Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Holidays

I'm taking time off for the holidays.

Season's Greetings and Happy New Year!

See you in 2007.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Are We Witnessing the Rebirth of College Park?

Like a snake shedding it's skin, College Park is slowly but surely being reborn.

By now, you know about the development planned around the University (the on-going University view project, the "rebuilding initiative planned for East campus, and the Hilton Hotel planned for the university's north gate), but did you know that there's a lot of development planned for other areas of the city, too?

According to the Prince George's County Planning Board, College Park can look forward to:

- The Jefferson Square Project planned for the Southeast corner of Route 1 and Cherokee
- The Commerce Bank Project planned for the East side Route 1 and Guilford Road
- 9909 Baltimore Avenue (the large lot at the corner of Edgewood and Route 1 ). My details are a little sketchy, so I don't want to say too much, but I hear that there's a (large) office building planned for the space.

And if that wasn't enough, there's a Public Hearing scheduled for January 23 about traffic calming recommendations for Edgewood Road between 52nd Place And 53rd Avenue (slated for discussion at 7:30pm) and traffic calming recommendation for 53rd Avenue between 52nd Place and Edgewood Road (slated for discussion at 7:45pm).

Monday, December 18, 2006

A “Livable” Community? (opinion)

In October, the Washington City Paper ran an article titled “Shell of a Town” that described College Park in less than flattering terms. (I’d provide a link to it, but you have to pay for articles in the City Paper’s archives.) In one memorable line, the article’s author wrote that College Park has “all the charm of a highway rest stop.” Ouch.

As far as I know, the city did not issue a response to the article, however, it seems that the city is not taking such barbs lying down. If you’ve been on the College Park beltway exits lately, you’ve seen the decorative stone/brick structures proclaiming College Park to be a “livable community.” Take that City Paper!

Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement. For example, if someone asks me how a new kind of beer tastes and I reply that it’s “drinkable,” my answer implies that it’s OK—good, but not great. Is that how we want to describe College Park? Good, but not great?

Of course, I don’t think we should be over-the-top about it either and erect decorative stone/brick structures proclaiming that College Park is "the greatest city on earth," but then I don’t think we necessarily have to choose between one of the other. The English language is quite vast, after all.

Nevertheless, just to be sure that I wasn’t bringing any personal baggage to the word “livable,” I looked it up in the (Random House) dictionary. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Suitable for living in; habitable; comfortable: It took a lot of work to make the old house livable.

2. Worth living; endurable: She needed something to make life more livable.

3. That can be lived with; companionable (often used in combination with): polite and charming but not altogether livable-with.

“Suitable,” “endurable,” “that can be lived with”—so it isn’t just me.

I think we can do better, so I’d like to propose a few alternative slogans, even though it might be a little too late (the structures are already built). Anyway, here are my suggestions:

College Park: You’ll love it if you avoid Route 1.

College Park: Better than a highway rest stop.

College Park: The cradle of aviation and good drinking water to boot.

College Park: Shoppers now sells beer and wine.

Have you got a suggestion for a slogan? Please share it with the rest of us.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Interview with Rethink College Park

Change is afoot in College Park. Both the University of Maryland and the city of College Park have major developments, including changes to Route 1, planned for the near future. Their goal: a more pedestrian friendly landscape with the kind of attractions—restaurants and retail spaces for the most part—you’d expect to find in an around a major university. Unfortunately, for citizens without degrees in urban planning or architecture, getting any kind of information about this development is difficult at best—at least it was. Thanks to University of Maryland graduate students Rod Godspeed and David Daddio, creators of the website Rethink College Park, finding out what the powers that be have planned for the city is easier than ever.

Not long ago, I met with Rob and David to talk about their site, what they hope to accomplish, and what they would do if they were in charge. Here’s what they had to say.

In the “About” section of your website, you write that “we believe a consensus is emerging about how College Park should develop.” Where are you seeing this consensus, especially when you write a few lines later that the stakeholders—students, university experts, developers, city officials, residents, etc.—remain isolated?

