The quiet, secluded area of Sansbury Road where Gloria Beckett has watched deer, rabbits and groundhogs roam over the years is slowly changing.
In the five decades since Beckett, 76, moved to her home in Little Washington in central Prince George’s County, the two-lane dirt road has become an escape point for travelers coming from congested Pennsylvania Avenue and Ritchie Marlboro Road.
“We can tell if something happens on the Beltway because people use this road as a shortcut. I can’t imagine what it is going to be like later,” said Beckett, whose home is just two miles from the Capital Beltway.
Her town, an unincorporated community of about 200 homes, is in an undeveloped and mostly rural area known as Westphalia that is poised to be transformed into a mini-city with homes, offices, retail and hotels.
“It will be about the size of Annapolis when it is built out,” said Betty Carlson-Jameson, a Prince George’s County planner. “It is huge.”
Nearly seven years after Prince George’s County adopted a vision for Westphalia, a range of development proposals are before the county Planning Department, and some major projects appear to be on the verge of construction.
Westphalia — about 6,000 acres bounded by the Capital Beltway, Pennsylvania Avenue and Ritchie Marlboro Road, just minutes from Joint Base Andrews — is bracing for 10,000 new homes and a town center with offices, retail and entertainment. There are long-term plans for a central park and a Metro station.
The plans suffered a series of setbacks, including delays caused by the recession, property foreclosures and political scandals. Two developers involved in the project were indicted in a sweeping corruption scandal involving former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
But county officials, planners, developers and residents say they expect construction to boom this year in what may be Prince George’s largest development since National Harbor.
“With the economic downturn, everything really slowed down,” Carlson-Jameson said. “Now it’s like the logjam. We picked up quite a few [projects] — boom, boom, boom, right at the same time.”
Until recently, Westphalia was little more than a few old residential neighborhoods surrounded by farmland. The nearly 50-year-old Arrowhead Elementary School on Sansbury Road was the biggest development. The largest businesses were gas stations.
In the 1970s, the area became an attractive spot for landfills, car repair shops, concrete factories and other construction industries. Trucks traveled through the residential neighborhoods day and night, disturbing the peace of residents in what otherwise was a quiet, rural part the county.
“Central Prince George’s has seen its unfair share of less-desirable development,” said Alex Williams, who has lived in Little Washington since 1985. “The residents have been struggling and battling with curtailing a lot of the dumps and mining operations. It has been a battle to have the area developed in a more positive way.”
Fewer than 5,500 people live in Westphalia, an area with fewer than a dozen small neighborhoods, including a mobile home park and Little Washington, one of the county’s oldest African American communities. The past decade has seen the addition of a few subdivisions, including Marlboro Ridge, a planned community of townhouses and single-family homes where some houses sell for over $1 million.
Although some residents fought the Westphalia sector plan’s details back in 2007, few disagreed with its goals. Residents say they may not want the traffic that will come with the development, but they prefer the cars to the dump trucks and haulers, and they want the new retail, restaurants and public facilities that are planned along with the 10,000 new homes to be built in the next 15 to 20 years.
If all goes as predicted, the residential population of Westphalia will grow to 45,000.
“Already you have several pieces coming together,” said Prince George’s County Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville), who represents the area. “The thing that we are doing is building what will ultimately be the sixth-largest city in the state of Maryland.”
Commercial development has begun. Ritchie Station Marketplace opened in 2010, bringing a BJ’s Wholesale Club, a car dealership, a few fast-food restaurants and, most recently, a Bed Bath & Beyond store.
Before these shops opened, residents had to drive to Bowie, Largo or other parts of the county for restaurants and shopping.
The proposed Westphalia Town Center, a massive mixed-use project expected to dramatically alter the community’s landscape, is moving forward with construction of 348 homes, beginning in the spring. The Walton Group, one of North America’s largest developers, purchased the 479-acre site along Pennsylvania Avenue near Andrews out of foreclosure in February 2012. The first phase includes construction of a grocery store and other retail.
The town center is viewed as the core of what Westphalia will become — an urban mixed-use development that is expected to include 5,000 housing units, nearly 6 million square feet of retail, commercial and office space, and hotels with a total of about 600 rooms. The developer says there will be about 15,000 jobs on-site.
“It really has the potential to be another economic engine,” said John Vick, regional president for Walton Development and Management. “It will change the dynamic in this area, there is no doubt.”
County officials, developers and residents say demand for commercial real estate in the area is increasing as more people move into the new housing.
And with the growing residential market, there also is a need for significant road improvements, particularly on Pennsylvania Avenue, a gateway to the District that sees major congestion.
Last summer, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced new transportation funding that included $150 million to construct an interchange at Route 4 and Suitland Parkway. Officials say that will relieve congestion in the corridor and increase capacity as the area develops.
Other projects, including the construction of a fire station and an elementary school, are part of the plan. And next year, the Prince George’s Department of Parks and Recreation will begin construction of the new Westphalia Community Center.
Developers say Westphalia is attractive for its location and its richness in undeveloped land. They cite Metro’s proximity and the access to downtown Washington via Pennsylvania Avenue and the Suitland Parkway. Booming National Harbor and the Northern Virginia border are a short drive away.
“As this begins to develop, it is going to be a very desirable location,” said Mark Nosal, a division vice president at the residential developer Toll Brothers. He oversees the 1,000-home Marlboro Ridge project, which is nearly half complete.
Demand for the homes has picked up in the past year, he said, and residents in the new neighborhood are eagerly awaiting more retail opportunities in the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.
“A lot of our residents . . . are very anticipative to see how the town center develops and what types of shopping and opportunities are available to them locally,” Nosal said. “They are very excited about it. They want to see a high-end place.”
For longtime residents of areas like Little Washington, concerns center on traffic and road infrastructure. But the area’s civic associations have been actively engaged in the plans, making sure, for example, that investments in infrastructure, public facilities and in the old established neighborhoods are included.
Beckett, who lives with her husband in the same home in which she raised five children, said she may not see the completed Westphalia, but she likes what’s been built so far.
Her neighbor, Yvonne Henderson, 56, who has lived on Lincoln Avenue all her life and was in third grade when Arrowhead Elementary School opened, said she hopes her Little Washington won’t be forgotten.
Established in 1941, the town is still home to a lot of the original owners or their descendants. Some still live in old bungalows, others in homes that have been improved or replaced over the years. Residents hope for a plan to restore the site of the Evans Grill, a popular midweek entertainment spot for African Americans on D’Arcy Road that provided a venue for performers like James Brown and Duke Ellington. Nearby, a lot of woods are starting to disappear or are already gone, while large construction machines are taking over and structures start to go up.
“We know it is going to change. You see the old and the new blending,” Henderson said as she drove around the neighborhood recently. “From one end to one end, it is going to be looked at as Westphalia, but Little Washington is still here.”