Wednesday, December 11, 2013 10:19 AM
Published on: Wednesday, October 03, 2012
By Annika McGinnis
Despite fierce opposition from College Park residents and City Council members, the Prince George’s County Planning Board approved a revised plan for the redevelopment of the Maryland Book Exchange Sept. 13 and sent it to the District Council for review Sept. 20.
In deliberations that lasted more than seven hours, the planning board heard “extensive” testimony from the city, the developer and citizens, said Andrea Davey, spokesperson for the planning board. The board ultimately decided to approve the project, which includes plans for the construction of an enormous three to six-story apartment complex in front of the University of Maryland and bordered by Yale Avenue, College Avenue and Route 1.
Now, the plan will move forward, but not without extensive opposition from the city.
On Sept. 11, the College Park City Council unanimously ruled to send back to the developer the revised plan because of widespread community backlash. The council found the new plan didn’t adequately address concerns such as the building’s height, pedestrian safety and cohesion with the town’s historical architecture.
At the council meeting, angry residents told council members they found the new plan “offensive,” “a lost opportunity” and an “affront to the neighborhood.” They said it would set a bad precedent for future developments, including the Greenbelt Metro Area and MD-193 Corridor Sector Plan currently in the works.
“I can’t believe it,” said Kelly Lueschow, of Norwich Road, who said the plan seemed to be a “direct action” to make the development “as ugly as possible.”
“I really just cannot believe it, to think that the developer has taken into consideration the surrounding architecture, the University of Maryland, Old Town, Calvert Hills,” Lueschow said. “I’m almost speechless.”
The council’s official position, which was passed Sept. 11, said the proposed building, especially its huge, two-story, sloping roof, metal corner features and lack of a landscaped courtyard, would be “monolithic and insensitive” to the character of the neighborhood.
In July, the Prince George’s County Council found the original plan did not comply with the Route 1 sector plan, which sets standards for development along the highway, including a rule that developments next to neighborhoods cannot be taller than three stories. The original plan showed a six-story building along Route 1 stepping down to four stories on the side facing the residential neighborhood.
The council sent it back to the developer, New York-based R&J Company, LLC, for revisions, but residents said the revised plan was just as bad.
“What we have here still is an enormous five- to six-story structure that would tower over our historic district and the small historic residential buildings across the street at this site,” said Old Town Civic Association Vice President Bob Schnabel at the council meeting.
But at the planning board’s meeting Sept. 13, an attorney for the developer, Michele La Rocca, said the new plan complies with all sector plan regulations. The new plan shows a six-story building along Route 1 stepping down to three stories on the neighborhood side. La Rocca added much of the plan, including the “open space” and the “30-foot-wide sidewalks” are “far in excess” of what the sector plan requires.
But council members said the addition of a “massive” two-story roof, the council wrote, was just to hide the building’s true height. Councilmember Marcus Afzali, District 4, said the addition of the roof reminded him of a child told they can’t go out to play until they clean their room.
“So they take all their toys and clothes and shove them in the closet and jam the closet shut and then say they’re done,” Afzali said. “And then, of course, everything falls all over the floor. And that’s basically what this roof is in the back. They’re not complying with what they’re told to do; they’re just hiding it; they’re not doing it.”
But La Rocca said the developer chose the large, sloping roof to make the building compatible with the surrounding architecture. It had “nothing to do” with the number of stories, she said.
“You could have a flat roof, but why would you have a flat roof?” La Rocca said at the planning board meeting. “Residential buildings don’t typically have flat roofs. You want this to be more residential in character.”
Despite long, often hostile arguing between both sides, the planning board ultimately voted in favor of the developer. Now, the plan will move before the District Council.
According to Elizabeth Hewlett, the chairman of the planning board, this is the only point of agreement between the opposing groups.
“About the only thing that both sides agree on is that this is going up before the District Council,” she said. “And it’s likely to be in Circuit Court. It’s moving along, whatever happens.”