David: A lot of that stems from the mission statement on the City of College Park website. Also, when you look at the EPA smart growth study done last year (Achieving the Vision: Options for the College Park US Route 1 Corridor), you can tell that the city council wants a dynamic, mixed-use community and that sort of rolled in with the mixed-use zoning that they did at the end of the late 90s.

Rob: Being new to College Park, I started doing research in the spring and was surprised to find that what people were saying about the city was the same. The university was saying that it wants a dense, vibrant college town that has more options for its students. The city has Eric Olson (District 3 Council member), who works for the Sierra Club and is involved with smart growth, so the city is working very hard to increase density and vibrancy of the downtown. And then the last group is the students themselves who said last spring that they want a place where they can walk around. So, all of the themes that come up among these groups are very similar.

So, the different factions are all saying the same thing. Is the Rethink College Park website is the way to bring all of these different parties together?

Rob: Even the members of the development community in this region are increasingly interested in urban, transit-oriented development. We’re even seeing developers proposing projects in this area who have experience doing very dense development near metro stations or creating places that have pleasant streetscapes. There’s increasing interest in this kind of development because it’s perceived as being profitable.

In terms of development and bringing College Park into the 21st century, is the university a friend or foe?

David: It’s debatable, but I think the university and the city of College Park view one another as adversaries. The university views itself as the central player in College Park, and obviously it is. There’s also an adversarial relationship between the university and some College Park citizens who’ve been around for a while.

Rob: I think that in recent years, the university administration has become intensely aware of what needs to happen in College Park and I think that they have fairly progressive views on how to use the land that they control to shape the city, such as with the East Campus, and the Mosaic and Turtle Creek Projects. They’re using their power and their ability to develop without going through the traditional zoning procedures to develop things that are consistent with what’s called for in the city’s plan—a dense Route 1, minimizing driving, etc. People like to talk about the tension, but in reality the only tension that exists is that the university doesn’t necessarily care to work with the city when they don’t feel like they have to. There’s some resentment on the city side, but I don’t think that there’s any fundamental disagreement. Of course, they’ll quibble about specific projects, but in general I don’t see them clashing. We view the administration as an ally and a key player in the whole process.

David: Maybe the only issue that they are really at odds over is the connector road. It’s kind of hard to see how that’s going to pan out.

Over the years, there have been some clashes between students and residents. And although it’s not cool or wise to paint either group with a broad brush and say things like “students don’t care about College Park” or “residents are opposed to students.” What common ground exists between students and residents in regard to the vision for College Park?

Rob: I’ll speak to this drawing on my experiences as an undergraduate in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For the most part, students didn’t think about the residents very much. Their world was entirely student-centered. The residents strongly resented some of the behavior of the students—the parties, the littering, etc. However, the residents weren’t necessarily aware that a lot of the businesses and the vitality of the city that they enjoyed was the reason that they had high property values and that all of these things depended upon students. If it wasn’t for the students, the city would be like any other blighted, mid-western, post-industrial landscape. There would not be funky coffee shops. There would not be a local art scene. There would not be nationally-known artists coming to perform. The answer to improving relations between these communities then, is to do mutual education. Tell students: Yes, property owners will be mad at you for certain reasons and their complaints are legitimate. At the same time, residents need to hear that students are really important to the city.

In College Park, there’s varying degrees of enlightenment on both sides. Ultimately, what we hope to do is show that, yes, there will be tensions between the two groups and yes, there will be cantankerous people on both sides, but the bottom line is that we have to share this place and that students benefit from the nearby residential neighborhoods and residents benefit from the university.

David: Obviously, if you have two adjacent properties—one with students partying every weekend and then you have someone trying to raise a family next door—there are going to be some fundamental problems. Both the city and the university have adopted a policy of trying to increase the density of development on Route 1 to try to move some students out of traditionally residential neighborhoods.

Rob: Sometimes the student-resident dichotomy isn’t the right way to view these relationships. How it ends up surfacing in local politics is homeowners versus renters, as they have different attitudes about what’s important.

