College Park: the Maryland uni town where retail should thrive. And doesn’t.

By this point, after two years of intermittent lockdowns and the ensuing impacts on businesses, we can all see it with our own eyes: retail is fickle.  I’ve written about this more times than I can count, since the very onset of this blog, waaaaay back when the biggest issue I could see was that national chains like Walmart and Target liked to shutter their 1980s-era architectural prototypes, move to a more lucrative piece of land three miles away, and leave a giant vacant shell—a greyfield—to sit and decay.  This still happens, but back in the early 2010s, I concerned myself more with economic outcomes of malls, trying to discern how some malls continued to flourish while others died on the vine.  What halcyon days those were!  Now, when even Chicago’s heavy-hitting Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue (the famed “Magnificent Mile”) is ailing, it seems inevitable that most malls are going to meet their maker in the next decade or two.   Retail is unequivocally hypersensitive, not just to income and population density, but subtle gradations in differences among location (location location location), which probably goes hand-in-hand with being fickle, just as those subtle traditions in location correlate strongly (but not exclusively) to income and population density. 

And why is it so fickle and so hypersensitive?  Because it can be.  At least in the United States, there’s an almost comical surfeit of supply—of structures to house the retail—and not enough businesses that demand it.  After all, not every business needs a dedicated brick-and-mortar, which has long been the case for service oriented businesses; the Internet is enough for executing many services (e.g. tax filing), while other services (e.g. auto repair) usually require the customer to show up at the business’s premises.  However, as time advances, online services have become easier for the average person to engage, not only because it is more intuitive, but an ever-growing portion of the population has easy access to the Web and is sufficiently adept at using it.  As long as the consumer is willing to wait the necessary shipping time, the brick-and-mortar aspect is increasingly superfluous; it devolves into little more than showcase room for merchandise.  And leases, utilities, property taxes, et cetera are all pricey. Meanwhile, the the quantity of structures available to house the remaining retail-oriented businesses remains significant; there’s still a lot of potential bricks-and-mortar out there.  While much of this vacant or underutilized space is falling into neglect, it isn’t decaying nearly as rapidly as the decline in demand for such space…or the businesses that used to house it.  They now need warehouses more than showrooms.  So the remaining retailers that still prefer physical structures can be very, very picky with the real estate portfolio that remains.

This leads to the latest predicament for developers/owners of retail properties.  What type of building, if any, is a surefire bet for attracting a potential tenant?  If the college town of College Park, Maryland is any evidence, there’s one more building we can strike off the list.

High density apartments in College Park MD

College Park is in some respects an unusual town.  It hosts the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, with an enrollment of 40,000, making it the largest school within the Washington DC metro area.  That’s right: College Park and the University of Maryland are actually closer to the nation’s capital than to the largest city in the state, Baltimore—though Baltimore isn’t far away either.  But College Park is a mere two miles from the outer boundary of the District of Columbia, and approximately thirty miles from the Baltimore city limits.  Situated at the northern reaches of Prince George’s County, College Park and UMD are in almost all respects a suburban campus, but it’s not really an automobile-oriented environment.  The University of Maryland claimed the site back in 1856, when it began as agricultural college, a private institution.  But the Civil War and an enrollment decline forced the fledgling school into bankruptcy.  The state assumed half ownership, thereby making Maryland Agricultural College a de facto state school.  Though successive presidents helped rescue the school from insolvency, it remained largely an agricultural institution until the late 1910s, when the state took full control and integrated it fully into the University of Maryland system.

The school’s slow ascendency into its major role within the state should offer ample evidence of its role and character at the time.  Simply put, its location in Prince George’s County affirmed it as a rural campus in an agrarian setting.  In fact, the town of College Park didn’t really begin to develop around the campus until the late 1880s, only achieving incorporation in 1945, by which time it had begun to proliferate, largely through Washington DC residents seeking a less urbanized setting.  Between the 1950 and 2010 censuses, College Park tripled in population, and suburban communities burgeoned in the agricultural lands surrounding in all directions (all, that is, expect northwest of College Park, which hosted then as of now the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, an oasis of pastoral landscapes amidst the otherwise intensely urbanized Prince George’s County, with a population nearing one million).

