An array of officials who are usually reliably pro-Smart Growth have teamed up with College Park’s Old Town Civic Association (OTCA) in an effort to quash the proposed Book Exchange project.

The 6-story mixed-use development could bring 830 student beds to downtown College Park along with roughly 170 beds geared towards grad students and young professionals. But opponents would prefer less student-oriented development on the site.

The debate has become almost farcical. Handpicked neighborhood committees are staking their positions and misinformation and hysteria abound in a way that we have not seen with any other project.

The developer has not even submitted formal plans yet or presented the concept to the City Council, yet the battle lines have already formed. Most key decisionmakers, including County Councilman and longtime Smart Growth proponent Eric Olson, have aligned themselves squarely against the project.

At the starting gate, the project seems almost destined for a court battle. It completely satisfies existing zoning, yet most of the local political establishment opposes it anyway. The demand for housing and policies in the Route 1 Sector Plan have taken a back seat to an anti-student hysteria brewing among a handful of the most politically active and vocal Old Town residents.

A letter dated October 1 from OTCA sums up adjacent neighbors’ opposition:

We shall be completely marginalized and without hope should this project go forward. …

OTCA believes the influx of up to 1,000 more undergraduates would symbolize “kiss of death,” for College Park’s downtown, as the likelihood of more upscale, adult-oriented eateries and shops would forever be lost to sandwich shops and fast food venues, the market of choice targeted to undergraduates. If downtown is completely dominated by undergraduate residents, it will not attract more diverse retail. If this project goes forward, the opportunity to change the nature of downtown will forever be lost. …

We cannot support the proposed development at the Maryland Book Exchange, as it is likely to have grave and irreversible impacts on our community.

The basic premises behind opposition to the Book Exchange redevelopment are faulty. City Councilwoman (and supporter of the project) Chris Nagle puts the situation best:

The project will not result in an increased enrollment at the University of Maryland. Student housing at the Maryland Book Exchange location will provide students who want to live within walking distance of UMD and downtown College Park with an alternative to living in Old Town.

I thought that was what the residents of Old Town wanted: for students to move out of existing single family and into multi-unit student housing dwellings. The developer is working with residents and has sought their input into the commercial component of the project.

OCTA voted unanimously (24-0) on September 27th against the project. Unfortunately, people who are supposed to be voices of reason in the community are instead playing to its deepest fears. The neighborhood has convinced itself that its very future is in jeopardy.

This gut emotional reaction stems from the development’s proximity to the neighborhood, not on any reality of its potential impacts to the community. In fact, the project would create the exact reverse effect than what residents fear: it will contribute to draining students out of single-family homes.

We’re not saying that there isn’t room for adjustments around the edges. Rethink College Park has already proposed that the developer seek the Maryland Food Co-op as a tenant for the ground floor retail space. The developer should also look at ways to better ensure graduate students can comfortably occupy part of the complex.

If construction of student housing isn’t the long term solution to what ails Old Town, what is?