Photo by UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay on Flickr.

Rumors are flying about potential locations for a new $600 million regional medical center in Prince George’s County. Some point to a huge, low-

density, car-oriented medical campus. A transit-oriented site at one of the County’s underused Metro stations would be a much better choice for patients, visitors, and the county in general.

It’s hard to tell which way county officials lean. They mention that Metro station sites are under consider­ation. At the same time, they’ve talked about needing 100 to 120 acres of land for a regional medical center.

100 acres means a suburban, automobile-oriented layout, not a Metro station site. But why need it be 100 acres, or any specific number? Farm fields are measured in acres. Medical facilities should be measured in number of hospital beds and square feet.

Major hospital complexes can use far less space, and do so efficiently, if they are designed to be transit-oriented. A more compact site design will allow room for the facility to grow and will better connect to a nearby mix of housing, retail, and other uses that would thrive on a large workforce and steady stream of visitors. A design with great pocket parks and plazas would create health benefits by encouraging walking and offering cleaner air through transit. It would also ensure access to new jobs for those without cars.

Housing a leading regional medical center at one of Prince George’s several underused Metro stations is a tremendous opportunity for the county. The regional medical center will be a major investment to address health care needs for the county, Southern Maryland and the region. It also brings to Prince George’s one of the most important economic development opportunities in many years.

UCSF shows the way

Prince George’s County should look to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)‘s Medical Center at Mission Bay for an example of a transit-oriented medical center.  The Mission Bay complex will anchor a medical and biotech research cluster that is attracting young professionals to live, work, and play in an emerging neighborhood built on old industrial land and rail yards.

UCSF is adding 3 hospitals to its current 43-acre satellite research campus for a total of 878,000 square feet, but it will only take up 15 acres. This expansion will add 289 beds and give the new complex a 58-acre footprint.

Mission Bay has great public transportation access, including two stops of the new Third Street light rail line and the local bus system. Transportation assessments of current users show most get to the UCSF Mission Bay facility by a mode other than single-passenger cars: 25% ride with others, 23% take light rail or other transit, 9% walk or bike, and 43% drive alone.

Making the proposed center a truly regional destination requires connecting it to the region while offering a distinctive experience once you arrive. Metrorail access and walkable design can create that connectivity and sense of place.  A sprawling hospital campus that requires patients and visitors to drive from one parking lot to the next will not. Navigating a campus like that is frustrating, stressful, and can put patients and workers at risk, particularly those with mobility challenges.

Beyond smart growth advocates, industry leaders also see transit-oriented development as the future. Eric Fischer, Managing Director of Trammell Crow Healthcare Services, a major real estate development company commented, “A hospital on Metro is a good thing. It provides easy and affordable accessibility for workers, patients, and vendors. It would be an unfortunate opportunity for Prince George’s not to deeply consider the use of one of its Metro stations for such a facility.  We have found that public transportation is a key component to the long-term viability for these kinds of institutions.”

Landover Mall and Bowie State are not adequate substitutes

Rumors suggest that the Landover Mall site, more than a mile from the nearest Metro, is a leading contender. It’s a long, unpleasant walk from Metro at a time when the county has sufficient vacant land at Metro stations like Largo Town Center, Morgan Boulevard, and Branch Avenue. 

The Bowie State University MARC station may also be in the running. While MARC commuter rail offers a certain level of transit access, it provides a fraction of what Metrorail service provides: dozens versus hundreds of trains during the week, with no MARC service on weekends.

Running a hospital requires 3 rush hours and a 24 hour, 7 days per week schedule. MARC simply doesn’t have the frequency or operating hours to meet more than a small portion of the access needs. Also, the outside-the-beltway Bowie site is far from where most county residents live, forcing long trips for many, whether staff or patients.

Locating the new medical center at a Metro station is a key part of a strategy that will attract and retain workers.  With a great walkable design, it can also draw in the large share of Prince George’s residents who currently leave the county for their healthcare. Prince George’s and the state of Maryland should seize this opportunity and build a truly transit-oriented medical center.

Cheryl Cort is Policy Director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She works with community activists, non-profit groups and government agencies to promote transit-oriented development, housing choices, economic development and pedestrian safety, especially in less affluent communities.

Marion Phillips is the Communications and Organizational Development Intern for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. She came to the Coalition in February to gain valuable experience in the smart growth world before heading to get her Masters of City and Regional Planning from Georgia Institute of Technology in August.