At present, just as during the time of its founding, the City of College Park exists as the residential and commercial district serving the University of Maryland, though its proximity to the District of Columbia has made it a fortuitous location for other important federal subunits, serving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Archives.  This proximity also makes it, for all intents and purposes, an “inner ring suburb” that enjoys a partly walkable character, and becoming more so with the construction of these high-rise apartment buildings.  Even though the main arterial is auto oriented, the school and residential campus still operate at a walkable scale.  College Park is also fully accessible by not one but two prominent commuter rail lines: both WMATA Yellow/Green Line (the DC Metro system) and the MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) Camden Line that connects Washington DC and Baltimore.  Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the city is home to a significant portion of the 40,000 students (those who aren’t commuters) means that it has a built-in demographic base housed in these high density settings: dormitories and multi-family apartment buildings like the one in the original photograph.  All things considered, College Park should be a gold mine for various retailers—restaurants, specialty shops, watering holes (coffee, not booze!)—that serve the student population.

Cue the inevitable use of the great nullifying conjunction: BUT….

In terms of retail health, College Park isn’t quite the equivalent of gasoline splashed on turf grass.  But it’s not what one might expect, despite numerous efforts to densify the commercial center through multi-family residential projects, most of which look like they date from the last fifteen years or so.  I’ll feature two prominent buildings along Baltimore Avenue (US 1), the main arterial that essentially bisects this city of a mere 5.5 square miles, whose largest undeveloped parcel is the UMD Golf Course.

The Varsity College Park apartment building has room for 897 residents across a hulking structure with two courtyards (a figure-eight shape).  Featured in my first photo on this article (with Vigilante Coffee in the foreground), it sits less than 200 feet from some of the main engineering buildings at one edge of campus.  From the archived history on Google Streetview, it looks like the construction of Varsity completed sometime around 2011; prior to that point, land uses were considerably more low-slung and automobile friendly.

retail walkway in College Park

The entire first floor is retail, and, during my visit, it certainly wasn’t dead, and at least one or two of the tenants appeared well patronized.  But it still looked about half-vacant, which surprised me given not just the population density nearby, but the tendency for these apartment dwellers to navigate the area by foot.  What was the deal?

For reasons entirely unclear to me, the developers of Varsity choose to elevate the first-floor retail a good ten feet above street level.  The previous image shows the primary walkway for accessing the retail, but that’s all it is: a walkway.  It requires ascending a staircase for access.

College Park MD grade separated retail

For those who might immediately question (as I did) about wheelchair access, the opportunities are immediately adjacent to the stairs and are clearly visible.

College Park MD grade separated retail

That’s great and all, but it still means that the storefronts are only accessible at key stairwell locations: the north end depicted in these photos…

…one point in the middle of the block-long structure…

…and the south end.

College Park MD grade separated retail

I also spotted a vehicular entrance to the more southern of the two courtyards, providing parking and an entrance to the massive Looney’s Pub that stretches across the entire southern side of the building.

The placement of storefronts across both the entirety of the façade fronting Baltimore Avenue as well as the south side of the building (which directly abuts the UMD campus), is a generous retail provision that one might expect for a campus filled with students that love to swipe their parents’ credit cards at fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and coffee shops (but never ever bars; most of them are still under 21, so the thought never occurs to them to purchase alcohol).  That said, the fortuitously located retail at Varsity apartments doesn’t really work.  In the grand scheme of things, the image walking along the main sidewalk adjacent to Baltimore Avenue looks like this:

College Park MD grade separated retail

Peering in both directions, its virtually impossible to see any of the retail tenants.  It’s just a mass of hydrangeas.  I like hydrangeas, but they’re not exactly as stimulating to the eye as a storefront window, and from the standpoint of real estate development pro forma, they’re a sunk cost.  I guess they’re better than a blank wall, but they only exist to conceal it.

