With new apartment complexes and businesses cropping up in College Park, city development has become a major talking point amongst the city council over the past few years, especially with municipal elections on the horizon.
Many council candidates are eager about College Park’s potential for development and have ideas to combat pressing issues while simultaneously growing as a city. Some candidates, however, are more hesitant to commit to supporting upcoming projects.
Council seats in two districts are contested — newcomer Susan Whitney and former council member Bob Catlin are running against District 2 incumbent Llatetra Brown Esters. In District 3, newcomer Stuart Adams and incumbents John Rigg and Robert Day are competing for two seats.
The lack of affordable housing, bringing business to the city, environmental protection, and future development are all major issues in College Park. Here is where council candidates stand ahead of the Nov. 7 elections.
Council candidates overwhelmingly agreed that there is a lack of affordable housing, both for students and long-term residents in College Park. They differed on how to solve the problem.
District 3 candidate Stuart Adams, along with Mayor Patrick Wojahn and current District 3 council member John Rigg, wants to explore the concept of rent stabilization, which would work to prevent developers and landlords from increasing rents. The city previously had a rent stabilization ordinance, which was repealed in 2014.
Along with affordable housing comes the issue of neighborhood stabilization. Third-party investors are increasingly buying single-family homes in College Park with the goal of renting them to students, often deterring long-term residents from staying in the city.
Rent stabilization might limit the demand for investors to come into the city and purchase houses to rent at lower rates, while also providing housing at more affordable rates for students, Wojahn said.
Continuing homeownership grants — in which the city funds a fraction of selected eligible homeowners down payments — which all candidates support, might also help attract and keep long-term homeowners in the city, said District 1 council member Fazlul Kabir.
District 4 council member Denise Mitchell, who is running unopposed, was not so sure about rent stabilization. She said she thinks the city is in a different place as when it first explored a rent stabilization policy.
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“There are other mechanisms that we can use for the students,” she said.
Bob Catlin, a candidate in District 2, also suggested providing subsidies for students who were not financially able to afford housing in the city.
Others, such as District 2 candidate Susan Whitney, wanted to see more creative solutions to the housing crisis. Micro-units, like in the proposed EcoGrads project, are something that Whitney would like to explore, along with incentivizing non-profit developers.
Current District 3 council member Robert Day and District 2 council member Llatetra Brown Esters also emphasized the importance of working with stakeholders such as the university, Prince George’s County and developers to find solutions to affordable housing. Both noted it was the city’s responsibility to put some pressure on developers, and find ways for the city to use its voice to advocate for affordable units.
“The housing stock keeps going up, but it’s not naturally bringing the prices down as much as we may have thought it was,” said District 1 council member Kate Kennedy.
Incentivizing businesses to come to College Park is a goal for all candidates.
District 4 council member Maria Mackie believed it was important for the city to be selective with the businesses it chooses to bring in, and to incentivize businesses that would be attractive to recent graduates.
Along with businesses such as engineering firms, Adams wanted to see an approach that prioritized both businesses and amenities, with the goal of attracting young professionals to College Park.
Attracting local businesses was especially vital for Esters, who believed those businesses could take advantage of College Park’s proximity to D.C. and its student population.
“We need to do more in promoting the city as a place where business owners want to be,” Esters said.
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Rigg agreed, pointing out that many college towns across the country are characterized by locally owned and operated businesses, and that College Park should strive to do the same.
“We really need to put a little bit more focus in the next coming couple of years … on attracting and retaining smaller minority-owned businesses,” Rigg said.
Attracting businesses owned by members of underrepresented communities was also key for Mitchell, as is increasing amenities such as bookstores, coffee shops and restaurants.
Catlin believed storefronts will continue to open up, especially as students return to the city.
Kennedy and Kabir, who are running unopposed in District 1, also want to see more businesses and residents in North College Park, near the Hollywood Commercial District, which would help make College Park more attractive.
Other candidates, like Day and Wojahn, also emphasized the need to make College Park more vibrant year-round, not just during the school year and around student populated areas
Day also wants to fill in existing gaps in College Park’s business scene, and make sure that those businesses are able to survive.
“We’re a college town,” Day said. “We have to figure out how to cater to both long term residents, and university staff and the students.”
The dwindling tree canopy
The tree canopy in the city has been declining for the last nine years, jumping from 44 percent in 2009 to just 38 percent in 2018. Some residents believe development is to blame, but other council candidates believe individual tree removal by residents is the culprit.
All candidates for city council believe College Park’s declining tree canopy is a problem that needs to be addressed, but are split on the best ways to resolve the issue.
Whitney emphasized that efforts to preserve the tree canopy needed to be paired with communication on behalf of the council, and demonstrate to residents why certain policies are needed.
“The city is in the middle of a pretty substantial decrease in tree canopy that affects everyone living in the city,” Whitney said.
Many council candidates such as Kabir, Wojahn and Kennedy want to encourage residents to plant trees by increasing incentives and opportunities to care for trees. Others, like Rigg, want to explore acquiring land to plant trees.
Currently, when trees are taken down in the city, they are only required to be replaced somewhere within Prince George’s County. Esters would like the tree replacement to happen somewhere within College Park.
But Mitchell and Catlin said they did not want residents to be punished through fines for cutting down trees. Sometimes, Catlin noted, residents cut down dying trees that are threatening their homes. Instead of punishing them, the city should work to incentivize tree planting, Catlin said.
“We don’t need to make it at the point that we are being punitive to our residents,” Mitchell said.
Adams and Mackie, both supporters of Save Guilford Woods, emphasized the need to protect green spaces while also advocating for affordable housing.
“I’m hopeful that [as] we go through this boom of apartments, we learn from it, we do it with good sustainability and stormwater management and true redevelopment and revitalization,” Adams said. “But I hope we protect our green spaces.”
Seven candidates, including Mayor Wojahn, welcome more development in College Park, while five want to be more cautious about the kinds of development the city brings in.
Kabir and Mackie both noted that many College Park residents are nervous about overdevelopment in College Park, especially considering the rate of new buildings on the Route 1 corridor.
“Do we really want to have high rises all up and down Route 1?” Mackie asked.
And while Whitney supports growth in the city, she also wants to look at the potential impact development could have on residents. For example, refrigerator trucks behind the new Lidl have forced people to sleep with their windows closed, she said.
“A lot of hesitance is just not really being able to see the impact yet,” Whitney said. “A lot of residents that I talked to are perfectly fine with development along the Route 1 corridor — they start to get a little nervous when they think about development moving more into the neighborhoods.”
Day, Mackie and Mitchell also brought up the growing need for more senior housing for the city’s aging community. Day, in particular, wants to see more consideration of the needs of all residents, including seniors, when it comes to development.
Other candidates in favor of development such as Rigg, Kennedy, Esters and Wojahn were more encouraged by the growth College Park has seen over the past few years, and will likely continue to see.
Wojahn argues that College Park can’t become a lively city and attract new businesses and new residents without further development.
“That doesn’t happen unless we have new development,” he said. “So that’s really critical.”