College Park aims to be a top college town

December 5, 2013

College Park wants to become one of the nation’s 20 greatest college towns.

The vision: A community with the reputation of being safer than college neighborhoods in the District. A place where University of Maryland professors and other employees want to live and raise their children. A certified “green community” with a vibrant downtown that has more pedestrians, bicyclists and bus riders than cars. The sort of place that shows up on unscientific rankings of the best places to go to school.

And College Park wants to accomplish the feat within the next six years.

A collection of university and local representatives developed the “University District Vision 2020” plan in 2011, laying out five ways that College Park can become more college-towny: Improve the public schools to attract the children of highly educated parents, improve public safety, make commuting to U-Md. less of a nightmare, increase housing options and protect the area’s natural resources.

Since then, College Park has made strides — such as expanding the jurisdiction of U-Md. police and reducing car traffic on Route 1 — but there is still much to be done before College Park can declare itself the next Chapel Hill. Or State College, Charlottesville, Iowa City or whatever the college-town standard is considered.


The statue of Testudo resides on campus in College Park, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

One key to making that happen is state funding. On Thursday afternoon, a handful of local politicians, business leaders and university representatives gave a fast-paced tour to Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D). An early stop: The fifth-floor game room of a swanky and privately owned apartment complex that houses U-Md. students. The group took in the view.

“This is going to be a real college town,” said Eric C. Olson (D), a member of the Prince George’s County Council. “It’s been slow, but we’re getting there.”

State Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) detailed improvements to congested and sometimes dangerous Route 1, thanks to $20 million from the state, and added: “This is just the first step. There’s plenty of opportunity to support further steps.”

Brown, who is running for governor, said the tour allowed him to see how state money is being used to develop “a community around our flagship university that we can all be proud of, that will continue to attract high-caliber students, high-caliber faculty and their families.” It also was an opportunity to chat with the people of College Park and have his photo taken with students at a newly opened charter school near campus.

Development at U-Md. hasn’t been without controversy. In late October, a Maryland developer abandoned a proposal to build an “academic village”on part of the university’s 150-acre golf course amid growing opposition from local politicians. The decision came soon after Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) — who is running against Brown in the Democratic primary next year — had a news conference on the golf course, calling it “an environmental gem” that must be protected.

It’s unclear how College Park will know when it has made the “Top 20.” U-Md. spokeswoman Crystal Brown said the pledge does not refer to any particular ranking.

But there is no lack of such lists. The American Institute for Economic Research releases an annual ranking based on academic environment, quality of life and professional opportunities for students (Boulder, Colo., and Ithaca, N.Y., topped two classifications this year). Several travel publications produce their own lists based on much less. Southern Living limits its ranking to “The South’s Best College Towns,” using four criteria that include “a healthy dose of Southern charm.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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