Wooded Parcel Near UMD Inspires a Wish List That Can’t Be Fulfilled

The wooded parcel near the University of Maryland campus is the object of competing priorities. Photo courtesy of Save Guilford Woods.

Second in a two-part series.

It’s relatively easy for College Park community and university leaders to agree on the need for affordable graduate student housing; the need for woods and open space; the need for “smart growth,” placing dense housing close to transit and jobs; and the need to undertake development in a more sustainable way in order to combat climate change.

But which of those values is deemed most important when the desire for all of them converge on one plot of land?

The proposed sale of about 10 acres of state-owned wooded land to build affordable graduate housing and market-rate townhouses across from the University of Maryland is forcing the College Park community to examine competing priorities and visions.

“This development has two conflicting interests at stake: The need for graduate student housing, and if that moves forward, we’ll lose 11 acres of trees,” said College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn, who supports the project. “We’d love to preserve as much of that as possible.”

Some College Park neighbors and environmentalists are pushing the University of Maryland to reconsider the “Western Gateway” project, which would build below-market rate housing for 300 graduate students and 81 market-rate townhouses, and has been under discussion for about four years. Supporters of the proposal by Gilbane Development Co. say it would provide much-needed graduate housing walkable to both campus and a planned Purple Line station, as well as to the university’s existing graduate housing stock.

Two steps remain in the process: The Maryland Board of Public Works must agree to sell the land to the developer, and the project must be submitted to the Prince George’s County Planning Board for its review and approval.

Competing priorities

The project has sparked discussion about competing priorities for “smart growth” on an environmentally sensitive site. The benefits of affordable graduate housing are weighed against the benefits of trees and woods.

Some faculty and students question how a university that is working to build a national reputation for its commitment to sustainability can consider deforesting one of the last plots of wooded land near campus for development, even for much-needed graduate housing. The parties even disagree on how the university, city and state’s planning documents define the community’s vision for the site.

Currently, UMD has housing for just 750 of its more than 10,000 graduate students, university officials say. The wait lists for university-provided graduate housing are long.

Housing within walking distance of campus is expensive and difficult to get, said Daniel Laffin, president of the UMD Graduate Student Government. Graduate students often have families and many must commute by car from less-expensive areas. A graduate assistant’s $24,000 stipend, after taxes and health care, works out to about $1,800 per month on average, so “affordable” rents of even $1,000 per month would take up more than half their income, he said.

The median gross rent in College Park in 2015-2019 was $1,528, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is broad support for the project at the Graduate Student Government, Laffin said. Many student government members have taken part in Gilbane Development Co. focus groups that have sought input about graduate student needs to help with project planning, Laffin said.

When students must drive to campus, it increases traffic congestion and pollution in the city, said Wojahn, the mayor. Several years ago, he chaired a work group with undergraduate and graduate students to study the problem, which has been a priority of the local government for many years.

Most of UMD’s competitors offer graduate housing, making it more difficult for the university to compete for graduate students, said Prince George’s County Councilmember Dannielle M Glaros (D), who represents the area around the university.

Opponents of the project all say they support building more affordable graduate student housing – just not on this site. They believe it’s possible to protect the woods and find other options for housing.

The project was first proposed about four years ago, after Gilbane approached the university looking to buy one acre of land to build townhouses on a site that had previously been approved for development. University officials asked about building affordable graduate housing, and a proposal was created to build both.

Trees and the environment

Environmentalists say green spaces such as Guilford Woods, their name for the site in question, improve air quality by absorbing greenhouse gases like carbon, which contributes to air pollution and climate change; provide shade and prevent urban heat island effects; filter and retain water to help reduce flooding; support biodiversity; and support mental wellness.

Some college faculty and students note that the university has adopted a host of programs related to sustainability. It has pledged to plant 100 trees each year to increase tree canopy on campus. UMD signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment in 2007, adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2008, and developed a Sustainable Water Use and Watershed Report in 2014.

It houses a Center for Global Sustainability within its School of Public Policy, has a separate university-wide Office of Sustainability, and educates thousands of students each year in areas such as sustainable development and conservation biology; environmental science; environmental economics and more.

In 2019, the university was honored with the “Tree Campus USA” recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation for the 12th consecutive year, one of just 25 campuses in the country to claim that distinction. The award was given for the university’s effective urban forest management.

