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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Prince George's County's newly announced transit oriented development program for the Blue Line

Blog commenter h st ll mentioned this, and asked what I thought...

Gosh, for 10+ years I've been arguing that unlike DC and Arlington, and to some extent Montgomery County, Prince George's County never really took the opportunity that Metrorail service presented to reset its land use and transportation planning paradigm away from the car and to transit.

Certainly, PGC had the misfortune of its main lines--Blue (I think), Orange, and Green following old railroad tracks out of the early 1960s planning approach to: (1) make surface rail transit easier to build by using existing rights of way, (2) focus transit on the center city so on commuters; and (3) in association with highways (for example the Green Line in Prince George's County follows the line that I-95 was supposed to take to DC).

By contrast, the Red Line in Montgomery County, while at points following old railroad ROW too happened to serve major population centers ("places") like Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton (although the terminal points at Shady Grove and Glenmont still languish decades later).

And the two biggest "new" development opportunities in PGC, National Harbor ("Backwardness of transportation and land use planning: National Harbor, Prince George's County, Maryland | Why isn't high capacity transit access required from the outset?," 2022) and Konterra were pushed hard without any interest in making high frequency rail transit part of the program.

Starting in 2011, I argued that the Purple Line light rail program gave PGC another opportunity to reset.  And we are seeing some projects going forward at some PL station locations.  

-- "Codifying the complementary transit network improvements and planning initiatives recommended in the Purple Line writings," 2022

In the interim then County Executive Rushern Baker pushed transit oriented development, and that program waxed and waned ("Hopes high for Rushern Baker in Prince George’s County," Washington Business Journal, 2010, "Prince George’s County Wants ‘Transforming’ Neighborhoods," WAMU/NPR).

About linking land use and transportation planning into an integrated paradigm:

-- "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," 2013
-- "Prince George's County still doesn't get "transit oriented development" and walkable communities: Greenbelt edition," 2012)

It's not just a matter of having a station and development will come.  After all, there's been a station area development plan for West Hyattsville Station since 2006.

-- "The ability to develop around transit stations is conditional on land use and mobility context," 2021

PGC has a couple conditions that make development more difficult.  It is less desirable for developers, so for the most part, they will pursue projects there only once other more profitable opportunities are no longer available.  The lagging outcomes from the schools make it less attractive to residential developers, who would rather build where they can make more money, that is in areas where the schools are better.

This map by Paul Meissner shows all the rail transit stations current and future serving PGC.

PGC has 15 Metrorail stations -- 4 on the Blue Line, 3 on the Orange Line, and 8 on the Green/Yellow Line (+ Fort Totten in DC is used by many as a way to access PGC).  There are 5 stations on MARC  Camden Railroad Line and 3 stations on the MARC Penn Line.  There will be 11 PGC stations on the Purple Line.

So now we come to the recent release of a plan to push transit oriented development at PGC's Blue Line stations ("Pr. George’s officials say long-awaited transformation is coming," Washington Post).  From the article:

Residents in central Prince George’s County have for decades been promised development that has not arrived. 

But state and local officials say the record investment that the county secured during the legislative session could make this year a turning point. Among the funding signed into law this month was $400 million for redevelopment along the Blue Line Corridor, a five-mile area stretching from Capitol Heights to Largo that County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said she wants to turn into a hub for sports and entertainment. ... 

Hogan, who signed the funding into law last week, said he was excited to help Alsobrooks and her team turn their “bold new vision for this area into a reality.” He cited the groundbreaking this month of a cancer center at the regional hospital in Largo, which received $67 million from the state, as another example of nearby investment. ... 

The vision outlined by the Alsobrooks administration includes an amphitheater, library, market hall and civic plaza. Officials said plans are still in development, with neither a timeline for construction nor the cost to the county determined. There has not been much development around the stadium in recent years, with fans largely spending their money inside, then leaving. The mall across from FedEx Field has been largely abandoned since it closed two decades ago. ... 

When the football stadium opened in 1997, residents in Landover remember hearing big promises about restaurants, bars and amenities. Yet following an initial state investment in roads around the stadium, there was no infusion of funding to the area — from the team, the state or the county. 

As money was funneled to other projects in the state and county, including the transformation of the Route 1 corridor from Mount Rainier to College Park in the county’s north and the opening of National Harbor in the county’s south, there was relatively little investment in the central part of Prince George’s. And the presence of the stadium alone was not enough to catalyze development. ... 

But what is different this year is that there is a “unified vision” behind the Blue Line revitalization efforts that’s shared by the Alsobrooks administration, county council, legislative team and business community, said David Harrington, the outgoing president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce. 

