Livingston Road at Indian Head Hwy.

Located on the outer fringes of the Washington region, well outside the Favored Quarter, Accokeek is a very quiet, very low-density area of far southern Prince George’s County.  Since it is both low-density, and miles from the Favored Quarter it lacks many retail and employment amenities that residents in the core of the region often take for granted.  It is no surprise that some residents are hopeful that a

new mega-project could change the current status quo. However, development so far from the metropolitan core probably won’t bring the benefits that the group, called the Accokeek Smart Growth Coalition, hopes.

First off, it’s unlikely that the new Accokeek Crossing development would have a human-scale street grid. It is proposed as single-use retail, making the automobile the only way to travel to the stores.  Secondly, how can it support retail activity in a place with so few potential customers?  Finally, and most importantly, there is no transit planned for the Indian Head Highway corridor.  Transit plans with light rail to Southern Maryland usually envision transit along the Branch Avenue corridor, to connect with the Metro at the Branch Avenue station.  It runs the same risk as the Belward Farm proposal in Gaithersburg: supposed “Transit-Oriented Development” without the transit.  It would have all the disadvantages of the National Harbor development without the true human-scale street grid (PDF).

Despite reservations about this proposal, I understand why a group of residents would be hopeful for new development in their area:

But members of the Accokeek Smart Growth Coalition [a group that is, ironically, pushing for something that is clearly not Smart Growth], a community organization pushing for development in the area, said the proposal would be a high-end project that would reduce shopping commute times, spark business growth and allow residents to spend more time closer to home. Hopes are high for restaurants and fine retailers for clothing and electronics, but no stores are lined up for the project, which is in the early stages of development.

"I’m tired of living in my car,” said Chuck Clagett, coalition vice president. “We’re all driving somewhere [far away in order to perform daily functions of life].”

Without knowing it, Mr. Clagett expressed one of the most compelling arguments against dispersed low-density car-dependent human settlement patterns.  Just like residents of the Open Meadow Lane subdivision in Prince William County, he is describing the suburban/exurban trade-off between “affordable” housing and torturously long commute times.  In the case of car-dependent places outside the Favored Quarter like Accokeek, and Prince William County, the trade-off is even more striking as residents have to drive far away for most retail, restaurant, and entertainment amenities in addition to the commute to work.

In the case of this specific proposal, it looks unlikely:

County planners said rezoning the area would be a hard sell because Accokeek was never meant to house large shopping centers and commercial developments. “Accokeek is not a growth area,” said Wendy Irminger, a county planning coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “Smart Growth requires a place where public money will go to support it.”

Irminger is stating the the obvious in this case.  During the bubble years in the middle of this decade, our nation saw far more suburban and exurban retail space built than it could use.  Since then, the bubble popped and many developers are on the brink of insolvency because of all the unfilled retail space.  However, these conditions bring up the question, “where we go from here?”  The Prince George’s County Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission would be prudent to not make the problem worse with this project.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.