Change is frustratingly slow, rarely visionary: Prince George's County, Maryland
BUT DC implemented a bag tax in 2010 ("The Last Word on bag taxes," "DC bag tax and the Wall Street Journal"). Ironically, early in 2010, the Wall Street Journal wrote it would be a disaster. Later in the year, they recanted. The impetus in DC was to pay towards more regular cleaning of the Anacostia River. Apparently it is successful ("Water Quality Data Show Where Swimming Beaches Could Be On D.C. Rivers," DCist).
12 years seems like an inordinate amount of time for such a simple change.
Granted, I know that local jurisdictions in Virginia operate under a very strict legal interpretation of what they can do. And that's why it took so long.
Called the Dillon Rule, the State Legislature must authorize through legislation the ability of local jurisdictions to take actions, from getting rid of Confederate monuments ("Confederate memorials can be removed by local governments, Va. lawmakers say," USA Today), to enacting tourism taxes ("Arlington allowed to raise tax on hotel users after years of tension with legislators," Washington Post), or putting a charge on plastic bags, which was authorized in 2020 (Guidelines for the Virginia Disposable Plastic Bag Tax, State of Virginia).Everett Rogers' writings on innovation, and his classic book, Diffusion of Innovation.
It would be interesting to repeat the survey that Rogers did, originally in the late 1950s for his doctoral dissertation, because I bet these days, innovation within government agencies of all types is far slower than it was during the period of the "Great Society," the New Deal, or even in the later 1960s and into 1970s, when new government agencies like EPA, and the Departments of Transportation, Education, and HUD were created, when the federal government as well as local governments were engaged in a wide variety of innovation programs and practice.
The reality is that the idea of states and local governments as "laboratories of democracy" is no longer realistic ("Have States Lost Their Place as Labs of Democracy?," Governing Magazine), with a few exceptions, like California ("California lawmakers debate universal health care proposal," AP, "How Cities Became the New Laboratories of Democracy," Governing).
Prince George's County: transportation as a driver of economic development or not
PGC comes up because blogreader will sent me a link to an article, ("Residents Oppose New Town Center in Upper Marlboro," NBC4) about how Upper Marlboro residents are organizing against a proposal for densification. Upper Marlboro, the county seat, is poorly served by transit, being 13 miles from the New Carrollton Metrorail Station and 9+ miles to Largo Town Center. From the article:
The New Black Suburbs," 1992; also see "Black, Successful and Safe And Gone From Capital," 1996).
Senior citizens in Upper Marlboro's Marwood community are opposed to the possibility of a large development across from their community. “You can't even get in and out of the community during rush hour,” resident Christina Hough said. Landowners want to change the area from rural residential to mixed-use transportation.
“Once it gets rezoned to mixed-used transportation, anything, and I mean anything that's legal, can be built up there,” Hough said. The change could make way for hotels, restaurants, a gas station with a convenience store, an office building, a strip mall and almost 200 townhomes across the highway from the Westphalia Town Center that's under construction.
“People coming out of the District of Columbia or elsewhere going south on Pennsylvania Avenue, it's hard to cross over to Westphalia, but on this side of the road, there is nothing, and this will be providing an opportunity for restaurants and other type of uses and stuff at this location,” said Arthur Horne, attorney for the landowner.
The planning department voted against the development, saying it did not fit the county's plan for that area, a point attorneys for the landowners argued before the council Monday.
The running theme is that the County had an opportunity to repattern its land use planning paradigm around transit, first with the opening of the Metrorail starting in the 1970s, as Arlington County did, where that County forced the rerouting of the Orange Line from the middle of I-66 to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, leading to a massive revival of the County's population and commerce.
Note that while Arlington County for a time lost out to Fairfax and Loudoun Counties because of cheaper space further out that became accessible via the new Silver Line Metrorail project ("The state of Arlington County Virginia's commercial real estate market: 2012 and the future," 2012), it has been resuscitated by Amazon's choice of Crystal City for its HQ2 ("Crystal City Arlington as Amazon one-half of HQ2 | Part 1: General + Housing impact," 2018).
But PGC didn't do that kind of land "reproduction." It's still pretty much sprawl.
