On Thursday evening, the Prince George's County Planning Board capped 15 hours of testimony and debate with a vote months—years, even—in the making.
By a 4-0 margin, the board conditionally approved the proposed rezoning of the Cafritz property, giving the hotly debated plan its first county-level endorsement and sending the matter to the District Council for a final ruling.
Under the Cafritz plan, the developer's 37-acre parcel on the north end of Riverdale Park would be redesignated from residential (R-55) to Mixed-Use Town Center (M-UTC), easing the way for the construction of more than 900 units of housing, a 35,000-square foot Whole Foods, a 120-room hotel, and additional office and retail space.
Having heard dozens of opinions from attorneys, elected officials, and members of the public over two marathon sessions—and armed with hundreds of pages of written submissions in the same vein—board members emerged supportive of both the developer's application and the process used to revise it.
Commissioner A. Shuanise Washington described the exercise as "exceptional, collaborative, transparent, … [and] deliberative" before introducing a motion to approve the plan.
"I do hope that everyone can appreciate this is the first step in many in terms of moving forward, so a number of the things that many still have concerns about, there still remains an opportunity … to have those addressed," she added.
Still, Washington said the applicant "bent over backwards to do a number of things that, quite frankly, were not legally required or necessary at this stage in the process. But I do believe they did so in the spirit of collaboration and moving forward."
"We welcome your interest in Prince George's County," Vice Chairwoman Dorothy F. Bailey told the Cafritz team before calling the vote. "No, we're not going to do everything that you want, and you're going to have a really rough time sometimes before us, but we certainly welcome you here."
For some, 'a long time coming'
Both towns' councils pushed—largely with success—to impose environmental, financial, and traffic mitigation requirements on the developer before signing off on the plan.
"I think it set a new normative standard for development and cooperation between municipalities, and I think Prince George's County is lucky to have this kind of high quality development," said Riverdale Park council member Jonathan Ebbeler (Ward 1) following the vote.
University Park Mayor John Tabori said that while "you don't go away from these kinds of things without grumbling a little bit," he was generally pleased with the result.
"It was a long time coming. … Would I have liked to have had some other conditions in there? Yeah, I would have. But I think we got what will protect our town," he said.
Tabori also praised the transparency of the process, which included drawn-out negotiations between the developer and the surrounding communities.
"We still haven't institutionalized it, we still haven't figured out all the rules about how to do that, but on the whole I think it was an extraordinarily open process," Tabori said.
"I know this has been a trying process to date for our community, but regardless of our individual positions it has been very satisfying to note the civility that has marked the process," Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer wrote Friday morning in a message to the RP Town Talk alias.
To others, a setback
To opponents, including a majority of the College Park City Council and three University Park council members, the ruling was a setback. Many argued against the plan over the course of the hearing, urging major revisions or outright rejection of the application.
Attorney Robert Manzi, who represented College Park at Thursday's session, questioned why the planning staff had recommended the rezoning when the county's master plan did not explicitly envision M-UTC for the Cafritz property.
"I find it so unusual that all of a sudden the staff is recommending we ignore the master plan," Manzi said.
University Park resident Jayson Amster told the board that the proposed conditions were inadequate protection against the developer.
"The applicant is using these conditions to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but if you look at them carefully, they don't work," Amster said.
Calling the project "a mini-city under M-UTC," University Park Town Council member James Gekas (Ward 2) called on the board to put the full financial burden of the CSX crossing on the developer rather than a maximum of $5 million.
"We wouldn't be talking about a bridge here … but for the Cafritz development," Gekas said.
The next step
Despite some modest changes and additions made at Thursday's hearing, the bulk of the original application and the conditions sought by the towns were preserved in the board's referral. That outcome—not surprisingly—met with the developer's approval.
"Obviously we're very pleased to move onto the next step and try to bring this whole win-win to fruition," Cafritz attorney Chip Reed said.
"I definitely agree with the idea that in compromise, nobody walks away feeling great, and certainly we're not doing that," he added. "But we think fairness was achieved, and I'm really just pleased that they took the time and effort to go through each and every [condition] in such detail."
The next step, the District Council, will put the application before the members of the Prince George's County Council. (The membership of the two bodies is the same.) Ebbeler said he was "hopeful" that the plan would win approval at that level.
"I think that the consensus conditions, when you actually take a hard look at them, it's going to be hard not to support them," Ebbeler said.
"We think that it's going to go through, but I always believe that anything can change in politics," Tabori said. At a Jan. 23 University Park council meeting, Tabori estimated that the plan would clear the council by a 7-2 margin.
At minimum, the project has already found support from the office of County Executive Rushern Baker. During both sessions of the planning board hearing, Deputy Chief of Staff Brad Frome testified in favor of the project.
"Obviously we believe it's a positive development," Frome said after Thursday's vote.
"There was a very robust discussion in front of the planning board … and after the planning board took in that discussion and took in the testimony, they voted unanimously to support the project. And hopefully after they [the District Council] have a similar type of discussion, they'll support it as well," Frome added.