Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mt. Rainier - A Whole New Town

Call it Mt. Rainier 4g. The small Maryland hamlet on the Washington D.C. border is reflecting on being a great place to live - which it most certainly is(!) - with its cute little bungalows, cultural diversity, a small-town feel, proximity to downtown DC and, by golly, a historic little town center that even once had a streetcar line. But while the rest of the DC area has been consecrated with mixed-use projects, trendy lofts and retail development, approximately none of that occurs in Mt. Rainier, and the town needs a reinvention. Enter the urban planners.

Most Washington DC denizens go to Mt. Rainier about as often as they go to NASCAR or the Woodrow Wilson museum, but the town is only a good jog away from the Metro (red line, at that), on Rhode Island Avenue where it exits the District, and has the visual hallmarks of a once self-sustained community. But its apogee was in the '40's, when a rail line still connected it to DC, population was rising, and local retail boomed. But the automobile superceded the small town, and in 1958 the town began its decline, dropping from 11,000 to 7361 at its nadir. Conditions remain bleak: population is static, the working town center storefronts were torn down, leaving gaps in the once contiguous retail now filled by parking lots. One in 5 buildings in the commercial district are unoccupied. Average household income is $49,000 (to the District's $86,000), only one in four homes are owner occupied, and the median home price is $246,000 to DC's $358,000. And no one seems to go there.

That, planners (cautiously) assert, is about to change. In 1994, the county founded the Gateway Community Development Corporation, which dwindled, despite the boom, but is now being dusted off and reinvented. Seeking "economic revitalization" that the plan promised, on June 4, 2009, the Prince George's County District Council began the process of creating the Mt. Rainier mixed-use Town Center (with the ungainly M-U-TC acronym) to create a first class commercial district on the axis of Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street. With the hope of a potential MARC station and trolley line in its future, planners see destination retail, thriving commerce, better architecture and statuary, and a streetscape that tilts design more toward pedestrians and visual appeal than prostration to the automobile. In short, a boulevard suitable for strolling, relaxing, eating and shopping.

Despite the fact that Mt. Rainier "boasts one of the largest and most vibrant artist communities in the Washington Metropolitan area," the problems are dire, but largely a function of design. As its own report notes, sidewalks are "extremely narrow" and not wheelchair - bike - stroller accessible, land is "underutilized," curbs have deteriorated, retail space is occupied as office space or less stable local proprietors like overabundant beauty salons. Perhaps most humiliatingly, cars passing through Mt. Rainier "tend to speed up rather than slow down."

But a lemons-to-lemonade approach could transform outdated buildings into showcased features, extending building fronts up to the municipal line, adding curb extensions and alternate paving at crosswalks on Rhode Island, turning a pre-war gas station into a cafe, with sycamore-lined bike lanes claimed from unnecessarily wide parking lanes. The new MARC station would be added on the existing rail line 4 blocks south of Rhode Island Avenue, and PG County would link to the District's streetcar line, already planned (in later phases) to run the length of Rhode Island Avenue.

To develop its updated, strollable urbanity, the county turned to Cunningham | Quill as the prime consultant to direct, inspire and build a consensus among Mt. Rainierians about what to achieve and how to accomplish it. The DC based architecture and design firm and hired others to collaberate, with R. McGhee & Associates on historic preservation as well as economic consultants, market analysts and transportation experts to help inform the process. "This is very collaberative, a plan that could become a model for other revitalization areas throughout the region" said Lee Quill, principal of the architecture firm. At the very least it was speedy; CQ was brought on in July 2009, and went through the entire consultative process with an "extensive community engagement process," followed by design, coming up with a plan it submitted to MNCPPC in April 2010. The plan was distributed to the public in July and is now in the public comment period. Quill says the plan is a significant improvement over the '94 plan, and more likely to succeed, since the '94 plan "did not have a vision component, only guidelines to help the community in shaping future desired development."

Despite the "very aggressive" schedule, Quill is guardedly optimistic. "As the economy comes back, those communities that have take the time to develop a vision, or level of development, walkability and provides a better assurance that development will move forward." Robert Duffy, Planning Supervisor at Prince George's County Planning Department, is optimistic that planners have gotten it right, but not ready to predict immediate results. "Its an incremental process that can take a number of years, but the plan is based on sound opportunities given the current economic climate." Duffy stresses that whatever the outcome, the updated plans can only be a good thing. "The plan attempts to adjust guidelines to reflect current conditions...No matter what, we still need to revise strategies and plans. Its difficult to say 'how soon,' but some goals can be very short term."

