Yesterday, I talked about how Prince George’s County planners want to create “downtown” areas around 2 or 3 of the county’s Metro stations. But will the county direct growth to the right places, and will this new policy actually discourage suburban sprawl?

At a town hall meeting last Saturday, county planners presented 3 Metro stations, College Park, Prince George’s Plaza, and New Carrollton, that could be sites for potential “downtowns.” They would become Priority Improvement Districts (PIDs) which would get extra public investment to encourage private development. 3 other stations, Greenbelt, Largo Town Center, and Branch Avenue, were dubbed “game changers” that could become downtowns in the future.

This is a welcome step toward steering the county’s growth toward transit sites and away from greenfields in distant, car-dependent areas. However, there are still questions about whether the county is picking the right centers, what to do with the other Metro station areas, and how the county will handle development away from Metro.

Are we using the right methodology to identify the best “downtown” locations?

How should we decide where a downtown goes? Historically, cities grew from areas with some geographic asset, like a confluence of rivers or an important rail junction, but Prince George’s County has used very different criteria.

Planners developed a PID Diagnostic Index to analyze the county’s 27 “activity centers” and decide which ones were best suited for a downtown. They gave the most weight to dynamic conditions, like current population demographics, the presence of large employers, and crime rates, while downplaying static features that could provide opportunities for growth, like undeveloped land, the lack of steep slopes or flood plains, or proximity to transit, including Metro, bus, and MARC.

While the 6 places they came up with make sense, it’s strange to see Metro and MARC stations like Suitland, Riverdale, and Cheverly also ranked among the county’s top 10 “highest performing” areas. M-NCPPC’s 2010 Subregion 4 Master Plan said these areas weren’t suitable for private investment, citing low household incomes, and a lack of existing private investment and developable land. Instead, planners recommended focusing on places like the Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard Metro stations, which offered “the best market opportunities for near-term development” in central Prince George’s County. Yet, Addison Road and Morgan Boulevard appear nowhere on the top 10 list. This doesn’t instill confidence in county planners’ current analysis.

Largo Town Center: A promising high performer underrated in the PID Diagnostic Index. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It’s also strange that Largo Town Center wasn’t rated more favorably than College Park, Prince George’s Plaza, or New Carrollton. Largo is centrally located, is on the Blue and eventually Silver lines and major highways, has significant commercial activity, reasonably high income and education levels, and a large number of government offices. Matt Johnson recently called it the prime location for the new county seat. Unlike New Carrollton, Largo has lots of land available for redevelopment that isn’t constrained by flood plains.

It’s likely that, had M-NCPPC considered other models that weighted each factor differently, other stations may have come out on top in some of those alternate models. It might be a good idea for the planners to rethink some of these models and rankings, in an effort to arrive at a more realistic ranking of stations.

What about the other Metro stations?

While 2 or 3 downtowns would receive extra help from the county, the rest of the 27 activity centers would have to fend for themselves in the private market, according to the strategy proposed at the town hall forum. This logic flies in the face of previous M-NCPPC studies and findings, which indicate that there isn’t enough of a market in the near term to spur development at most of the county’s Metro stations without public help.

TOD next to the Morgan Boulevard Metro station. Photo from Google Street View.

It’s also unclear that a singular focus on creating “downtowns,” as opposed to other station typologies, is the best strategy for the county. Previous M-NCPPC planning efforts called for a “corridor strategy” that pursues coordinated development and planning of several transit station areas along a major transportation route. Planners are working on two such efforts now, along the Blue Line and the southern end of the Green Line. The development of non-downtown station areas along these corridors may likewise require public commitment, focus, and financial support.

Representatives from M-NCPPC and the county haven’t clearly explained why they’ve changed their focus, nor have they provided any data showing that the private market will be organically motivated to redevelop existing station areas in the short term, with no financial incentives or strategic support from the county. While it’s not realistic to expect that all 27 centers or even the areas around all 15 Metro stations will be redeveloped at once, it may be advisable to pursue more of a middle-ground approach.

The county could still direct a lot of public investment to the downtowns, while providing some additional, targeted aid to other Metro station areas, like the “game changers” or other high-potential urban neighborhood sites like West Hyattsville and Addison Road. This could include building street grids where they don’t exist, filling in the sidewalk and bike lane network, and assembling land for private development.

Other stations, like Morgan Boulevard, might need fewer public infrastructure improvements, since there’s a lot of vacant and developable land around the Metro station and it’s owned mostly by the county and WMATA. But they could use marketing and branding support from the county and WMATA to encourage private development.

We also need a strategy for implementing these public investments. County TIF bonds are one possibility. Both existing or future municipalities, like the City of Greenbelt, could take more of a direct role in the redevelopment of non-PID Metro stations. We also need to decide which non-downtown stations should receive priority consideration.

Do “new towns” and other typologies make sense?

Plan Prince George’s 2035 continues to designate substantially vacant and undeveloped areas far away from transit, like Westphalia and Bowie (away from the MARC station), as planned growth areas. If the county wants to focus its energy on building 2 or 3 “downtowns,” and several other Metro station areas have room for development and a need for both private and public investment, why would we need any “new towns” in the near term?

Even if greenfield communities are fully paid for by the private sector, which is unlikely, the county would still have to pay for the infrastructure needed to sustain them, like roads, sewers, and schools. M-NCPPC should explain how “new town” centers thus fit logically into the county’s strategic land use priorities between now and 2035.

If we’re going to direct future development to transit, we need to ensure a strong connection between transit and land use. That means allowing more density around Metro, both to incentivize development, support high-quality retail and commercial uses, and create compact, walkable neighborhoods where people don’t have to drive. But it also means discouraging development of any density in areas far away from transit, which not only cannibalizes what private investment does come to the county, but further destabilizes closer-in communities.

According to M-NCPPC project leader Kierre McCune, work on Plan Prince George’s 2035 should end by next spring. If you’d like more information, visit their website to get updates, and follow the process on Twitter at #PlanPGC2035.

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George’s County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George’s County.