There are two words Temple Hills resident Leonard Gore hears from locals to describe the neighborhoods along Metro’s Green Line in Prince George’s County: “Old and tired.”
From Naylor Road to the final stop at Branch Avenue, the corridor is an aging but civically active community that has been planning and pining for one project, one little spark to trigger its long-awaited economic revitalization.
The past two decades have brought mostly disappointment. But two bids to build an office complex for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have renewed hopes that the economic renaissance the District is experiencing could spill over the border.
The project calls for 575,000 square feet of Metro-accessible office space and a 15-year lease in either the District, Crystal City, Pentagon City or Prince George’s County south of Route 4. It would bring more than 3,000 jobs and substantial property tax revenue to the winning jurisdiction.
Prince George’s is offering tax incentives and other assistance to help developers JBG and Peter Schwartz, who are competing against each other and trying to beat out potential bidders for the General Services Administration project from the District and Northern Virginia.
The GSA, which is basically the federal government’s real estate arm, will award the contract.
“For the most part, Prince George’s County feels neglected,” said the Rev. Charles Whitaker, whose Temple Hills church has agreed to sell land it owns near the Naylor Road Metro station to JBG if the developer is chosen to build the project. “Everybody had this dream that if we’d get something that was major, it would help bring about economic stimulus.”
JBG has a assembled a 15-acre site across from the Metro station and is proposing a top-quality office with new retail offerings nearby. Two miles to the east, by the Branch Avenue station, Schwartz’s company would incorporate the new federal tenant into a 100-acre town center of high-end apartments and brand-name retailers.
If either developer is awarded the bid, it would chip away at a perceived injustice repeatedly raised by elected leaders from Prince George’s, including County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), over where the federal government locates office space and the white-collar jobs that come with it.
Federal workers who live in Prince George’s often have some of the longest commute times in the region because of the distance to offices in other jurisdictions.
“We’ve got the ear of federal officials on the disparity in allocation of federal dollars,” said David S. Iannucci, Baker’s economic development aide, adding that the county has 4 percent of the region’s federal office space and about 25 percent of the region’s federal workers. “It didn’t happen by accident, and we are being pretty direct in saying that.”
Schwartz said he remembers his first rejection well.
His company bid on a 2009 General Services Administration project to build office space on land Schwartz owns adjacent to the Largo Town Center Metro station for the Department of Health and Human Services. His was one of three promising county bids.
But after a long and arduous process, the leasing award went to JBG, which proposed renovating the existing HHS office building in Montgomery County, near the Twinbrook Metro station in Rockville. Elected officials accused the GSA of redlining, and the developers who wanted to build in Prince George’s protested the decision.
“We were cheated,” Schwartz said. “An agency will not go where they don’t want to go.”
The county had another chance in 2011, when the Department of Homeland Security was seeking leasing space. But budget cuts killed that bid.
Prince George’s has long seen federal government projects as catalysts for prosperity — but growth can be slow in coming. In Suitland, where the Census Bureau relocated in 1942, revitalization is taking decades, and crime and blight often have kept 10,000 federal workers from leaving their fenced-in campus.
“Agencies have not wanted to go to Prince George’s because they didn’t feel it was going to develop fast enough,” Schwartz said. He said the GSA, which administers real estate for the federal government, is reluctant to pick sites that offer few amenities for agency workers.
Baker and the Prince George’s County Council have tried to speed development around Metro stations and the Suitland campus over the past five years, with bolstered economic incentives and a strengthened focus on transit-oriented development.
“In years past, there wasn’t great planning done for a number of Metro stations,” said council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). “It reflected the attitude that the county did not see Metro stations as development magnets. We’ve changed that view and direction.”
While state and Prince George’s officials are also focused on a longer-term effort to lure the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt or Landover, they say winning the USCIS bid would have a more immediate economic impact.
“We are extremely right for development,” said County Council member Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland) who supports the Naylor Road-area bid. “We can’t leave out communities we know will benefit from change.”
Earl Gumbs moved to Hillcrest Heights in the 1970s for a government job. The neighborhood’s proximity to the District made it a good landing spot for many families coming from across the country to work for federal agencies. He remembers when the area bustled with businesses that served the largely black community of middle-class workers.
But over the decades, the waves of crime, a drug epidemic and joblessness chased people and businesses away. What was left was an enclave of mostly retirees who, Gumbs said, lacked the resources — but not the will — to rejuvenate the neighborhood and attract some of the more than 70,000 automobiles that travel east from Washington on Branch Avenue each day.
“We need to give them a reason to stop,” said Jennifer Funn, program coordinator for Branch Avenue in Bloom, a community development organization based at the University of Maryland. Since 2010, Funn has helped organize residents and civic organizations to boost local businesses and bring positive attention to the community.
Residents launched a farmers market and an urban farm and met with business owners to talk about facade improvements. Gumbs, Gore and other activists worked with county planners to identify amenities they wanted.
What resulted was a blueprint for a high-density urban development that is walkable and offers an array of housing options.
Gore, a geographer for the Bureau of Land Management, says he chose to live in Temple Hills 15 years ago because of what he had read about the area’s potential. He imagined his community could one day draw the same type of interest being generated by Southwest Washington’s Capital Riverfront neighborhood.
“Coming from Brooklyn in New York City, I’ve seen how growth works and have firsthand experience with redevelopment,” he said. “I was expecting comparable development.”
That has not yet happened. But Gore and his neighbors are waiting.
When Washington-based West End Capital Group bought the nearly 50-year-old Iverson Mall in July 2014, the community’s hopes were buoyed. The company is seeking input from residents and making plans to try to return the region’s first fully enclosed mall to its former prominence.
“The amount of nostalgia and excitement we’ve received from the community has been inspiring,” said development director Tim Donovan. “We want to build a project the community can be proud of.”
Still, short of a major market shift for the corridor, a federal GSA project may be the southern Green Line corridor’s best shot at spurring transformative development.
“Residents want to remain optimistic, but they haven’t seen sustainable changes over time,” said Ivy Lewis of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “There are signs that things are happening, but the ultimate redevelopment project hasn’t.”
One mile west of Iverson Mall is the Naylor Road Metro station, across the street from where JBG wants to bulldoze a shopping center — home to a pawn shop, roller-skating rink and the old church building where Whitaker is pastor — and build the federal offices and retail.
The site is two Metro stops from the Homeland Security campus at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, adjacent to Suitland Parkway and within walking distance of the District line.
Meanwhile, two miles to the east lies the Branch Avenue Metro station, where Schwartz wants to build.
Baker administration officials such as Thomas Himler, deputy chief administrative officer of economic development, point to Schwartz’s proposal as an example of what is possible at all of the county’s 15 underdeveloped Metro stations.
The Baker administration is negotiating incentives for both bidders, including tax breaks, economic incentive fund dollars and other assistance. “We are not advocating one over the other.”
But Candace Milbry, a Camp Springs resident and Branch Avenue in Bloom member, has her favorite. The Ohio native moved from Upper Marlboro to a townhouse development near the Branch Avenue Metro in 2007 when she learned about the projects that could be coming there.
A federal office complex would provide a customer base for the health food cafe Milbry is planning for one of Schwartz’s new retail spaces. She hopes to launch the business by next fall, after — she hopes — GSA has made a decision.
“I think it’s a game-changer for us,” Milbry said. “It’s the one thing we are missing.”