The Prince George's Planning Board staff has urged county and economic development officials to spur revitalization of about 60 neighborhood commercial centers by curbing strip development, using creative financing options and appointing a full-time small-business ombudsman.
In a report released this week by the planning board, 10 severely distressed neighborhood centers were targeted as priority shopping strips in need of quick intervention to avoid further economic decline.
At six of the centers -- Clinton Plaza, Parkland Stop and Shop, Southern Avenue, Chillum Road, Laurel Plaza and East Pines -- three or more of the stores were unoccupied during at least part of 1985 and had overall vacancy rates of between 25 and 60 percent.
Recently vacated supermarkets at another three neighborhood shopping centers -- Chestnut Hills, Hollywood and Oxon Hill Run -- accounted for 25 percent or more of each center's floor space and were flagged by the report as needing marketing assistance to find new tenants or alternative uses.
The report will be presented to the county council by planners and members of the Economic Development Corp. within the next two months. Project leader Stuart Bendelow hopes it will provide a "strategy for the county to deal with older commercial centers" that often face stiff competition from suburban shopping malls and burgeoning strip development along well-traveled roadways.
The idea for the report grew out of a larger revitalization plan the group conceived of for the heart of College Park's highly visible commercial center along Route 1, Bendelow said. This plan apparently has the widespread support of local businesses, elected officials and banks, some of which are offering below-market loans to participating retailers.
County officials and planners hope this joint effort by public and private sectors in the University of Maryland area will draw significant additional revenue into the neighborhood and serve as a model for the other commercial centers targeted in the report.
Altogether, researchers identified 61 neighborhood commercial centers, containing 776 stores with nearly 3.5 million square feet of commercial space. These community shopping areas, composed largely of banks, restaurants and convenience stores, account for about 25 percent of all retail establishments and nearly 14 percent of all retail space in the county, the report said.
Many of the neighborhood commerce centers date back to the 1940s and are situated in older communities where population shifts, new roads and time have taken their toll. About 60 percent are inside the Capital Beltway, with several hugging the District border.
A few, such as the Southern Avenue strip just north of Indian Head Highway at the District Line, have become seedy, blighted areas known more as nightime hangouts than as viable shopping areas, the report said. For these properties, the report said that unless a single operator can be found to take over the entire commercial center, alternative uses should be immediately considered.
At the 42,700 square-foot Oxon Hill Run shopping center, the report recommended demolishing the vacant food and drug stores, refurbishing the center and bringing in new, neighborhood-oriented stores. "Failing this, . . . offices, medical facilities or day care . . . " should be explored.
Authors of "Revitalizing Neighborhood Commercial Centers" recognize that many of the proposals are controversial and expect the report to generate heated debate among local business people and residents.
"We really tried to define a 'neighborhood commercial center' and to come up with strategies to eliminate or reduce vacant space," said Bendelow. "We recognize that many will have different recommendations or may not see the areas as littered or in need of a facelift."
"There's going to be a lot happening in revitalization in the next five years. Basically, we're looking at the county's gateways and corridors. . . . We will be working with local communities to set up small local develoment corporations (LDCs) that will be able to apply for and get revitalization grants more easily," said Tom Morris, a business retention specialist with Prince George's Economic Development Corp.
The report says that a full-time ombudsman for the county's small businesses is necessary to act as a liaison between economic development officials and individual communities. "Projects just will not get moving or keep on target if someone is not working full time to identify marketing niches and represent local businesses," Bendelow said.
A countywide plan -- identifying locations where neighborhood commercial centers (NCCs) have the best chance of success and where additional rezoning could adversely affect existing centers -- should be drawn up using future growth projections, current master plans and other available research.
The report also recommends creation of one or more neighborhood development banks to better tap and manage existing financial resources and to create new financing mechanisms to sustain neighborhood enterprise in the 10 severely distressed centers.
In addition, growth of strip commercial development should be curtailed in locations already served by neighborhood centers, the report notes. "The continued growth of commercial strips and the conversion of residential properties to commercial uses is seen as undermining the vitality of existing centers and adjacent neighborhoods," it says.