Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007

Dernoga’s ‘misjudgment’ hindering Route 1

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I was disappointed to read [Prince George’s] County Councilman Thomas Dernoga’s condescending letter [‘‘Free the developers from captivity in College Park,” Aug. 16] defending his position on the proposed ‘‘Mazza” student housing development. As a strong advocate of this project for over six months, I’m hardly surprised by the brashness with which Mr. Dernoga continues to conduct his affairs in regard to this matter.

In a few days, upwards of 600 graduate students should be occupying their new residences at the transit-friendly Mazza project in northern College Park. Instead, a homeless man occupies the project site, and those same students have signed leases in far-flung and mostly substandard rental units.

Mr. Dernoga prides himself on vanquishing developers by painstakingly exacting heavy concessions. In the case of Mazza, he voluntarily ‘‘called up” the project for review by the County Council in May 2006 after the county’s planning board had approved it. It was not until June 2007, fully a year after the city, the North College Park Citizen’s Association and the University of Maryland indicated their desire for Mazza, that Dernoga was finally ready to weigh in on the project. Positioning himself as the judge, jury and the prosecution, the councilman single-handedly, and in the 11th hour, added millions of dollars to the project’s costs. These costs included, among other things, expensive changes to the project’s stormwater management system and LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] requirements for ‘‘green” building materials.

On the face of things, to many it will sound as though Dernoga did right by the community. Certainly, since the developer still plans to move forward, doesn’t the councilman deserve credit for the fact that Mazza will be a higher quality, more environmentally conscious development? Surely we should stand with the environmentalists and not with the greedy developers? Right?

Wrong. I wish the issues were as black and white as Mr. Dernoga makes them out to be. Perhaps what I wish most of all is that the councilman did not let Mazza languish for more than a year. He should have worked quickly and proactively with the developer. Instead, he has destroyed any semblance of certainty in the local development process, preferring brinksmanship to collaboration, and has left hundreds of grad students to wait until 2009 for decent, affordable housing. To make matters worse, since the Route 1 Sector Plan doesn’t require LEED certification, he is enforcing laws which he only anticipates will be passed in the future.

During the year delay of the project, Dernoga, in cooperation with [state] Sen. Jim Rosapepe attempted to vastly reduce a significant incentive for student housing – a waiver on school construction surcharge fees. The amendment to state law, they argued, would discourage student housing projects like Mazza, which are not an ideal walking distance to the university. What they failed to recognize is that student housing projects benefiting from this law must use the university bus service, and 80 to 90 percent of students at similar projects utilize transit to get to campus. Living up to his Machiavellian reputation, Dernoga’s office was able to force a ‘‘compromise” out of student stakeholders (including myself) by threatening to stop the Mazza project if we did not coalesce. As if the Mazza approval wasn’t already convoluted enough, the councilman had managed to tie the fate of a local development project and years of public support to a bill in Annapolis.

It’s reasonable, I believe, to expect to see some visible improvement to Route 1 in College Park. Instead, when it comes to economic development, what we continue to see from Upper Marlboro is more waffling, more political shenanigans and more impossibly idealistic expectations of development. Mr. Dernoga’s complete disregard for process and his fundamental misjudgment of the needs of the community represent one of the most significant obstacles to the redevelopment of the Route 1 Corridor in College Park. The county must have clear standards and consistently enforce them, rather than allow projects to become political footballs to be tossed around on the whim of the County Council. Developers are not the enemy in College Park’s badly dilapidated Route 1 Corridor. It is becoming increasingly clear who is.

David Daddio is an editor and co-founder of RethinkCollegePark.net, a Web site whose mission statement is to make College Park a great college town.

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