SEABROOK – Concern surrounded College Park City Council’s Oct. 22 meeting as it passed preliminary plans for housing and commercial development on 4422 Knox Road that could impact businesses, walkability and affordable housing in the area.
Greystar Real Estate Partners LLC, a property developer, applied for approval on a multi-use building for 341 student apartments, a 32,000-square-foot commercial retail space and an adjacent garage space in the College Park shopping district on Knox Road.
The development, however, would see the demolition of stores along the property, including Marathon Deli, Cafe Hookah, Insomnia Cookies and Lotsa Pizza.
Greystar previously owned another student apartment property, University View, before selling it last November for $235 million in what the broker called the “largest-ever single-assert student trade in the University,” according to Washington Business Journal.
Greystar agreed to the city’s conditions for approval, according to Miriam Bader, senior planner for the City of College Park, primarily the condition to provide public access easement and an accessible sidewalk compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
To provide an ADA-compliant sidewalk, Greystar would need to either remove or locate an existing utility pole on the north side of Knox Road that has caused that sidewalk to be inaccessible, or create an entirely new ADA-compliant sidewalk from Grand Stair to Baltimore Avenue.
The language surrounding the conditions was unsettling to Dan Alpert, the University of Maryland’s student liaison to the city council, who felt that it gave Greystar the ability to simply suggest that an ADA-compliant sidewalk was infeasible, and therefore would not be legally-bound to provide one.
“Going inside a building to come back out is not accessible; going around the other side of a building is not accessible. There’s no reason that should be happening,” Alpert said. “I just want to reiterate that that sidewalk is not just an ‘if feasible,’ it’s a ‘should be done.’”
During the meeting, a spokesperson for Greystar officially committed to improving the accessibility of the sidewalks around the property, both in coalition with the university and the county.
Michael Brennan, a College Park resident, also called on the council to seriously consider what the Knox Road development would mean for equitable development, accessibility and sustainability.
“As development continues, I think it will only become harder to build in these values if the main focus of it is engaging private developers,” Brennan said. “The market will crowd out these values.”
Stephen Kenny, a University of Maryland student who claimed to speak for several College Park residents, urged the council to also consider the culture of College Park as a college town as it moves forward with development plans.
“I think stores, especially Marathon Deli, are a crucial element to building a college town,” Kenny said. “There’s a lot that new developments cannot accomplish in a feeling of a college town that has tradition…that has a sense of community.”
The council and Greystar have both considered allowing Marathon Deli to stay in business either in the new building’s retail space or nearby. Other businesses are expecting to either move to a different location within the city or “cash-out” in advance of the demolition.
“I certainly recognize, and have heard from other people as well, that Marathon Deli is a beloved establishment in College Park,” Mayor Patrick Wojahn said. “It’s a tricky issue, one that we’ve explored different options and found no easy solutions…one that we’re going to continue to talk about.”
But the space’s affordability remains a question for students and business owners alike. Kenny spoke to the university’s difficulty in retaining low-income students and how the threat of unaffordable housing that comes with new development only exacerbates the problem.
“I would like to make sure that the council is working with developers to make sure that this housing development, should it go forward, is, to the maximum ability, affordable, accessible to students, and upholds the values of a longtime college town,” Kenny said.
According to Alpert, the Oct. 15 work session mentioned that the housing would see a rate of $1,400 per bed, which to the student liaison was “insane.”
“That’s just not at all affordable,” Alpert said. “If we’re going to keep saying we’re going to be a more affordable town, we need to act on it. We can’t just keep saying things.”
Councilmember John Rigg said it is important to think about how affordable housing would be addressed in the next phases of development for the Greystar building, stating that there would be a lot of policy work to prevent large chains from “crowding out” the city’s mom-and-pop stores.
“I can sort of see how we wound up here. Twenty years ago, we were begging for any business in College Park,” Rigg said. “But we’re in a very different place today.”