Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007

Student housing at University of Maryland ‘held hostage’ by Dernoga

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Available housing for University of Maryland graduate students should have doubled next month with the planned opening of the Mazza Grandmarc apartment complex. Instead, the proposed site in north College Park remains empty due to a prolonged negotiation between the developer and Prince George’s County Councilman Tom Dernoga.

As a leader of the graduate student community at the university, which will rely heavily on the proposed housing section of the Mazza development, I followed the developments of this case closely over the past six months. What I observed made me question the county’s approval process for development – and the prospects for solving the worst student housing crunch in 20 years.

There are 10,000 graduate students at the university, but there is university-affiliated housing for only 700 of us. Anyone who lives in the College Park area is aware of the high cost of living, so it should be no surprise that it is very difficult for graduate students to find affordable housing near campus.

Naturally, I was thrilled when I found out about the Mazza project because it would nearly double the amount of dedicated graduate housing near campus.

As an environmentalist, I was especially excited to find out that the developers had volunteered to convey 6.5 acres of parkland to the county, to restore parts of Paint Branch Stream and to create an extension to an existing bike path so residents could more easily bike to campus. Additionally, since there is so little affordable housing near campus, students drive in from great distances in some cases. Concentrating student housing near campus, especially in a location where alternative transportation is encouraged and available, can only be a good thing environmentally.

Area residents have been in favor of this project, it’s environmentally positive and a big step forward for the university and for the grad student population. Surely no one would oppose this, right? I was dismayed to learn, however, that Mazza was being held hostage by one man, County Councilman Tom Dernoga.

Dernoga has caused numerous delays in approving the project by adding new requirements, without notice, at various council hearings over the past 15 months. One of the worst examples was the council meeting of June 18, when Dernoga imposed a new condition – that the development conform to the highly restrictive LEED standard, which requires compliance from each category of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, including preserving water efficiency, energy conservation and indoor air quality. He informed the development team of this new restriction literally 25 minutes before the meeting.

Meeting the LEED standard will cost the development team $1.5 million. Additionally, if the development does not meet this standard, the county will assess a to-be-determined fee. There is nothing wrong with the LEED standard, but if Dernoga proposed this for purely environmental reasons, then why did he do this 15 months after initial approval? He should have been explicit about these restrictions from the very beginning, or at the very least given adequate notice to developers so that they could plan accordingly.

I wish I could say that [this] last-minute stringent condition [was] unusual in this drawn-out process, however [it is] are just [one] of many that Dernoga imposed. I have tried to discuss my concerns with Dernoga, but he did not respond to my attempts to contact him.

I fear that the county’s handling of this project will only serve to discourage the much-needed redevelopment of the Route 1 corridor. I also fear that this process has set a very bad precedent for how the county does business.

Laura Moore, Graduate StudentGovernment president, Greenbelt