Harrington said the moment could be a “turning point,” noting that the Blue Line is a direct connection from Prince George’s to the District and, at the other end of the line, Crystal City, where Amazon’s second headquarters will open, beginning with a first phase in 2023. ... 

To ensure that the county seizes this opportunity, Harrington said, officials need to make sure that land around the corridor is zoned for high-density development and that the county’s development processes, which can be cumbersome, facilitate efficient building. Harrington, a former county council member, also noted that $400 million is only a fraction of what it will take for a true transformation. The extent of the government investment, though, gives the project the credibility it needs to attract private capital.

Given that most of the Blue Line opened in two stages in 1977 and 1980, with an extension of two stations opened in 2004, my first reaction is "Um, that took awhile, didn't it?" 

But David Harrington makes a good point about how the Blue Line can provide access to Crystal City and Amazon HQ2 ("Crystal City Arlington as Amazon one-half of HQ2 | Part 1: General + Housing impact").

What should Prince George's County do to reset development towards a more transit-centric paradigm?  Now that the Purple Line won't open til 2026 ("Maryland’s Purple Line opening delayed to 2026, will cost $1.4 billion more," WTOP), they should use that date--the PL won't open til late in the year, as a deadline for committing to these recommendations for changes in policy and practice.

1.  Yes PGC should commit to Transit Oriented Development. But they really need to commit to it, not blow it off like all the previous times.  Recognizing that it isn't enough to have a station.  Preconditions need to be supportive.

2.  PGC should commit to neighborhood revitalization and placemaking ("The eight components of housing value"). WRT placemaking, create a systematic neighborhood revitalization program ("The need for a "national" neighborhood stabilization program comparable to the Main Street program for commercial districts: Part I (Overall)").  What ever happened to Baker's Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative anyway?

Also see:

3.  To fund and coordinate improvement, create Public Improvement TIF Districts for each PGC station catchment area ("Revisiting creating Public Improvement Districts in transit station catchment areas").  Create placemaking and development action plans for those areas.  

Include business development/commercial district revitalization programs ("Basic planning building blocks for urban commercial district revitalization programs that most cities haven't packaged: Part 1 | The first six").

4.  PGC should rezone in the Blue Line corridor to promote compact development.  For example, they never did that for Largo and now want to make it the county's "Downtown ("Downtown is not a word without meaning: renaming the Largo Town Center to Downtown Largo is without meaning").

5.  Recognize that there is a lot more build out capacity than demand, so focus on one of the three Blue Line stations, not all of them.  When it comes down to it, $400 million isn't a lot of money.

To focus, PGC should use Largo as the testbed for repatterning zoning and lot size.  The station is wasted for TOD because of the massive blocks and lots  and uses all disconnected from each other, and it's 1.5 miles to FedEx Stadium.

6.  Figure out what to do with the FedEx stadium site, especially if the NFL football team is going to decamp to Virginia.  PGC pitched a program to the team before ("Maryland pitched expansive development to keep Commanders — and stave off economic devastation if they leave," Post). 

This rendering is from the proposal that PGC made to the Washington Commanders.

 Although I'd say that there won't be economic devastation if the team leaves, it'll just be bad off like it is today--the stadium's been there for 25 years, what took them so long to create a development plan?

7.  PGC should move the county seat to New Carrollton ("Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 4 | Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown""), which is the terminus for the Orange Line, will be for the Purple Line, and has Amtrak and MARC service.  It's transit-connected, Upper Marlboro isn't.  This would demonstrate their commitment to sustainable mobility and TOD.

8.  They should immediately push for Phase 2 of Purple Line planning to extend the line from New Carrollton to Alexandria, which would add new connections to the Blue Line, Green Line, and in Alexandria to the other end of the Blue and Yellow Lines, as well as to National Harbor.  

(And to Springfield based on yesterday's post, "Washington Football Team buys land in Woodbridge/Prince William County: A good opportunity to extend the Blue Line subway to Quantico and the Purple Line from New Carrollton to Springfield, Virginia.")

9.  They should support the merger of the MARC Penn Line with the VRE Fredericksburg Line, which would provide faster connections to Crystal City/Amazon HQ2 and National Airport ("A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines").

10.  And a railroad extension to Annapolis from New Carrollton ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland").

Graphic by Dan Malouff.

11. WTOP reports ("Light rail to Southern Maryland? That ‘choo-choo train will be rolling soon’") on a light rail proposal for PGC and Charles County, with service from the Branch Avenue Green Line Metrorail Station to Waldorf in Charles County.  (Although it should be extended to La Plata, which would be another 5 miles.) With 8 stations in PGC, 5 in Charles.