In the article about the website that ran in The Gazette, you mentioned that the information about development projects is public, but that it’s not exactly out in the open. Where do you get it?

Rob: Occasionally, we get the information directly from the actors, be they the developers or the university. However, that’s been the minority. More often, we get it from public sources. The Prince George’s County Planning Board has extensive schematics and documents about every proposed project. It’s difficult to find their website, it’s difficult to find information about the individual projects on their website, and they’ll sometimes delete information that they posted. The city website is similar. They have a lot of information up there, but you have to download the full PDF for each one and scroll through it on your computer. The over-riding service that we’re providing is not bringing new information into the public domain, but identifying existing information, highlighting it, analyzing it, and making it accessible to the general public. Honestly, a lot of these documents are very long and difficult to understand, so we try to look at something like the Campus Master Plan, which is a massive document, and try to explain to people what is in there and what it means.

David: Definitely, a big part of it is synthesizing these huge documents, but the other part is access. Both the city and university try to keep things under raps as long as possible and then release them right before a project is approved. If you get on the web and search for information on the East Campus development, the only thing that comes up is our website. That kind of tells you how much information there is.

Rob: the website that the university created for the East Campus development is directed toward the developers who they’re hoping to court to build the project. It’s not something that they’re promoting among the students or the campus community at all.

In addition, although things like The Gazette and The Diamondback are public sources of information, The Diamondback is not read in the community and The Gazette is not read on campus. So, even though some of these sources are fairly high-profile, they’re read only in specific communities. We’re trying to bring them all together.

So do you guys see yourselves as sort of urban planning rebels? How do you see the role that you are playing?

Rob: If providing the public with information and building support for a vision that we share is radical, than I guess I am. Fundamentally, institutions of power like to control information. We hope that, over time, the university realizes that by building excitement and interest among the student body and the campus community for the plans that they already have, it can only help them. We’re going to give them advice on East Campus that’s going to blow their minds. It’s not that they’re not smart people, it’s just that planning inherently works better when there’s more people involved.

The term pedestrian-friendly gets thrown around a lot. What do you mean when you use that term?

Rob: As an urban planner, it means zero set-backs—placing a building right up to the sidewalk; adequate sidewalks and bike trails and bike lanes in the streets; it means permeable surfaces, so when you build up to the street you have windows and entrances; eliminating or highly reducing parking spots so that the site serves the existing pedestrians and allows people to access the site by bike, by foot, or public transit, whether its rail or busses. From a design perspective, that’s what being pedestrian-friendly means to me. In general, it means designing a city that supports people no matter how they are accessing it. A strip mall provides no access for pedestrians or bicyclists period. There’s nothing wrong with parking, but it needs to be balanced with other modes of travel.

Are roads and pedestrian-friendly areas mutually exclusive?

Rob: Not at all. Well designed roads support a variety of transportation choices. Maximizing choice is the principle here. Cars should always be accommodated; however, wide agreeable sidewalks and facilities for bikes, and enhancing the accessibility to metro are all equal because in our community people use all of them. I don’t believe in pedestrian malls because on really successful streets, you always see a multiplicity of users and everyone is equally satisfied.

David: This is something that came up in the Route 1 study. People asked, “Are we trying to do two different things by making Route 1 pedestrian-friendly and dense and at the same time trying to feed traffic through and put a median in between [the north and south-bound] lanes. There are definitely approaches you can take—timing the traffic lights, putting in crosswalks. A college town is supposed to be a resoundingly pedestrian-friendly place. Prepared to any other town, there’s no reason why a college town with thousands of people who live and work on campus can’t have adequate pedestrian-oriented facilities.

Rob: It’s a false dichotomy that says either cars or pedestrians. I live in DC and there are some very beautiful streets that have high levels of traffic, but they’ve got nice trees, wide sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes, and if you watch what’s going on, you can see that everyone is sort of working together—there are people using all different modes of transportation. That’s the goal for Route 1. We might consider widening it, but we also would consider widening the pedestrian facilities, the bike facilities, and planting trees and do things to tame the environment a little bit. There is a lot of great research about how you can make people drive slower by planting trees and reducing set backs, which have a psychological effect, instead of building massive speed bumps, and burms, and walls, and making things one-way—things that reduce your choice. That’s kind of a blunt way to make people go slower. There’s more elegant ways.

