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Developer Q&A: Urban Atlantic Managing Partner Vicki Davis

Urban Atlantic Managing Partner Vicki Davis at a 2018 Bisnow event.

One of the largest developments underway in Prince George's County centers around the New Carrollton Metro station. After winning the development rights for a 71-acre WMATA-owned site around the station, Urban Atlantic in 2017 broke ground on the first phase of the transit-oriented development. 

The developer has now completed that first office building, anchored by Kaiser Permanente, and it broke ground this summer on the first apartment building, using investment through the opportunity zone program. The project is ultimately slated to include 1.3M SF of residential space, 1.1M SF of office, 150K SF of retail and a hotel. 

The development offers access to the Amtrak and MARC trains and also stands to benefit from its location on the eastern terminus of the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail project currently under construction. Bisnow caught up with Urban Atlantic Managing Partner Vicki Davis, who will speak next week at Bisnow's Future of Prince George's County event, to hear the latest on the New Carrollton project. 

Bisnow: When did you first began working on this New Carrollton project, and what drew you to the location at that time as a site that made sense for this type of mixed-use development?

Davis: We've been working on it for a really long time. A lot of people in the D.C. area use this station to go to New York on Amtrak. We always thought it was sort of this hole in the doughnut with ultimate possibilities but absolutely no there there at all except for a wide array of parking lots. When the solicitation came out from WMATA we were super excited because we thought it could result in catalytic change for that area. When we dug into it more, it turned out there had been a ULI Technical Assistance Panel that made a whole bunch of recommendations, and that was a great nexus.

The other part of it was that it had TODZ zoning in place, which is pretty unusual in Prince George's County except for at the Metro stations. It allows you to do a wide variety of things within very defined limits. To top it all off, we ended up with Rushern Baker as county executive and it was just the right time in Prince George's County, and to follow that up with the new county executive, Angela Alsobrooks, and it becomes a really unbelievable site. It was also rated the No. 1 transit site in the entire state of Maryland because of its multimodal nature. So it had a lot going for it. 

Bisnow: For the first new office building at the project, you signed Kaiser Permanente, and now they have moved in. How important has it been to have an office tenant in place with workers coming there every day in terms of, as you said, creating a there there?

Davis: It is really super important. They are a terrific tenant because they brought a lot of their brand identity here. You might say, 'They had all the options in the world, why would they have chosen this site?' And it's something we haven't talked about which is it has annually 30 million views from the rail side. It gets MARC, Amtrak and Metro, and so what we did is turned a bit of lemons into lemonade because lot of people don't like living next to railroad tracks, but we turned it into an unbelievable branding opportunity for them. They are able to hang their banners on our garage, so it certainly livened up the station and it's already a whole different experience when you come in because there's people walking right off the train to the building.

It's also really great for Kaiser because they have a tremendous number of employees who live in Prince George's County and had a significantly longer commute which is now shorter. So I think it's been really symbiotic. And the building is scheduled to be a LEED Silver certified building, we're in the end phases of that certification. 

Bisnow: The latest office user announced at the project in April was WMATA. What is the latest on that project, do you have a timeline for construction?

Davis: We expect to deliver that building in mid-2022. We are hard at work on the design and programming. I don't know if I can announce the team yet, but it's a great architect and great contractor and we're going to hit very high minority participation rates. We're very excited about that. 

A rendering of Urban Atlantic's New Carrollton Metro development

Bisnow: You also have a 282-unit apartment building that you secured financing for earlier this year, has construction begun on that project? 

Davis: Yes, it broke ground in early June. We have a webcam on the site right now you can see the columns going in, the foundations and columns for the building, so we're very excited about that. 

We did a lot of pre-work for that. We had actually pre-built the garage, so the parking for the Stella is already fully built so we don't have to excavate a lot. It should be quick to market, we're expecting it to be on the market in 24 months. It'll be a luxury building and it's called Stella because it's such a star crossroads. It will be a really fantastic location and really livable.  

Bisnow: How big of a step will that be in terms of creating a live-work-play environment and getting all of those residents into the project once that opens in a couple of years?

Davis: It's just the first step in it. You can imagine there will be 300 to 400 people living there. At the same time as we're doing the next commercial building for WMATA, we're also planning the next 300 units on-site. We are just in the process of finalizing our design team and we have some really good candidates and we're super excited. It will have retail on the ground floor. The Stella has a little retail, too.

