At the four corners of the original District of Columbia are four very distinct developments. In the south, Alexandria hugs the Potomac River as a classic example of a traditional city. On the west corner is Falls Church, a typical but up-and-coming Virginia suburb. In the north, Silver Spring sits atop the District’s crown showcasing the triumphant transition from a suburb to an urban place. And then there is the east, where lie “the Heights”.
The City of District Heights, the Town of Capitol Heights, the Town of Fairmount Heights, and the City of Seat Pleasant, four of Prince George’s County’s small municipalities, hug the eastern corner of the District. Each houses only a few thousand thousand residents, mostly in single family homes organized on traditional street grids bounded by arterial highways. The area is rich with Metro stations, served directly by Capitol Heights and Addison Road/Seat Pleasant on the Blue Line, and somewhat indirectly by nearby Cheverly on the Orange Line and Suitland on the Green Line.
Much of their origin parallels other Maryland suburbs like Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, and Mount Rainier. Though promised trolley service like the other towns, the early Heights towns never received a trolley. But with the exception of Fairmount Heights, they originally housed wealthy Washingtonians who wanted a quieter home with scenic views of the city. Capitol Heights even went so far as to promise “no colored people.” Fairmount Heights, on the other hand, was incorporated specifically to provide low-cost single-family houses to black families in a town that they could govern themselves.
Economically, the area has went downhill with suburbanization. A rebuilt Central Avenue became a sewer for high speed traffic, effectively cutting traffic off from the business core. Later, the Martin Luther King Highway did the same thing to the north. Currently, much of the commercial development in the area lies outside the municipal boundaries, mostly as low-grade sprawl-style strip malls along the highways.
The area has gained an unfortunate reputation, and undeservedly so. The towns continue to be strongly family oriented with relatively low crime compared to other nearby areas. Unfortunately, some perceive the demographics of this 90% black area in a negative light. The region has received disproportionally low investment, segregated from and spurned by the rest of the region. But despite the neglect this area faced, it might just be one of the more well kept secrets in the region.
These municipalities, like many others in Prince George’s County, have very well-connected traditional street layouts. There is quick access to DC, both vehicular and by transit. There’s immense capacity and opportunnity to improve this area. Unfortunately, Prince George’s County is also notorious for its poor use of real estate around Metro stations. In 2007, Capitol Heights was the 6th least-used station on the entire Metro system. With such a well connected road network and community oriented atmosphere, this might be one of the best candidates to improve walkability.
M-NCPPC has recognized the need for transit-oriented development in PG County, and has a vision for Capitol Heights Metro station. The University of Maryland’s school of Urban Planning studied (PDF) this area in 2003. These visions could transform “the Heights” into a hallmark example for transit-oriented development in Prince George’s County, and these communities would finally earn recognition as the cozy, friendly and convenient neighborhoods that they are.