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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Go big or go home: Prince George's County needs to think big and consider better revitalization examples for New Carrollton

New Carrollton is probably Prince George's County's leading business district although not quite an edge city.  There are a bunch of office buildings including a unit of the Internal Revenue Service, a great many strip shopping centers, and low density housing on the outskirts.

(The County's other two main business districts are at Prince George's Plaza Metro Station and research and government institutions around College Park and Greenbelt.)

Despite the presence of a Metrorail station, the district is decidedly oriented to the automobile, and is centered around the intersection of I-495, the Washington Beltway, and Rte. 50, which is the midpoint between Washington, DC and Annapolis, the state capital.  There are 300,000 automobile trips daily through the area.

The area also has a Metrorail station, the Eastern end point of the Orange Line, along with a MARC/Amtrak railroad station, and will be the eastern end point of the Purple Line light rail line.

The Metro station area is going to be redeveloped in a big way, in an attempt to create a center for the area, and other projects including apartments and more retail development are underway.

New Carrollton images from Wikipedia.has

The Washington Business Journal has an article, "From food trucks to flower marts, how Prince George's will kick-start New Carrollton," about an initiative in Prince George's County to build identity and the "placemaking value" of New Carrollton, although it's not clear from the article that the county's economic development personnel know how to go about doing so.

For example there is a focus on cheap activation actions like "food trucks" and not on creating park and public spaces because they are "too expensive."  From the article:
The ideas from the audience ranged from a tech center, pop-up pet adoption fairs and a monthlong winter wonderland ("with alcohol"), to Internet cafes, summer camps, food trucks, concerts and even Artomatic. Prince George's is in talks with Artomatic, officials said Friday, and county leaders recently toured the vacated 12-story CSC building in New Carrollton as a possible venue. 
Hoskins and his team will build the ideas into a matrix, to determine what is most "implementable," that is, what can be done the fastest and for the least amount of money. A 1-acre park, said Victoria Davis, Urban Atlantic president, would could $5 million to $7 million to plan and build, plus $400,000 a year to operate. Bringing in a busker? That's free. 
"Where low cost and ease of implementation meet," Hoskins said, "these will probably be our first activities."
The article reports that the majority of the Metrorail station users are parking at the station and riding to other locations. From the article:
The Metro station sees roughly 9,000 weekday passenger boardings, including nearly 5,000 park-and-riders. Another 300,000 vehicles pass through the area daily....
Route 50 approaching I-495 and New Carrollton.  Image from AA Roads.

That means that the majority of the transit users aren't focused on New Carrollton outside of access it provides to the subway station.  (This is a problem common to transit line end stations.)

Will Prince George's County truly change its approach to land use and the built environment.  Separately, the county has been claiming a new focus on "transit oriented development" and has just launched a rebranding program ("Prince George's launches Experience, Expand, Explore marketing campaign," Gazette).

With the coming of the Purple Line light rail system, which will have 11 stations in PG County, for the past few years I've suggested that PG County has been given a second chance to re-orient its planning around transit--after all it has 15 stations between the Green, Orange, and Blue lines (plus Fort Totten in DC also serves PG County)--which it didn't do when the Metrorail system was first built.  See these past blog entries:

-- The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 3, Prince George's County, where's the there?
-- A recommended new planning direction for Prince George's County
-- Another lesson that Prince George's County has a three to five year window to reposition based on visionary transportation planning
-- Frustration #3: the talk about transit oriented development and Prince George's County 

But while the county claims to be re-orienting their land use planning paradigm towards "transit-oriented development" county development priorities are still more sprawl oriented.

Part of the problem is that Prince George's County has more build out capacity than it has demand, and is torn between supporting any development that can happen, and the interests that are represented, versus more dense projects that are intertwined with fixed rail transit service.

It's hard to construct "place" when the mobility system is focused on the car and there is no center.

Transit oriented development isn't so much about transit, it's about leveraging transit to achieve concentration and critical mass.  A key understanding is that "transit" oriented development isn't about transit so much as it is about the ability to leverage transit service to create "centers" or places.

