Prince George’s Planning Board approves student housing complex near University of Maryland

The Prince George’s County Planning Board on Thursday approved site plans for a controversial student housing complex that could expand the population of a historic area of College Park by almost 1,000 students.

The board voted 4 to 1 to accept R&J Co.’s plans to build a mixed-use development that would include 341 residential units and 14,366 square feet of retail where the Maryland Book Exchange, a book store on Route 1, currently sits. Planning board member John P. Shoaff cast the dissenting vote.

The approval came despite objections from College Park, the University of Maryland and several residents who raised concerns about whether the project fit into the surrounding area.

Shoaff said he agreed with those who questioned the compatibility of the project with the rest of the community.

“This project as designed is not the way to go,” said College Park Council member Robert Day, describing the building as “generic, monotonous and unimaginative.”

The Planning Board was scheduled to vote on the project in December, but decided to continue the hearing until January, giving the developer and the city time to reach a resolution about the size of the six-story building, the architectural design, and questions about whether the project meets the requirements under the sector plan for the U.S. 1 Corridor.

Elisa M. Vitale, a planner for College Park, said the two parties did not agree. College Park City Council members unanimously recommended that the planning board reject the plans.

“We take exception that the height has been reduced when we still have a four-story building with a two-story roof,” Vitale said. Despite the developer’s contention that the city does not want student housing on the property, she said: “This isn’t really an issue about student housing in College Park. This is about compatibility with this historic district and the residential area.”

Katherine Bryant, president of the Old Town College Park Civic Association, said Thursday that high density does not belong in the neighborhood.

“We as residents do not want one block to double the population of Old Town College Park,” she said. “It would basically destroy our way of living.”

The university said it is not against graduate students living in the complex, but had issues about possible stormwater runoff from the development onto property the school owns and the aesthetics of the part of the building that will face school property.

The decision follows a controversy that erupted in December when the board initially heard testimony on the detailed site plan.

Several residents left the meeting angry after watching County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) enter the hearing room, briefly chat with and sit next to his friend and former county executive Wayne K. Curry, a consultant for the developer.

The residents said they felt ignored by Baker, a man they helped to elect. They also alleged that Baker’s interaction with Curry could have swayed the board.

“He was [determined to speak] to Wayne Curry in front of the planning board,” Bryant said.

Scott Peterson, a Baker spokesman, said Baker’s presence at the hearing was unplanned. A student was shadowing the county executive and Baker wanted to show him the council hearing room. Baker motioned for Curry to invite him to join the two for lunch, Peterson said.

Peterson added that the Baker administration does not have a position on the project.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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