We're trying to work with some exciting, young new chefs and a coffee concept there, among others. The station doesn't have those fundamental basics, so I think it'll be great to have that as kind of a barbell. You have the station and this end and a lot of people in between, a lot of pedestrian traffic.

Bisnow: You mentioned the retail space, what types of tenants are you looking to bring into the project to increase the area's activity? 

Davis: We have a great broker on this, his name is Thomas Bolen from Rappaport. He's a really nice, young up-and-comer. He's also from Prince George's County, and he knows this area really well and is really committed to it. 

We're looking, generally speaking, for service and food. I think it's pretty similar to what other people are doing except for that because it's in an opportunity zone, it gives a real opportunity for people who want to grow their businesses here, including retailers.  

The other thing that's super interesting about the Purple Line, they have a huge commitment to the arts, as do we and as does Prince George's County. So we have all of that coming together. It's some of the key ingredients to placemaking. That's what we're really working on here is placemaking. We also have a brand-new little pocket park coming that we worked really hard on with the county and it will have some of the things you see in the most activated parks like exercise equipment, areas to chill out, trees, swings, [an] outdoor dining area for the folks at Kaiser and for others and some games. We think that's going to be part of starting an early activation on the site. 

Bisnow: The project is in an opportunity zone, as you mentioned, and you received investment through the program for the first apartment building. How impactful has the program been in drawing investor attention to your project?

Davis: It really helps raise attention to it. The governor has also set up a task force for opportunity zones and County Council member Dannielle Glaros is part of the task force. It's the concept of stone soup where if you bring the right resources together you can create a greater whole. What we do in these locations where you really need to create a sense of place is to bring together all of the ingredients we think that makes a sense of place, open spaces, people living there, working there, retail, beautiful design, great streetscape and transit.  

Bisnow: Your project will sit on the eastern end of the Purple Line, do you expect that will have a significant impact on your development when it opens and people start riding those trains every day?

Davis: The connections we have now east to west are the Beltway, maybe the East-West Highway but traffic is really rough, and then the ICC and that's a whole lot further out. The Purple Line is connecting masses of people. You have masses of people in Prince George's County and there are jobs here and also people who live here. In Bethesda and Silver Spring you also have jobs and people who live there. And then in College Park, you have education and jobs and people who live there. It opens up markets.

I've been serving on a working group of people thinking about development on the Purple Line. The very fact you have a diverse group of people for health uses, for real estate development, public officials and nonprofits all looking at that Purple Line route and saying, 'What could happen here?' That's huge because it breaks open markets that have otherwise been isolated in the past. 

Bisnow: You also have a hotel component planned for the project. Are you in talks with any brands to operate a hotel? 

Davis: We've had preliminary outreach and we're working on a study that gauges demand for hotels. We're definitely looking at the right partner, and we're in the infancy of that. 

Bisnow: Do you expect your development to be a catalyst for growth for the surrounding area and the larger Prince George's County community?

Davis: Yes, I do. If you look at the zoning, it was in the ULI report, it identified an enormous area around the station, a big triangle that has the capacity to take 10M SF of new development.

You think about 10M SF of new development and the closest thing you've got to that in the area is Capitol Riverfront. This doesn't have a riverfront, but it's got access to the Beltway, 95, Route 50, Amtrak, MARC, Purple Line and Orange Line. I think it has the ability to be a really vibrant center for Prince George's County that's connected in so many ways to the stuff around it. You think about what else is comparable and you've got the Mosaic District, and other edge city areas that have this kind of capacity. I think definitely with the growth of Amazon, it's super likely that Prince George's County will be a recipient of additional economic development. I think it's going to affect the entire area. Prince George's County because of opportunity zones and the relative price of development and housing has kind of a leg up on some of the most needed development in the entire area. 

Bisnow: Do you think the New Carrollton area can attract big anchor office tenants to help achieve that type of growth for the area?

Davis: Yes, it already has. Giant used to have a headquarters and then they went to New York and now they're back. I think that it is drawing new headquarters for folks. There's also the possibility of GSA. The door is wide open. If you are a business where you expect a high amount of growth, the opportunity zone location is an unbelievable boon not just for the real estate developers but for the business owners.

Vicki Davis will discuss the New Carrollton development Wednesday at Bisnow's Future of Prince George's County event.