The Place-Keeping book was published by Routledge in Europe and among other resources, provides an accessible presentation of the outputs of a major European Union-funded project MP4: Making Places Profitable, Public and Private Open Spaces which further extends the knowledge and debate on long-term management of public and private spaces.

PG County officials need to be more knowledgeable about placemaking and what it means.  Just because someone worked for government in DC doesn't mean that they are experts in placemaking.

PG County needs to be more judicious in their economic development hires if they want to be successful at repositioning the county's real estate development and placemaking agenda.

For example, at the workshop discussed in the article, it was touted that one of the presentations was about DC's attempts to revitalize the St. Elizabeths east campus, an example that is completely irrelevant to New Carrollton.

New Carollton needs a real makeover.  A large scale replanning effort for New Carrollton is necessary because its identity and place is diffuse both within the county and at the metropolitan scale.

I think that the County believes this will happen somewhat magically with the redevelopment of the Metro Station site, but that will take a long time, and in itself, isn't enough.

Good examples that are relevant to what needs to happen in New Carrollton, at two scales:  macro and micro.  At the macro scale, involving large scale repatterning of business districts, New Carrollton's needs and opportunities are more comparable to White Flint ("White Flint makeover set to move forward," Washington Post) in Montgomery County, Maryland, Tysons Corner ("Tysons Corner, on the verge of a do-over," Washington Post) and Reston Town Center in Fairfax County, and Towson ("Theater opening is the latest step in Towson's ambitious makeover," Baltimore Sun) in Baltimore County, Maryland.

Some macro scale resources include:

-- The Next Frontier: Retrofitting Suburban Commercial Strips, Local Government Commission
-- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts, Urban Land Institute
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips, Urban Land Institute
-- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs, Urban Institute
-- Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

Micro scale examples are about smaller projects sparking change, the development of civic spaces, management and marketing.  The metropolitan area has many good example including Bethesda Row in Bethesda, "Downtown" Silver Spring, Union Market in DC, Crystal City in Arlington ("Can Arlington's Crystal City become a hip place to live," Washington Post), the Mosaic District in Fairfax County, and Prince George's own "ArtsDistrict Hyattsville." The Buckhead district of Atlanta is relevant too.

Macro examples.  The spatial conditions in White Flint and Tysons are more comparable to New Carrollton, although White Flint has had Metrorail service for a long time, but less office compared to Tysons, and office more oriented to federal agencies.  Tysons is one of the nation's premier "Edge Cities" while New Carrollton is the closest that PG County comes to having one.

Towson is a big business district/edge city too.  Baltimore County doesn't have incorporated cities and Towson is the largest conurbation in the County, is the county seat, and has more than 50,000 residents, and a university--but the light rail station is located a couple miles away and transit service isn't integral to the County's land use planning philosophy, branding, and identity.  (I suggested that the light rail line be routed to serve Towson directly, here "From the files: transit planning in Baltimore County.")

The single word that comes to mind whenever I think about Towson is "disjoint."  There's no connectedness, no center, despite having all the pieces in close proximity.

I had worked there for more than 6 weeks before I figured out that there was a shopping mall with a Macy's next to the Trader Joe's, just a few blocks from my office.  That's because my orientation to the district was on foot, not by car.  Without the university students, there would be extremely limited foot traffic because most people get to their destinations by car, park on site, and drive from place to place.

The county's top officials haven't been too keen on focusing on integrating the blocks and buildings into a top notch ground level experience, even if they have an awesome farmers market on a couple remnant blocks of small retail buildings and have made over one of the streets abutting the government center (not called "Civic Square") so that it can be closed off for street festivals and other events.

New Carrollton and Towson have identical issues in terms of planning and the need for better integration and bold initiatives more comparable to those in Montgomery and Fairfax Counties, although as disjoint as I think Towson is, it's much more coherent and centered than New Carrollton.

Nighttime in Reston Town Center.  Photo by Greg Hess.