As for the inevitable question about financing, county officials hope that as interested parties see the wisdom of the plan and opportunity for growth, funding will happen. PG's Duffy says that "the plan makes a number of recommendations for redevelopment, and for capital improvements, which can be paid for through future development activity, or by a developer, or through various requests through WMATA and state of Maryland...Each project could have a different blend of financing." In other words, no dedicated funding exists, but the goal is fund-worthy. But success of the project will undoubtedly be tied to mass transit, and neither the trolley line, which is dependent upon DC's own back shelf development, nor the MARC station addition, appears to have anything like a hopeful timeline. Says Duffy, "there's been discussion with MARC, but given the state budget its important that businesses and residences work with and advocate for this to take place, and the trolley too. They are long term, they are very expensive, but rail transit is truly the great benefit here."

Quill says the plans are worth waiting for, noting that AIA Maryland gave it an award for urban design and planning. The plan will break the town center into Rhode Island Avenue ("the boulevard"), upper 34th ("Main Street"), and the civic center at the traffic circle. "We developed a vision collectively with the community and worked with committees on specific issues. We put together guidelines to help facilitate everything from window painting to signage, to converting the bus turnaround to a true civic green, and are working with WMATA. The city purchased the Eastern Star building in effort to make this a true civic core." Quill, who also planned part of Potomac Yards, stresses that with the community being an integral part of a design that aims for a true town center, the plan has a high chance of success. "The reinforcement and definition of the public realm, that's probably the real strength of this that can come back to everyone in the city. That's part of the strength of the plan. And now there's a clarity of vision of how to get there." Developers take note. And bring money.


Phil LaCombe on Sep 22, 2010, 6:31:00 PM said...

Great post! I live in nearby Hyattsville and nearly every day I think, "You know, the Route 1 corridor could be really great if we could bring up the DC Streetcar."

Anonymous said...

I've always wondered when that corner of DC was going to get it's day. It's all about streetcars though. Just don't let Cunningham Quill push their Modernist BS on the town, keep them as planners only.

Brad said...

First and foremost the town needs a plan, and for some state money to be invested. Nothing will get done without developers seeing that the state has given money to the cause, and that improvement is actually taking place. But that has GOT to include transit, as the story points out. I suggest they get that figured out quickly if they don't want it to fall apart for another decade.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking to buy a house in the Old Hyattsville/Riverdale Park area. One thing keeping Mount Rainier back is the ridiculous property taxes the residents have to pay. On, look at homes for sale in Mount Rainier; you'll see little wooden bungalows for sale for under $200,000, yet the annual property tax can be 8,9 or even 10k a year!! It's absolutely astounding - and it's not worth that much in taxes to live in MR.

Anonymous said...

Yeah what is up with that area? I was looking at houses over there and in University Park and could not believe how much you'd have to pay in taxes. The houses I like in Univ Park are usually between 9-10k in taxes!
It seems to me that most, if not all of PG county houses suffer from ridiculously high taxes. What's the story?

Anonymous said...

I live in University Park! Here's the deal with Prince George's: it has a lot of incorporated towns/cities (Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, College Park, University Park, Riverdale Park, Edmonston, Bladensburg, Brentwood, Cottage City, Cheverly, etc.), so you're not only paying county taxes, you are paying town taxes for police, trash pick-up, and sometimes for a fire department. My realtor-neighbor has lost several homes sales in "The Park" when people find out their property taxes are so expensive. A lot of money to pay for a crap county...

Anonymous said...

Those taxes are astounding. I live in Brookland, essentially the DC side of Mt Rainier, and I pay just under $2000 for a row house with an assessed value of $335,000. That explains why property values are so much higher on my side of the boundary. The same detached house on the DC side will go for double or more what it goes for in Mount Rainer.

jcs said...

As the 3:56 PM poster said, the high property taxes in Mt. Rainier are due to the incorporated towns and cities that impose their own taxes on top of the county tax.

Unfortunately, the incorporated areas in PG County are a necessary evil, due to the abysmally bad services provided by the county. The unincorporated areas of PG county with similar demographics are dangerous (think Langley Park) and poorly maintained (look at all the state roads in the unincorporated areas with heavy pedestrian traffic but no sidewalks).

Take a look at the unincorporated places in PG county, such as those with Hyattsville, Bladensburg, or Riverdale addresses, and you'll see what Mt. Rainier would be like without its expensive city government (hint: not so good.)

Anonymous said...

Two years ago I tried to develop a mixed use property in Mt. Ranier. The city council was totally opposed to any kind of new development even if it would benefit their city. They were totally unsupportive and did everything possible to drive a new restaurant out of business, they fought and closed the largest business paying the most taxes in the city. Don't go there!

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