Whole Foods eyes Prince George’s County

Correction: A map with this article incorrectly labeled the MARC commuter rail line’s Riverdale station as a station in the Metrorail system.

September 10, 2011

For decades, Prince George’s County residents have complained that their communities are underserved and that one of the nation’s most affluent African American jurisdictions has been shunned by high-end retailers.

After National Harbor opened three years ago, bringing swanky hotels, specialty shops and white-table-cloth restaurants along the Potomac, developers and elected officials predicted that more upscale retail would follow.

Now, a Washington-based developer wants to build a project that would bring a Whole Foods Market, known for its organic products, to Riverdale Park. It would be the chain’s first site in the county.

“We would welcome it,” said Curtis Simpson, a member of the Madison Hill Homeowners’ Association. “All we have is the Shoppers. . . . Anything to bring some jobs.”

Similar to the celebration over the opening of a Wegmans last year at the Woodmore Towne Centre at Glenarden, many residents see the possible arrival of Whole Foods as a major shift in the way retailers view the county.


But the proposal, which includes a 120-room hotel, 168,200 square feet of retail, 22,000 square feet of office space and 995 residential units, is also being met with resistance. Some Riverdale Park residents say the project will dramatically alter the landscape of their working-class community, home to about 6,000 people.

They and some residents of neighboring University Park are also worried that their streets, already clogged with traffic, will become shortcuts for shoppers, that an increased strain will be placed on town services, including schools and police, and that stronger stormwater regulations passed by the county may not be imposed on the project.

“A lot of people would be interested in saying yes to Whole Foods, but the project is a complicated puzzle,” said Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer, noting its scale and implications.

The Cafritz family wants to build on 36 acres of wooded property it owns on Route 1 near East-West Highway between Hyattsville and College Park. The development, which would be built in two phases, would be one of the largest infill projects in Prince George’s.

“It’s a special property, and it has a chance to be a special place,” said Chip Reed, an attorney for the Cafritz family. “It’s a great opportunity for Prince George’s County.”

Reed estimates that the project will bring in $11 million in new tax dollars and provide 435 full-time jobs at the stores and restaurants.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the site was used for workforce housing for an aircraft engineering and research facility. To build the mixed-use development, the Cafritz family needs the property, which is zoned for residential use, to be rezoned.

An application was recently filed with the Prince George’s Planning Department, and Reed expects the Planning Board to consider the project this fall.

In the meantime, the developer’s representatives have been holding community forums with residents and meeting with town officials in Riverdale Park, University Park, College Park and Hyattsville. Officials for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) have been working behind the scenes to move the project forward.

The towns have no zoning authority over the project. Each can take a position to reject the project, accept it, or accept it with conditions. Those positions would then be relayed to the Planning Board and the District Council, the name the full County Council uses when it hears zoning cases.

The Cafritz family originally filed for a mixed-use industrial zone but is considering a mixed-use town center zone, under which Riverdale Park would have more control over the final product.

Tracey Toscano, a University Park Town Council member, said she hopes the project moves forward despite the objections.

“I’d hate to lose an opportunity based on what-ifs,” Toscano said. “The traffic is here. We’re inside the Beltway. It is what it is. To not bring things here is to have a failed community. I just think it will enhance our community.”

But another University Park resident said she thinks the new development would cause the area to lose some of its “coziness.”

“All I can imagine is a big commercial area,” said Sarah Ceasar, who would live next to the new development. “I’m not in favor of it at all.”

Archer said that traffic has been residents’ biggest concern, with many arguing that Route 1, which averages about 25,000 trips a day on the road near the project, is already heavily traveled.

Archer said he had also heard class issues raised over the project, which is to have an upscale fitness center. Some wonder whether the project is catering to residents of wealthier University Park and faculty at the nearby University of Maryland.

“People have asked, ‘Is it going to provide anything to us? Is it something I’m going to go to?’ ” Archer said. “Some are saying, ‘If I’m going to get stuck in my neighborhood, am I going to use the development that is the cause of this?’ ”

Jonathan Ebbeler, a Riverdale Park Town Council member, said he moved to Riverdale Park from Dupont Circle in 2008 because he liked the sense of community he found in the town, where he could sit on his porch and wave to his neighbors.

“But I also came because I saw what the area could be” with developments such as the Cafritz family’s, Ebbeler said.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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