By contrast to these areas, Reston Town Center has been designed from the beginning to have critical mass and a coherent center, when Metrorail service wasn't even a consideration.

With the introduction of subway service, it's important to note that Reston rather than Tysons Corner is now better able to capitalize on Metrorail access and general trends favoring the creation of place in suburban centers.

Why?  Because Reston Town Center is a "center" already, focused on mixed use--retail, office, and residential, in a "traditional" street grid with blocks, and critical mass density, and unlike the original intention in Crystal City, a focus on ground floor activation and walking.  This ULI article, "Reston Town Center: 45 years in the making," discusses key elements of the program including (1) long-term view, (2) critical mass, (3) branding.

For companies with a suburban orientation and more comfortable locating outside of the center city--Reston Town Center being described as "urban and edgy" by head of a technology firm that recently located there in this WBJ interview--suburban locations like Reston can have real advantages with some companies.

Micro examples.  With the exception of the Mosaic district, these examples mostly involve smaller scale "refreshing" of existing places.  Crystal City is a big office district that is working to reposition as government agencies attracted to Pentagon proximity have relocated.  The district has an advantage in a grid street pattern and Metrorail service, but the built environment had been inwardly focused with limited focus on "the outside," let alone activating it--e.g., the biggest retail district was promoted for being underground.

Where they are relevant to New Carrollton is in how the business improvement district has focused on developing the "community" element and the district's identity by creating and sponsoring events, and embarking on a wide variety of branding and positioning initiatives, including the original introduction of bike share to the county.

Bethesda Row ("Why are people so good at asking the wrong question") is a mixed use development built over many years and renewed a major destination that had declined in response to newer shopping developments.  Downtown Silver Spring is a similar initiative, involving more public financial support, but also the complementary development of civic facilities ("The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland").  Bethesda is stronger than Silver Spring for office space, but both are closer to DC than New Carrollton.

Photo of neon sign at Franklin's, Hyattsville from Hyattsville Wire.

ArtsDistrict Hyattsville ("Where We Live: Historic Hyattsville sees a retail rebirth," Washington Post) is a residential (multiunit and rowhouse) and retail (no office) district on Rte. 1 in Hyattsville.  The only office space there is for the city government with some law offices because of the County court building.

It's noteworthy because the retail portion of the project complements the previously existing Franklin's brew pub, restaurant, and variety store, creating a distinct district, making the area a new, significant and competitive destination for residents in Western Prince George's County, which for the most part lacks defined, attractive town centers.

Image from The Insider's Guide to Washington.

DC's Union Market district is about 20 acres located two blocks from the NoMA Metro station.  A wholesale and retail food district, somewhat controversially it's being refashioned as a mixed use and more upscale retail and residential district.  (Office isn't part of the mix, but it is a couple blocks south, in the abutting NoMA district.)

What's interesting is that this is being spearheaded by a "traditional" shopping center company (Edens) that has been able to shift and become nimble and innovative (they also run the retail section of the Mosaic District) with concepts that are out of the comfort zone of a traditional mall or strip center.

A major element of the repositioning is a wide range of programming--farmers markets, street festivals, "drive-in" movies, and other events, in the former parking lot across from the public market building, which has been significantly "upscaled" compared to its previous focus on serving low-income residents, and is an example of re-creating destinations for new, younger demographics with greater disposable income.

Buckhead is an edge city, big, and one of Atlanta's leading office and residential districts, with a thriving retail district possessing the nation's largest number of upscale boutiques.

In terms of scale, it's comparable to the macro districts listed above, with major highway connections, three subway stations, and a free bus circulator connecting the various subdistricts.  But for the most part, the district isn't in need of repositioning, the way that Tysons and White Flint are working to change. That's why it's listed within the micro scale set of examples.

Despite the district's phenomenal success, it comes up short in terms of parks, open spaces, recreational facilities, and pedestrian and bicycle connections.  (This is typical in districts where the private sector initiates most of the development projects and the public realm becomes an afterthought.)

A planning process, called the Buckhead Collection, has developed a program to address this gap and create a strong network of parks, open spaces, and pedestrian and bicycle paths and trails.

