The news that the 3.1-mile Blue Line Metrorail extension could be finished by 2004 has breathed new life into old hopes for economic development in Prince George's County.
From Summerfield Boulevard by FedEx Field to Arena Drive at Largo Town Center, people are wondering: If Metro is coming, can the long-awaited symbols of prosperity be far behind?
The answer is maybe yes, but maybe no.
"We're very anxious for Metro to arrive," said P. Michael Errico, deputy county chief administrative officer. "I think once the rail station gets out there, the economic opportunities that will exist will make that whole area change."
The site of the Summerfield Station is about a half-mile from the Washington Redskins stadium at FedEx Field, close enough perhaps to boost the subway traffic on game days. Further, there is zoning in place for commercial uses along wide Summerfield Boulevard off Central Avenue.
A developer is poised to purchase the 80 acres by the Summerfield Station and has plans to build offices, shops and residences there, according to former council member Sue V. Mills, who is brokering the deal but declined to name the buyer.
But Largo--long envisioned to become an upscale urban center--is where the expectations are greatest.
"We're hoping for the best," said Lovern J. Louis, president of the Largo civic association and owner of a condominium apartment near the future station. "We're all optimists here in Largo."
Residents such as Donna Dean, of nearby Lake Arbor, were disappointed by Largo Town Center, developed a decade ago at Arena Drive and Landover Road. Instead of fine restaurants, upscale clothing shops and a bookstore, they got Payless Shoes, Dollar Express, Dollar Discount and Marshall's--along with Shoppers Food Warehouse, Applebee's, McDonald's, Taco Bell and now the shell of a Hechinger hardware store.
"In order to complement the surrounding area, the stores should have been quality stores," Dean said. "We seem to have a collection of dollar stores and little stores that aren't complementary to the entire area. I'm hopeful the Metro will cause persons who respect the color of money, which is green, to come out and set up some decent shopping."
Phillip Ross, director of development for Petrie Dierman Kughn, the McLean firm that built and manages Largo Town Center, hopes so, too.
"I believe for our center, [Metro] will be a boon as well," he said. As for the disappointed residents, he added: "We've been pleased with the center; it's been a good one for us. I'm sorry for those unhappy with it that we didn't meet their expectations, but we certainly met other residents' expectations."
But mostly, the high hopes are resting now on properties closer to the Largo Town Center station, at a site known as Parcel D, approved for 1.3 million square feet of office space, on one side of the tracks, and on the 50-acre county-owned tract that is home to the once and future Capital Centre, on the other.
The county and Baltimore developer David Cordish are "99.9 percent" close to an agreement on a 70-year lease, according to Cordish, who said he hopes to break ground this spring on a "Main Street" development on the Capital Centre site anchored by a Sony-Magic Johnson movie theater complex with 16 screens and 4,000 stadium-style seats.
"We have about a dozen very good tenants, from restaurants to fashion," Cordish said, declining to name them until the lease is signed. "We have a couple of very upscale fashion shops, a bookstore . . . a performance hall . . . . This will create what's really been missing from that section of Prince George's County, a town center where people will be able to dine and stroll and congregate."
Cordish, who turned an old power plant in Baltimore into the Power Plant, a major attraction in the Inner Harbor, said the lease being negotiated with the county is now in its seventh draft and is virtually a done deal.
"It could be that close," said Errico, a top adviser to County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). "All sides are working actively to come to a conclusion."
Cordish and partner Abe Pollin, who built the arena three decades ago to house the basketball and hockey teams that now play in Washington, plan to tear down the sports facility now known as US Airways Arena. Cordish said he decided to return to the original Capital Centre because people prefer that name.
As for Metro, Cordish said, "It's just going to bring people to us. It is being constructed at the edge of our property. It's a nice complement, it's nice Metro is coming, but we're not dependent on it. If you just told me the governor said there would be no [Metro] funds for 40 years, we would still build."
But without Metro, Parcel D, across the street, likely would remain fallow, as it has for years, according to Richard K. "Chip" Reed, the Greenbelt-based attorney for the owners: a New Jersey utility, Enterprise Group Development Corp., and an Atlanta firm, America Resurgens, that specializes in development around rail stations.
The owners have 20 acres at the northwest corner of Lottsford Road and Harry S Truman Drive. The project, to be known as Largo Corporate Square, will be just south of the Metro station, and planners are discussing a connecting covered walkway and structured parking by the terminal.
"More important for the long term [in Largo] is the office development adjoining" the Metro station, Reed said. "All we need are users and site plans to go forward."
Reed's father, Richard Reed Jr., a civil engineer, worked on the entrance roads and sewer connections for the arena in the late 1960s. "It was just fields and farmland," he recalled. "Landover Road and Central Avenue was just a rural intersection."
Charles L. Renninger, a former president of the Largo Civic Association and a resident since 1972, remembers when "dealing with mail delivery, getting roads paved, getting roads, period," were the top local issues. "It's growing very quickly now, but there is still a lot of undeveloped land around the arena," he said.
But interest and activity have picked up in recent months, even before the latest news about Metro. Under construction on a 16.5-acre site is a 190,000-square-foot building that will eventually house 1,100 employees in the regional headquarters for Aetna U.S. Healthcare.
As the land fills with more offices, can restaurants and other amenities be far behind?
Since the opening three years ago of BET SoundStage at Landover and Lottsford roads, "restaurant park" have been the buzzwords. But no more have materialized in this area a few blocks from the Metro station site.
"I think Metro can help, although I'm personally cautiously optimistic," said Jeff Ludwig, a vice president of the Lanham-based Michael Cos. and a real estate broker for the restaurant park properties, owned by the Rouse Co.
"It seems as if Prince George's development around Metro stations hasn't been as successful . . . . It's more an indication of the overall lack of interest that the development community has shown to Prince George's in general."
Ludwig said there have been "nibbles" but no firm commitments from prospective restaurants. "The problem is most say they don't understand the racial demographic. The income levels are well above normal . . . . The competition is so low it would seem like a no-brainer. My sense is, based on conversations with restaurants, their marketing, franchise people love the idea, but when it comes to their operation guys, everybody seems to pull the plug."
Still, the presence of a growing office work force tied to the Metro could help, he said. "The body count during the day is one of the factors restaurant people look at," he said. "If they can find a strong enough daytime [patronage], then they look at the domestic residential population."
These sometimes-harsh realities of the marketplace haven't dimmed the hopes of many with a keen interest in seeing Largo--and the county--succeed.
"The future of Prince George's County is with all these train stations," said Upper Marlboro land-use lawyer John Lally. "Now Largo has a future. It's not just a Beltway interchange but the future of development for the next 20 years."
Added Elizabeth M. Hewlett, county planning board chairman: "All in all, putting on my eternal optimist hat, I think cumulatively these things all have a positive effect. In Prince George's, we raise the bar bit by bit."
CAPTION: High hopes for Largo rest on a development one-two punch: restoring the former Capital Centre, now US Airways Arena, and building on a site known as Parcel D. The two sites, on opposite sides of a proposed Metrorail station, together would house offices, restaurants, upscale retail stores, a performance venue and a movie theater complex.