Seeing a Future Along Old Tracks
History, Opportunity Intersect in Rail Town Housing

By Scott Sowers
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006; F01

Housing development has always followed the train. Historically, sweetheart deals for railroad executives, combined with an affordable way to move materials, spurred the building of neighborhoods along the rail lines in and around Washington. Even today, a nearby Metro station practically guarantees successful development.

Some old-school railroad-centric communities in the area have survived and prospered, and major developers are now taking fresh looks at towns built alongside sets of steel rails. In places such as Riverdale Park, Garrett Park and Belmont Bay, the air horns still sound, warning bells ring and the earth rumbles when a freight train or a line of commuter cars rolls by. Having trains in the neighborhood means convenience, danger, history, romance and maybe opportunity.

MARC's Camden Line runs along the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which began as a way to move freight and people across the Allegheny Mountains faster than they could float through the Erie Canal. Using tracks now owned by CSX Corp., it moves commuters from Penn Station in Baltimore to Union Station in Washington, with stops including Jessup, Laurel and the little town of Riverdale Park in Prince George's County.

Riverdale Park's history predates railroads, but its past and, perhaps, its future are linked to the tracks.

In 1799, Rosalie Stier married George Calvert, a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly and a scion of Maryland's first family. The newlyweds accepted a gift of property from the Stier family and began construction of what would become Riversdale Mansion.

In the early 1800s, Bladensburg was an important tobacco port, and the path from Baltimore ran right through the Calvert estate. The B&O railway and the Calverts reached an understanding that any modern tycoon would love.

"They had a stop for the mansion," said Douglas McElrath, curator of the Marylandia and rare books department at the University of Maryland library. "He was a planter owning thousands of acres, so he was using it to transport crops and materials." The station was put in service in 1835, and the train has been stopping in Riverdale Park ever since.

Riverdale Park is separated from Hyattsville by U.S. Route 1, but the town has always been more taken with the train than with the car. "It's not focused on Route 1 but on the railroad," McElrath said.

The importance of the railroad in Riverdale Park was eventually eclipsed by another form of transportation. The street car arrived in 1899. According to ads of the time, the B&O's 17-minute trip to Union Station was faster, but trolleys were more convenient.

Today, MARC pegs its daily ridership from Riverdale Park at 35, a number it considers "stagnant." Most riders are going to Baltimore, while people who want to go to the District use Metro's Green Line nearby.

Even if the train's role has diminished in Riverdale Park, if you live there, you can't deny the presence. "I kind of like the sound of the train," said McElrath, who lives in the town, "and they're talking about getting a new kind of crossing gate so CSX doesn't have to blast their horn at night."

Better railroad crossings are developmental baby steps. Riverdale Park today looks like a community stuck in time. The buildings lining the town square, most of them vacant, appear to have been waiting a long time for the new owners to move in. City leaders believe the railroad may hold the ticket to prosperity by allowing what urban planners now call transit-oriented development.

"We're trying to bring back what we had at the turn of the century," said Patrick Prangley, Riverdale Park's town administrator for more than 20 years. Prangley and his colleagues have attracted $14 million worth of improvements to the town, mostly from government grants. He talks about plans on the books for 490 condominiums that would transform the area around the tracks.

The town's support for commuter rail means the railroad is a key partner in making it all happen. "I think CSX is going to be very pleased to see this kind of housing coming next to their rail line," Prangley said.

A Choice of Trains

Homes near the tracks can also be found in Garrett Park, a stop on MARC's Brunswick Line, which begins at Union Station and ends in Martinsburg, W.Va. The trains have been pulling into the little Montgomery County town since 1895. It bears its railroad roots proudly, taking its name from Robert Garrett, the son of a former president of the B&O, John W. Garrett.

The original 150-acre town was laid out to resemble an English village, with winding lanes and irregularly shaped lots. William Saunders, who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Lincoln administration, contributed horticultural expertise. Early residents of Garrett Park's Victorian houses included military officers and railroad executives.

To spur development and add customers, the railroad offered incentives to potential homeowners, including half-price rates for transporting building materials and the workers who would construct the houses. Families could also take the first ride to their new homes for free while carrying "household supplies not bulky in character."