Prof. Amy R. Sapkota

Clear-cutting 1,000 trees at the edge of campus seems out of step with the university’s sustainability commitments, said Amy R. Sapkota, a professor in the School of Public Health and director of a prestigious National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program that trains doctoral students to become leaders solving challenging environmental and health problems by studying links between food, land, energy and water.

While there is a clear need for graduate housing, the current proposal represents an outdated “business-as-usual” model that is part of “what got us into trouble in the first place,” said Sapkota, who lives in nearby College Heights Estates.

In a letter to Darryll J. Pines, the university’s president, Sapkota wrote: “As a campus, if we move forward with outdated business-as-usual development plans such as the Western Gateway Project, then we are clearly not ‘practicing what we preach.’ Instead, we are demonstrating that our students should ‘go out there’ and solve our major national and/or global environmental problems, while here on campus we haphazardly continue to support irresponsible approaches that degrade our natural resources. Instead of being an academic leader, we then embody the ultimate hypocritical approach with regard to sustainability.”

Sapkota is one of more than 70 individuals and groups to write to Pines objecting to the sale in a letter-writing campaign organized by a group of neighbors and environmentalists calling themselves “Save Guilford Woods.” The group argues on its website that the project is “inconsistent with basic principles of sustainable development” and has sent Pines a petition with more than 1,150 signatures calling on him to cancel the sale, create a nature preserve, and place graduate housing elsewhere.

Thirty-two doctoral students, representing all but one person in the last three cohorts of the UMD Global STEWARDS program, which Sapkota directs, signed on to their own letter outlining potential damage to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, protesting loss of urban forest, and suggesting alternatives.

In an ecological design class, environmental science and geographic information science major Kurt Willson learned to try to design with nature, minimizing the human footprint.

“There’s a general theory in engineering that you shouldn’t destroy nature if you don’t have to,” said Willson, a senior who is director of Sustainability for the Student Government Association. The project would make a good case study in several environmental science classes, where students examine how to make something to serve humanity while protecting nature, he said.

The UMD Student Government Association recently voted unanimously to ask the university to conduct its own environmental analysis of the site, due to SGA concerns that “this development would be in direct conflict” with the university’s commitment to leadership in sustainability and environmental stewardship.

In a statement, university spokesperson Natifia A. Mullings wrote, “We have engaged the campus and local community, hearing support for the project as well as some concerns, including those around stormwater management and trees. Effective stormwater management is a key component of this project. Gilbane has addressed these issues in the current design, and we look forward to continued conversations with the community on the project.”

Mullings told Maryland Matters this week that Pines, the university president, plans to meet with project foes soon.

Flooding

Flooding has become a major issue for residents of Calvert Hills, with three major floods in 2009, 2010, and 2020. A photo from The Diamondback, UMD’s campus newspaper, shows a student swimming in the street on Guilford Road during the storm on Sept. 10, 2020.

Some 4.5 inches of rain fell in two-and-a-half hours, equating to a 100-year flood, said Stuart Adams, immediate past president of the Calvert Hills Citizens Association. One Guilford Road family was forced out of its house during the pandemic due to flooding and lived in a hotel for several months while repairs were made, and another 20 to 40 families were impacted by flooding or sewer backup, said Adams, a structural engineer and certified flood plain manager who has credentials in sustainability.

The state legislature recently approved $5 million to work on mitigation measures in the neighborhood.

In response to concerns about removing acres of trees, which slow the rush of water into the creek, and soil, which soaks up water, Gilbane this month revealed a state-of-the-art stormwater management plan that would hold 1 million gallons of water in huge underground storage tanks, then release the water slowly.

The system would clean and store stormwater to prevent flooding. Above ground, it would use permeable pavement with filters, which do a better job of cleaning and storing stormwater than does the existing clay soil, and micro bioretention facilities that include native pants, according to a Gilbane video about the system. Below ground, water flows into a filter and retention vaults, which can store nearly 1 million gallons of water, enough to fill a competition pool inside the Eppley Recreational Center, or 18,500 claw foot bathtubs. This will reduce the amount of water flowing into downstream neighborhood Calvert Hills.

