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After slow progress, College Park moving quickly toward 'real college town' goals

Revamped plans include a new hotel on campus, more student housing and retail

By Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun

5:00 AM EST, January 2, 2014

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A gleaming new apartment building with restaurants and bars on the ground floor has replaced an old pizza place and tire shop. A new Whole Foods will sprout up just down the road. A four-star hotel and bike lanes are planned.

The changes are part of a longer-term effort to transform U.S. 1 — the University of Maryland, College Park's main drag — from a jumbled mix of strip malls and fast-food joints. After a decade of slow progress, the building spree jump-starts a plan to remake the city of College Park into a "real" college town.

University officials say that as the institution has leaped ahead in rankings and prestige, College Park has lagged, hurting recruitment of faculty and students. They want College Park, where only about 4 percent of faculty and staff live, to be more appealing to them as well as to graduate and undergraduate students.

"It's more important now than it was 20 years ago that where I go to study and where I go to work has a lot to offer," said Carlo Colella, an assistant vice president overseeing the university's facilities. "It's not enough for me to go to my school or my job and drive home. People are wanting to be in a more vibrant, richer environment."

Last year, the university abandoned the centerpiece of its redevelopment plans — a mixed-use project with a movie theater and price tag of up to $900 million on a 38-acre parcel called East Campus — that had stalled amid the recession.

Instead, university and city officials said, they plan to approach redevelopment in more manageable chunks. And the plan is no longer being referred to as East Campus, though officials have not settled on a new name.

The new vision is for a more urban-looking U.S. 1, with student housing and retail. Projects in the works or recently completed along U.S. 1 include a planned Whole Foods — Prince George's County's first — about a mile south of campus and the hotel envisioned at the campus' main gateway.

The Knox Boxes, a notoriously decrepit cluster of off-campus housing that don't have fire sprinklers, are slated for the bulldozer — to be replaced by midrise, mixed-use housing and retail starting next year.

And state officials recently announced $20 million for the early stages of rebuilding U.S. 1, expected to cost at least $100 million in total with bike lanes and other features.

"This is not a 30-year plan," said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents College Park and chairs the university-government partnership. "This is a 'make dramatic progress in the next few years' plan."

Through a partnership between city, county and university officials, the plan to make College Park a "top-20 college town" by 2020 is now progressing quickly, officials said.

Key parts of the strategy are already in place, such as adding campus police patrols off-campus to improve public safety and a university-affiliated charter school to entice employees who may be wary of sending their children to county schools.

David S. Iannucci, an economic development adviser for Prince George's County, said that in addition to other planned projects, there is "very serious discussion" about redevelopment of the main College Park shopping center at U.S. 1 and Knox Road.

Officials also are looking at potential spots for a gallery space for Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, he said. The university recently announced it would explore a partnership with the Corcoran.

Suddenly, nothing seems off the table.

"People have talked aggressively about taking down the telephone lines to improve the aesthetics," Iannucci said.

Sam Zwerling, a senior who is the Student Government Association president, said students still find nightlife options lacking and would be happy to see a movie theater or a comedy club in the city.

"Students feel like, 'My options are to go drink or to watch Netflix in my room, and there's not much else to do on a Saturday night in College Park,' " she said.

If her parents visit, Zwerling said, she takes them to Busboys and Poets in nearby Hyattsville because College Park has few non-chain dining options. She is similarly forced to go outside the city for most shopping needs. Visits to Bloomington, home of Indiana University, and Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin, opened her eyes to what a vibrant college town could be, she said.

Officials approved a U.S. 1 redevelopment plan in 2002, but few projects got off the ground. Then the recession hit. Those working on the project now say the East Campus plans were so ambitious that they made execution difficult.

Colella compared that "huge project" to "a big plane trying to get off the ground."

Town-gown relations also grew tense several years ago, in part over the planned Montgomery-to-Prince George's Purple Line. C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., the previous president of the University of Maryland, College Park, opposed the light rail line's running through the heart of campus, fearing pedestrians would be injured by trains and that the electromagnetic lines would disrupt sensitive research equipment.

Those concerns were put to rest under Wallace D. Loh, who became president in late 2010. And the line, if it gets federal funding, is expected to be a key piece of making the campus more accessible when it opens around 2020.

"The city and the university have embraced each other in a way that hasn't occurred before," Iannucci said. Projects also suffered in the past from "a failure to grasp the need to transfer plans to reality" and "the lack of a 'do it now' or 'let's make it happen' mentality" among key players, he added.

Not all proposals have gone smoothly. This fall, a developer dropped a plan to build housing and retail on one-third of the university's 150-acre golf course after opposition from the community and elected officials.

But other projects are moving forward. Plans call for a 300-room, four-star hotel with 10,000 square feet of conference space and retail and restaurants on the ground floor. Officials say they have not hammered out other details yet.

University System of Maryland officials approved last month the sale of 3 acres at the corner of U.S. 1 and Paint Branch Parkway to the College Park Foundation, the university's fundraising arm.

The sale will allow the university to maintain some control over the hotel, to be built by Southern Management Corp. developer David Hillman for less than $100 million, while insulating it from the risk of full ownership, USM officials said. The hotel still requires more approvals.

Development officials also see potential in College Park's Metro station, which is a mile from campus and has relatively little development surrounding it. A planned expansion of a research park will house offices for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other employers.

In addition, officials hope to fix a historic housing shortage and lure students out of the single-family homes east of U.S. 1, making Old Town and other residential neighborhoods more attractive for families.

The Maryland Book Exchange on U.S. 1 and College Avenue was demolished this fall, slated to be replaced by another midrise housing and retail building. A total of about 6,000 beds in student housing have been built or are planned, mostly along the western edge of U.S. 1.

Real estate in the College Park area remains cheaper than in much of the Washington region, and officials hope that will be a draw as families are priced out of other areas.

Rents for the new student housing are on the expensive end of the College Park market, often about $900 a month for a room in a shared apartment. University officials said they hoped increased competition would make rents more affordable.

Zwerling said she was concerned that the new housing did not take affordability into consideration and was out of the price range for moderate- to low-income students.

"There's a huge lack of affordable housing in College Park, and prices are a huge reason why students live back in Old Town, because they find that it's cheaper," she said. "There's a large percentage of our student population that's paying their own way through school with loans. We should be making sure that students have the ability to live affordably."

Today, U.S. 1 has a somewhat gap-toothed appearance, with abandoned lots and buildings near the new buildings that have sprung up. But the university hopes the streetscape will improve as more development gets under way.

"It's not going to be Manhattan, but it can be a pocket of urbanized development where you spend most of your time without having to get in your car and having to drive someplace else," Colella said.

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