It's a good example of identifying gaps in a district's ability to serve its market, the value of constant assessment, and taking advantage of opportunities to improve and strengthen its brand and positioning, which is exactly what needs to happen with New Carrollton.

Recommendations for New Carrollton and Prince George's County's economic development agenda

1.  Create a commercial district revitalization organization (a business improvement district) for New Carrollton.

2.  Controversially in all likelihood, create a tax increment financing district to fund it.

3.  Create a development, urban design, and branding-identity plan for the district.  Liverpool (Liverpool Vision) and the Georgetown DC Business Improvement District's recent planning initiative (Georgetown 2028: 15 Year Action Plan) are good examples of such plans.

4.  And implement it*.

5.  Including the creation of a business district demographic and opportunity profile comparable to the series that DC has produced on its commercial districts.  (DC Neighborhood Profiles, Washington DC Economic Partnership).  This should be done for New Carrollton as well as other PG County commercial districts.

6.  Like the Buckhead Collection program, make sure that the plan includes a program to create an integrated network of civic facilities (like libraries and cultural facilities) and public spaces, some of which will be anchors of a redefined community and its identity.

7.  Move the County's Government Center, currently located in Upper Marlboro, many miles from a Metrorail station, to New Carrollton and transit proximity and put proof to the county's assertions that it is now in favor of "transit oriented development."

8.  The proposed New Carrollton commercial district revitalization organization should be tasked with the development and delivery of a wide ranging program of events and other programming.  Mosaic District, Downtown Silver Spring, Union Market, and Crystal City are particularly good examples.  (In a very small way, so is the Old Takoma Main Street program.)

9.  Try to identify at least one shopping center owner willing to take a chance on redefinition and work with them to redevelop the center as a "community heart" and center, with mixed public and private functions, along the lines of the Mosaic District, Downtown Silver Spring, and Union Market.

Repurposed "traditional shopping centers" in Phoenix and West Seattle taught me that the building is just an envelope, that even "dull" buildings can be transformed by the businesses inside and end up being very cool.  See "More thoughts on suburban hipness (it's really about commercial hipness generally, not urban vs. suburban)."

10.  On that note, in the to be redeveloped shopping center as "community heart," work to develop some key independent anchor independent "community-developing" businesses such as a coffee shop and pubs (good examples are Continental Lounge in Rosslyn or Buffalo Billiards in DC).  Perhaps two businesses in Hyattsville, Busboys & Poets and Franklin's, could be enticed to open branches in a repositioned shopping center.

11.  Create an independent retail development initiative along the lines of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Retail Project or the Second Street initiative in Austin, Texas.  (Although this type of program should be made available to various other districts in Prince George's County.)

12.  Strengthen New Carrollton's "edge city" position by strengthening its place in the metropolitan transit system by developing a separate transit vision plan, including extending the Purple Line light rail from New Carrollton to Alexandria, Virginia, which is part of the original Purple Line proposal (as pictured below), and the creation of MARC (the state's passenger rail system) railroad passenger service from Annapolis to New Carrollton (and on to Washington).
Purple Line Map  DC Metro
Purple Line concept map from the Sierra Club Metro DC chapter.
*  From "Economic restructuring success and failure: Detroit compared to Bilbao, Liverpool, and Pittsburgh":

The six components of a successful broad ranging revitalization program.  In writing about the various efforts, I drew the conclusion that successful revitalization programs, especially in those cities that were working to overturn serious disadvantages, were comprised of these elements:
  • A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
  • the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program.  Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
  • strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure, which may have negative ramifications for continued program effectiveness as its revenues get siphoned off and political priorities of elected officials shift elsewhere);
  • funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
  • integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
  • flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).

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At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

> It's hard to construct "place" when the mobility system is focused on the car and there is no center.

I used to live in Albany NY. When I try to think of moving back because I have grandchildren there, I can't get an image of what I would be going back to. The Center of the urban area is between Albany, Schenectady, and Troy with some neighborhoods that were formerly towns in between.

