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Resistance Builds Against Greenbelt Project

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By Nurith C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2001; Page PG03

One week before the Prince George's County Planning Board is set to review plans for a proposed commercial and residential center around Greenbelt Metro station, supporters and opponents of the project are gearing up for battle.

The developer argues that the project represents the triple crown of the county's development dreams, bringing upscale retail, transit-oriented growth and Main Street-style shopping to Prince George's in one glorious swoop.

To make its case, the developer, Metroland LLC, has promised anchor stores of the caliber of Nordstrom. It has set up a splashy Web site boasting the slogan "Prince George's Deserves Better." It has even run ads on eight local cable television stations featuring cheerful artist's renderings of the project in soothing pastel colors.

But opponents of the plan, including both residents and officials of Greenbelt, College Park and Berwyn Heights, counter that the pretty pictures cannot mask what the project really is: a massive suburban mall built on environmentally sensitive land that would prove a magnet for cars while being virtually unreachable by pedestrians. They say the plan violates key elements of a proposed sector plan being drawn up by the planning board and the community.

"Metroland's got gorgeous drawings. But none of them show the covered mall. None of them show the traffic impact," said Pat Blankenship, chairwoman of the 150-member Citizens to Conserve and Restore Indian Creek, a group formed to fight the project.

Set on a 132-acre rectangular tract tucked between Greenbelt Road and the Capital Beltway, the project would have up to 1.9 million square feet of retail space, including restaurants and entertainment, 2.1 million square feet of offices, 600 hotel rooms and 865 apartment units on its northern end. The southern end would have up to 216,000 square feet of retail, 140,000 square feet of offices, and 1,080 multifamily dwelling units, including 420 apartments for seniors.

Metroland LLC is a partnership of four companies: A.H. Smith Co., the original owner of much of the land; Beltway Indian Creek, a minority-owned development firm whose county projects include the posh Beech Tree housing development; Clark Realty, a subsidiary of Clark Construction Co. based in Bethesda; and Petrie, Dierman and Kughn, a Reston, Va., retail development company.

The job of bringing retailers to the site would be handled by Westfield America Inc., a real estate investment trust that owns 39 malls, including the upscale Annapolis, Montgomery and Wheaton Westfield Shoppingtowns.

Those credentials may seem impressive to a county thirsting for high-end shopping, but they have done little to assuage the anger expressed by many local residents and officials toward the project.

Among the reasons for the hostility is a recent attempt by County Councilman Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) to exempt Metroland's project from tough development standards in the sector plan being designed for the area. The County Council is likely to consider the plan in October.

The land around Greenbelt Metro station -- vacant but for a sand and gravel operation -- is zoned for either industrial use or mixed-use development of "high quality and sophistication" as defined by county legislation previously pushed through by Hendershot.

The sector plan, which the planning board has been working on for about as many years as Metroland has been trying to develop the property, also calls for high-quality, mixed-use development.

However, it defines that in much greater detail, specifying everything from the exact mix of residential, retail and office space to the maximum allowable height for buildings -- 12 stories for landmark buildings, four to 10 stories for anything else in the northern section, and two to five stories in the southern section.

As currently conceived, Metroland's project would at the very least violate the height limit. It calls for a maximum height of 20 stories in the northern section and eight stories in the southern section.

Furthermore, although Metroland promises the development will be crisscrossed by walkways, bike paths, plazas and green spaces, opponents charge the plan would still violate the sector plan's requirement that development "be oriented to pedestrians and will serve transit users, not the automobile."

The structures closest to the station platform would be parking garages and the mall, with residences at least a quarter-mile away, said Celia Craze, Greenbelt city planning director.

"This is not something that's walkable on a human scale; this is going to be a destination you drive to," Craze said.

Craze and others also complain that although Metroland plans to sell and donate to the state for preservation 111 acres of environmentally sensitive land on the site, the project would still make use of significant stretches of environmentally sensitive land.

"They want to fill in 3 1/2 acres of wetlands, 30 acres of flood plain fill," she said. "These are environmental impacts that are unforgivable and avoidable."

The planning board could approve Metroland's conceptual plan as early as the hearing July 12, and it could sign off on the detailed site plan as soon as September.

But even if both plans are approved before the sector plan's likely adoption by the council in October, it is possible that the new and tougher standards would still apply to the project.

So last April, Hendershot introduced an amendment to the sector plan that would effectively grandfather in Metroland's proposal.

Hendershot said this was only fair: "It would be a denial of due process for [Metroland] to go through the whole approval process pursuant to current laws and then in effect be burdened by a new law that doesn't exist now."

But others, including Elizabeth M. Hewlett, planning board chairman, cried foul.

In a letter to the council, Hewlett said the amendment, along with several others exempting other areas from the standards, would "severely limit the influence and effectiveness of the Sector Plan."

Opponents also argue that Metroland should be held to the tougher standards since the company, along with members of the community and the planning board, was involved in the extensive discussions that gave rise to them.

"I won't comment on the legal argument of due process," Craze said. "But I think it's disingenuous to participate in a process and then not want to abide by the rules you helped draw up."

Hendershot counters that Metroland could still be encouraged to conform with many of the standards in the pending sector plan in exchange for approval of its conceptual plan.

"All of that can be negotiated in the context of current process," he said.

Indeed, Sandy Gallagher, Metroland's project manager for the site, said the company has already modified its design to be more pedestrian-oriented.

"We've made some changes based on the comments we've received, like putting in a main street and three activity plazas in the north core," she said.

Craze remained unconvinced.

"We don't think you can have a 1.9 million-square-foot mall with a big street running in front of it and say now you have Main Street retail," she said. "We want to create a transit center that's new and exciting and different from what's everywhere else along the Beltway."

Craze added that if the planning board approves Metroland's conceptual plan without changes, the city of Greenbelt would likely appeal to the council on the grounds that Metroland's project violates the spirit of even the current, less specific, zoning law.

Still, she said, she is skeptical as to whether that argument will prevail.

"There's a feeling that people have been crying in the dark and nobody has been listening," she said.

2001 The Washington Post Company


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