But the County has been given a rare second chance to repattern land use with the development of the Purple Line light rail program, which will link Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton, providing east-west connections to the Red lines in Montgomery County, and the northern end of the Green Line and Yellow Line, and the eastern terminus of the Orange Line, as well as to various MARC commuter railroad lines along the way, with 11 new light rail stations, in addition to the 15 Metrorail stations in the County, plus close by Fort Totten Station in DC.
-- "The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 3, Prince George's County, where's the there?," 2011
-- "A recommended new planning direction for Prince George's County," 2011
-- "Another lesson that Prince George's County has a three to five year window to reposition based on visionary transportation planning," 2011
-- "Frustration #3: the talk about transit oriented development and Prince George's County ," 2012
But even though the county states that they are committed to "transit oriented development," the reality is that the county is still very much committed to the sprawl paradigm, where major land use projects like National Harbor or Konterra have zero connections to high capacity transit.
Although they are now at the transit pods of development stage, promoting projects in Greenbelt ("Will US Bureau of Engraving and Printing relocate to Greenbelt?," 2019) and Largo ("Downtown is not a word without meaning: renaming the Largo Town Center to Downtown Largo is without meaning," 2021) among others.
New Carrollton should become the county's seat, moving from Upper Marlboro. A related point was that if the County really wants to display bona fide commitment to TOD, they should move the county seat from Upper Marlboro, which has minimal transit connections, to New Carrollton, which has Metrorail, MARC, and Amtrak connections, is the major conurbation in the county, and will be the terminus of the Purple Line.
-- "Go big or go home: Prince George's County needs to think big and consider better revitalization examples for New Carrollton," 2014
-- "Prince George's County embarks on a zoning rewrite: Part 1," 2015
-- "Prince George's County embarks on a zoning rewrite effort: Part 2" 2015
-- "Purple Line Part 6 | Creating a transportation development authority in Montgomery and Prince George's County to effectuate placemaking, retail development, and housing programs in association with the Purple Line," 2017
-- "Purple Line Part 7 | Using the Purple Line to rebrand Montgomery and Prince George's Counties as Design Forward," 2017
Residential property values and urban form. Note I've also written that while many argue that the County's lagging residential property values have to do with racism,
I disagree, making the point that the sprawl development pattern doesn't hold value in the same way that a more concentrated urban form does, especially when associated with fixed rail transit.
-- "The eight components of housing value," 2016/2015
This piece argues that border communities like Mount Rainer can better leverage their proximity to DC:
Quality of schools as another issue concerning residential choice. I've had conversations recounted to me, stating that developers for the most part argue they'd rather develop in places other than Prince George's County because of how the school system lags other jurisdictions ("The Prince George’s County school board is making a great case for abolishing the school board," 2021, "School system beset by problems," "Schools Chief Tries Moving a Mountain," "No Continuity, Uninvolved Parents," "Even Affluent Are Forced to Make Painful Choices," four part series, 1998, Washington Post), that if people have children, PGC is their last choice, therefore why bother with new projects since they won't be able to sell at top dollar.
One exception is the Route 1 Corridor, which is close to DC, and anchored by the University of Maryland and federal agencies.
Substantive school improvement is necessary to change PGC's position in the residential choice landscape at the metropolitan scale.
The failure to adequately leverage the University of Maryland College Park. Separately, I've argued that College Park's militant refusal to become "a college town" has stunted its development and quality of life, the economic development potential of the county, and the quality of the school system because UMD isn't a school quality force multiplier the same way that NIH and NIST are in Montgomery County.
-- "To be a great city, College Park Maryland needs some "there", it needs a center," 2013
-- "More Prince George's County: College Park's militant refusal to become a college town makes it impossible for the city(and maybe the County) to become a great place," 2015
-- "College town follow up: alumni as residents and contributions to community capital," 2015
-- "Revisiting past blog entries: College Park as a college town and economic development | PG County and Amazon," 2018
A third chance to reorganize around transit? WMATA has unveiled conceptual plans for a separated Blue Line that could add heavy rail service to National Harbor which has the area's only casino, the MGM Grand, which is a major trip generator ("The Blue Line Could Go to National Harbor One Day," Washingtonian Magazine).