“We have heard your concerns [about flooding],” Gilbane Sr. Vice President Russ Broderick told Calvert Hills residents at a presentation this month. “We will actually, when we are done, reduce the amount of water coming off this site.”

Developers have the option to say they can’t accommodate stormwater on site and instead pay for mitigation offsite, Broderick said. Gilbane has chosen to do more than other developers in the College Park area have done.

“We have taken the initiative to make the community a better place when we’re done,” Broderick said.

Wojahn, the mayor, was impressed with the proposed stormwater systems, saying Gilbane is “taking real steps” to do no harm.

Adams said many residents he heard from were similarly impressed with Gilbane’s stormwater management plan.

But if the developer would instead re-develop a site that has already been developed, they could save the significant expense of putting the system underground, Adams said.

Scope of project

Gilbane Development Director Christian Cerria said at a recent presentation to the Calvert Hills Citizens Association that the entire site comprises 42 acres, 31 of which would remain forested. Onsite, 3.5 acres of woods closest to the stream and existing houses would be preserved, with another 10 acres of trees to be planted offsite elsewhere in Prince George’s County, he said.

Gilbane officials say they are required to plant just eight acres of trees to replace woods lost to the project, but they are electing to plant 10 acres.

Similarly, a video on the project’s website discussing the environmental benefits says, “Of the approximately 40 acres of wooded area that borders the stream, 31 acres will be unaffected by this project.”

A project spokesperson, who characterized the site as 41 acres, said that area includes forested land bordering the project site, defined as having a tree canopy at least 50-feet wide. The environmental consultant looked not just at Gilbane’s holdings, but at all forested land bordering those holdings. That means the 41 acres includes backyards of privately-owned homes on Windsor Lane and other property that surrounds the site.

According to a map titled “Parcel Ownership” shown during a public presentation to the Calvert Hills Citizens Association this month, Gilbane’s LLC owns nearly 5 acres. It will control about 15 acres including the land it plans to buy and lease from UMD.

Competing visions

A Natural Resource Inventory conducted by the developer identified 14 invasive species on the site, with 53% covered by invasive plants that are choking out the natural habitat, Laura Calvert, an environmental scientist on the project said at one of three recent presentations Gilbane made to neighbors this month. The site contains two distinct tree stands, with the older growth near the stream to be conserved.

A 1988 photo posted on the Western Gateway website shows few trees on the site. A Gilbane video played as part of the public presentations says the photo shows “that this is not old growth forest,” which explains why the condition of the trees was determined as “fair to poor” since many of them are non-native. The video lists 14 invasive species identified on site, including bamboo, English Ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, princess tree, barberry shrubs, and wild garlic.

That 1988 photo also shows that the Windsor Lane area where houses now back up to the Guilford Woods site was similarly covered with woods 25 years ago, before those homes were built.

“Invasive species is a problem for every forest in America,” said Lily Fountain, chair of the Natural Places Committee of Maryland Sierra Club and secretary of the Prince George’s Sierra Club Group. That doesn’t mean the solution is to remove the forest, she said.

Walking through the woods on a recent sunny day, Fountain and other Sierra Club leaders pointed out woodpeckers, deer, a possible foxhole, and other evidence of wildlife. The Sierra Club members said woods are cycle-of-life ecosystems that take years to grow and cannot easily be replaced by planting trees all at once.

She pointed to a 2015 Prince George’s County report called, “The Economic Values of Nature,” which said the county’s forest and tree canopy removes pollutants from the air, prevents water pollution, and removes carbon from the air, services worth more than $12 billion per year.

Luke Chesek, Ward 1 City Council member in nearby Mt. Rainier, is working with the Sierra Club to create a “native plant and wildlife corridor” that connects preserves from the Chesapeake Bay to Rock Creek Park and the C & O Canal. The Guilford Woods site could be a promising connecting point in that green chain, which would help plants and animals better move throughout the area, he said.

The disagreements point to the competing visions for the site as articulated in various planning documents. The land is included in Prince George’s County’s Green Infrastructure Network but is zoned for dense multi-family development. Others say it has appeared as developable land in planning documents since the 1990s.

The UMD Facilities Master Plan specifically says the “university will continue to explore the potential of public-private partnerships” to develop this and other “outlying properties,” said Edward J. Maginnis Jr., UMD Assistant Vice President for Real Estate. Furthermore, the Prince George’s County Plan 2035 envisions the area as “local center, a focal point for development and civic activity” to focus development rather than scattering it.