I have a feeling that the developers, if prodded with my annoying questions, could easily provide a construction based justification for why they raised the building ten feet off of street level.  Perhaps there’s a structural issue and these walls hide parking, and the excavation costs prevented them from building the parking underground.

Perhaps they wanted the entrances to have a built-in pedestrian shelter from Maryland’s notoriously soggy spring days.  Perhaps the noise and exhaust from this busy arterial made the idea of al fresco dining unappealing, and the developers wanted to accommodate restaurant tenants.  (This third explanation isn’t very likely, since the passageway is only wide enough to host a few deuce tables.)  Regardless, it’s not inviting.  And I’ll concede that, in an era of easy online searches and Google Maps to find specialty stores, this visual “obscurity” is less of an issue every day.  But the lack of a real street presence makes these tenants less likely to capture impulse purchases, and students (the biggest target demographic) are notoriously impulsive.  This probably explains why, over the years, at least one gourmet burger joint and two yogurt/smoothie places have closed.  And the spaces remain vacant for months, if not years.

Additionally, the fact that the retail entrances are both elevated and recessed onto this grade-separated walkway means the doors and interior lights sit within shadows, as evidenced from this Street View.  A vehicle driving by, even if at congestion-induced slow speeds, cannot easily peer in, so the occupancy status remains a mystery.  The only thing to go by are the exterior signs, above that shadowy “arcade”.

The building to the north of Varsity College Park, University View apartments, seems to date from about the same period, and, prior to its development, the land appeared completely unused: nothing but grass and a handful of scrappy trees.  University View features a much smaller building footprint but is considerably taller, with twelve stories to Varsity’s six.  The unit count is probably similar, even if the capacity to provide first-floor retail is less.  But, like Varsity, it creates extra complications by offering yet another grade-separated first floor.

College Park MD grade separated retail

It’s less of an extreme grade change than Varsity, but University View still creates a situation where accessibility can only occur at key points where the necessary four stairs exists.  (A handicapped ramp is on the opposite end of the building, just out of view from these photos.)

College Park MD grade separated retail

Again, it’s not a deal-breaker: but University View’s retail is also about half-vacant.  I fail to see how this condition improves the desirability of the retail space, because it again discourages impromptu decisions.  It would even be better if the protective railings on the upper level had gaps, so a skinny person could sidle on through if they want something mid-block.  This is a bit of a rhetorical stretch on my part, I know—we can only speculate how much business is lost because of the grade change, and it’s probably negligible with University View (certainly when compared to the more extreme Varsity).  But it doesn’t make it more appealing for a prospective tenant.

I’ll concede that these pictures are two and a half years old, the equivalent of a generation in commercial real estate cycles.  Conditions may have improved.  At the very least, a bubble tea place appears to have opened in Varsity—quite an achievement given the campus restrictions imposed by COVID-19—while a Chinese restaurant in University View closed.  Incidentally, these slightly elevated structures seem to be the status quo for new construction in College Park.  And the retail vacancies seem persistently high, given that the buildings (hotels or student-friendly apartments) are relatively new, high-density, mixed-use, and a stone’s throw from a major college campus.  But the biggest irony of all sits directly across the street from the Varsity building:

It’s a holdover from College Park’s days when it was a lesser suburb, hosting a university in which commuters comprised a sizable share of the student population.  Far more students seek to live in or near campus in the 2020s, rendering a parking-centric strip mall like this quaint, if not obsolete.  And the Campus Village Shoppes (more clearly seen here) is certainly run-of-the-mill: old, ordinary, sparsely landscaped, ugly…and consistently over 80% occupied!  Often over 90%!  I’m sure the leasing rates for space at this strip mall are far lower than the first floor of the Varsity or University View.  But the fact remains that prospective tenants have a choice.  And far too many are opting for the humdrum 1980s-style shopping center, despite newer and hipper options across the street.  Maybe the aforementioned design defects are holding the Varsity and University View back.  Whatever the reason, as long as developers keep building these high-density mega-projects, retail tenants are just going to get increasingly finicky.  And these conditions share one common thread: retail has no choice but to be choosy in site selection, because it is under pressure to innovate the delivery of its goods.  It may be a long time before College Park sees any churn on its most precious real estate: the strip mall.

