Guest Editorial: Mount Rainier’s long road to revitalization

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.”

Take action!

“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.

Name, Title Phone Email
Malinda Miles, Mayor 301-985-6585 mayormiles@gmail.com
Bill Updike, Councilmember 301-367-5649 updikew@yahoo.com
Jimmy Tarlau,Councilmember 301-335-6099 jtarlau@cwa-union.org
Ivy Thompson,Councilmember 301-985-6585 friendsforivy@gmail.com
Brent Bolin,Councilmember 301-744-9465 brentcbolin@gmail.com

 

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6 thoughts on “Guest Editorial: Mount Rainier’s long road to revitalization

  1. This article,as written is a little disingenous and doesn’t lay out everything that was happening.

    No one disagrees with the ideas that Streetsense laid out (by FAR the most attractive of any developer), but their original proposal asked the City to donate a 1.8 million property (which it has a substantial mortagage on), and find 7 million dollars to close a gap in their financing.

    This was asking a city with a 4 million dollar annual budget to adopt a new debt almost twice its size for a project with no guarenteed commerical tenants, and for a project that required the acquisition of neighboring private parcels (without which the project as proposed would not be viable).

    The two other proposals were far more financially self-contained. The Streetsense proposal did not have any discussion of alternate financing options and did not have any agreements from adjacent landowners. There was a reason that the original Streetsense proposal wasn’t viable -it didnt provide any specifics for the proposed project – it simply promised a lot without details and asked the City to give a private entity a lot of money.

    Now, this may have changed as the closed bid process was completley opened up and subject to jockeying by the developers. By the time the actual vote is taken, Streetsense may have come to the table with a financially viable plan (with funding from non-City sources) that wouldn’t plunge the city into severe debt to take on, as well as binding agreements from adjacent landowners.

    That would very much change the equation and if so, would be far more amenable to the concerns raised before.

  2. JA, I have to disagree with your take. I carefully reviewed all three proposals at City Hall. I agree the Streetsense/Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) proposal was the most attractive of the options presented.

    Streetsense/NDC did not ask the City to donate a 1.8 million dollar property. They offered to redevelop a distressed property of questionable value, provided the City contributed the land into the deal in order to make a financially unviable development viable. The City paid more for the property than it was worth – if it had been worth the $1.6 million (not 1.8 million) the city paid for it, a private developer would have bought it long before they did. The fact that the City made a poor decision to acquire the property and assume an unsustainable level of debt is not the developer’s fault and not germane to a decision regarding which proposal to accept.

    When the City counter offered, the developer agreed to pay off the City’s debt in its entirety, leaving the City free and clear of its obligation and developing a property that is going to generate substantial tax revenue for the City long into the future (hopefully reducing all of property tax bills in the future too!). The City will make a ton of money off its $1.6 million investment in the Streetsense/NDC project and the citizens will get the retail and revitalization they desperately desire.

    Streetsense/NDC did not ask the City to come up with Gap financing. They said they were working with the County to procure the gap financing and that, while they had positive communications with the County regarding the project, their offer was contingent upon receiving the gap financing they were working on obtaining.

    There is nothing unusual about the offer price or the gap financing. This is how development projects get done all the time when the government wants a project developed that isn’t feasible in the private market. As an example, the DC Government recently entered into a property disposition agreement for a large vacant apartment building on over 12,000 sf of prime land at 1831 2nd Street NE (assessed at $2,056,510.00). The price DC agreed to sell for? A grand total of 1 dollar.

    Streetsense/NDC never asked the City to take on additional debt. In fact, they would be relieving the City of its existing debt burden. Ultimately they came up with an offer of additional funds to repay the City what it currently owes on the bond.

    Streetsense/NDC has a working agreement with adjacent property owner Larry Solomon, which Solomon publicly confirmed. He wants to sell his land and see it get redeveloped. The three little houses on the west side of the project are not necessary to the project. If the owners want to sell, they could make some decent money and the project would be better for it. But if they don’t want to sell, the project is still viable.

