Retail Plans Stir Wetlands Fears

By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2001; Page PG14

With many Prince George's County residents clamoring for upscale retail stores, a private developer's new proposal to turn 132 acres of vacant land around the Greenbelt Metro station into a hub of high-quality shops, restaurants, offices and housing seems to offer a solution, officials say.

"The significance for the county is really tremendous," said County Council member Audrey E. Scott, a Bowie Republican. "It's a recognition that we have the income to support this type of development. . . . We're certainly spending the money now, but it's all going out of county. I'd like to keep those dollars at home."

But if Scott and other county and state officials are elated with the plan outlined by the developer, Greenbelt Metroland LLC, there are signs elsewhere of discord.

Many residents and officials of the three municipalities surrounding the Greenbelt station are expressing concerns about the potential for environmental harm.

Although they are pleased that the state is acquiring 111 acres of wetlands from Metroland to preserve as open space, they are worried that the project could still endanger about 34 acres.

"This is some of the most environmentally sensitive land there is," said Greenbelt City Councilman Alan Turnbull. "Building on it is really unacceptable."

Located in an unincorporated area just inside the Capital Beltway, between Route 1 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Greenbelt Metro station marks the northern end of the Green Line and is bordered by Greenbelt to the east, College Park to the west and Berwyn Heights to the south. Although that part of Prince George's already has a thriving commercial center, the station is surrounded by about 162 acres of mostly vacant land that had been used by a sand and gravel company.

That land, owned by A.H. Smith, would be part of the proposed development.

Smith has formed a partnership -- known as Greenbelt Metroland LLC -- with three other companies: Beltway Indian Creek, a minority-owned development firm whose county projects include the upscale Beech Tree housing development; Clark Realty, a subsidiary of Clark Construction; and Petrie, Dierman and Kughn, a Reston, Virginia-based retail development company.

According to the plan submitted to the county, the company hopes to buy 81 acres of station land from Metro, including the parking lot, for $6.5 million to build an "upscale commercial center." The surface parking at the site would be replaced with a multi-level garage, freeing up space for up to 1.9 million square feet of retail, including restaurants and entertainment, as well as 2.2 million square feet of offices, 600 hotel rooms, and 865 luxury apartment units.

Metroland also would develop 54 acres at the southern end of its original property, with up to 216,000 square feet of neighborhood-style retail at the southwestern end, and 1,080 multi-family dwelling units -- including 420 residences for seniors -- at the southeastern end.

Finally, as part of a deal brokered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's office to encourage Metroland to develop the property as a high-end mixed-use site, the company would sell 75 acres to the state for $10 million so it can be preserved as open space, and donate the remaining 36 acres to the state.

Those 111 acres comprise what is considered to be the most environmentally sensitive part of the property -- largely consisting of pristine forests, lakes and streams such as Indian Creek that run to the Anacostia River and the Potomac, and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Once Metroland submits final documents to the Prince George's Planning Board, the board will have 70 days to hold a public hearing and render judgment.

If the plan is approved, construction could begin in about two years.

The retail development would be carried out by Westfield America Inc., a real estate investment trust that owns 39 malls across the country, including the Annapolis, Montgomery and Wheaton Westfield Shoppingtowns.

The three malls are stocked with upscale retailers such as Nordstrom. Westfield America spokeswoman, Catharine Dickey, said it was "premature" to say which retailers the Metroland development would house.

But detailed zoning legislation pushed through the Prince George's County Council by council member Thomas R. Hendershot, a Democrat whose New Carrollton district abuts Greenbelt station, suggests that they would be high-end retailers similar to those at the company's other area malls.

Although the property around Greenbelt station is zoned for industrial use, Hendershot's legislation allows mixed-use development if it is of "high quality and sophistication."

The definition of that concept is so carefully spelled out in the legislation that it even lists examples of stores that would qualify, including Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Lord & Taylor.

Although the zoning change helped ease the way for Metroland's current proposal, it was the state's agreement to buy the 75 acres of wetlands from the company that clinched the deal.

Metroland's first proposal, announced in 1997, was to build big-box retail stores and warehouse space on most of the land, which is permitted by its industrial zoning.

Since then, said Metroland attorney Dana Stebbins, the company retained plans to go forward with that arrangement in case the deal with the state "fell through."

Alarmed by the original proposal, about 150 residents of Greenbelt, Berwyn Heights and College Park formed the Citizens to Conserve and Restore Indian Creek (CCRIC) to oppose it. CCRIC, as well as numerous city and county officials, asked Glendening's office to intervene.

Metroland was also interested in finding a solution. "We felt that rather than being stymied for years and years fighting [the environmentalists], we ought to be reasonable and try to work it out so we could develop the remainder of the property," Stebbins said.

According to Mike Morrill, the governor's director of communications, the resulting agreement embodied Glendening's "smart growth" principles, placing development near public transportation and often older, already developed areas.

"We're preserving the most environmentally sensitive portion of the land and taking out of play a piece of land that was zoned for big-box development," Morrill said. "At the same time, we're supporting transit-oriented development."

But members of CCRIC, as well as many local officials, don't see it that way.

"The Greenbelt City Council's position is that more acres ought to be set aside," said City Manager Michael P. McLaughlin.

Some officials in Berwyn Heights and College Park, who had also wanted the state to buy more land, said they are nonetheless satisfied with the deal.

Opponents are particularly concerned about 34 acres of undeveloped land at the southern end of the original Metro station property on which Metroland has proposed to build offices, hotels and residences.

"That property was set aside by Metro . . . to replace wetlands that were disturbed in building the Metro station," said McLaughlin.

Opponents are also distressed by Metroland's proposal to build a connector road they say would run through a pond used by amphibians such as frogs and salamanders to lay their eggs.

"This pond is absolutely alive with creatures in the spring, and it would be destroyed when the road is put there," said Pat Blankenship, chairwoman of CCRIC.

As a result, opponents are doubtful that it really represents smart growth.

"Smart growth would be working to revitalize existing malls that are in decline," said Turnbull, the Greenbelt City Council member.

Turnbull and others, who note that they were not included in the state's negotiations, also object to a provision requiring Metroland to buy back the 75 acres from the state if its development proposal is not approved by Jan, 1, 2003.

"That would put the property in jeopardy again," Blankenship said.

In a letter sent to Glendening in December, members of the Greenbelt City Council made the same argument.

However, their objections appear to have had little effect.

The whole attraction of the state's deal, said Morrill, was that it enabled the state to preserve sensitive land and promote transit-oriented development.

"If [conservation] was the only purpose, we would have been purchasing other land with that money," he said.

Since the state and Metroland officially settled the deal on Jan. 19, it is too late to renegotiate, he added.

Supporters of the deal say there are safeguards to prevent Metroland from damaging the land it still owns. For one thing, the company can't build on environmentally sensitive land without federal approval.

Opponents will also have an opportunity to weigh in when the county planning board holds public hearings in the spring on both the current conceptual plan, and, if that is approved, a detailed plan.

And even if the board does not heed their advice, opponents can appeal to the County Council, which can vote to overrule the project.

Still, that last avenue, at least, offers scant hope, given how ardently Hendershot and Scott, the two council members whose districts include the development, support the plan.

"I regret that there were 34 acres [not included in the state deal]," Hendershot said. "But sometimes to get things done, you need to make compromises."

2001 The Washington Post Company