Prince George's, Md., Community Braces for Major Development

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

During the past 45 years, William Evans has fought vigorously to keep dumps and concrete factories out of his rural Westphalia neighborhood in central Prince George's County near the District.

But Evans is now prepared to accept that his tranquil, secluded area, where deer, foxes and groundhogs freely roam, is slowly changing and will eventually be transformed into a mini-city, with houses, stores and hotels.

Last week, the Prince George's County Council, which sits as the District Council when it hears zoning matters, approved an essential part of a plan that will alter the landscape of Westphalia by allowing about a half-dozen developers to build a town half the size of Columbia.

"We have never been in favor of it, but at this point, we realize nothing stays the same. . . . I just hate to see the community change a whole lot," said Evans, 82, who moved to Westphalia, an unincorporated community, in 1964. "We have adjusted our attitude. Now we are trying to control the progress as much as we can so it does the least harm to us."

He and some of his neighbors would like the project to focus more on residential development than commercial.

The action taken by the council allows efforts to move forward on the Westphalia Town Center, the core of one of the largest developments of its kind in the county. The town center is an urban mixed-use development that is expected to include as many as 5,000 housing units, nearly 6 million square feet of retail and commercial space and three hotels with perhaps 600 rooms. The town center would replace 530 acres of farmland and undeveloped property.

Development officials said the project has many hurdles to cross before any construction occurs. It doesn't even have financing for construction yet, a spokeswoman for the development company said.

But the area has the "tax base potential" to be "another National Harbor for the county," said M.H. Jim Estepp, president of the Greater Prince George's County Business Roundtable, referring to the major mixed-use development on the Potomac River.

Estepp said the project is using a development model that has been successful elsewhere but is relatively new to the county. It groups together housing, retail, office and restaurant space.

"That's the trend: to keep the jobs locally, the ability to walk to work and avail oneself to amenities like shopping and restaurants," Estepp said.

But those who live in the neighborhood said they worry about what the massive development might bring to the area, including traffic, crime and noise.

The town center would be on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, extending from the Suitland Parkway interchange to the Woodyard Road interchange. It is part of the Westphalia sector plan, which covers 6,000 acres and is bounded by Ritchie Marlboro Road to the north and east, the Capital Beltway to the west and Pennsylvania Avenue (Route 4) to the south. There are plans to build an additional 10,000 homes outside the town center in that area.

Westphalia Town Center's developers include Danny Colton and Patrick Ricker. Last year, FBI agents raided Ricker's office, and Colton, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving three years for bank fraud, said agents talked to him about Greenbelt Station, another project he is involved in.

Westphalia was one of about a half-dozen developments mentioned in the search warrant during the FBI sweep.

No one has been charged as a result of the investigation, and its focus remains unclear.

The county Planning Board approved the conceptual plan for the town center in December. In the meantime, the council reviewed and modified the plan before signing off on it last week.

Steven Gilbert, principal counsel for the District Council, said the council clarified the phasing of the project and the location of the first residential units.

Craig Rovelstad, project manager for the Planning Board, said Colton had been having discussions with the council about the project. Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), who represents Westphalia, wanted "more guarantees and more specificities" regarding the residential and commercial space, Rovelstad said.

"It's been an issue with a lot of projects in the county," Rovelstad said. "They want to make sure they don't just get the residential and not the commercial."

Marva Jo Camp, a spokeswoman for Colton and Sandler and Westphalia LLC, which is developing the town center, said the developers are not worried about financing.

"We're not there yet," Camp said. "There are a lot of things that we need to do before doing that. We need the final plan, the certified preliminary plan. . . . We're still getting entitlements to say what we can do."

Another problem is financing a new Suitland Parkway interchange, which would provide access to the development. Money for the project was removed because of the state's budget deficit.

"The real estate slowdown has had a real impact on this project," Rovelstad said. "Hopefully, as things turn around, this project can move forward."

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