    There were ALOT of specifics included in the Streetsense/NDC RFP response. Unfortunately, the City decided to make the information difficult to review by not posting it online. There was no reason all three development proposals could not have been posted online for public review and comment. While it is true that for some reason AHC included financial statements that were not directly relevant and probably not appropriate for public review, they were not marked confidential, were included in a document that could fairly be assumed would be included in a public record, and could have easily been redacted from their proposal response. All the other information was pretty standard stuff.

    The Streetsense/NDC proposal is the best option presented. It is superior from a design and planning standpoint, from a financial feasibility standpoint, from a future City revenue perspective, from an environmental design standpoint (higher density is the greenest thing you can do – way greener than getting a token stamp of approval from one of the green rating organizations) and even meets the City’s minority inclusion preference at the highest levels of ownership and equity participation. If the City doesn’t move forward with Streetsense/NDC, they are missing the opportunity of a lifetime for the City, its residents and the rest of Prince George’s County.

    Respectfully,

    Joel Kelty
    Architect/Developer/Mount Rainier investor

  3. Joel,

    Thanks for your comments. There is indeed a nuanced discussion regarding this activity, of which your opinion and David’s represents a particular (but no less valuable!) viewpoint. But there are, as you are well aware, a number of other factors governing the decision being made on this, and I do respect both the Council and Mayor – all of whom were democratically elected – to make whatever decision is best suited and most financially prudent for the city – a independent, incorporated city that is small enough to have very direct input from its very diverse citizenry.

  4. It’s not about what city planners, developers, city officials want or the hyper fantasies of some residents looking for new toys. It’s about meeting the real needs of society. Any planning should first center around what is needed and second what is wanted. Serving the needs of average citizens with a very small percentage of “affordable” housing to satisfy the greed of some developers and conflict of interests of self serving politicians is unacceptable in a Caring society. Social problems cannot be solved with pretty new developments, but only exacerbate them. The “Green City” allowed several beautiful trees to be destroyed at the Rhode Island Ave Metro Station to pack in new “market rate” apartments.

    1. LeRoy,

      Thanks for your comments, but I don’t understand what you are getting at. The proposed development does meet the real needs of society. It meets the needs outlined in the 2009 Market Study, the Town Center Development Plan, the Sector Plan and the numerous community meetings and charettes on the topic.

      The citizens of Mount Rainier have worked for many years with City, State and County to develop a clear vision and plan for the redevelopment of the Mount Rainier Town Center. The Streetsense/NDC plan is the proposal that most clearly resembles the type and form of development that the citizens envisioned. The proposed redevelopment isn’t a hyper-fantasy and it wasn’t concocted by outside interests without significant resident input, but rather, seeks to implement a vision developed and put forth by the community.

      I agree that not all social problems can be solved with pretty new developments, but that is not the issue here. We’re not trying to solve all the world’s problems – only redevelop the town center and make Mount Rainier a more socially, economically and culturally diverse place.

      I don’t understand how creating a better town center could exacerbate social problems. Please explain.

      Regarding your final comment about redevelopment at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro, taking down a couple of trees directly adjacent a metro station in order to provide high density housing IS the green thing to do. High density housing provides an attractive alternative to living in social isolation outside the City, reduces suburban (and exurban) sprawl and reduces vehicle pollution (not to mention the quality of life benefits of living near transit, shopping and employment).

      Respectfully,
      Joel

  5. Actually, it is. It is really up to people of a certain town to decide the direction for their own town. Any town. Mount Rainier has done more than almost any other place, when it comes to caring about and providing for needs of people not traditionally empowered. It punches well above its weight when it comes to providing amenities, housing, and activities for low income as well as standard income people. Have you ever spent time in mount rainier? If you do, you will see that it is not about yuppies and their toys or anything else. Even the middle income people here either can’t afford or eschew the kinds of inconsequential toys referred to. But if the residents think that it’s high time that they have amenities like everyone else, a place to go and walk around, socialize, explore fitness and other recreational opportunities, then why would anyone begrudge them that?

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