“It was the perfect little city,” said Kwik, 59, a schoolteacher who raised a son in a red-brick home on Carrollton Parkway.
Each year, the city in Prince George’s County has become greener as it has promoted community gardens and tree planting. It’s also grown more racially diverse with the arrival of immigrants over the past decade. And all the while, it’s maintained a small-town feel, with local police services and a mayor who has been in the office for three decades.
But unlike many other suburban Washington communities, especially those near Metro stations, New Carrollton has yet to enjoy the kind of development that could make it a destination for people who don’t live there. There’s been very little commercial or residential construction since the 1970s.
“Nobody ever leaves the Metro station to come into New Carrollton,” said city manager Graham Waters. “For one reason or another, they don’t step out of the train.”
City and county leaders say they hope that two planned mixed-development projects and the construction of a Purple Line light-rail station in the area will spur the kind of growth needed to transform New Carrollton from what is mostly a transit hub into a vibrant urban center.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has put New Carrollton at the top of the list in his efforts to draw new development around the county’s 15 Metro stations. For its part, Maryland recently approved the relocation of the Department of Housing and Community Development, with its 380 employees, a project that is expected to jump-start development around the New Carrollton Metro station.
The area’s racial diversity, its location as a gateway to the District for travelers coming from the north and east, and its transportation infrastructure have long made New Carrollton a potential economic engine for Prince George’s, county planner Sonja Ewing said at a recent community meeting during which she introduced the New Carrollton area as a possible downtown in Prince George’s.
“There is a lot happening in New Carrollton,” she said. “It is a place that is changing and will change.”
The busiest transit point in Prince George’s County, New Carrollton is the last stop on Metro’s Orange Line and a stop for MARC and Amtrak trains and local and regional bus lines. It is also the site where Maryland plans to build the easternmost stop for the Purple Line between Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. If funding is secured in time, construction could begin in 2015.
Some county leaders and developers say poor early planning, economic downturns and plain bad luck have prevented New Carrollton from realizing its full potential.
An earlier plan for the Maryland housing agency fell apart last year, and one of the developers said it was difficult to finance an upscale development in an unproven commercial market such as Prince George’s. “It seems like every 10 years there is a proposal,” but none pan out, Waters said.
Others cite the county’s past, including a reputation of corruption scandals under the leadership of former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and a challenging permitting process, as deterrents.
Residents and business owners have grown weary of the broken promises.
Lien Lee, who owns a Chinese restaurant on Route 450, just under a mile from the Metro station, said merchants became excited when the Internal Revenue Service moved its headquarters across the street from the station in 1997.
The agency relocation brought 4,000 federal workers to New Carrollton, but few of them step outside their Ellin Road building to eat in the vicinity.
“We thought it would bring us business, but business is very slow,” said Lee, who has owned Cuisine of China on Annapolis Road for 25 years. “It feels like nobody likes to spend money here.”
Lee’s business is among the fast-food restaurants, discount stores and international food markets dotting the commercial corridor along Route 450-Annapolis Road within the city limits.
With 12,400 residents spread over about 1.5 square miles, New Carrollton has grown mostly by annexing nearby county property and from an influx of families, many of them Hispanic immigrants.
Next door to Lee’s restaurant, at the Foodway supermarket, bachata music plays on the loudspeakers. Most shoppers speak Spanish, and the most popular items are Goya products, fresh fish and tropical fruits.
Businesses cater to locals whose median household income is about $61,000 in the city and about $55,000 in the greater New Carrollton area, below the county’s median household income of $73,000. Residents say the shopping and dining options don’t provide much of a draw.
“If you go there, where do you eat lunch? Where do you go for happy hour? Where does a man go to buy a suit? Where does a woman go buy a dress?” asked Arthur Turner, a community activist.
County and city officials say they are optimistic this time that the two major projects in the pipeline will come to fruition and transform New Carrollton into a vibrant place like Ballston or downtown Silver Spring.
For one thing, there’s more political will, some developers, residents and officials say. In recent years, the county has approved new land uses for the area to facilitate the construction of commercial, residential and office space around Metro.
County officials say the construction of the Maryland housing department headquarters on an empty parcel near the Metro station will provide a model for developers considering transit-oriented sites in Prince George’s.
Developer Brian Berman of Berman Enterprises, said the first phase of the project will include the construction of 500 residential units and 65,000 square feet of retail space. A second phase will add up to 2,400 residential units, 100,000 square feet of retail and a 300-room hotel. The proposal will go before the Prince George’s Planning Board next month. The new state building is scheduled to open in June 2015.
Metro has also reached an agreement with the firms of Forest City Washington and Urban Atlantic to develop a 39-acre site into a 2 million- to 4 million-square-foot, $1 billion mixed-use development to include residential, office, retail and hotel space.
County planners and developers say that, if executed properly, the two projects could have the kind of impact similar developments have had in parts of the District that were known for being economically depressed and dangerous.
“You might think about where the Verizon Center is today. Now it is one of the highest-income areas in the city. . . . It used to be that there were no shops there, and now there are a lot of shops there,” said developer Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic Development.
New Carrollton officials say they are doing their part to create success. Although the two projects around the Metro station are just outside the city limits, officials say they lobbied the state to approve the relocation of the housing department and are working with the developers during the planning phase, based on the assumption that development inside the city limits will follow.
New Carrollton recently annexed 3.88 acres of commercial spaces along Route 450 to draw new businesses into the city. The City Council approved a plan in June to revitalize the corridor and a $1 million economic-development fund, which is significant for a city with an operating and capital budget of $8.7 million.
Kwik, who moved to Washington from New York City, said she got the neighborhood she desired when she and her family moved to the area in the 1980s. But she hopes the new development will bring more urban amenities.
“I can’t think of a restaurant in New Carrollton that I’d go to,” said Kwik, who drives to Greenbelt or College Park to dine out. “I would like a bookstore, a card shop, an organic store and a restaurant that isn’t fast food.”
Mayor Andrew Hanko, who has held the office 30 years and has lived in the city for 56 years, hopes that this time New Carrollton and the surrounding area get the investment they deserve.
“I have waited many, many years,” Hanko said. “I hope I don’t have to wait any longer.”