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Prince George's County Zoning Rewrite Could Help Spur Mixed-Use Development Near Transit

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Transit hubs throughout Prince George's County — from existing Metro stations at Branch Avenue and Largo Town Center to future Purple Line stops in New Carrollton and College Park — are primed for a slew of new development in the coming years. The county is now working to overhaul its 50-year-old zoning code to encourage dense, mixed-use development around all of its transit nodes. 

Mall at Prince George's
The entrance to the Mall at Prince George's in Hyattsville

The county has been working through its comprehensive zoning rewrite for four years, and the plan could pass as soon as October.

County officials are hopeful it could help turn many of the large parking lots around the county's Metro stations into the type of mixed-use, transit-oriented development seen in other parts of the region and spur development around the new Purple Line stops. 

"We need more transit-oriented development," said Prince George's County Planning Director Andree Green Checkley, who will speak at Bisnow's Prince George's County State of the Market Sept. 13. "We need to be in sync with modern economic growth and development so we can grow our tax base."

The zoning rewrite includes a wide range of changes, but one of the primary focuses is on standardizing mixed-use development around transit hubs. Previously regulations differed around each of the county's Metro stations based on zoning overlays that were passed on an individual basis.

The new code creates five new distinct zones called Transit-Oriented Activity Center Base Zones. 

Largo Medical Center
A rendering of the University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center in Largo

The five zones increase in density from Neighborhood Activity Centers, which encourages low-rise, mixed-use development around transit like bus stops and Purple Line stations, to Regional Transit-Oriented High-Intensity zones, which will create urban centers around the Largo Town Center, New Carrollton and Prince George's Plaza Metro stations. 

Those three stations were designated as downtown hubs in the county's Plan 2035, a blueprint passed in 2014 that sets a vision for the county's future growth. This current zoning rewrite began after that plan passed and intends to create specific zoning policies to make the plan a reality.

The Largo Town Center Metro station will soon be home to a $543M regional hospital, which broke ground in November, and a 50-acre, mixed-use development is planned next to the medical center site. The county also began moving its government offices from Upper Marlboro to Largo this year. 

New Carrollton Project Rendering
A rendering of Urban Atlantic's New Carrollton development

At New Carrollton, construction began in November on the new Kaiser Permanente facility that serves as the first phase of Urban Atlantic and Forest City's 2.7M SF mixed-use development, which is planned in phases over the next 10 years. The station, which features Amtrak and MARC train service, is also home to the new, 281K SF headquarters of education technology company 2U

The Prince George's Plaza Metro station in Hyattsville sits next to the Mall at Prince George's, which recently underwent a major renovation and brought in a series of new retail tenants. But the property serves as one example of a Metro-adjacent shopping center in Prince George's County that is surrounded by massive surface parking lots, something Checkley hopes the new plan will help change. 

"You can drive around the county and see we have an overabundance of parking lots, impervious surfaces that are just going to waste," Checkley said. "We did a retail study where we looked at all of our commercial shopping centers, and the conclusion is that we have underutilized shopping centers with massive parking lots that are basically just sitting there." 

The zoning rewrite reduces parking minimums throughout the county, especially around Metro stations, allowing developers more flexibility to choose the amount of parking that makes sense for a project. 

"That's one of the best parts about this plan is it has maximums for parking around Metro and minimums which are far lower, but give the ability for an applicant to come in with a parking study and demonstrate what's needed," county economic development official Brad Frome said. "This provides a road map to get you to a place where you've got development by Metro that isn't just a sea of parking." 

Metro-adjacent parking lots could soon be developed near the northern end of the Green Line, which includes a massive development site in Greenbelt that was in contention for the FBI headquarters, and in College Park, where Gilbane reached a deal with WMATA last year to build a 440-unit project next to the station.

At the Southern end of the Green Line, a 100-acre, General Services Administration-anchored development is in the early stages at Branch Avenue, a $400M mixed-use development is under construction at Suitland and a 15-acre Metro-adjacent site recently hit the market at the Naylor Road station.

The Hotel at UMD College Park
The Hotel at UMD in College Park, Southern Management's new $180M project

Frome said the zoning rewrite will be especially important in encouraging development around the Purple Line, the light-rail project that will include 11 stops in Prince George's County from New Carrollton to College Park to Riggs Road. The project broke ground a year ago after several delays and is expected to open in 2022. 

"Now that it's coming and you're going to have this [zoning rewrite] passed and put into place, the timing couldn't be better," Frome said. "Now people can make investments on the Purple Line and take advantage of the tools the zoning ordinance can provide." 

Terrapin Development Co. President Ken Ulman, the former Howard County executive who has spearheaded the development of College Park's Discovery District, said he supports the overall concept of the zoning rewrite. 

"We very much appreciate the county's focus on transit-oriented development and on mixed-use," Ulman said. "Our focus is on the route of the Purple Line and strengthening the development around the current College Park Metro, the Purple Line stops and the Baltimore Avenue frontage." 

But Ulman is trying to push for more flexibility around some of the mixed-use provisions in the plan. The proposed zoning ordinance sets out to encourage mixed-use development by setting minimum levels of what a project must include in the transit-oriented zones. Projects must have at least two of the five main uses — residential, commercial, industrial, civic and agricultural — and they can have no less than 15% of the total square footage devoted to each of those two uses. 

Ulman said there can be some cases where a large office tenant might have security needs and want to lease the entire building without having ground-floor retail. There are also cases where residential buildings in certain areas cannot always support retail. He gave the example of The Enclave, a student housing project on Baltimore Avenue in College Park that was required to include ground-floor retail, but the retail space has sat vacant since the building opened. 

"We need to make sure that the circumstances on the ground and the market conditions will allow the type of development that meets all of our goals," Ulman said. "We all share the same goals, but the level of flexibility that's needed to react to market conditions is what we're focused on." 

A variety of stakeholders have been weighing in on the zoning rewrite since the process began four years ago, and the process is now nearing the finish line. The legislation was introduced to the County Council in April and Checkley hopes it will be passed in the coming months. 

"It's really in their corner now," Checkley said of the council. "It's up to them for presentation, introduction and adoption hopefully before they break for the year at the end of October." 

County Council Chair Danielle Glaros said the upcoming November elections are forcing them to consider the zoning rewrite on an expedited timeline, and the size of the legislative package could make an October passage difficult, but she's not ruling it out.

"There's a lot of momentum to take it up this year," Glaros said. "Momentum is on our side, but with that said, it is a huge document ... the best we can do is to listen to testimony and try to make amendments and deliver a product that is implementable and can deliver what we want to see for the county." 

Checkley, Ulman and several real estate developers and brokers will discuss the county's future development at Bisnow's Prince George's County State of the Market and Schmooze, held the afternoon of Sept. 13 at The Hotel at UMD in College Park.