Even the developers of the proposed Westphalia town center project in Prince George’s County realize that it’s a fool’s errand to build a sprawling edge city on a rural greenfield that’s disconnected from transit. But will county leaders figure it out?
William Doherty, CEO of Canadian firm Walton International Group, recently spoke to local business leaders about the proposed 480-acre development in southern Prince George’s, which will have 4.5 million square feet of office, 1.4 million square feet of retail, 600 hotel rooms, and 5,000 homes. Walton wants to lure the new FBI headquarters as well.
Doherty acknowledged that Westphalia’s location was a problem. “There will be 15,000 jobs at Westphalia…and there is no [transit] service,” he said. He wants the county or state to build a $75 million bus rapid transit line to the Branch Avenue Metro station and a $150 million new interchange at Pennsylvania Avenue and Suitland Parkway. Doherty said Walton is even “willing to” pay a portion of the cost.
County and state officials have shown no willingness to back away from this ill-advised project. In fact, they’re planning to help the developers out by building expensive new infrastructure at public expense, even as the county’s 15 Metro stations languish from underdevelopment.
Westphalia was born of bad policy and corrupt politics
Former county executive Jack Johnson and former council chair Jim Estepp first conceived Westphalia with former District 6 county councilman Samuel Dean and two developers, Patrick Ricker and Daniel Colton. In 2007, they worked to secure the approval of an elaborate master plan that upzoned this rural area into a major regional mixed-use center.
Five years earlier, the county had adopted its 2002 Approved General Plan, which stressed transit-oriented development around Metro stations and revitalization of existing communities inside the Beltway. The 2005 Countywide Green Infrastructure Master Plan identifies most of Westphalia as an area of countywide environmental significance, given its vast forest lands.
Although the 2002 General Plan had identified Westphalia as a “possible future” community center, it in no way suggested that the area should be prioritized for development ahead of the county’s existing Metro stations and its existing inner-Beltway communities. Indeed, developing at Westphalia at that juncture seemed to be contrary to all of the county’s stated development goals and priorities. Nevertheless, the 2007 Westphalia Sector plan sailed through the Planning Board and the County Council.
Then came the Great Recession, which pretty much stalled all significant development projects across the region, good and bad. And if that wasn’t enough, toward the end of 2010, the FBI arrested county executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, bringing to light the long-running federal corruption and bribery investigation of the Johnson administration, arising out of a series of development-related schemes. The Johnsons, Patrick Ricker, and many others pled guilty and went to prison, while Colton still awaits sentencing.
Walton swooped in to resurrect a failed idea on the cheap
The Great Recession and the corruption scandal had left the Westphalia project all but dead on the vine. Ricker and Colton had defaulted on their loan, and Wells Fargo had foreclosed on the property. This would have been a perfect time for the county to reevaluate the Westphalia plan and the suburban sprawl strategy that undergirded it.
Unfortunately, a bad idea doesn’t die that easily. Shortly after Rushern Baker’s election as county executive in 2010, his administration signaled that Westphalia would continue to receive significant county backing. In June 2011, Baker’s spokesperson Scott Peterson said, “the [Westphalia] development is important to the residents of the community and the county, and we’ll be working hard to keep the project on line.”
In February 2012, Walton purchased the property from Wells Fargo for $29.5 million, with the full blessing of the Baker administration. Aubrey Thagard, assistant deputy chief administrative officer for economic development, stated that the administration was “encouraged by [Walton’s] approach in terms of the quality of development that would come to Prince George’s County.”
Walton has already secured a $150 million commitment from Governor Martin O’Malley to build the Pennsylvania Avenue/Suitland Parkway interchange. While the county leadership supports Greenbelt over Westphalia for the FBI headquarters, it still enthusiastically supports the creation of a new edge city that District 6 councilmember Derrick Leon Davis hopes will one day rival the county’s largest city, Bowie.
The county’s support of Westphalia will continue to stifle real TOD
At a groundbreaking ceremony in June, Councilmember Davis stated that Westphalia represented a “new era in Prince George’s County.” But it’s really just a continuation of the same “business as usual” approach that has resulted in the county having 15 of the least developed Metro station areas in Greater Washington and virtually no transit-oriented walkable urban places.
It’s also the reason that the county now has more than 2,000 miles (and more than 5,000 lane-miles) of roadways that it is responsible for maintaining. Many of these existing roads lack sufficient lighting, sidewalks, and pedestrian signaling, even around Metro stations, which often leads to deadly results.
Westphalia will require scores of miles of additional roads that the county will have to maintain. And a project as large as Westphalia would siphon away most of the development opportunities around nearby Metro stations, like Largo Town Center and Branch Avenue, for decades to come.
Westphalia is also fairly close to the former Landover Mall site, which has been shuttered for more than a decade and is now in need of new investment. While the Landover Mall site is also not Metro accessible, it is at least inside the Beltway, already has the roadways and other infrastructure to support dense mixed-use development, and doesn’t require developing farmland.
Councilman Davis suggests that it’s possible for Prince George’s County to “walk and chew bubble gum” at the same time: that is, to support suburban edge city projects like Westphalia while simultaneously supporting TOD at places like Largo Town Center, both of which are in his district. But the hard truth is that the county cannot successfully pursue sprawl development and transit-oriented development at the same time.
County planners note that growth in the wrong places causes the county to “miss significant opportunities to better utilize our transit infrastructure and capture forecasted regional demand for new housing and jobs.” Furthermore, sprawling development patterns put the county in an economic bind by causing it to expend crucial resources “to expand, duplicate, and maintain new infrastructure, in addition to maintaining the existing infrastructure in mature communities.”
I suggested in my recent policy paper that the county should rezone Westphalia to a rural or very low density zone and focus its attention on bringing true high-quality transit-oriented development to its Metro stations, in keeping with its stated development priorities. It will take an incredible amount of political courage and will for county leaders to do so, given their previous full-throated support of this project.
Likely the only way they would even consider doing it is if there were a significant response from the community for a new direction. Knowing my fellow citizens, that’s a very tall order indeed.