The college newspaper is opposed. Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening (D) calls it “a disaster of the first magnitude.” A local business leader says it would be “counterproductive and a travesty.”
That’s the type of feedback that is pouring in to the University of Maryland president’s office about a proposal from Maryland alumnus Brian Gibbons to build a shopping center, faculty housing and a Beltway access road on a third of the university’s 150-acre golf course.
But university President Wallace Loh says it would be wrong to simply dismiss the proposal, saying it may help the College Park campus address some of its pressing needs.
“We are trying to attract and keep people here,” Loh said in his first interview about the plan. More upscale housing and retail could help do that, he said.
The thought of eliminating the recently renovated golf course, a favorite community green space, has irked many on and off the campus. Equally troubling, opponents say, are the prospects for the road and shopping center a few miles from Route 1, College Park’s main street.
The road has been proposed and scuttled four times in the past 50 years, but Loh said he believes it could help ease traffic leading into the campus. The faculty housing and retail are new concepts that could change the character of a largely residential area off University Boulevard near Adelphi Road.
“We have told him, why waste all that political capital,” said Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), a former member of the College Park City Council, who got her start a decade ago in politics fighting the road and lives in one of the affected neighborhoods. “Why not take the time to work on something that we can all work on together?” she told Loh, in a recent meeting with more than a dozen lawmakers, all opposed.
As the university has swelled in recent years to 38,000 students, the small city that surrounds it has begun to evolve from a mishmash of fast food restaurants, car dealers and a palm reader into something more akin to a traditional college town.
But the transformation is in its early stages, and officials say they must do more to turn Route 1 into a village, as well as improve a 150-acre area to the east around the College Park Metro station, where plans call for a hotel, art museum, shops and restaurants. If another major development is added west of Route 1, as Gibbons proposes, the result could be a harmful dilution of years of planning and investment in Route 1, critics said.
“From a planning perspective, it makes no sense. There is only so much market to go around,” said Terry Shum, College Park’s planning director.
Glendening, a smart growth expert, former Maryland professor and Maryland governor, said the idea is “just horrible.
“This is a fairly urbanized part of the county, with one of the relatively few large open spaces. Why would we pave over that very last part?” he said.
Prince George’s County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park) points to state data showing that the recent addition of nearly 6,000 beds for students in privately owned high-rises on Route 1 has helped reduce traffic. Students, many of them former car commuters, now walk, bike or take a shuttle bus. “Why add another road?” he said. “That is not smart growth. We need to build around our existing infrastructure, like the Metro station and existing transit.”
The state investment in trying to turn Route 1 into a smart growth corridor has been substantial. Earlier this year, the General Assembly allocated $20 million from the gas tax to invest more in sidewalks, bike lanes and turning lanes for cars to smooth out traffic. Another $10 million had been spent by the state.
Gibbons has offered few details, but said in an interview Friday that he thought his plan would complement Route 1 development. His plan would include academic and office buildings, housing for faculty and staff and restaurants and stores, with a grocer the likely anchor. The area would be linked to the campus and the Beltway with what he said is a “Terrapin-themed parkway” off the I-95 interchange. He said he expects to unveil more details next week.
“I think it would be transformative for the university,” he said.
Loh said Gibbons showed him “upscale faculty and staff housing, condos or townhouses, and a lot of restaurants. ... He wanted to bring in a Wegman’s.”
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller JR. (D-Calvert) has asked the state to study the road, which Loh said could help divert traffic off Route 1 and feed cars into a new campus entrance near the football stadium. He said the road could be built on a state right of way next to Pepco power lines rather than cutting through residential neighborhoods as previous plans had proposed.
Golfers are not the only ones worried: College Park businesses also are nervous. “The master plan for downtown is very strong,” said John Brown, owner of RJ Bentley’s, a popular college hangout on Route 1 that opened in 1978. “To build something that close that is going to be direct competition to downtown is counterproductive.”
“I can’t understand why there is this particular effort to come in and undermine what has taken so long to develop. I think it is a little strange,” added Brown, a former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and treasurer of a local business organization.
A little farther south on Route 1, Rob Rosenfeld’s family has owned two strip centers with several stores since 1949. Rosenfeld plans to redevelop them with restaurants, shops and market-rate housing. “We have a long-time commitment to College Park. We have grown as the university has grown,” he said. “It seems that Route 1 is where the focus should be.”
Loh said whether or not Gibbons’s plans come to fruition, the golf course probably won’t be around in another 20 years.
He said that pressure will grow for more campus buildings, and that the needs of the golf team and other golfers should not trump that. The golf team already is practicing at Woodmore Country Club in Mitchellville.
“One of my successors is going to face the problem 20 years from now of where to build the next science building. It isn’t going to be five or 10 miles from here,” Loh said.
The next move is Gibbons’s, Loh said. “What people don’t realize at times, when there is a major real estate development project, the fact that a developer comes along and shows you a few pretty pictures, that is not a proposal. We require a very extensive study, an environmental impact. Just because someone shows you a few pretty pictures, that is not a proposal.”
Loh said that he might also consider seeking competitive bids to develop the golf course, but said because Gibbons’s proposal was unsolicited, he is not required to ask for other bids.
Pena-Melnyk and her colleagues are not waiting. They are seeking out the key decisionmakers — the university’s regents, the governor, the state comptroller and state treasurer, all people Loh has briefed. Loh said he simply alerted the regents and the others because they are his bosses, and he wasn’t advocating one way or another.
“We are not going away,” Pena-Melnyk said.