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Can College Park ever become a good college town?

University of Maryland graduates. (Photo by Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post)

College Park’s failings as a college town have been chewed over by every newspaper from D.C. to Baltimore.

University of Maryland students regularly serve up the same litany of complaints: There aren’t enough places to eat (or drink). Apartment options are either beat-up group houses or over-priced apartments. It’s difficult to cross Route 1, which runs right through town.

There have been repeated efforts to try to create better urban neighborhoods around the campus, but transportation consultant and longtime planning blogger Richard Layman isn’t impressed, writing recently that he thinks College Park has “militantly” avoided becoming a good college town.

Layman argues that  “virtually every decision that the City of College Park and its Council makes is designed to make it impossible for a traditional college town to develop there” and that the commercial district around the campus is “pretty much pathetic.”

Highly educated and paid UMD staff and faculty have few reasons to live in the city.  Because there isn’t much of a center outside the campus, faculty and staff have no compelling reason to live in College Park, especially because [Prince George’s County’s] schools lag those of certain other jurisdictions.”

He attributes this partly to the fact that Maryland’s North Campus grew quickly during an era when planners were more focused on accommodating drivers, not pedestrians:

By contrast the University of Michigan’s central campus is much more compact and is enveloped by the city around it. But the fact that the North Campus developed during the 1950s and 1960s and is typical of universities developed in that period is instructive.
North Campus too is disconnected from the community and cloistered.  As a result, students don’t spend much time there and don’t like living there. 

Note that as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore leaks out from its campus into Charles Village, that has provided a new source of revitalization energy to that neighborhood.  The university has also significantly expanded its community connection and outreach effort.

Not all memorable college towns are the same. Places like Madison, Wis., Ann Arbor., Mich., Boulder, Colo. and Chapel Hill, N.C. are cities unto themselves, whereas College Park is a city, a suburb and a college town all in one.

And in some ways it’s easy to beat up on College Park and the University of Maryland. The university made the historically bad decision in the 1970s to convince Metro planners not to put the Green Line station on campus (this research paper discusses possible motivations). This means students and faculty today — although on the same line as Columbia Heights, Gallery Place, Nationals Park, etc. — are generally forced to take a shuttle or drive to get there.

For college students, many of whom do not own cars, this disconnect from nightlife, concerts, sporting events and the like is a significant drawback. It’s also one that celebrated college towns in major urban areas, such as Cambridge, Mass. or Berkeley, Calif., do not face. Getting from those campuses to the big city is much easier.

College Park  Mayor Andrew M. Fellows said that proximity can be a drawback, however, when trying to convince graduate students and faculty to live in town. Unlike a number of years ago, he said a “very small percentage” of university faculty live in College Park today.

“Like Cambridge, like Berkeley, like other universities that are next to big cities, we are close enough to the nation’s capital that we are really competing for people with a major international city,” he said.

Fellows said there was reason for optimism in the College Park City University Partnership, a collaboration between the city and the university being headed by smart growth booster Eric Olson.

He said the university used to make announcements about development plans — like those for the East Campus — without giving city officials a heads-up. “We read about it in the newspaper. They had not told us what they were going to do,” Fellows said.

With the new coordination, there are efforts afoot to get a Purple Line stop on campus and to develop land around the Metro station. Students and alumni were saddened recently to hear that the Thirsty Turtle lost its liquor license and that Ratsie’s Pizza will close later this year, but Fellows is hoping he can persuade those students to stay once they have grown out of their cap and gown.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” he said. “Until you have a mixture of graduate students, faculty, young faculty, children growing up, it’s harder to get retail that’s not just pizza.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz