Photo by Gino Carteciano on Flickr.

Discussion of a massive residential and retail development that will house Prince George’s County’s first Whole Foods Market is bringing forth the usual anxieties around growth. It represents a series of dangers and difficulties, but if done right, it could bring positive change to a county in need of an economic boost.

The Cafritz property, located on East-West Highway between Baltimore Avenue (US Route 1) and the CSX railroad tracks in University Park, is about a mile south of the College Park Metro/MARC station (and just a few blocks west of the Riverdale MARC station).

Current plans call for several high-end retail spaces in addition to the Whole Foods, along with town homes and condos. Yet the current design would greatly alter the shape of the surrounding neighborhood and would serve to reinforce auto dependence, though it would be just up Baltimore Avenue from the burgeoning (and quite walkable) Hyattsville Arts District.

At Monday night’s University Park town council meeting, concerns were aired that the development would generate excessive storm water run-off, poor access for public services, and much, much more traffic. At the same time, the enterprise’s economic prospects were questioned: some characterized the design as “another strip mall” where no one could live , shop, or navigate the traffic even if they wished.

Current designs would worsen the traffic problem by only allowing cars to flow on and off of the two arterials, blocking access to neighborhood streets.

The developers, who put up a glossy website using Whole Foods’ cachet to promote the project, are nevertheless deliberately vague about their plans while they seek initial rezoning of the property. There is still some doubt as to the soundness of Cafritz’ business prospects, and about the company’s ability to produce a successful design that would draw customers and residents.

There have certainly been false starts around large scale projects in the area: Wells Fargo recently repossessed the nearby University Town Center, to name one example. But as census data suggests, the DC Metro area is growing relentlessly, and the Route 1 corridor from Mt. Rainier through Hyattsville, Riverdale Park and College Park, will be an important axis of future growth. This will become an increasingly urban area.

Smart growth demands that property around the principal arteries be rezoned from single family to mixed use, especially in areas well-served by mass transit. The 80s Metrobuses provide frequent service along Route 1, Metro’s Green Line is nearby, and proposed service expansions would make MARC’s Camden Line a more potent transit corridor. As the council members recognized, change is coming, and the real challenge before them is to shape that change in a way that enhances the quality of life rather than worsening congestion.

The town wants the county and state to help fund a $15 million bridge over the railroad for rear access to the property from Lafayette Avenue. It will be challenging to get that kind of commitment in this fiscal climate, but it would be one of the best uses of Council members’ political capital.

The Council’s discussion accentuated every possible risk, leading a casual observer to think that the project faces a significant political hurdle. Nevertheless, the majority of the Council is confident that the development will succeed, voting to provide $5,000 for a market analysis of its impact, which, as Mayor John Tabori noted, would only measure the “negative externalities” and not the positive ones that could come from a less car-oriented design.

Strangely, there was no mention of jobs, which is a top concern of many voters, particularly in Prince George’s. Also lacking was discussion of the value to consumers of new retail opportunities, or of increased property values, or of new sales tax revenues for a town and county overly dependent on property taxes to make up its $2.5 billion annual budget (although it should be noted that Maryland’s sales tax exempts unprepared food sales).

Councilmember Jacqueline Bradley Chacon (Ward 7) took a larger view in a letter to her colleagues, noting that encouraging and meeting the needs of consumers with educated tastes would allow for more diversity and more retail outlets, and attract more like-minded residents. Prince George’s County is obviously not overflowing with these kinds of choices. Retail sales and sales taxes leak out of the county, and with those retail sales go badly needed jobs.

It is important to understand and work to mitigate the risks of such a major development, but one must also step back and take in a larger view that balances those risks with a sense of the rewards. Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of those rewards tend not to go to council meetings.