The Malouff map doesn't have a Southern Maryland (PGC/Charles County) rail line because at the time, about 20 years ago (literally) MTA was doing a different light rail study for the US 301 corridor and it seemed like it was going to happen.  Then it was scuttled.

The Malouff map is more about regional transportation and railroad passenger service as the foundation or backbone of the service.  The reality is that it's more important for the 301 corridor to have its own transportation solution, which isn't depending on providing trunk line service to the center city.  

The proposed Southern Maryland Light Rail is more a kind of "intra-district" service but at a larger scale than what I've written previously ("Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning" and "Intra-neighborhood (tertiary) transit revisited because of new San Diego service").

12.  Although a conceptual railroad extension planning process calls for service to Southern Maryland branching off from the Penn Line, providing service to PGC and Charles on one branch and to St. Mary's County on another, and should still be pursued, in keeping with the idea of a statewide (and multi-state) approach to railroad passenger service planning ("A "Transformational Projects Action Plan" for a statewide passenger railroad program in Maryland").  But we have to acknowledge that such a program is commuter and center city focused.

13.  With the Purple Line, a second phase of the Purple Line to Alexandria, expanded railroad services, and a transit oriented development program for the Blue Line, all the more reason for Prince George's County to rebrand.  See "PL #7: Using the Purple Line to rebrand Montgomery and Prince George's Counties as Design Forward."

Montpellier, France commissioned prominent designer Christian Lacroix 
to design the liveries of its trams.

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At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Boyd- said...

Great observation, recap and suggestions! Now if someone will listen, fund, plan (by 2035 standards and need) and build post-haste!

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Scratchy said...

12: it's a lightly used rail line, with a bunch of grade crossings.
If it could be improved to 60mph for passenger, it might do well to have regional rail (sbhan) , which is integrated with the bus systems.
Dmu (or even RDCs pop up metro, with battery powered ex Underground cars),
Which connects to the NEC platforms at bowie state,so every train is a transfer, but a regularly scheduled one.
There would be some wetlands issues, but ones that could be worked around.
Also, MD renn fest moving to a place with rail service would keep alot of those cars off the road.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

are you interested in writing a post on those lines? I am back and forth only intermittently, and I lack the granular understanding of that corridor.

I still think there's a difference between "lines" and a network, and not only is that key wrt Metrorail versus Baltimore, but suburban rail _networks_ as opposed to lines.

But you have to start somewhere.

I do remember years ago talking with a top VRE person about a highway based line out I-66. Whereas I had proposed an RER type underground line, plus through DC, which he didn't think was that realistic, and so proposed a line emanating from the Long Bridge crossing.

The North-South Virginia segment of the Purple Line would help this a lot.

WRT transfers, while there is a lot of focus in transit planning on "one seat ride" my personal experience is if you can rely on relatively quick transfers, it's not the end of the world. OTOH, waiting 20 minutes for he next train sucks (that happened to me once on the London Overground, never on the S-Bahn in Hamburg).

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Interesting point too about RENN Festival. I have written about special events as a way to drive transit use, although a bunch of places screw it up (DART with a FIFA match I think; NJ Transit and the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands, Seattle with big events--although now the light rail is "significantly" "longer" compared to the times I am thinking of).

The issue is overpromising and underdelivering.

At least with Metrorail, MARC, and VRE, and then Purple Line, you have a decent foundational network.

Although the PL needs to be extended, and the longer planning is put off doing so, the longer it will take to realize.

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

The light rail to Southern MD is really interesting but we are talking about realistically an opening date in late 2030s if not 2040s? Not sure if even worth it then and is traffic really bad down that way?

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

301 is bad but you're right to ask how much ridership would there be? To me it's better to invest where you have real ROI. Norfolk has fewer than 5,000 riders. Granted it's because the system is truncated going neither to the military base nor Virginia Beach.

(Charlotte has fewer than 30,000.)

But it gets back to the line versus network point, something I've been meaning to write about in response to negative comments about the entry on Metrorail to Woodbridge and football, versus VRE.

A line sort of extending from the green line is different but still, the question is about inter city ("to/from DC") versus intra county transit along 301. Plus it won't go to La Plata and it seems to me a lot of traffic is between there, Waldorf and PGC.

But it's not like it's dense, complemented by frequent bus service, or distance from the line on foot isn't far.

In a place like DC you can do rail and when you get off, walk to your final destination or use bus + walk. But a lot of people can do rail or bus + walk efficiently. It's way harder in the suburbs.

Eg when I lived in H Street and was tired, sometimes I would take the bus too, and get off at Gallery Place not Union Station because it was more efficient. Transit doesn't really work like that in the suburbs and definitely not in the exurbs.

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