Board Votes to Support Book Exchange Design
Patch is here with real-time updates from Upper Marlboro.
The Prince George's County Planning Board voted Thursday to support the revised design for a student-housing complex to replace the Maryland Book Exchange, a plan that the City of College Park Council unanimously voted to oppose a week and a half ago.
The board listened to testimony from the developers, College Park residents and staff for more than four hours in Upper Marlboro, before reaching a 4-1 decision to approve the design with conditions. This was the suggestion of the county planning staff, although the planning board didn’t adopt all the same conditions the staff outlined.
Below you'll find a blog with real-time updates from the hearing, including the debate over whether or not the design complies with the U.S. 1 Corridor Sector Plan, and its ability to fit in with the surrounding historic district.
The Prince George’s District Council will decide whether or not to hear the case next.
Board voted 4-1 to support the Book Exchange project with conditions. John P. Shoaff had the dissenting vote.
Planning Board member A. Shuanise Washington motions to adopt the findings of the county's planning staff, but only with some of the conditions proposed. Vice President Chair Dorothy F. Bailey seconds.
Washington said she finds the four-story stepback is adequate.
Curry suggested that the city's main concern with the property has to do with the use of student housing, despite arguments by city representatives that their concern is drawn from the size of the building and its ability to blend with the historic district.
He points to comments in a Dec. 27, 2011 Gazette article:
College Park Mayor Andrew Fellows said the initial plan was rejected because the city prefers that student housing be built on the west side of U.S. 1. The proposed development calls for construction on the road’s east side, which is near residential neighborhoods.
“The idea of putting undergraduate housing at this location takes opportunities away from us,” Fellows said, noting that keeping the current Maryland Book Exchange building allows for mixed-use development.
Read more from that Gazette article here.
City Attorney Ferguson argued the drop off of a six-story building to four stories is not gradual, and not a "stepback." The city does not support the county staff's second revised condition, which would require the developers to reduce the northern and southern corners of the east side of the building only to three stories, and to reduce the roof height.
La Rocca just went through the county staff conditions, explaining which ones they'd like eliminated and which they'd agree to.
The county staff conditions accompany this post as a PDF. (Please note that staff presented a few additional conditions today that are not included on this list.)
Newly elected City Councilman Robert Day (Dist. 3) criticized the size of the building, and that it extends throughout the entire block. “It doesn’t have to be that way," he said.
Kathleen Bryant, president of the Old Town Civic Association, criticized the density of the project.
"The bottom line is we love College Park, and we want to live with something that is compatible with our way of life," she said.
Jane Briggs, of the University of Maryland Administrative Affairs, said the university would like to see more development of the north side of the building, which faces the Pocomoke Building.
“We believe this elevation is the backdrop to our campus," Briggs said, and added that there is concern that the development will share the university's stormwater vault.
Bob Catlin of Dist. 2 said that throughout his 14 years as a city councilman, he has never seen the kind of controversy and concern over a development project as he has seen for this one, and it "alarms" him.
Elisa Vitale, senior planner for College Park, listed all the reasons why the city opposes the design plan. Among them:
- While county staff suggested that the developers request an amendment to the Sector Plan regarding the stepback, so that the design would more completely comply with the Sector Plan, Vitale warned against this move. As the Maryland Book Exchange project is the first development that falls under the Sector Plan, approved in 2009, such a change would substantially impair it, Vitale said.
- City planning staff is not satisfied with the transition from the U.S. Route 1 side to the Yale Avenue side. In addition, the roof on the eastern side is too big, she said. "We really still have a four-story building with a two-story roof," Vitale said.
- She said the changes to the east side of the building do not jive with the rest of the building. She describes the side facing U.S. Route 1 as "contemporary," and the side facing Yale Avenue as "classical." It looks like mismatched bookends on one building, she said.
The city's opposition has nothing to do with the use of the building for student housing, Vitali added, but rather the size of the complex and whether or not it is compatible with the surrounding historic district.
College Park Attorney Suellen Ferguson argued that this area for proposed development has always been intended to be a part of downtown College Park and not a part of the University of Maryland community.
“This is not some effort to put some additional burden on this developer," Ferguson said.
But the stepback along Yale Avenue is required, regardless of which community it is included within, anyway, Fersguson said.
Former County Executive Wayne Curry, who is a consultant for the developers, has taken the floor to address a change in the original Sector Plan.
He is arguing that the developers were not aware of the changes to the Sector Plan until last night. He argues that the changes now place the property in a different neighborhood, and designate a different use for the property.
Because the developers planned their project on the original plan, that's how the plans should be analyzed, he said.
The property is a part of the University of Maryland community, "and as such it doesn’t require a stepback but we offered one anyway," Curry argued.
The board has been recessing so that staff can make copies of a portion of the Sector Plan.
Board member John Shoaff asked if the university and community members seemed pleased with the adjustments the developers have made.
“We think that we’ve addressed the concerns of the neighborhood in terms of a more classical design," said Josef Mittleman, managing member R & J Company, the applicant for the plan. “We aren’t going to be able to please every single person, but we do feel we’ve been successfully able to achieve that.”
Architect Brian Ward has taken the microphone to describe some of the architectural features that were integrated on the eastern side of the building, including expression lines (horizontal lines of stone that break up the visad) and arched windows topped by stone.
For your reference, find a page from the Sector Plan regarding the stepback requirements here.
La Rocca said that the developers believe the Corridor Sector Plan, which guides design along U.S. Route 1 in the area that includes the Maryland Book Exchange, requires a stepdown only when there's existing residential development across the street, and that how the area across the street is zoned is irrelevant. (The area is zoned for residential use, but includes a church and small student-housing building operated by the church.)
The developers' attorney, Michele La Rocca continues to argue that the area across from the property along Yale Avenue is not residential, and so the stepdown is not required.
Adams had said before leaving the stand that planning staff now contends that the area across the street is "quasi-residential," as it's the location for a church and a police substation, as well as housing for a handful of students.
Adams is suggesting methods for refining the aesthetics of the building, regarding the roof, brick use and color, etc.
Representative from the planning staff, Steve Adams, is presenting the revised county staff report and the design changes made by the developers, which include the four-story stepdown on the east side.
Adams is sitting in for the county's planning staff's Jill Kosack this morning.
He said even though the building includes four stories instead of two or three, staff feels the developers have made a good faith effort to step it down. He also said that the changes to the exterior architecture on the east side of the building is not the most successful effort to integrate a historic look with the modern design of the rest of the buiding.
But, there is "quite a bit to like" about the building, he said.
The hearing has yet to begin.
Representatives for the developers and the City of College Park, members of the Prince George's County Planning Board and planning department employees are milling about the room.
Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Hewlett has taken her seat, and it looks like we will begin momentarily.
Developers who want to build a student-housing complex where the Maryland Book Exchange currently sits will return to the Prince George's County Planning Board hearing room Thursday morning.
The county planning staff is recommending that the board approve the design with conditions. This is a change since December, when the developers first went before the board, and the staff suggested disapproval.
At the initial planning board hearing, Chair Elizabeth Hewlett suggested a continuance, so that developers could incorporate the changes suggested by the planning staff, including a step back on the east side of the building, making the side facing Yale Avenue scale down to a lower level. The full building is six stories high.
Since then, the development team decreased the east side to four stories, but the College Park Council recently voted to disapprove the plan because it doesn't step down to two or three stories.
Check back throughout the day for real-time updates from the planning board. The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in Upper Marlboro. Watch the session here.