COLLEGE PARK – The City of College Park will move forward with securing up to $19 million in bonds to finance the construction of a new City Hall and renovations to Duvall Field, despite opposition from city residents.
The College Park City Council voted 6-2 to approve the ordinance at its Aug. 13 regular meeting. The approval came after a public hearing about the ordinance, at which residents asked the council to instead wait for November’s election to put the items to a non-binding referendum before deciding to proceed with the project.
District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir and District 4 Councilwoman Denise Mitchell both voted against the measure. Citing the concern of residents who attended the public hearing, Kabir made a motion to move the financing discussion to a referendum, which did not receive the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
“It is not a small item, it is a very, very large item, very important item, very expensive item,” Kabir said of the project.
Of the $19 million in bonds, the new City Hall construction will have $14 million in allocated funds, with $5 million set aside for renovations to Duvall Field. The total cost of the City Hall project – a building shared with the University of Maryland – is expected to cost more than $50 million total.
The construction of a new City Hall will be part of a more extensive redevelopment at the intersection of Route 1 and Knox Road.
As part of the project, four existing businesses, as well as the current City Hall building, will be demolished to make room for the new development, which will include municipal, university and retail space.
During construction, the University of Maryland-owned Artemesia Building on Route 1 will house most of the city’s municipal workers, and city council meetings will move to Davis Hall beginning in September. Early estimates suggest the construction could take almost three years.
Discussions about renovations to Duvall Field, located on Rhode Island Avenue, began about 20 years ago. The city spent $1.2 million last year to construct a new restroom and concessions building at the park, as well as a new recreational plaza. Final plans for the renovation are still being discussed.
Former District 4 Councilwoman Mary Cook, a 20-year resident of College Park, spoke in opposition to the city’s plan during the public hearing, as president of the North College Park Community Association (NCPCA). She read a letter that was sent to the council on behalf of the association, asking the issue to be put to a referendum.
Cook questioned the necessity of the new building, the cost and the speed in which the project is moving.
“Although the referendum would be non-binding, NCPCA contends it is essential for the mayor and council to recognize the taxpayer’s will,” Cook said. “We hope that you, our municipal leaders, will seriously consider this request as part of the performance of your duties as elected officials.”
Oscar Gregory, a District 4 resident, also spoke during the public hearing. Gregory has been vocal in his opposition to a new City Hall, citing the need for the city to focus on its infrastructure and neighborhoods instead.
“Why you insist on doing this and mortgaging our future is beyond me, but I can tell you for a fact this is election season, and this will become an election issue,” he said.
The city has invested $2.2 million in the project since July 1, 2016, said Gary Fields, the city’s director of finance, and is under contract for $7.2 million more. The bulk of the costs already incurred was the $1.6 million the city paid to purchase two of the properties being demolished to make room for the development, he said. Shanghai Cafe and Subway currently occupy those properties.
Putting the brakes on the project could delay it further and would lead to the city to incur additional shutdown and start-up fees, he added.
Some residents who voiced opposition spoke out not against the details of the projects, but rather the council’s decision to move forward without letting residents vote on the issue.
Carol Nezzo, a District 3 resident, supported Kabir’s motion to put the issue to a referendum. Nezzo suggested the council’s move may deter people from being involved with city government.
“Going ahead with something people have not participated in is like steamrolling and how are you going to pick these people off the ground afterward and ask them to actively participate in government when they’ve been not listened to?” Nezzo asked. “Government is people participating. That’s good government.”
Mitchell, who voted in favor of putting the issue to a referendum, said she received many calls from residents who opposed the cost of the City Hall project and later, their lack of voice in the process. She said the residents she spoke to just to want to be heard.
“They’re not asking for us to reconsider the location, they’re just asking us to be cognizant of our fiduciary responsibility and to let them vote on a non-binding referendum, which again, if residents say ‘yes,’ the council can overturn that, but the residents had their say and that is all that they are asking for.”