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College Park Hotels, Restaurants Still Waiting For Students To Spark Recovery

The hotel, retail and apartment markets in College Park largely revolve around the University of Maryland population, and for the past 18 months, business has been slow. 

The campus is now preparing to return to full in-person classes for the fall semester, and it is also scheduled to host major events like homecoming that draw thousands of visitors but didn't take place last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But with the emergence of the delta variant and the return of mask mandates, the likelihood of a back-to-normal semester remains uncertain. 

The University of Maryland, College Park campus, photographed Saturday, Aug. 15.

Owners of bars, restaurants and hotels in College Park told Bisnow that demand has remained well below normal levels throughout the pandemic, and they are hopeful that the return of students will bring a new surge of business activity. 

"Sales are not quite where they were before, but we're pretty hopeful that with kids coming back, with sports coming back, that things will get better," said Adam Greenberg, who owns three restaurants next to the campus. "It might take six months to a year ... We don't know what delta's going to do to us."

Greenberg owns Potomac Pizza, Bagels 'n Grinds and College Park Grill, all located on the ground floor of the Hotel at the University of Maryland, a 297-room hotel that opened in 2017. College Park Grill has been closed for the past two months because of a fire, but Greenberg aims to open it by move-in weekend, which starts Aug. 26. 

He said business has been slower than normal throughout the past 18 months, and without the money the restaurants received through the Paycheck Protection Program, he may not have been able to keep them open. The restaurants pull a significant chunk of their demand from the hotel guests, and Greenberg hopes it will be more occupied this fall, as College Park is set to have its busiest period in 18 months. 

The university canceled in-person classes in March 2020 and remained remote for the rest of that semester. It started the fall 2020 semester with around 20% of classes held in person, before reducing that when cases spiked in November, The Washington Post reported. It then began the spring semester with a two-week period of online-only classes before bringing 25% of classes to in-person. 

Residence halls also had reduced capacity throughout last year, pushing some students to off-campus housing, and dining halls and other common spaces had capacity restrictions. The university increased capacity limits in May as the state and county loosened restrictions, but then the students left for summer break. 

This fall, all classes that were held in person before Covid will return to campus, the university said, and there won't be any capacity restrictions. It announced in April it will require students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated to return to campus for the fall semester, and this month it reinstituted a mask mandate in accordance with local policy. 

The Hotel at UMD, with Bagels & Grinds, Potomac Pizza, College Park Grill and a spa in the ground-floor space.

The Hotel at UMD, owned by Southern Management, laid off 150 people in March 2020 and was closed from that month until June 1, 2020. Southern Management Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jeff Brainard said last school year was slower than normal because many of the large campus events and conferences that draw guests didn't take place. 

Hotel demand started to pick up in April but occupancy was still about 50% of its pre-Covid levels, Brainard said. It continued to gradually increase in May, when the university held an in-person graduation, and then over the summer Brainard said it received demand from prospective student visits and sports tournaments held on campus.

The hotel is now fully booked for move-in weekend, and it has filled up for family weekend and homecoming weekend, both in October, Brainard said. He said it has also seen bookings increase for other home football games, as the stadium plans to allow full capacity this season after not having fans in attendance last year. 

"It's been a very good summer for us to see signs of life," Brainard said. "We're going to continue this trend of a slow, methodical recovery and then we'll have those spikes with homecoming, family weekend and big sporting events. That will certainly help."

Brainard said the hotel has been gradually increasing its staffing and is continuing to hire, but there is still one piece missing in its demand puzzle: large conferences. The hotel has 43K SF of meeting space, and with conference bookings this fall still below normal levels, he sees that as one demand segment that could be hurt by the delta variant. 

"It's limited in the fall but we're starting to see demand, and certainly 2022 looks better for that," he said of conference bookings. "There's still trepidation with people meeting, and you've got the delta variant impact."

R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, a popular College Park bar that has been open since 1978.

