by David Riposo, resident of Mt. Rainier, MD
The redevelopment of Mount Rainier’s town center has been a community priority since at least the early nineties when the city embarked on the first of many design charrettes. Published in 1994, the Town Center Development Planprescribed guidelines for a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use town center inspired by Takoma Park. The city commissioned a Market Analysis for the Gateway Arts Districtin 2009 to inform development decisions. The 2010 Mixed Use Town Center Development Plan articulates a vision for a “walkable, vibrant, attractive locale for residents and visitors.”
The blighted corner of Eastern and Rhode Island Avenues embodies the opportunities and challenges associated with the implementation of this vision. The site presently features several vacant buildings including an abandoned funeral home whitewashed and painted over with an abstract mural. Weeds grow up through cracked black top. The 2010 MUTC Development Plan envisioned for this site “a signature, mixed-use building [serving] as the northern gateway into Mount Rainier” that would serve as the beginning of a tree lined boulevard featuring residences and retail amenities.
The mayor and city council have spent years pursuing this vision. After several poorly executed attempts to market the property to developers, the city issued a request for proposals (RFP) earlier this year. The objective of the RFP was to attract a “quality designed and constructed project that will improve the aesthetic appeal of Rhode Island Avenue and act as a stimulus to redevelopment for other parts of the city.” Public consultation and community input was hard wired into the RFP. After several months, the city received proposals and entered into negotiations with three developers: AHC, Street Sense, and Med-Ped, LLC.
On August 8th, the mayor and council convened a public hearing to discuss the three proposals received by the city. Although it was publicized just a day in advance, the meeting room was filled to capacity. TV monitors were set up in adjoining rooms to accommodate the crowd. Billed as a solicitation for public comment, the meeting was instead a coronation for low-income housing developer AHC, a $400 million corporation based in Arlington. During a 30-minute presentation, AHC described the inviability of retail in the area and the lack of support for market-rate rents. Instead, they proposed 62 units of low-income housing and forty surface parking spaces behind a non-descript façade. Council member Brent Bolin prefaced AHC’s presentation with the suggestion that the council would vote the following day to approve the AHC proposal.
Some comments from the crowd were supportive of the AHC development; however, negative comments outnumbered those threefold. Some negative comments were diplomatic. Aubrey Thagard from the PG county executive’s office drew applause for his appeal for a project that “represents the best and highest possible use for the economic revitalization of the corridor.” Alonzo Washington, Chief of Staff for county council member Will Campos stated the AHC development “falls short of improving the local economy or meeting the market demand.” Many questioned the ability of low-income housing to catalyze development in a city where the percentage of low income rentals – 14% of all housing units – is already far higher than in neighboring jurisdictions. Some comments were barnburners. Citing the lack of public consultation and “the theater of lowered expectations” presented by AHC, one resident sarcastically thanked the council for “the illusion that we actually have a voice.” The outcry from the community was sufficient to inspire the mayor and council to delay a planned vote on the development.
Our community’s vision for the future
Street Sense proposed a plan for the community that aligns with the 20-year legacy of charrettes and the consensus vision for the future of the city. A five story mixed use building will feature 210 residential market rate units starting at $1,300 for efficiencies. Structured parking will accommodate tenants. The derelict gas station up the road will be repurposed for retail. Critically, the entire block will be developed, ensuring a contiguous streetscape and visual linkages to the town center. Pocket parks, interior court yards, and broad sidewalks will compliment a contemporary façade akin to the Street Sense development just two miles up Rhode Island Ave in the thriving Hyattsville Arts District. Although they offered the city less money for the parcel than AHC, Street Sense has a track record of success in the community and adequate credit to implement the project they’ve proposed.
“A significant increase in residential density” was cited by the 2009 Market Study as a key enabler of retail development in the city. Street Sense will not only deliver the retail the city covets, but also the residential density necessary to support it. They’ll leverage their track record in Hyattsville to ensure success. “I’ve heard a lot of comments about retail in this community and how it’s not viable,” said Street Sense’s Guy Silverman in a statement to the council. “That’s exactly what we heard up in Hyattsville.”
“Mount Rainier is where I grew up and I see what great progress we’ve made,” county councilmember Campos said in a statement. Referring to the AHC proposal, he said, “let us really think if having such a small level of apartments will really begin that momentum toward our great future.”
My wife and I arrived only last year, but we share council member Campos’ vision of a great future for Mount Rainier. If you also share this vision for the city and for the Rhode Island Avenue corridor – likely the majority of this blog’s readership – than I encourage you to contact the mayor and council members who will vote in early September to decide the fate of the corner.
*Note: the views expressed in Guest Editorials are not particularly those of the RIA Insider. The thoughts, ideas, and actions of the editorial is solely of the author.
|Malinda Miles, Mayorfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|Bill Updike, Councilmemberemail@example.com|