we wouldn't be talking about University Town Center today. But we could still be learning from it, just positively.
As Bruce Liedstrand commented on the NUN article, about Fruitvale Village:
There are even more lessons to be learned from the Fruitvale Village “TOD” than the 5 listed in the article.
First, a real TOD is a neighborhood or district at a transit stop, not an individual project. The Fruitvale Village project needed to be planned as an integrated part of a larger neighborhood, not a freestanding project. The retail couldn’t survive without a whole neighborhood of customers
Second, the project design contributed to the retail failure. The design assumed BART commuters as retail customers, but the site plan let the commuters exit the train and walk directly to the parking area without going through the retail area.
Third, the portion of the site the BART commuters experienced was designed as the project back door (with trash and loading areas), not a pleasant entryway. And this commuter walking area was not kept clean and attractive.
A realistic look at the project before construction should have alerted the project sponsors to these problems. This project is one to learn from, not one to emulate.
These comments are relevant to the PG Plaza issue, as well as Rhode Island Metro and Fort Totten among others.