David: To be fair to the city, they are trying to do some of these things. There’s an office building slated to go right in front of the University View [apartment complex] that will cover up the garage but also come right up to the sidewalk. There also will be an extension to the sidewalk, so instead of it being four-feet, gravel ridden, and right next to Route 1—a highway where people are going 45 miles an hour—you’ll feel a little safer with a tree between you and the oncoming city traffic.

You mention that the intent of your website was to bring various stakeholders together. Is that happening?

Rob: We know that the university administration is reading the site. The first time we met vice-president for administrative affairs John Porcari, he immediately referenced something that we had written about a week before. We know that city leaders are reading the site because they told us, and we know that students are leading the site because they’re leaving comments and putting their opinions on it. The proportion is probably more heavily weighted toward students at this point, however, already it seems to be a pretty good mix and we’re going to continue to reach out into the local neighborhoods—The Gazette article really helped us do that.

Have you attended any local association meetings and introduced yourselves?

Rob: We went to the City Council meeting and introduced ourselves, and we’ve been to some public hearings at the city level. We haven’t gone to the neighborhood level. On a lot of the neighborhood associations there’s a member of the City Council that serves as president, so we know they know who we are. Also, a couple of weeks ago, we gave a presentation to the student government association.

David: Some people really don’t know what to think of us. They don’t know if we’re friend or foe yet.

If you guys were in charge of College Park’s development, what would you do first?

Rob: I do have a lot of ideas, but my first action would be to create a plan to aggressively engage and maximize the level of involvement in the local community. I’d reach out to local developers, the students, the citizens and not shy away from conflict, but instead encourage a variety of voices and excitement about what’s going on. I think that’s the best way to accelerate development, it’s the best way to generate creative ideas, and it’s the best way to move the city in a direction that everyone feels invested in. I would be confident that if we maximize input, then the end result would be similar or even better than what I could come up with myself.

David: Given what he just said, in terms of physical improvements someone has to make some movement on Route 1. It’s just a mess. There really has to be a median and some controlled access. Obviously it’s going to cause some heartbreak and there’s going to be some businesses that are going to have to fight to be part of it and make sure that they’re not nudged aside in the process, but it’s become a safety issue and it goes hand-in-hand with pedestrian-friendliness, and it leaves a lot of uncertainty up to developers, and it’s becoming a true hindrance to this forward movement that we want to see happen.

Rob: Reinvent Route 1 as a pleasant, high-capacity boulevard instead of a hellish, suburban strip mall zone.

David: If you’re familiar with Baltimore, a good example is Martin Luther King Boulevard, where you have a lot of traffic going through there, but at the same time, pedestrians feel like they can cross it, there are stores along it—you can have both. If there isn’t any improvement [on Route 1], you’re going to see the connector road becoming a necessity, the university having its own road, the city having its own road, and the Balkanization of College Park.

Okay, so redevelop Route 1. I think a lot of people would like to see that happen. Unfortunately, it’s going to make a lot of people very angry. How do you get around that? Tell folks that it will benefit everyone in the long run?

Rob: I’m from a small town in Maine of about 7,000 people. In the 1990s, the town completely rebuilt its main street, and the main street was literally the only way you could get through town. It was a hellish experience. People even made t-shirts that said “I survived Main Street redevelopment 1994!” However, the community recognized that it was needed and I don’t remember anyone saying that it should not be done. I don’t think it’s hard to convince people that such projects are really important to the city. Of course there will be people that are angry, but you can mitigate specific problems. You can reimburse property owners, you do everything you can to preserve access to businesses during construction—clearly there’s going to pain, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to do it.

