After a contentious approval process, the development that could give Prince George’s County its first Whole Foods Market appears to be moving forward.
The Prince George’s County Planning Board is expected to review key elements of the project on Thursday in one of the final steps before the developer can seek building permits and break ground at the 37-acre site in Riverdale Park.
The $250 million project, planned by the Cafritz family and endorsed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, has become one of the most debated development proposals of recent years. It has prompted legal battles, lengthy hearings, and public outcry in Riverdale Park and in the adjacent communities of College Park and University Park.
Last Thursday, a planning board hearing on the development lasted 10 hours and did not end until almost 11 p.m. But the project came a step closer to reality when the board approved a preliminary plan of subdivision.
Opposition centers on the density that the plan would bring to an area that is now surrounded by single-family homes.
The Whole Foods is one piece of a plan to develop the parcel of wooded land on Route 1 north of East-West Highway. The project calls for the construction of 981 units of multifamily housing, a 120-room hotel, 22,000 square feet of office space and about 168,000 square feet of retail.
Baker administration officials, who have been aggressively pursuing major economic development projects, said the Cafritz project would be an economic boost to Prince George’s. It would bring in almost 2,000 full-time construction jobs followed by 463 full-time jobs in retail and food services. But opponents question the benefits.
“Rushern Baker calls it economic development, but it really is an economic burden,” said Richard Scorza, a University Park resident. “On weekends there could be as many as 10,000 people there. The social impacts of that many people crowded together will put a burden on the county for education, emergency services, police and traffic.”
Among the issues discussed by the five-member board last Thursday were the location of bike lanes, landscaping, and the specifications for a bridge to be built over the CSX railroad tracks east of the property.
For months, the Cafritz family negotiated over a location for the bridge, which will provide a second entrance to the development. But a deal could not be reached with the landowner.
That delayed the project and forced the Cafritzes to turn to another location for the bridge. In recent weeks the family reached an agreement with the University of Maryland.
In a letter to the planning board, a university official affirmed UM’s support for the development.
“The University believes that the Cafritz development will bring an economic benefit to the region and a much-needed amenity for the community,” wrote Robert M. Specter, vice president for administration and finance.
On the bridge entrance requirement, the County Council voted last week to create a special tax district in Riverdale Park, establishing a funding mechanism for the construction that is to be paid for with public and private funds.
“This has been an ongoing process working through a lot of conditions that were placed by the council,” said Bruce McLeod, a spokesman for the Cafritz family. “The biggest issue was the bridge location, and that has been resolved.”
He said the developing team is confident that construction could begin as soon as August. It estimates that the Whole Foods could open in late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
Some area residents, however, are determined to fight. Some say they are ready to appeal a favorable decision by the planning board next week; others say they trust that a judge will rule in their favor in a pending court case and overturn the 10-month-old rezoning decision on the property.
In that case, more than a dozen petitioners who filed a complaint in Prince George’s Circuit Court are seeking a reversal of the District Council’s decision last July to give the property a mixed-used zoning designation. The property was previously zoned for residential use. (The District Council is the name the County Council takes when dealing with land-use matters).
Susan Dorn, a lawyer who lives in University Park, said the approval process has been hasty and murky from the beginning. She said the planning staff and the developers have made last-minute changes without sharing them with the public.
If the court finds that the rezoning approval process was flawed, the zoning could be overturned, Dorn said. A judge is expected to hear the case next month.
Representatives from the developer and the Baker administration say they know all the upcoming actions could be appealed, just as the zoning change was. But county officials say the developer could act even while appeals are pending.
A vote on Thursday in favor of the project would allow the Cafritz family to move forward with the permitting process.
“We are getting there,” said Bradley W. Frome, Baker’s deputy chief of staff. “Like any development project, there is a million ways that it can get sideways. But until we hear otherwise we are moving right ahead.”