A proposed mixed-use development at the Cafritz Property in Riverdale Park will now be a strip mall.

A mixed-use development right on Route 1 in Riverdale Park turned into a giant strip mall with a Whole Foods, after residents opposed the initial plan. But now residents fear the new plan will bring in too much traffic.

If residents want a more sustainable growth pattern in the area, they need to help the county step away from its history of suburban sprawl, such as by supporting walkable mixed-use projects like the original proposal. That’s the only realistic way to attract upscale amenities that residents crave without drawing even more traffic.

Despite being a haven for the black middle class, Prince George’s County has long struggled to attract the kind of high-end amenities found elsewhere in Greater Washington. Now, upscale grocer Whole Foods wants to locate in the county as part of a development called the Cafritz Property, located on a wooded, 35-acre site on Route 1 in Riverdale Park, between College Park and Hyattsville.

In an editorial yesterday, the Washington Post stated its support for the project. “It would be a grave mistake for the county to turn its back on precisely the sort of progress so many county residents say they want,” said the editorial board.

The store, located within a mile of a Metro station, and even closer to a MARC station and a future Purple Line station, would join an office building and a health club in a giant parking lot. Architect Jim Voelzke of Bethesda-based MV+A Architects, who designed the original plan, told Riverdale Park Patch that the new proposal’s “unique design” would reduce traffic.

According to the Patch, “A slew of parking will surround the Whole Foods ... which [Voelzke] hopes will alleviate some of the traffic issues expected along Route 1.” There’s no explanation how multiple parking lots laid out in typical suburban strip-mall-style would alleviate traffic issues.

Though this might seem like an inefficient use of land at a site in an established, inside-the-Beltway community, Riverdale Park mayor Vernon Archer wishes there were even less there. “If it were simply Whole Foods coming into town, I think there wouldn’t be that much debate,” he told the Examiner. “But the Whole Foods is an anchor for a larger mall and ... a substantial number of new housing units. The size of it is what is causing second thoughts.”

Four years ago, Cafritz proposed a much larger development on their property, saying they wanted to “[create] a point of pride” for the community. The project would have contained up to 2,000 apartments, 286,000 square feet of office and retail space, a 120-room hotel, and community space in buildings up to 12 stories high.

A new grid of streets would have tied the project in with surrounding neighborhoods, while creating a “comfortable and lively pedestrian experience,” in the words of the developers. The public would have gotten a new community building and series of parks and squares, and a wooded buffer along Route 1 would have separated the development from the single-family homes across the street in affluent University Park.

Cafritz 2007 Plan

2007 plan of Cafritz Property.

Cafritz 2008 Plan

2008 plan of Cafritz Property.

wholefoods

2011 plan of Cafritz Property.

Unfortunately, community response to the Cafritz Property development was negative from the beginning. In 2007, neighbors complained the project would be too dense and that the presence of a Whole Foods would create more congestion on busy Route 1, while the Riverdale Park Town Council has expressed concerns that it would create competition for their town center, a small block of mostly-vacant shops adjacent to the Riverdale MARC station.

In 2008, Cafritz returned with a less ambitious plan, containing half as many homes, a smaller grocery store, and buildings no taller than 7 floors. Where the original proposal could be seen from Route 1, the new plan made the initial move to make it nearly invisible to passersby, ensuring the difficult proposition of selling the site to retailers.

It’s ironic that residents of Riverdale Park and surrounding towns have been so opposed to any development at the Cafritz Property, given Prince George’s County’s long-standing struggle to attract upscale amenities. As one of the county’s more affluent sections, the Route 1 corridor has drawn a fair amount of development in recent years. A slew of student apartment buildings have been built in College Park, while work is beginning on a subdivision of luxury homes in adjacent University Park. At Arts District Hyattsville, trendy local restaurants including Tara Thai and Busboys and Poets have opened alongside hundreds of new rowhouses.

There have been struggles as well, however. A lack of foot traffic and visibility has already killed some businesses, like Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier, while luxury apartments sit empty at the massive University Town Center complex in Hyattsville, part of which was recently sold at auction.

If a store, especially an upscale one, is to locate survive in an area like Riverdale Park, it has to have a sufficient number of customers. Those customers could live within walking distance, if there are dense enough communities on site or nearby. Or, the store can draw customers from a large area by car, which would generate significant traffic.

In other words, a Whole Foods means either more buildings or more cars (or both); neither is not an option. The community would be better off going for the buildings and pushing for a design, and non-auto transportation choices, that minimize the associated traffic.

As Richard Layman pointed out yesterday, there are some legitimate concerns about traffic at the Cafritz Property. The site is located close to transit, though many visitors are likely to drive. The market’s weak enough that a mixed-use project here could cannibalize existing development at Arts District and University Town Center.

It’s possible that Cafritz will build the entire site out as originally planned, as articles in the Examiner, the Post and Patch all describe the larger 2008 proposal, but challenges remain. The developers still face major community opposition (with some exceptions) and a local retail market that’s reeling from the recession. They also have to change the zoning, which currently allows 220 single-family homes to be built on the site, to allow for commercial development.

Yet a strip mall is still an inappropriate and wasteful use of land in this location. Even if people drive to a site, clustering more stores and offices together allows one car trip to serve several needs. The classic suburban strip mall development pattern forces drivers to exit and re-enter a major boulevard multiple times in a single shopping trip. That’s one of the biggest sources of congestion.

The Cafritz Property developers should pursue a phased development, building the entire site as originally proposed in 2008 over time. Whole Foods alone isn’t enough to revitalize this area. But as the anchor of a new town center, it could improve the way people live and shop along Route 1.