The promise of living within walking distance of Whole Foods Market was a deciding factor for Keenan and Laura Keeling in their decision to move from Takoma Park to suburban Prince George’s County.
Their newly remodeled 1940s Cape Cod in University Park was their dream home — spacious, in a safe neighborhood, close to the District and more affordable than other options in the Washington region. But it lacked a city-center feel they also wanted.
“Once we saw that the Whole Foods was coming in, we said great,” said Keenan Keeling, 35, who owns a software development firm in Takoma Park. The couple moved just two blocks from the future Whole Foods, and they anticipate that the new development accompanying the store will create an urban feel in a suburban neighborhood.
“It will give University Park that one thing that it lacks: a downtown, a place where people can go to hang out,” he said.
It could be a year before Whole Foods Market opens in Prince George’s, but it is generating buzz, attracting young families such as the Keelings and boosting home values.
Residents and community and county leaders say that the specialty grocer is making the surrounding communities more attractive to millennials eager to get out of pricier Washington neighborhoods but expecting the same amenities. The store, the first Whole Foods in Prince George’s, also is a symbol of the county’s progress after years struggling to attract upscale retailers, many say.
“There’s definitely a Whole Foods effect,” said Jean Pirovic, a real estate agent who said she has sold four homes in the past month within a mile of the Whole Foods site. “It has gotten a lot of people excited about the area.”
Washington-based Calvin Cafritz Enterprises is building the 35,000-square-foot store, which will anchor a $250 million development known as Riverdale Park Station. The project will include 119 townhouses, 850 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space and 20,000 square feet of office space on a 37-acre site that borders University Park, College Park and University of Maryland property.
It also will include a Hyatt House boutique hotel, another first for the county.
After nearly a decade of planning, the walls of the Whole Foods are up, and construction is moving forward after several hurdles that delayed the project, dooming its prospects of opening this year. The store will probably open next spring.
The county approved the project nearly two years ago, after years of negotiations with the towns around the site and neighbors who opposed it.
A major setback came last year, when the developer’s storm-water management plans fell apart, following complaints from University Park residents opposed to the construction of a storm-water pipe underneath Route 1 that would enter the town’s side of Wells Run. The county and developer were forced to seek permission to run the pipe underneath the Army Reserve Center on the Riverdale Park side, which they received.
There also have been months of negotiations concerning the relocation of utilities and construction of a required bridge crossing that will provide vehicular, bike and pedestrian access between the new development and M Square, the University of Maryland Research Park.
The county is closing on a sale agreement with the university for a 3.6-acre parcel needed for the new crossing over the CSX rail tracks.
“A lot of folks would have given up,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said recently, citing the many hours of work it took to make the project happen. “It was give-and-take to get it here.”
The development, he said, will help the county attract other retailers and bid for major economic development opportunities such as luring the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt, just five miles away.
“We needed an example for others to say, ‘Yes, people are willing to put their dollars and resources and time into this county,’ ” he said.
Some neighbors say they are still concerned about the additional traffic the development will bring and its impact on schools, public safety and emergency services. And many still grieve the deforestation of the 37-acre site.
But their fight to stop the project has dwindled to mostly good wishes and hope that the developer will deliver on mitigation promises. As the project has moved forward, some of its strongest critics concede that it is bringing positive attention to the county and their neighborhoods.
“It seems to be raising my property value,” said Laurie Morrissey, who opposed the construction just across from her Van Buren Street home on Route 1. Even so, she said, she doesn’t plan to shop there.
“At this point, all we can hope for is that it succeeds, because it’s a done deal,” she said. “We are not happy with it, but we are stuck with it.”
Whole Foods, which has 16 stores in the Washington region and is developing seven others, said it is excited to open its first store in the county.
“There is no way that we could sit on the sidelines and not do something in Prince George’s County,” said Mark Hughes, construction coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s Mid-Atlantic region. “It is becoming more and more of a place that we need to be.”
Whole Foods officials would not predict when the store will open, saying it is dependent on the overall project’s progress. Calvin Cafritz Enterprises received permits last month to begin construction of an additional 120,000 square feet of retail space at the site, and work on those buildings is expected to begin later this year.
For now, the focus is on the interior of the Whole Foods, and sewer, water and utilities for the entire development. The developer is expected to widen Route 1, add bike lanes and install a traffic signal at Van Buren Street to provide access to the site.
When completed, Riverdale Park Station will offer “a true hub for the region,” where people can meet friends, shop, work and play, developer Jane Cafritz said.
County officials, who have worked closely with the Cafritzes to develop the site north of East-West Highway, say the project will deliver 463 full-time jobs and generate nearly $5 million a year in tax revenue for the county.
And, they say, it will drive economic development in the Route 1 corridor, an area where the county is focusing revitalization efforts, and where it hopes to attract more upscale retail and dining options.
“Four years ago, the cry from the county leaders was ‘the county doesn’t get respect, no one is coming here, we can’t bring high-level development and amenities here,’ ” said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). “We are making a major, major push, and this is just symptomatic and emblematic of that dynamic that’s changing Prince George’s County.”
Pirovic said homes are selling for more than the asking price, and in the past couple of years more people from places such as Capitol Hill, Arlington and Alexandria have moved into the area, which has a diverse housing stock, from Colonials to ramblers and Cape Cods, with prices ranging from $125,000 to $825,000.
Dave Tully, a 29-year-old health-care professional, moved from Arlington to University Park two months ago. His wife, Rosemarie, grew up in nearby Hyattsville. When they heard that a Whole Foods was being built, he said, it gave them another reason to move to Prince George’s.
“We tend to think about amenities and the resources that are available in the area,” he said.