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12 thoughts on “College Park: the Maryland uni town where retail should thrive. And doesn’t.

  1. Dan T Man

    How sad, but with the weather up there, perhaps that was well thoughtout? Hmmm. But, i’ve been wrong about such things before. 😉

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hey Dan, yeah it gets pretty rainy here, especially in late spring and early summer. But nothing like the consistent rain y’all receive. People like their outdoor time! It’s just surprising they’d add this because the storefronts are a lot less visible from the road. And if people can see them, they’re not going to engage unless they’re already on the lookout for a salad place or a coffee shop with board games.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Same to you! DC gets a snowpocalypse about twice a decade. Beyond that, not so much. This has been the coldest winter since I moved here almost five years ago, but, aside from one medium-sized snowfall in early January, it’s been the usual inch or so. DC’s summers are not that different from south Louisiana…they just don’t last that long!

          Reply
  2. Chris B

    That strip mall looks a whole lot like the one at the edge of IUPUI (10th and Indiana Avenue) in Indianapolis: mostly small food shops. (I’m actually surprised that the cell-phone shop in College Park is not in one of the residential buildings.)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Not far off base. I’d say the one at IUPUI is nicer: better landscaped, fresher architecture, and probably higher value (since many of the restaurants are chains). But you’re right that both Indy and College Park seem to emphasize restaurants (isn’t the IUPUI strip mall exclusively restaurants?), and both have always done quite well. I keep hoping that a developer will buy the land at Indiana Ave/10th Street, develop it to a high-density residential tower, preserve at least some of the first floor retail, and subdivide a portion of the eastern end of the parcel to restore at least a half-dozen homes to grace the other side of Paca Street and restore some of the character of Ransom Place. And, to top it off, they could collaborate with the city/state to restore the Clarian PeopleMover track into a High Line that could capitalize on the concentration of students and workers nearby.

      But I fantasize. I have a strong suspicion that higher ed is going to experience a collapse in enrollment in the next decade or so, so the high-density housing near universities is a trend with a visible expiration date.

      Reply
  3. Dan Reed

    there’s a creek running behind the Varsity and the View and I’m guessing both buildings are raised bc of flooding concerns—but it’s still a problem that the retail is that high off the ground. Fun fact: the little retail building in front of the View (now a coffee shop) is a holdout that refused to sell, and so the apartments were built around it. It was previously a liquor store (and you can imagine why a liquor store wouldn’t move when 1000s of student apartments were being built around it). That building shared a party wall with a McDonald’s, which moved across Route 1 at some point in the late 90s. As a kid I vaguely remember that this was one of the few McD’s that sold pizza, and my parents would never let me try it.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good point, Dan. Not an insignificant creek either, so you’re probably right about floodplains. But it’s interesting, because the Cambria Hotel across from US 1 is also elevated a few feet despite being farther from that creek (Paint Branch Indian Creek I think?). Meanwhile, a building to the north that went up a year or two later (Enclave apartments) is on the west side of US 1 and again has the creek in its back yard, but isn’t elevated at all. Course, I haven’t explored a topo or floodplain map around there, which is probably explains why some buildings can justify elevation and others don’t.

      I love that little building with Vigilante Coffee. It received an exterior refresh after the apartments went up around it, and it almost feels like it always should have been there (which, I guess, technically it was). Washington DC, of course, has some of those funny examples of commercial owners akin to the cantankerous man from the movie “Up”. Eventually they often get subsumed by the development, or turned into a little false façade with a massive structure behind them.