(The Blue Line to Greenbelt option is a version of my "Separated Silver Line" concept. See "More on Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core,")
Irrespective of whether or not WMATA actually does anything wrt its Rosslyn/Blue Line problem ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for the Metrorail Blue Line," ), given that the Purple Line development process has been underway for more than 20 years, early on, PGC should have been pushing for an almost simultaneous planning of a second phase, extending the line from New Carrollton to Alexandria, providing connections to National Harbor. Such planning isn't on the horizon at all.
(As another example of how long change takes, the first time I read about the Purple Line idea was when it was featured in a cover story in the Washington City Paper in the late 1980s.)
PGC could also be an advocate for repositioning MARC as a passenger rail service as opposed to a commuter service oriented to Washington, providing other opportunities for growth and intensification ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland,"), by extending rail service to Annapolis and Southern Maryland.
Similarly, PGC should be an advocate of merging the MARC Penn Line with the VRE Fredericksburg Line ("A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines"), better integrating railroad and heavy rail service ("One big idea: Getting MARC and Metrorail to integrate fares, stations, and marketing systems, using London Overground as an example"), and extending the Penn Line to Delaware ("Maryland trains to Newark inch closer," Wilmington News-Journal, 2017), although planning for MARC improvements have dissipated during the anti-transit period of Governor Hogan, although he is into maglev ("DC, Transformational Projects Action Planning, and the Baltimore-Washington Maglev project"), which could be another opportunity for Prince George's County.
As one example, merging the MARC Penn Line with VRE would provide much better connections to the new Amazon facility in Arlington County as well as to National Airport.
Conclusion. Since the initial planning of the Metrorail system in the 1960s, Prince George's County has had multiple opportunities to reshape its land use and transportation planning paradigm. Lack of vision and difficult political conditions within the county have made that unachievable.
Given the long period required to make even simple changes like the 10+ year period it took for Virginia jurisdictions to get authorization to enact bag taxes, it's hard to say if there will ever be substantive changes on this dimension in PGC, at least within my lifetime.
Resetting goals. Baltimore County is a little smaller than PGC population-wise, but still the 75th most populated county in the US. When I worked there I said their problem was that they didn't think very big.
That despite its size and economic vibrancy, they were mostly content comparing themselves to Baltimore City, which for decades has been a shrinking and crime ridden city. On that basis, they always come out ahead.
Back then, Baltimore County was a top 50 county by population. My argument was that they needed to set those other counties as their peers for comparison and evaluation purposes, not Baltimore City, and set their sights accordingly.
While more areas around the country have grown faster than DC area counties in the last ten years, Baltimore County is still in the top 75 counties in the US in terms of population based on 2021 data. Other similarly populated counties should be their reference group, not a declining center city.
Fairfax County is the 40th largest county by population
Montgomery County is 45th
Prince George's County is 63rd
Baltimore County is 75th
Definitely there is a similar set of lowered expectations in Prince George's County. Economically, it's a laggard compared to other Washington area jurisdictions, but compared to many such counties across the country, it is rich in opportunity.
Prince George's County needs to create a new set of expectations on what it can achieve.
-- Reinventing Suburban Business Districts (ULI)
-- Reinventing America's Suburban Strips
-- Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs
-- Putting the Urban in Suburban: Art and Business of Placemaking
-- "The secret to a successful suburb: Lakewood, Cleveland Heights and the Inner-ring Divide," Cleveland Plain Dealer
-- "A County and its Cities: The Impact of Hennepin Community Works," Journal of Urban Affairs 30:3 (2008)
+ the example of Oklahoma City ("Change isn't usually that simple: The repatterning of Oklahoma City's Downtown Streetscape," 2021)
When I was thinking of running for City Council in Ward 4 in 2015 ("Outline for a proposed Ward-focused (DC) Councilmember campaign platform and agenda"), I talked to some people who had been on Council in neighboring jurisdictions. One had been on the PG County Council. He told me that "it's not a seminar where people learn and grow and make better decisions over time. People who get elected think they know everything already, that they got elected because of their stated agenda."