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Cafritz Development: Golden Opportunity, or Perfect Storm? It’s in Our Hands

Riverdale Park residents Dwight Holmes and Michelle Burns discuss what they'd like to see if the Cafritz Property develops.

By Dwight Holmes and Michelle Burns

The following opinion is not of Patch.

The opportunity presented by the proposed development of the Cafritz property represents a once-in-a-generation chance to shape the future of Riverdale Park and the surrounding community.

There are myriad hurdles to be overcome, not the least of which is the many-layered obstacle course of agencies, jurisdictions, and interest groups that have a hand, or at least a say in the process that ultimately will result in the success or failure of the project. 

Riverdale Park is a community divided by physical barriers, the CSX tracks, East-West Highway, Kenilworth Avenue, and, to a lesser extent, Route 1. We are a small town, but much less cohesive than we otherwise would be because of these barriers of steel, concrete and asphalt. The successful development of the Cafritz property can help to ameliorate that – if we do this right. 

We believe that, in order to create the kind of project that we all want - something that later serves as a how-to model for mixed-use development that utilizes the best in 21st Century thinking from a variety of disciplines, while at the same time instilling renewed pride in our community - all those involved in this endeavor must reach for the boldest possible vision for what this project, our town, and the Route 1 gateway can be. 

Parochialisms need to be put aside for the greater good. In these times of harsh budget constraints, “You can’t do that” will have to give way to “How can we get that done?”

Here are a few ideas we believe would help maximize the integration of the new Cafritz development with the existing town of Riverdale Park and, in particular, its Town Center.  This integration is critically important if the project is to be a success, not just for Cafritz, but for the town as a whole. 

1. First, deal with the elephant in the room that no one is talking about in this current series of meetings and town halls: the industrial park that extends north from Riverdale Park Town Center, along the CSX tracks.

If you look at an overhead view of this area, it is obvious that this pie-shaped piece of property is the natural connection between the new Cafritz development and the rest of the town of Riverdale Park, including its struggling town center.  And yet at this time, it is an ugly eyesore – or will be, once the bike trail and new Maryland Avenue are opened up and it suddenly becomes visible to the world. 

A bold vision of this whole endeavor must include removing barriers - not build around existing ones.  Whether by eminent domain or other means, the businesses in the industrial park must be relocated, and this property incorporated into the overall plan.

2. Once that is accomplished, move at least some of the functions of Riverdale Park Town Hall/Police station to this newly-reclaimed property where the industrial estate now sits.  This presents a perfect opportunity to bring together several community purposes in one location while also alleviating some of the traffic congestion around Riverdale Elementary School.

Build the new community center here – it has been searching for the right location for a couple of years now.  Construct a permanent, covered, open air farmers market facility and a band shell here too. All of this would serve to create a critical mass of community functions in a cohesive space while concurrently freeing the Town Center parking lot of its responsibility to host these events. 

3. Construct the bike trail along the historical trolley path, which is in fact Rhode Island Avenue. This would not only provide a hiker-biker route connecting the Northwest Branch Trail and all of the new amenities in Hyattsville to Riverdale Park and College Park, it would also provide non-vehicular access to the existing neighborhoods of Riverdale Park’s northwest quadrant. This area is now isolated by the industrial estate, 410 and Route 1. Don’t extend any of those neighborhood streets across the bike trail – this will preserve the quiet, neighborhood feel in that quadrant.

4. Construct a new Maryland Avenue from Town Center at Queensbury Rd, northeast along the tracks. This will provide access to the relocated town hall, police (sub-)station and farmers market/community facilities, as well as to the new retail and residential development to the north. It will also connect to the new bridge across the CSX tracks, taking some of the traffic load off Lafayette Rd.

5. The combined effect of these changes will be to guarantee essential foot traffic (from the nearby offices and community center) and vehicular traffic to the existing Town Center, which is the best shot we’ve got of luring new businesses there and keeping them viable.