      The high rise buildings in College Park aren’t all that interesting or attractive (in my opinion) but they do a great job and establishing a fundamentally walkable character. Given how old College Park is and how close it is to the city, it’s surprising how little of a real downtown it has, or how almost completely auto-oriented the Route 1 Baltimore Avenue corridor was until the late 2000s.

      Reply
  4. Alex Pline

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I have had mixed feelings about the development along Rt 1 for a number of years. It’s good that the area is morphing and urbanizing, but the way it’s happening at a hyperspeed pace at a large scale along a narrow corridor is not really working in my opinion. Fundamentally, it is a street car suburb that did not make the transition to the auto-based world very well. This was no doubt influenced by the development pattern of neighboring Greenbelt which went all in on that pattern. Fast forward to the last 10 years or so the development along Rt 1 – now using it’s older name Baltimore Ave to try and fake people into thinking it’s not an auto sewer for commuters – has jumped many increments of development from one story to 6 (and 11 next door) almost overnight. I’m not schooled in the College Park or Prince Georges County planning documents, but I assume this is all the typical “let’s put density along a corridor fast at large scale” idea so common in “town center” or “corridor” planning. Frankly it just doesn’t work from an urbanism standpoint as you point out in this piece. The problem with this idea is that it doesn’t really change anything holistically, rather it just creates density without “real” urbanism and as a result it’s not a very pleasant place. Most people still drive (including many college students). My daughter spent three years at UMD living off campus and worked at the The Board and Brew (one of the businesses in the ground floor of The Varsity) and it sucked getting around. I spent a fair amount of time there during this time and it’s kind of the worst of both worlds, things are far apart so walking takes too much time and riding a bike is a really crappy experience (I did it a number of times), so you end up driving for all trips if that is an option, plus all the commuter through traffic. My guess is in addition to the point Dan makes above, the developer separated the retail from the street because who wants to sit at a table next to a highway?

    Add on top of that the entire commercial financing world that only works at a large scale with perverse incentives that defy simple supply and demand and my guess is rents are much too high for anything small to work there and often sits empty rather than lower rents. All of the retail there is either national or regional chains, the only kinds of commercial that can afford the rents. This makes it unaffordable for the demographic they are trying to attract. From watching the establishments my daughter generally frequented in the area, they were the cheaper mom and pop, hole in the wall spots in the old strip malls because that’s where the rents and corresponding prices are low.

    I definitely understand the need to urbanize the area but this kind of faux, hyper urbanization is hardwired in our modern development system and it will have the predictable results. What could they do differently? Probably not much as the genie is out of the bottle.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Glad we are in agreement, and you no doubt know College Park better than I do. At the very least, do you think all this mid-rise multifamily construction hasn’t made UMD less of a commuter campus? I agree it’s not pleasant, and that might have been enough to incentivize offsetting the first-floor retail from street level. (However, Dan’s observation is more directly practical since directly avoids disaster-related damage. Perhaps both explanations?)

      It’s hard to see much evidence that College Park was a viable streetcar suburb, certainly compared to something nearby like Hyattsville. The intersection of Baltimore and Knox avenues still offer vestiges of streetcar-oriented architecture, and the pedestrian scene there feels much more pleasant than in the area featured in my photos. Probably more desirable leasable space too.

      New construction needs a capitalization rate that depends on a much higher Floor-Area Ratio than those streetcar-era buildings provide, which is why the new stuff is tall and bulky. And while the density should help entice more tenants (retail follows rooftops), you’re right that it will only incentivize national chains. I’m glad your closest family connection is The Board and Brew, which seems to be one of (if not THE) most successful tenants in those larger apartment structures, and, it’s only a chain in the fact that, as far as I can tell, there are two locations; the other one is an equally bulky mixed-use building near the Drexel U campus in Philly. At least the road that it’s on (Chestnut Street) is nicely scaled.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        As you probably know, I’d much rather have slower, steady increments of intensification ala the Strong Towns view of the world, but I certainly appreciate the situation here where there is a strong desire for additional higher density residential now and the modern day conditions that are required to make it happen. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you build with the conditions you have, not the conditions you might wish to have at a later date (despite the baggage attached to it, that paraphrase is the ultimate in pragmatism IMHO).

