Recently, the College Park City Council voted to expand City Hall, three years after deciding to rebuild its office on the same plot of land it’s stood on for decades. And to maximize the impact of its workspace’s redevelopment, the council is going to take a chunk out of Route 1.
So, instead of a strip of resident-provided eateries and services — including Smoothie King, Subway, Hair Cuttery and Shanghai Cafe — we’ll have City Hall on Route 1. This is purported to be for the good of civic engagement and the city, but it’s a selfish move.
For a council so focused on improving the commercial appeal of the city, it’s hypocritical to take away businesses because the council deems its workspace more important. College Park is a college town that struggles to be livable for college students. Parts of it are a food desert, much of its housing is dilapidated and its rent prices are increasingly unchecked. Many residents don’t have cars and partly sustain themselves on the businesses along the Route 1 corridor. A larger government space shouldn’t be prioritized over all the other amenities this city lacks.
Moreover, some of the business owners targeted by the vote are unwilling to sell their properties. The council is proposing the use of eminent domain to speed up negotiations, but how is the threat of the government seizing these businesses supposed to promote compromise?
The council has decided to take these properties by force if necessary, and it wants to remove the owners’ ability to meaningfully participate in that decision. District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan said the council will honor the businesses’ leases by working to keep them somewhere in downtown College Park, but this is just another decision regarding their own properties that the business owners can’t make, plus the council is not bound by law to keep its word. It’s demoralizing for residents to see their businesses seized by the government, and it hurts the relationship between the council and its constituents.
Proponents of the expanded building claim it will improve civic engagement because City Hall will be a more visible and attractive space. However, engagement isn’t an issue of physical space. It’s a problem with outreach.
Just moving its building closer to the hub of resident activity won’t establish the local government in residents’ lives. To do that, the council needs to work with the community to improve communication. That duty extends beyond the walls of a government building — however large you construct it — and that’s where outreach efforts should be focused.
In the words of College Park resident Jordan Schakner, this proposal is a “vanity project” for the council. It’s too superficial to leave the impact it’s supposed to, and it takes away business from the Route 1 corridor in the name of the good of the city, minimizing the voices of actual residents and business and property owners. College Park needs development, yes, but an expanded City Hall shouldn’t be at the top of the list.