Today, the railroad remains a part of daily life. "The train is right in our back yard," said Nancy Schwartz, a resident of Garrett Park. "Most of the time, I enjoy it, but you can also get an engineer who thinks it's as cool as can be to blow the whistle in the middle of the night." Schwartz, a retired government worker, has been coping with those noisy engineers since 1985.

Chris Keller is a federal government lawyer who lives three houses back from the tracks. He has been in the neighborhood for 25 years. He contrasts the noise of diesel-powered train engines favorably with the jet noise inflicted on him when he lived in Georgetown, where "entertaining in the garden was lousy; you simply stopped talking."

Some residents confess a concern over hazardous cargo on the freight trains that rumble by.

"I worry the same way I worried about nuclear weapons in high school," said Paul Dickson, a writer who has lived in Garrett Park since 1978. "But it's not a real fear, like termites."

Like the residents of Riverdale Park, those who live in Garrett Park have a choice of rail systems.

Schwartz and her family rarely ride the train, but they were drawn to the neighborhood for transportation reasons. "We were determined not to commute by car," Schwartz said, "and the Metro is also within walking distance."

Dickson rides MARC out of Garrett Park several times a year. It gets him to Union Station in about 20 minutes -- unless the engineer has to wait for a passing freight train.

According to the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC, an average of 33 passengers board each day at Garrett Park. While there is not a full-fledged train station at Garrett Park, there is a commuter shelter that was moved from Landover in 1989. The original 1895 station was demolished in 1960. There's a small parking lot next to the tracks, but a three-hour time limit discourages its use as a commuter rail station.

Although the importance of the train in Garrett Park has lessened over the years, its presence can still be felt while eating lunch or collecting mail at Penn Place, the oldest building and only commercial structure in town. It's the community's central gathering spot, and it sits right next to the Brunswick Line.

The Burgeoning VRE

Commuter railroads are traditionally money-losing propositions that are propped up by state and federal subsidies. But people still love trains, and they are still driving development. Consider Belmont Bay in Prince William County.

Virginia Railway Express was created in 1992 by eight jurisdictions. The two largest are Fairfax and Prince William counties. Tracks for the two VRE commuter lines are leased from CSX and Norfolk Southern Corp. The trains leave Union Station and head into Virginia, to either Manassas or Fredericksburg. One stop on the Fredericksburg line is Woodbridge, on the southern bank of the Occoquan River.

In Woodbridge, just east of Route 1 and the railroad tracks, is Belmont Bay, a development of more than 400 condos and townhouses, with more on the way. The community has an 18-hole golf course, a marina, a full-service restaurant and the VRE station. The station has more than 700 free parking spaces, ticket vending machines and a newsstand.

"One of the reasons people like to live here is the VRE," said Ron Smith, a Belmont Bay resident and a real estate agent. Smith lives about a mile from the tracks and hears the train, or not, depending on how the wind blows. The railroad tracks define one border of Belmont Bay, with the first generation of townhouses built close to the train. Since then, the neighborhood has expanded west and away from the tracks.

Proximity to the train comes into play when pricing homes -- the ones near the tracks generally sell for about 10 percent less than the ones near the golf course. Still, the closeness of the railroad is a selling tool. Centex Corp., a Dallas-based developer that built more than 39,000 homes nationally last year, is constructing and selling homes in Belmont Bay. Centex ads adorn the train station, touting the convenience of living with the train.

According to VRE, housing development has also clustered around Rippon, the next station south after Woodbridge. "They built high-end condos that sold for over $400,000, and they all sold immediately based on the presumption that the VRE was right there," VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. "That was part of the selling price."

VRE ridership has gone from 1.8 million in 1996 to 3.7 million in 2005. Roeber said that ridership levels on the two lines at this point are about equal but that VRE plans to expand beyond Manassas into Haymarket.

"It's being envisioned as a full node with a lot of workspace opportunities," Roeber said. He spoke of reverse commutes where people who live in the city could ride a train to work in the suburbs. "You'll see a throwback to the old-style 'pearl necklace effect,' " he said. "When you have a train station, you have intensive, high-end development."

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