6. The Queensbury/CSX/Lafayette/Rhode Island intersection is awkward to navigate on a good day, and dysfunctional the rest of the time. The traffic engineers will need to be creative in redesigning this whole area. MARC ridership is already on the rise, and we can certainly expect it to increase more dramatically with all the new residences to the north (Cafritz) and south (Hyattsville Arts District); perhaps Lafayette can be rerouted onto an enlarged Natoli Place, and the MARC parking lot extended to the east. We strongly encourage seriously looking at the woonerf/shared street/home zones concept from the Netherlands and England – adapted as necessary – as a model for incorporating Maryland Avenue into the Town Center parking lot. This would simultaneously serve as a traffic calming device and make a reality of the walkable, livable streets notion that is so central to the M-UTC plan adopted by the town several years back.

Our Town Center parking lot would thereby be transformed into an attractive and very functional Town Square we would all be proud of, and eager to hang out in. Throw in an historic steam locomotive and caboose to complement our restored Victorian train station, and Riverdale Park would finally earn its rightful place on the map.

7. Building an access bridge across the CSX tracks is fine – but the placement of it is of vital importance. Given the height requirements of a bridge over the railroad, and the narrow corridor surrounding those tracks, it is difficult to picture how a bridge that connects to the Lafayette Road/ERCO building intersection could be anything but atrociously ugly. 

Placement of the bridge there would no doubt kill any prospect of the attractive, historic ERCO building ever being redeveloped, and would create yet another scar in a neighborhood already living in the shadow of the East-West Highway bridge that bifurcated the town 45 years ago. 

There is another option, which would leave the front of the ERCO building unobstructed and maintain Lafayette Road as a residential street: build the bridge on top of the WMATA Metro property on the north end of the Cafritz property, then routing it past the American Center for Physics where it would connect directly to River Road near the College Park Metro station.

This would provide the desired eastern connection to M-Square and the Metro station, leaving the Ward 2 residential area undisturbed and the wildlife corridor intact. Yes, it will cost more and require more negotiation, but it is the better solution for all concerned.

Linda V. September 30, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Dwight, I can see what you are saying. If the will is strong enough, there is a way to make this bridge happen, whether it comes off of, or close to, the WMATA site or just north of ERCO. I'm not convinced that Cafritz thinks it is necessary. They can nod and say they see how important it is to the surrounding area and then just not follow through. I really think that any approvals for zoning change should be contingent on the CSX bridge being built.
Chris Currie October 01, 2011 at 02:57 PM
This is a thoughtful and creative vision. Obviously, the biggest challenge to its realization is funding. It looks to me that the bill would run into the tens of millions or perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars. Any thought yet as to who would pay? In an era of government fiscal crisis, is the hope that Cafritz would foot the bill for most of this? Is there any indication that they are prepared to invest that much to attain local buy-in? I'm not sure that the increased density created by rezoning would pay for public improvements on this scale. But I'm not that close to the project ...
Sarah Wayland October 02, 2011 at 08:54 PM
Linda - I agree that an overpass should be part of Phase 1, and that approval should be contingent on its construction. I've heard a third proposal for getting traffic over the CSX tracks. The bridge could come east from Van Buren in the Cafritz development, and go over the tracks *behind* the ERCO building (between the ERCO building and some other building that's on the very northern end of the lot), with a turn to the south and exiting into the parking lot just west of the end of Rivertech Court. This preserves the view of the ERCO building, and would have less of an impact on people living in the neighborhood south of the ERCO building.
EBT October 03, 2011 at 03:26 AM
This type of comprehensive, broad based plan helps me to conceptualize what the Cafritz property could look like if done properly. If Cafritz were able to present this type of vision themselves (with guarantees, rather than weak promises of "we're looking into that") it could turn me from a "no" into a "maybe."
DWIGHT HOLMES November 12, 2011 at 02:17 AM
I just now saw your comment here, Chris. The funding question is crucial of course - really too bad some of this wasn't "shovel ready" when there was money looking for projects back in '09. But I think it's critical to have a vision and hold it out there throughout the process, even if the 'process' takes 10 or 15 years. I sure hope it's more like 3- 5, but there are simply too many unknowns and imponderables right now to try to prognosticate. Originally Cafritz seemed cold to the idea of the bridge; now they've fully owned it (even if we still need to negotiate whether it's Phase I or II, we've come a long way already). And ultimately I think it will become obvious (like as soon as they take down all those trees and grade the property and say "Well, d'uh, there's an ugly factory right here next door to us") that it is in the developers' very best interests to convert that industrial park into something that adds amenity value to the community.

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