        That said, the biggest issue I have with this kind of hyper urbanization along corridors and town centers which is so in vogue at least here in Maryland if not other places, is that local/state governments (depending on the jurisdictions that govern the land and the surrounding roads – often different governmental entities) refuse to make changes to the surrounding infrastructure they do control that would make these truly nice urban places. Rt 1 is a classic example. There have been attempts to narrow it and make it a slow speed city street (Dan may even have worked on that), but MDOT/SHA refuse to compromise on auto capacity for the sake of urbanization.. Again, I understand – but very much disagree with – their view of the world that it would be a catastrophe for everyone else who drives through there, no doubt inspired by loud public input from commuters and autocentric businesses. This schizophrenic set of land use/transportation policies ends up with the predictable result we are discussing. They are trying to satisfy everyone by splitting the difference and end up satisfying no one. A much better example around the university for this kind of high density housing is along the south side of Knox Road.

        I harped on this aspect of the development in Parole MD (just west of Annapolis) as Anne Arundel County is emphasizing development of this “town center” as part of their general development plan. It’s perhaps an extreme case because it is literally surrounded by an interstate (US 595 – aka US 50), three large state arterials (MD 450, 2, 665) and one county arterial and neither of these jurisdictions are willing to make any compromises to this autocentric infrastructure, other than slightly less crappy at grade crosswalks, or spend the big bucks to make Dutch-style separated bike/ped infrastructure that could work but is prohibitively expensive. What you always end up with in these situations is “drive to urbanism”, again the worst of both worlds. You can read that piece here: https://teampline.org/2022/01/11/can-parole-ever-be-anything-but-an-inside-out-mall/

        Thanks for writing about this and having this discussion. This is a huge policy disconnect IMO as suburban areas start to urbanize in popular metro areas such as the DC/Baltimore area. Much more consideration has to be given to what is done beyond the conventional thought.

        Side note: my daughter also worked briefly at the Philly Board and Brew when she lived there last year.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for this detailed analysis, Alex. You definitely know College Park better than I do; I think I’ve been there a total of three times. And I’d agree that Knox Avenue probably is probably best situated to host some moderate density mixed-use buildings, thanks to existing urban fabric and it’s general location in relation to the campus. But the south side of Knox at Rt 1 already has what appears to be a very successful strip mall (lots of national chains). Meanwhile, the north side does look like it’s getting ready for a redevelopment, if the chain-link fence from this October 2021 Street View photo is any indication: https://goo.gl/maps/R43DxDa8ZmzBzPhVA A mid-rise structure (4-8 floors) at this site could work fairly well; the capacity of Knox isn’t likely to support the density/intensity of a high-rise.

          I’ll check out Parole more thoughtfully some time. In the meantime, I agree that there’s serious disharmony between the buildings going up along Baltimore Avenue/Rt 1 and the road’s intrinsic carrying capacity. But, in this case, I can only imagine the vociferous objections of the community toward even the slightest suggestion of a road diet. The combination of high-intensity residential (which I’m confident offers abundant parking in the garage) with a narrowed thoroughfare would make College Park notorious for “the town with the standstill traffic”.

          Incrementalism is often a better solution, and I agree wholeheartedly with your quote (or Rumsfeld’s): “you build with the conditions you have, not the conditions you might wish to have at a later date”. Too many urbanists are seduced by the optimal situation–a pollyannaish end-state that requires all sorts of disruptive measures to get there, many of which they remain oblivious to the unintended consequences. Bearing that in mind, I think we have to concede that the fundamental physicality of College Park is suboptimal for good urbanism, and that if they can make the walkability less bad, that may be better than trying to futz with the urban fabric too much. College towns, I suspect, are not going to be as resilient as they have historically been; higher ed is on the cusp of a precipitous drop in enrollment. In a few years, those fancy new apartment buildings may not command such high leasing rates.

          Reply

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