Albany's old center is in the water and down a big hill so it is not open to growth. It can't be a center.

A friend who studies cities in relation to bikes helped me figure this out. He said Albany will never be a major city because it's too decentralized. There is no there there.

Hyattsville has built a very nice town center. Even new, it works, I think.

A nice blog entry.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I actually have been to Albany. My mentor's step son lives there, and he is trying to improve his neighborhood somewhat. But he didn't like what I had to say, so he's stopped asking me questions.

He had some great ideas like a walking bridge connecting the neighborhood to the Capital area as there is a big topographical issue and there used to be a bridge. But he isn't into working with other people, and that makes improvement almost impossible. (He's a PhD who likes to talk but not listen.)

And Suzanne has an ex colleague in Delmar who we've visited and are likely to do so again.

Albany is a TRAGEDY!!!!!!! (although there is this one Mexican restaurant with the most amazing green sauce). 1. Even though it's the state capital, the bulk of the legislators don't stay there, and many agencies are in NYC. Sort of like with Congress and DC, they aren't interested in funding activities in DC, but in getting money for their own districts. 2. Plus of course Rockefellers urban renewal which tore the heart out of the core, and made a part of the city over into something like Brasilia.. 3. And sadly the movement of SUNY Albany outside of the core doomed the inner city, took away one of the modern city's biggest post industrial industries, education (the other being medical-health-hospitals).

There is one cool neighborhood commercial district we visited but I can't remember the name.

But the building stock has so much potential. What a waste. SO much opportunity. No demand. And no way to really stoke demand because of broad changes in the economy. (I think Lansing has the same problem, although it's next to E. Lansing, where MSU is, so that's another issue.)

A problem with "historic preservation" in weak real estate markets is that the extra cost of rehabilitation and maintenance isn't captured by commensurate increases in property values. That's not a problem in DC or Boston or Manhattan or Brooklyn. It is actually a problem in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, plus their houses can be so big, which is another issue.

We went through Troy briefly but I didn't get to see much. The problem when you visit people is that you're stuck on their schedule and they don't want to explore urban revitalization issues...

2. But yes, like with New Carrollton, or other places, to push revitalization forward you have to "concentrate" and build on nodes, and build out from success. One of the problems with the political side of urban revitalization is the inclination to spread resources around to satisfy as many constituencies as possible. The problem with that is that you dissipate the potential positive effect 'cause you don't have enough money. And it needlessly extends the time frame for improvement. (This doesn't even get to the issue of spending money on the wrong things.)

E.g., I was reading about the possible dissolution of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the discussion to include a tie off $5 billion fund for affordable housing. Since each building costs $50-$200 million, maybe that's 100 projects, that's two per state!!!!!!!!!!!

3. The amount of money available to cities from states and the federal govt. is pretty small. Some initiatives in Europe have the benefit of also being able to get $ from EU economic development programs, which makes a huge difference. Programs in Bilbao and Liverpool, both as bad off as Albany, really impressed me...

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Bradley Heard said...

Nice post! I definitely agree re: need for county to think bigger and bolder for New Carrollton, and your piece points out a lot of great ways for the county to do that. They also need to move away from the belief that they can accomplish this major transformation on the cheap. It's going to take lots of money and sustained commitment; it's not going to happen by magic.

As far as moving the county seat from Upper Marlboro, I agree the county should do that; however, I think the new location should be Largo.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I'm glad you saw this piece. I had intended to dig up your email and send it to you.

WRT Largo vs. New Carrollton, I don't have enough of a fine grained understanding of the land use at either place to pick one over the other. Metro access is key and they both have that.

The only reason I'd say New Carrollton is it's the County's main business district and to solidify and improve it, it makes sense to further the intensification by making it the County seat.

One of PG's "problems" is the inability to concentrate.

But in any case, something needs to happen, and Largo could be an equally good choice.

... I don't know what to think about the various efforts wrt replanning around Landover. At one level I think they need to let it lie fallow for now and focus on some of the other opportunities, like New Carrollton and Largo.

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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