Prince George's residents hope Konterra will lure high-end department stores

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

National Harbor, a massive waterfront development on the banks of the Potomac River, has brought new businesses and tourists to Prince George's County.

Now, Prince George's residents say they want Konterra Town Center East, another multibillion-dollar project, scheduled to break ground in 2012 in the northern end of the county, to attract what National Harbor hasn't and never planned to: an upscale department store.

"I've been here for 25 years, and we've been hoping for [a high-end department store] for longer than that. . . . We're more than deserving of one. So, we'll see," said Sharrarne Morton, who lives in Mitchellville and travels to Virginia to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

Konterra Town Center East will be the anchor of Konterra, a 2,200-acre mixed-use development along the Interstate 95 corridor in Laurel that will eclipse Tysons Corner in size. The project, similar to National Harbor, is expected to include stores, hotel space and residential units. But unlike National Harbor, the Konterra development is also home to a business campus offering about 550,000 square feet of office and flex space.

At nearly 500 acres, Konterra Town East is expected to offer 4,500 residential units, 5.3 million square feet of commercial, retail and office space, and 500,000 square feet of hospitality space.

The project, however, has repeatedly stalled in recent years when trying to get it through the planning board, and previous start dates have passed without movement. But developers say they are optimistic about the 2012 groundbreaking.

County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), whose district includes Konterra Town Center East, said he thinks the project will deliver what Prince George's has sorely lacked.

"It should bring high-paying jobs, technology and higher-end retail than we often see," he said.

And a major high-end department store? "I believe so," he said.

Representatives of Washington-based developer Forest City, which is partnering with Konterra Realty on the project, recently returned from the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas, where developers and elected officials make pitches about their projects to retailers. They declined, however, to disclose how fruitful their efforts were.

Konterra Town Center East "has been the highlight of new projects [on the East Coast] for a number of years, and the interest has continued to heighten," said Tom Archer, vice president for development at Forest City Washington.

Archer said that he expects the project to have a "fashion-oriented mix" and that there was a "high degree of department store interest" in Las Vegas.

When it comes to department stores, Prince George's trails far behind other Maryland suburbs. It has 1.97 square feet of department store space per household, compared with 4.7 in Anne Arundel County, 5.1 in Montgomery County and 5.2 in Howard County, according to a 2005 report prepared by McComb Group, a retail consulting firm.

Konterra Town Center East, which uses a type of land-use model that is relatively new to Prince George's, will group office and retail space, housing and restaurants in a single community, similar to Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia.

The site was once a sand-and-gravel pit that longtime District-based developer Kingdon Gould Jr. purchased more than 30 years ago.

Since then, the Goulds have been trying, with little success, to get the project going. About 600 single-family homes and office spaces have been built, but the anchor of the project -- Konterra Town Center East -- has repeatedly stalled.

"With a project like Konterra and National Harbor, you can create something significant," said the developer's son Caleb Gould, now running the Konterra project.

The model for Konterra, among the Washington region's most ambitious projects, was recently approved as part of a land-use plan for Subregion 1, which encompasses 44 square miles in the northwestern part of the county, home to 55,000 residents.

Under the plan, which guides development over the next two decades, residents in that region would be able to ride an expanded Metro Green Line to Konterra, shop in swanky stores and walk around in outdoor plazas. They would see an influx of thousands of new neighbors, and some of their children would attend new schools. Some residents have raised traffic concerns, saying more housing at Konterra Town Center East will clog roads that are already congested.

In addition, the Defense Department will begin moving about 6,500 jobs to Fort Meade, which is near Laurel, this year and next as it closes and realigns other operations, bringing additional traffic.

The developers "should have to pay for a heck of a lot of improvements on 95 and the roads that the commuters have to take," said Dennis Cook, who lives less than two miles from the property.

Robert Duffy, a planning supervisor with the Prince George's County Planning Department, said the area would need Metro stops to help ease the impact of additional traffic from Konterra residences and offices. (In the past, Metro has shown interest in extending the Green Line to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, but currently there no plans for construction.)

Dernoga said he hopes that the area, which has "long suffered from congestion due to pass-through traffic," will not face more traffic jams, because he envisions that Konterra residents will also work at the center rather than commute elsewhere.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company