College Park heads to the polls with a choice

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Matthew Popkin’s childhood home and misspelled Willow Lung-Amam’s last name. The article has been corrected.


City employee Willie Lynn starts his morning cleanup at the parking lot of City Hall before taking care of trash cans along sidewalks and city-operated public parking garages. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)
November 2, 2013

For the first time in 24 years, College Park voters have a contested mayor’s race to settle on Election Day in a city buffeted by shifting demographics, transit issues, growth and development.

At a recent candidates’ forum in College Park’s Old Parish Hall, a big, white corner house a few blocks from the Metro station, Mayor Andrew Fellows spoke of slow but steady civic progress, including a $28 million dollar state investment in the busy Route 1 corridor. The plan would bring bike lanes, tree-lined medians and better curb cuts to the central corridor.

“Victories make people want to get involved,” he said.

Fellows is opposed by Robert J. McCeney, a middle school science teacher and PhD candidate at George Washington University, who has run unsuccessfully for council seats several times.

In addition to the mayor’s race, seats in two of four City Council districts are contested in Tuesday’s nonpartisan city elections.

College Park is home of the University of Maryland, and traditional town-and-gown politics are competing for attention this year with controversial development and growth concerns related to the possible arrival of a Purple Line light-rail system, which would connect College Park to New Carrollton to the east and Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Bethesda to the west.

Elsewhere in Prince George’s County, Bowie, Greenbelt and Laurel also have municipal elections on Tuesday. In Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Takoma Park have elections.

Fellows, who works for the Clean Water Action environmental group and has a background in community organizing, said he has tried to take a back seat as mayor in the city’s strong-council form of government. He said he prefers to cultivate leadership on the council and feels optimistic about the next two years.

“I feel as if we have more people engaged in College Park than we have before,” he said.

McCeney, who has five years’ experience in city code enforcement and has volunteered with the Red Cross, said he wants to see more people involved in city politics, including more neighborhood meetings, and would work to soften what he sees as a sometimes hostile attitude toward U-Md. students.

For the past two months, he said, he has arrived home from work and headed right back out to campaign door to door.

Districts 1 and 3 have contested elections this year, with three candidates competing for two seats in each.

In the District 1, Benjamin S. Mellman, a University of Maryland senior, is taking on incumbents S.M. Fazlul Kabir and Patrick L. Wojahn. Though still a student, Mellman has lived in the city for five years and is a homeowner, a point that’s not lost in the town-gown divide over rentals. Kabir, a federal employee and lecturer at U-Md., is seeking a second term. He sometimes blogs for a local smart-growth site, Rethink College Park. Wojahn, a lawyer, has been a council member since 2007 and has lived in the city with his partner — now his husband — since 2003.

In District 3, incumbents Stephanie E. Stullich, a program analyst with the Department of Education, and Robert W. Day Sr., who works for a cybersecurity firm, are being challenged by first-year graduate student Matthew E. Popkin, who grew up in Rockville and would like to see something similar to Silver Spring’s downtown boom occur in College Park.

In Districts 2 and 4, one incumbent and one newcomer will fill each district’s two seats, with no opposition.

In District 2, the candidates are incumbent Monroe S. Dennis, a retired information technology specialist from the historically African American neighborhood of Lakeland, and P.J. Brennan, a federal employee. In District 4, the candidates are Alan Y. Hew, a self-employed computer specialist, and incumbent Denise C. Mitchell, a former board member with the West College Park Civic Association who also chaired the city’s Education Advisory Committee.

With so much at stake, Willow Lung-Amam worries that groups without influence will be left out of the conversation as such projects as the proposed Purple Line spark unprecedented change. Lung-Amam, the newest member of U-Md.’s Urban Studies and Planning Program, remembers College Park from her days as a master’s student in the program from 2005 to 2007.

“It has changed quite a bit,” she said of the city. “I think there’s been a lot of new development in the College Park area, a lot of new housing developments, a lot of new university developments.” She, like many of her colleagues, lives in Silver Spring.

The city is also becoming more diverse, though it is still much whiter than Prince George’s as a whole. College Park was 63 percent white and 14 percent black, according to the 2010 Census; the county, about 27 percent white and 65 percent black. In 2000, both the white and black populations represented larger percentages of the total: 69 percent white and 16 percent black.

The Asian and Hispanic communities, however, both grew over the 10-year period. The Asian population grew about three percentage points, from 10 to 13 percent, and the Hispanic population doubled from 6 to 12 percent.

This year’s elections have focused on familiar issues: more student housing, safer streets, regulation of off-campus parties and development along Route 1. Because the university, developers and the county have a stake in such issues, progress tends to be slow.

Many credit Wallace D. Loh with promoting increased collaboration as the university president. A controversial proposal to repurpose a section of the university golf course has been withdrawn by the developer, which many in town took as a sign that university officials are listening to the city.

Observers point to other signs of improving town-gown relations. The school recently expanded its jurisdiction to apply the Student Code of Conduct to student behavior off campus. Several high-rise apartment buildings have gone up near campus, relieving pressure on neighborhood housing. The newly opened College Park Academy, a preparatory charter school temporarily located in Adelphi, allows students to accumulate credit with the university.

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