What Happened When the University of Maryland Embraced Public Transit

Op-Ed: In College Park, smart growth meets a university town.

Then Governor Parris Glendening, above, discusses Maryland’s Purple Line in 2001. (AP Photo/ Matt Houston)

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Exciting things are happening in university towns across the United States. Many are changing from sleepy commercial strips meeting retail needs to becoming major centers of innovation, entrepreneurship activity and wonderful walkable communities with a real sense of place. This leap to the future is happening right now at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The change is everywhere. This fall, a four-star hotel at the University of Maryland opened at the main gate to the campus. On Route 1, we see new destinations like the Milk Boy Art House, a restaurant/pub/music venue partnered with the University’s Center for the Performing Arts.

On the east side of campus near the Metro transit stop is the Discovery District, filling up with tech employers such as NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, IonQ (a venture capital-funded startup focused on commercialization of quantum computing), and Fraunhofer Center for Experimental Software Engineering.

Mixed in is a range of new student housing, all a comfortable walk to campus, retail and job opportunities. Gone are the decades old “Knox boxes” that housed hundreds of undergrads in firetraps. Instead we see the new 1,500-student Terrapin Row.

Big changes continue to strengthen the city and university’s futures. In August, Governor Larry Hogan and County Executive Rushern Baker broke ground for the Purple light-rail line. The $2.5 billion public-private partnership, launched by this op-ed’s co-author Parris Glendening when he was governor, will connect College Park to Bethesda and the NIH and to New Carrollton with its Amtrak link to New York. The Purple Line, with five stops on or close to campus, is the first regional rail connection to three different Metro lines. No longer will students and faculty, researchers and business people find an isolated suburban campus. Now College Park and the university are linked to the world.

The excitement is not only about the physical investments. Hundreds of local children are learning, at their own pace — and earning top scores on state tests — at the College Park Academy, the rigorous new college prep public charter school, which is among the most advanced “bricks and clicks” schools in America.

College Park and the university are on a roll. It’s been a long time coming. How did they become the model of smart growth and innovation that they are today?

As longtime local residents, we always agreed with city leaders that the campus and the surrounding community had great potential. Frankly for too long, many campus leaders commuted from elsewhere in the metropolitan area and ignored the smart growth vision of citizens and leaders of the city of College Park.

Examples are legion. Three decades ago the campus insisted that the Metro Green subway line NOT have a stop on campus. It proposed that the tech center be built miles away at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center instead of at the College Park Metro station. (This op-ed’s co-author Jim Rosapepe and Congressman Steny Hoyer, both then on the Board of Regents, put a quick halt to that proposal.) When the city, the university’s Dean of Education and the Prince George’s County Public School System proposed a university-affiliated school to attract and keep families in the College Park area, the campus leadership initially rejected the idea as “too risky.”

All that changed in 2010. Why? In large part because Wallace Loh became the university’s new president and reversed course.

Within months, the university embraced the Purple Line through campus, connecting tens of thousands of students, faculty, staff and visitors with the world. Governor Martin O’Malley and County Executive Baker agreed that a university-affiliated public charter school would be good for the city, the county and the campus.

The same vision and energy were applied to development. The university had previously ignored Route 1, the main street of the city, instead promoting a 1950s-style bypass road around College Park and an insular retail center on 37 acres between Route 1 and the Metro station. Both failed. Instead, Loh and Mayor Andrew Fellows asked the College Park City/University Partnership, the local economic development corporation (chaired by Rosapepe), to create the smart growth-focused University District 2020 Vision. To implement the plan to make College Park a top 20 college town by 2020, Loh hired Omar Blaik, the architect of the University of Pennsylvania’ s revitalization efforts in West Philadelphia, and former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman.

The plan focused on converting Route 1 from a commuter route to a Main Street and promoting mixed-use development at the College Park Metro stop. Building nearly 9,000 student dorm rooms on or near campus has already reduced peak traffic by 34 percent on Route 1 just north of the campus main gate. The Purple Line, together with residential and office buildings in the walkable neighborhood between Route 1 and the Metro station, will reduce car traffic even more.

Now the campus leadership is aligned with the community on a 21st-century smart growth strategy that will make College Park a top college town and a real center of innovation and shared prosperity.

Come visit College Park and see the emergence of one of the nation’s great university towns, a great university and the future of smart growth.

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Parris Glendening is the former governor of Maryland and president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute. Jim Rosapepe is a Maryland state senator who chairs the College Park City/University Partnership.

Tags: public transportationanchor institutionssmart growth

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