A rendering of the proposed Prince George’s Regional Medical Center. ( Dimensions Healthcare System)

It could be at least four years before a proposed regional hospital and medical campus opens at Largo Town Center, but the central Prince George’s community is already bracing for a development that could boost health-care options as well as the overall local economy.

Officials hope it lives up to their vision of creating a more urban, pedestrian-friendly community.

The $650 million, 231-bed hospital, which is under state and county review, promises to deliver a more urban street grid with smaller blocks to encourage foot and bicycle travel around what is primarily a car-oriented Metro station just outside the Capital Beltway.

Residents and transit advocates say the project, which has a tentative 2019 opening, can’t come soon enough to an area known for its big boulevards, giant parking lots and bus stops on sidewalk-free roads. They say the proposal offers the type of transit-oriented development that they have long sought.

“We have fought this battle for more years than I care to think about. This plan brings us far closer to where we need to be,” Chuck Renninger, president of the Largo Civic Association, told county officials discussing the project last month. “We need to get phase one up and operational as quickly as possible so that phase two and three can come quick enough.”

Recently, the project received the county planning commission’s blessing to move toward construction, an important step in the county’s land-use approval process. The realization of the project, however, is still contingent on a crucial state review that has already dragged on for a year longer than the county had hoped.

Maryland’s health-care commission must sign off on a “certificate of need,” which includes design plans and financial projections. After going back and forth with the applicant for a year, the commission finally docketed the case in April and the panel is weighing the needs, benefits and competition created by building the hospital. As part of the review, the commission is considering the concerns of two hospitals protesting the project’s scale.

A step to sway statistics

For the county, however, building the medical facility is the first step in remedying pressing health-care disparities for its residents, who have long complained about having to travel outside the county for care because of the limited options.

The new facility, which would be operated by the University of Maryland Medical System, would help tackle statistics that show Prince George’s residents have higher rates of chronic diseases — including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma and cancer — than people in neighboring counties. Studies also suggest that the county’s mortality rate is higher than that of Montgomery and Howard counties.

The new medical campus would replace the 100-bed Prince George’s Hospital Center in
Cheverly, which has struggled financially and requires frequent subsidies from the state and county. It would have a 10-story building at the center, housing an ambulatory care center, a cancer center, a women-and-children’s center and a resident program.

The project “represents turning a page on a chapter that has been, in a lot of ways, a drag on the county,” Brad Frome, an economic development aide to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), told the planning commission last month, citing the conditions of the existing hospital. “This is really a foundation stone for the creation of a new health-care system that we look to have in the county.”

Later phases would bring more medical offices, a nursing home, hotels and more housing around it, officials say, touting the project as a driver for economic development promising to revive the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, which has struggled for years to fill and keep storefronts open.

The hospital project could spur $3 billion in economic activity for Prince George’s, according to a recent report that suggests it could help build a mixed-use development around the Largo Town Center Metro station that includes about 3 million square feet of commercial space, nearly 1 million square feet of retail, 653 hotel rooms, a 150-bed nursing home and more than 4,000 residential units.

At build-out, that means
$150 million in state and local tax revenue, 16,000 new jobs and 4,340 households with an estimated $312.5 million in income, according to the report.

Approval hurdles

The project is expected to move through the county’s approval process without delay by early fall, which leaves state approval as the main hurdle between now and its projected 2019 opening.

The state commission docketed the case in April. A commissioner is expected to review it soon and could make a recommendation by the end of the year.

As part of its review, the commission is considering comments from Doctors Community Hospital and Anne Arundel Medical Center. Both oppose the size of the project, citing its potential impact on their operations.

Doctors Community, a 218-bed facility in Lanham, about six miles from the proposed medical center, estimates that it would lose nearly 400 admissions annually. Fewer admissions could lead to a shortfall of more than $1 million annually, the hospital said.

“A new hospital is needed, but the right hospital, not this proposal,” Doctors Community attorneys Peter P. Parvis and Jennifer J. Coyne said in a May 4 letter to the state panel. The Prince George’s Regional Medical Center “did not meet its burden of proving that the need for a hospital this large and this expensive exists, or that the hospital is financially feasible.”

Anne Arundel Medical Center, the third-busiest hospital in Maryland with 384 beds and an emergency heart-attack-response center about 22 miles east of the Largo site, cites the county’s “difficulty attracting and retaining a strong medical community of physicians.” The center estimates the project will result in
420 fewer discharges and questions the proposed cardiac surgery services at the new facility.

Thomas Himler, budget director for Prince George’s, said the new facility hopes to attract county residents who seek medical care elsewhere in Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia. Despite the objections of the two competing hospitals, he said, the county expects approval by the end of the year.

The medical center is tied to about 26 acres immediately east of the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, adjacent to the Largo Town Center Metro station and just off the Capital Beltway, north of Central Avenue. It would be funded with $450 million in bond financing, including about
$200 million each from the state and the county.

Transit potential

At the center of all that growth is the Metro station, which opened in 2004 as the Blue Line’s eastern-most terminal. The new Silver Line also ends there. Although the station now ranks in the bottom half in the system in terms of performance and has nearly 5,000 daily passenger boardings, it has the capacity to handle significant ridership growth, officials say.

Largo has the potential to be an example of successful transit-oriented development in a county that has 15 vastly underdeveloped Metro stations, planners and transit officials say. The community could develop into a downtownlike area similar to Silver Spring, with a large medical community anchoring diverse business and housing options. The housing stock is already growing, with at least one multifamily complex under construction across the street from the hospital site.

Having the hospital less than a quarter-mile from the Metro platform would make it an attractive choice for workers and patients, officials say.

Margaret Bowles, 75, a retired teacher who lives about three miles from the hospital site, said she goes to Holy Cross Hospital in Montgomery County for specialty care and has friends who travel to the District for health care.

“People go down to George Washington [University Medical Center] and they never take their car. They hop on the Metro and go downtown because the Metro stop is right there. It is perfect,” she said. “Before this project, we had not had the vision that we probably should have for development around the Metro station.”

The success, she said, hinges on building it right, with pedestrians, cyclists and motorists in mind.

The county-approved plan calls for sidewalks along both sides of the Boulevard, Arena Drive and Lottsford Road. Pedestrian plazas, seating areas and bicycle pathways also are part of the design. County planners said the streets will be narrow to foster a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Advocates for transit-oriented development, including Metro and the nonprofit Coalition for Smarter Growth, have pushed for wide, well-lit pathways connecting the station to the hospital and the surrounding commercial spaces to make it as easy as possible for workers and patients to take transit.

“Having a very large employment center at the station will absolutely change that ridership at Largo,” said Stan Wall, Metro’s director of real estate and planning, noting that the project also could benefit Metro’s plans to eventually develop 12 acres of land it owns at the site.

The medical center alone could generate 650 new daily entries at the Metro station, according to the transit agency’s office of planning. That would mean $750,000 in new revenue for the transit agency. But even more riders and revenue would stem from the development that would follow the hospital construction, Wall said.

Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, agrees that keeping in mind the pedestrian and bike traffic will ensure good circulation between the hospital’s front door, Metro and the shops at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre.

“We want to make sure it’s done to the full benefit,” she said.