“[Plan 2035] says from a sustainability perspective, the county’s No. 1 enemy is sprawl,” Maginnis said.

Sapkota, the professor, quotes another section of the UMD Facilities Master Plan that states, “Our aspiration is to build a green campus that is an oasis in an increasingly urban area, ‘an academic park in the city,’ green in the abundance of plants, trees, and open spaces that are a defining signature of the University of Maryland and green in its commitment to leadership in sustainability practices and environmental stewardship.”

Advocates say the area is part of the Green Infrastructure Network of Prince George’s County, created in 2002 and renewed in 2017. The Green Infrastructure Plan states its purpose is “to guide development, green space protection, and mitigation activities and to implement a long-range vision for preserving, protecting, enhancing and/or restoring a contiguous network of environmentally important areas in the county by the year 2025.” It notes that it is not meant to reduce the overall development potential in the county.

Prince George’s County Councilmember Dannielle M. Glaros (D)

Residents will have opportunities to weigh in during the formal development review process, once the project is filed with the Prince George’s County Planning Board, said Glaros, the county council member. She believes the proposal aligns with the zoning and the county’s vision for the site. Glaros said she has triggered the Adelphi Road Sector Plan, whose first visioning meeting took place this month, to solidify the zoning vision for the area. That sector plan has not been updated in 25 years, since the approval of the planned Purple Line.

“It’s the only station along the entire Purple Line alignment that doesn’t have an updated plan, and it doesn’t match the general goals established” for land close to the Purple Line, which could include more retail and more transit-oriented projects, Glaros said.

It would have been helpful if the plan had already been updated, providing clarity about the community’s vision, but approval of the Western Gateway project will not need to wait for completion of the sector plan, she said.

Alternative sites

Opponents of the project have suggested several university-owned sites for redevelopment as an alternative to putting the graduate student housing on the Guilford Woods parcel. They suggest Old Leonardtown, which has already been identified for redevelopment, but for undergraduate housing; Graduate Gardens or Graduate Hills; and Parking Lot 1, a large lot across from the University United Methodist Church that neighbors say is rarely filled.

In 2018, a team of UMD undergraduate and graduate students won second place in a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its plan to create a park on Lots 1 and Z. The project proposal said the park would mitigate pollution from construction of the planned Purple Line and serve an educational purpose. The parking spaces would not be replaced, as the Purple Line is expected to remove thousands of cars from the road.

Similarly, a parking lot at Villanova University was converted to LEED-certified student housing in 2019, which could provide a model, said Nicole Sieck, a PhD student in environmental health sciences who is advocating for selection of an alternate site. Because there are so few natural areas left close to campus, it would make more sense to improve areas that already are developed, she said.

Maginnis of UMD said the alternate sites will not work for this project.

“This particular project with this particular capital can’t move there,” Maginnis told Calvert Hills residents at the recent Gilbane presentation, in response to a question about Parking Lot 1 as an alternate site. “But I hope the University of Maryland is not done developing graduate student housing. When this project is built, there will still be waiting lists, and where there is demand we will look to other opportunities. If a public-private partnership can be found, we’ll look at those other sites.”

Lost opportunities

Both sides see the situation as a crucial opportunity that local officials and the university should seize.

Proponents say affordable graduate housing close to the Purple line, campus, and the county’s largest employer — UMD — at no cost to the university, will be difficult to replicate.

“I appreciate the fact there are deforestation issues,” said Maginnis of UMD. “But it’s hard for me to avoid looking at the site in five years and seeing it as a lost opportunity.”

Opponents have a similar lament, though they see different possibilities.

“A lot of the parcels we have in this county are small like this,” noted Janet Gingold, chair of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club’s Prince George’s Group. “It’s not Yosemite, OK? But it’s still important. If we want to see a 100-year-old tree, we need to save the 50-year old trees.”

Click here to read the first installment of the series.

Lisa Nevans Locke is a freelance writer who has covered education, local and federal government, and other issues in the region for more than 25 years. She has written for The Washington Times, Bethesda Magazine, Scholastic.com, The74million.org and the now-extinct Montgomery Journal, and she teaches writing at Montgomery College. 

She can be reached at [email protected]