Why Building Apartments Next To Suburban D.C. Metro Stations Doesn't Always Work
Developers see suburban Metro stations as some of the most prime opportunities in the D.C. region, and Prince George's County in particular has several undeveloped transit stops that appear to make it poised for growth. But some developers who have done transit-oriented projects in the county say it is not as simple as just building apartments on top of a Metro stop.
The Metro-centric developments that have had the most success have included a host of retail and restaurant offerings, neighborhood services and employment opportunities, Transwestern Mid-Atlantic Multifamily Group co-director Robin Williams said.
"A handful of others have had residential but not accessibility to employment and/or walkable lifestyle amenities," said Williams, speaking Thursday at Bisnow's Prince George's County State of the Market, held at The Hotel at UMD. "And we've seen some real struggles there."
Wood Partners Mid-Atlantic head Scott Zimmerly, agreeing with Williams' assessment, said he has experienced some of those struggles firsthand. The developer has constructed, and since sold, two apartment buildings near the Green Line's southern terminus at Branch Avenue, the 252-unit Chelsea West and the 198-unit Tribeca at Camp Springs.
"We did two deals at the Branch Avenue Metro and we struggled," Zimmerly said. "And that Metro still struggles to get renters to lease up there. Part of the issue is it's a destination, you can’t see it, there’s little to no retail and there’s no amenities there, no lifestyle. So we really struggled."
But that is not always the case with Prince George's County transit-oriented development, Zimmerly said. He pointed to the 340-unit Evolution at Laurel Town Center, which delivered in March 2017. It doesn't sit on top of the Metro station — instead it is about a mile from a train station on the MARC system's Camden Line, which connects to the Metro system at Greenbelt, College Park and Union Station. It is also next to a 300K SF retail center anchored by a Regal Cinemas with a wide selection of restaurants and retailers.
"At Laurel Town Center, we leased up like wildfire," Zimmerly said. "You don't have to live on top of a Metro to be successful and want to live there. Our residents showed us with our struggles at Branch Avenue that wasn't enough ... It's about how do you get jobs and retail where residential is a component but people want to live there. It's not just enough to say 'we're at the Metro.'"
WMATA is actively working to spur mixed-use development around its stations that will include office and retail space to increase employment opportunities. The transit agency is putting a special focus on Prince George's County, where nine out of 15 stations have no development on Metro property, WMATA Director of Real Estate Nina Albert said.
The development of mixed-use communities that include commercial space around Metro stations is not just important for the success of those areas themselves, but it is also critical to the future health of Metro, Albert said.
The transit system currently has a lopsided ridership pattern because the majority of the employment centers are located in middle and western parts of the region. Commuters create congestion heading from east to west in the morning, but then Metro sends back empty trains to pick up more commuters. A more balanced spread of residential and employment areas could ease congestion on some of the heavily trafficked routes and add revenue by filling up trains that often sit empty, she said.
"We have focused on Prince George's County because transit-oriented development on the eastern side of the region is part of our long-term financial success," Albert said. "We want two-way commuters."
New Carrollton serves as a prime example of the type of development WMATA is pushing for in Prince George's County, she said. The first phase of the 2.7M SF development planned on 71 acres of WMATA-owned land will be a 200K SF office building for Kaiser Permanente, which broke ground in October. Kaiser will bring 900 employees to the New Carrollton, and education technology company 2U last year opened its new 281K SF headquarters at the station.
Another example Albert pointed to was College Park, where WMATA signed a deal with Gilbane in January to build a 440-unit development on a 6-acre Metro-adjacent site. In addition to that residential project, at least 2M SF of office space is planned in the Discovery District between the Metro station and the busy Route 1 corridor.
The area has already seen strong leasing activity from the office space that has delivered, Terrapin Development Co. President Ken Ulman said. A 75K SF office project from COPT, the city's first spec office development in two decades, leased up quickly. WeWork signed on in March for a 25K SF coworking space, its first college campus location. Capital One signed on in December for a 7,500 SF innovation lab in the first-floor office space in the parking garage of the Hotel at UMD.
"We're really diversifying from primarily federal agencies into private companies," Ulman said. "This is part of a significant strategy to recruit companies to have mixed-use environments with residential and retail."
Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker pointed to Largo Town Center as a Metro station that has seen the ideal type of mixed-use development in its surrounding area. Construction is underway on a $543M regional hospital in Largo, a project that took years to move forward and is now expected to be completed in 2020.
The county this year began moving its government offices from Upper Marlboro to Largo. Additionally, a 50-acre redevelopment from Retail Properties of America is moving forward that will bring a movie theater, grocery store, retail, apartments, condos and medical office space to Largo.
"They're not going to call it Downtown Largo, it's going to be Downtown Prince George's," Baker said. "If you think about what Rockville looks like now and you think about Bethesda, it will not only rival those places, it will go beyond it."