David: It’s hard to change the character of an area all at once. It’s going to require things like shared access to parking lots and a reduction of people being able to make turns everywhere. But Route 1 cannot be what it is now given its location. It’s a central artery for College Park and DC. A lot of property owners are already selling their land for a lot of the condo developments that are coming on board right now—there’s probably 7 or 8 developments planned for College Park. Still, I hope that there’s a place for small business owners in the future.

How can people who are interested in planning get involved in the redevelopment of College Park?

Rob: E-mail us—we need writers. If people have any expertise that they’d like to contribute, whether they’re an architect or planner, or just have an op-ed that they’d like us to publish, we’d say yes. Below that, I’d say read our site and use us as a mechanism to get more informed.

David: There’s also the lesser involvement of just commenting on what we post on the site and just throwing your two cents out there. We want it to be back and forth. We don’t want it to just be use up there.

County Works to Re-Establish Toppled Forest

When the subject turns to storm-damaged forests, it’s impossible not to mention Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—and rightfully so given the magnitude of their social, economic, and environmental effects. Yet, each year across the country, tornados, ice storms, and other extreme weather events damage parcels of forest that, although smaller in size, are just as important to the communities that benefit from them.

For example, consider the city of College Park, Maryland, a community located approximately 20 miles northeast of Washington, DC, that was hit by an F3 tornado on September 24, 2001. The storm, which produced gusts of up to 200 miles per hour, cut a 17.5 mile-long path of destruction through the city. When the winds subsided, two University of Maryland students were dead, and an estimated $30 million in damages had been done to the university, residential homes, and local businesses.

In addition to the loss of life and property, the windstorm also took a heavy toll on a large swath of bottomland forest along a popular walking trail within a park along the city’s northern edge. The tornado removed more than 50 percent of its once lush canopy and sent scores of massive trees to the ground. In 2003 the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation launched a reforestation program to re-establish the storm-damaged forest and replace the canopy that had covered the walking trail and nearby stream channel.

According to Laura Connelly, planner–coordinator with the department, the reforestation effort involved a combination of plantings and natural regeneration. “The majority of the site will be left to regenerate naturally. We feel it was an act of nature that brought the trees down and that we should just let the forest recover on its own with little or no intervention,” she said. “In some areas, however, we planted young trees to create another [stream] buffer and get canopy as close to the stream and over the trail as quickly as possible.”

To replace the former forest, Connelly said that the department planted native species (tulip poplar, sweetgum, red maple, sycamore, and pin oak) suited to the site—a floodplain —that it received as part of a county-wide beautification program called “Gorgeous Prince George’s” and from the developer of a nearby University of Maryland construction project who was required to plant trees to offset the environmental impacts associated with the development.

Although the storm took a severe toll on the forest’s canopy, Connelly said that it did not significantly increase erosion or have any significant effect on the water quality of the stream, as the root systems of the trees toppled by the storm were largely left in place. Before department personnel could plant, however, they first had to log the area to prevent additional damage from future extreme weather events.

“Following the storm, the department was directed to clean up the site because local officials were concerned that, if the area experienced a massive flood event, the downed trees and debris could potentially travel downstream and damage to the city’s bridges and roadways,” said Connelly. “So, with the approval of Maryland Forest Service, the site was logged, and we removed as much of the downed material as possible.”

She also noted that, because the tornado hit right after 9-11, several of the large logs were sent up to New York City to support the excavation and construction efforts at ground zero rather than to local mills. The logs that could not be removed, as well as some standing dead trees, were left for wildlife.

Although the combination of natural regeneration and planting has worked well, as many of the young trees both planted and naturally occurring are thriving, Connelly and her colleagues in the department acknowledge that there have been a few bumps along the road to forest recovery,

“After the first planting, I learned a few things, such as not to plant any trees where there is any evidence of Japanese honeysuckle, because that has been a severe problem. So, we decided not to plant in some areas to increase our success rate,” said Rene Albecete, a landscape architect with the department and coordinator of the tree plantings.

Nevertheless, said Connelly, the presence of the invasive species in the reforestation area has not altered the department’s reforestation strategy.

