Public Involvement in U. of Maryland East Campus Planning

Tonight at an event at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning I met Harry Mattison, the author of a blog about the Allston Brighton Community Blog. He’s also a member of the Allston Brighton Community Planning Initiative.

The map below sums up what’s happening in the neighborhood. Clockwise from the left, the red areas illustrate the neighborhood’s institutional land owners: Boston College, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, Harvard University, and at the bottom right Boston University. More than passive neighbors, most of these — especially Harvard through its Allston Initiative — have been expanding. The dots show existing and planned development projects. (For the initiated like myself, ABCPI’s old presentations provide an introduction.)

ABCPI_Presentation_Feb2006-1.pdf (18 pages)

All this development activity, much of it planned by none other than Harvard has resulted in a climate of antagonism and distrust in the community. Discussing these issues with Harry, I was reminded of the procedural elements to the East Campus Redevelopment Initiative in College Park, Maryland.

East Campus  M-Square ConnectivityWhen I first arrived on campus in College Park to begin my master’s program in the fall of 2006, the University of Maryland was initiating the process of selecting a private developer to redevelop over 100 acres of their land into a mixed-use project with restaurants, apartments, a hotel, stores, and offices. The site is located just up the road from downtown College Park, strategically between the university’s main campus, and the Metro Station and University research park. (Yellow and green on the map to the right)

The administration had planned a three public forums about the project, complete with large maps and a panel to discuss the projects. Despite the preparation, turnout was abysmal and University staff easily outnumbered attendees. We requested and were granted a meeting with the then-Vice President for Administrative Affairs John Porcari and two other administrators to discuss public outreach about the project. Although they listened politely, the administrators firmly insisted the process of selecting a private developer must remain closed. Once one was selected, however, they pledged a full and public process.

That fall Porcari left the University to become the state Secretary of Transportation, but the next spring we had a meeting with one of the administrators from the original group and an expanded group including student leaders and administrators. At this meeting, we presented our recommendations for what a positive public engagement plan would look like. We argued it should be consensus-based, proactive, candid, and transparent, and provided specific recommendations and a brief summary of how other universities had handled input for facilities planning. The document is no masterwork, but because of it we brought far more substantive input than any other participant.

Shortly after that meeting, former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan was appointed to the position that would oversee the project planning, Vice President for Administrative Affairs. The veteran of a complex public-private project revitalizing Silver Spring, Maryland, Duncan was no stranger to the politics of urban development. I emailed him to congratulate him on his appointment, and asked for a position on any steering committee created.

During the summer, I received this letter from the University president:

July 20, 2007
Mr. Robert Goodspeed
AGNR-Plant Science & Landscape Architecture
2139 Plant Sciences Building
College Park, MD 20742-4452

Dear Rob:

With the recent Board of Regents approval of the team of Foulger-Pratt/Argo Investment as the developer with whom the University can negotiate a development plan for the East Campus site, I am seeking the input of a Community Review Steering Committee. The Committee will work toward achieving a consensus plan for the development of the University’s east campus site and toward promoting the revitalization of the Route 1 corridor. Planning for this project must provide for current institutional needs, future campus goals and the enhancement of the surrounding community.

The Committee will work in open session, considering issues that have been brought to it by the campus community, area neighborhoods and local businesses. Comment from the public will be solicited at public events and through members of the committee. We look forward to lively dialogue and a collegial exploration of ideas between our Committee members and the development team. Committee members will be charged to work with the Foulger-Pratt/Argo team on the development of the plan. They will be in a position to gain a high level of understanding of the project in order to provide input and to build broad support for it.

You have been recommended for membership on this Committee, and I ask for your participation. I hope that you will consider this opportunity to represent the community in this transformational planning process. I value greatly the input of our diverse community for the east campus development. I am excited by the long-term vision of a vibrant, mixed-use center that will serve the University and the College Park communities. I have attached the schedule of the meetings planned as you consider this invitation. Being optimistic, I would like to thank you in advance for agreeing to serve. Please contact [EXCERPTED] to confirm your availability and interest in helping to make the east campus a truly great contribution to our community.

Yours sincerely,

C. D. Mote, Jr.

The following schedule was enclosed.

East Campus Community Review Steering Committee
Tentative Meeting Schedule

Chair of Committee: Mr. Douglas M. Duncan
Vice President for Administrative Affairs
University of Maryland

The following is a tentative schedule for meetings and topics for discussion. All the meetings will be held from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in the Visitor Center Auditorium located in Turner Hall.

* August 13–Introduction; background on RFP process, developer presentation; committee goals/charge

* August 27–Market dynamics and proposed uses: retail, residential, office, and hotel

* September 12–Economic impact of development and public finance options

* September 24–Transportation planning: Route 1/Paint Branch connections/traffic calming, public transit, and pedestrian/bicycle connections

* October 8–Land use options and concepts: placemaking, street-facing retail, views, plazas, connections, and residential over retail.

* October 22—Concluding meeting

Although the precise timing and topics varied somewhat from this schedule (the meetings didn’t wrap up until January 2008, for example) it generally suggests the approach taken. After every meeting and at other times during the process I wrote detailed blog posts on Rethink College Park, sharing all the technical documentation and information discussed at the meetings. In general, these meetings were very well attended and despite tense moments were generally respectful. During the entire time period, me and the other Rethink College Park contributors wrote a staggering 366 posts about East Campus. The university posted a variety of information to their website about the project.

Chaired personally by Doug Duncan, the meetings were very good at sharing information and providing a venue for community engagement. However, they weren’t perfect. Here’s a few of my concerns:

  • The composition of the committee was half university, half community, with a few others (including 3 students) thrown in. If the university is a developer, why should they have such a large representation?
  • The format of the meeting was designed for one-way communication, not discussion. The group sat in a “U” facing a presenter. The only structured discussion was during Q&A.
  • No designs in more detail than massing and site plans were presented. This was the biggest failure of the process: nobody saw the public plans until after the group stopped meeting.

Last summer, I made one last trip to College Park to see the unveiling of the final plans, which were submitted to the county for approval last summer also. In addition to what’s described here, the project involved dozens of other components I haven’t mentioned, ranging from talking with members of the closed-door campus architectural committee to visiting with administrators to discuss how to make the project website more user-friendly. Needless to say, the true impact of any of this on the project is impossible to say and the final chapter of this project is far from over. Nevertheless, I hope the information here about the public process may prove a useful record.

> U. of Maryland East Campus Redevelopment Initiative (Official site)
> Rethink College Park: East Campus Posts
Rethink College Park: “Engaging the Community in the East Campus Redevelopment”
> See also, “NIMBYism, Urban Development, and the Public Involvement Solution,”

Author: Rob Goodspeed