College Park's restaurants and bars have also struggled during the pandemic, and they hope the return of students will boost business. R.J. Bentley's owner John Brown said demand disappeared in spring 2020 as students went home and didn't return that semester, and it remained quiet throughout that summer. 

"College Park became a ghost town," Brown said. "You have to figure out how you're going to stay in business, and for restaurants it's very difficult."

Bentley's was aided by PPP funds, Brown said, and business began to slowly improve last fall semester as some students returned to College Park. The winter was difficult as Covid cases surged and indoor dining capacity remained limited, but he said demand improved during the spring semester as more people received vaccines. 

The summer is typically a slow time for the College Park bar scene, but Brown said the past month has been stronger than the same time period in 2019. He hopes to continue that momentum into the fall, but he said the rise in cases with the delta variant could temper that surge. 

"It's good, but it's not great," Brown said of the current state of business. "Great might start in September. We’ll know more as we get closer, but our heart is in our throat and we just hope this thing calms down and restrictions don’t come back."

For new restaurants that haven't yet built up a loyal customer base, this fall could provide a much-needed introduction to the student population. 

Ritchie's Colombian Restaurant, which opened in December at 7313 Baltimore Ave. in College Park.

Ritchie's Colombian Restaurant opened in September at 7313 Baltimore Ave., on the same block as Bentley's. Co-owner Ricardo Rivera, who was in the construction industry before opening Ritchie's as his first restaurant, said he based the location choice on the likely flow of UMD students.

He said he hasn't yet seen that full flow, but it had some students come into the restaurant last school year, and it has also received business from the D.C.-area Colombian community. 

"We were struggling, but we are a completely new business," Rivera said. "It will take a while to get into a good position, but to be in a pandemic and at the location we are, I think we're OK. We haven't gotten there yet, but I think we're OK."

Rivera said he is still waiting to see the level of foot traffic that a normal semester at UMD can bring to Baltimore Avenue businesses. 

"We opened when everything was shut down so we haven’t seen that business from the University of Maryland yet," Rivera said. "We have some, but we haven’t been full because last year everything shut down so there weren’t that many people around. And then they went on vacation and haven’t come back yet. We’ve been hearing a lot about when they come back it’s going to be a lot going on, but we haven’t seen that yet."

The College Park student housing sector doesn't appear to have experienced the same pain as its restaurant and hotel counterparts, in part because of university housing policy.

The Varsity student housing building at 8150 Baltimore Ave. in College Park.

The university reduced the density of students in on-campus buildings last school year by minimizing the number of roommates sharing bedrooms, and one major student housing owner said this pushed people off campus. 

Greystar in March 2020 acquired The Varsity, a student housing building on Baltimore Avenue with 263 units and 901 total beds. Greystar Development Director John Beinert said it was at 100% occupancy last school year in part because of the university lowering its on-campus density. He said it is already fully pre-leased for this upcoming year. 

"Maryland did their de-densification and took out some of their double-occupancy rooms, and that pushed a lot of students onto the private market," Beinert said. "With the pandemic, they probably got pre-leased a little late, and it was full all through 2020, and it's been pre-leased for this year."

Greystar, one of the nation's largest student housing owners, remains bullish on the College Park market and is moving forward with a new development. 

The developer filed plans in September 2019, and unveiled detailed renderings in April 2020, for a 343-unit student housing project near the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and Knox Road. Greystar plans to break ground on the project this fall, Beinert said. 

The project is replacing several long-standing retail storefronts, and the businesses have already closed, Beinert said. One restaurant, Marathon Deli, already relocated to a new location on Baltimore Avenue, and Beinert said Greystar has been in talks with other retailers about returning to the new development. 

Beinert said the student housing project is perfectly located between the campus and the Baltimore Avenue retail corridor, and he thinks the businesses will benefit from the project adding housing density to the area. 

"That's where you want student density is to concentrate it as close to campus as possible, and as close to the retailers that benefit from those students being proximate," Beinert said.