“We realize that there are a lot of invasive and nonnative species there, but we feel the best approach for the site is to let nature take its course,” she said “We already have a lot of tulip poplars and red maples sprouting up and, hopefully, once the canopy is reestablished it will keep the invasive species to a minimum.”

Now that the plantings have been completed, Connelly said that the department will continue to monitor the area and look for additional opportunities to plant trees in the interest of enhancing the forest’s age diversity, further establishing its seed source, creating more of a layered canopy, and increasing species diversity.

Thrill of the Hunt -- Support Your Local Used Bookstore

With so many outlets for used books on the Internet, some folks can’t understand why I’m all too willing to spend my time searching the stacks of the area’s used bookstores. I suppose it’s the thrill of the hunt more than anything—the excitement that comes with finding that sought-after volume that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for some time. Saving a few bucks on the cover price (and not having to pay for shipping and handling) helps, too.

The other worthwhile thing about searching for books in real used bookstores, and something that just can’t happen when you’re hunting down one particular title on the Web, is that you come across books you didn’t know you wanted until they’re right in front of you. I can’t tell you how many good books I’ve stumbled upon this way. Anyway, here’s a list of my favorite used bookstores in the area (and a bit further away).

Happy hunting.

Second Story Books Warehouse
12160 Parklawn Drive, Rockville MD 20852
(301) 770-0477
Sun–Thu, 10-8; Fri–Sat, 10-9

This is the grand daddy of local bookstores. It harbors tons of books on every subject, and the prices are fantastic—and I’m not just saying that because I used to work there. I can easily spend hours in this place (and often do). If you’re into books and you haven’t been here, you’ve got some explaining to do. They also sell records, photos, and other stuff. There also are Second story locations (regular stores) in Bethesda on Fairmont Avenue and in Dupont Circle on P Street.

Wheaton Library (Book Sale)
11701 Georgia Avenue, Wheaton, MD 20902
(240) 777-0678
Sun, 1–5, Mon–Thurs, 10–9; Fri, 10–5; Sat, 9–5

This can be hit or miss depending on when you go. Sometimes it’s cleaned out, and the shelves look a little bare; other times, it’s a goldmine. I’ve found some amazing stuff here, and that is what keeps me coming back. Either way you slice it, though, the books are well-priced—$1–$2 each. The books in the dumpster out back are free!

Daedalus Books
9645 Gerwig Lane, Columbia, MD 21046-1520
(410) 309-2730
Hours unknown

Okay, this isn’t exactly a “used” bookstore; it sells remainders (new books that haven’t sold elsewhere). Nevertheless, the browsing is great. Daedalus offers books on all subjects, and the prices are pretty good. Best of all, the books you buy won’t have any underlined passages.

Other worthwhile stops on your book-hunting trips:
Capitol Hill Books
657 C Street, SE, Washington, DC
Sun–Sat, ?-6

I was with some out-of-town guests when I went here and didn’t have the chance to really look around—and you really need to look around because the place is a mess (my kind of store!). The selection was vast, and the prices looked good. Check it out.

Georgetown Books
4710 Bethesda Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 907-6923
Daily, 10-6

Nice store, but the selection is limited, and the books are a bit pricey for used (if you ask me). That being said, I have found a few good titles here over the years.

Rest In Peace to College Park's own The Book Nook. You will be missed.

Panhandling In College Park

The View from Behind the Sign:
The Observer Chats with One of College Park’s Panhandlers

If you've driven through the intersections of Route 1 and Cherry Hill Road or Route 193 and Rhode Island Avenue within the past year, chances are good that you’ve seen them: Panhandlers! Maybe they’ve even asked you from some spare change while you waited for the light to turn green at one of these intersections.

How do you deal with them? Do you give them money out of guilt? Acknowledge their presence but say “sorry” when asked for a handout? Do you ignore them by averting your eyes or busying yourself with some task like cleaning out the pennies in your ash tray, wishing silently to yourself that they’d just go away? Do you get angry and tell them to “get a job”?

Typically, panhandlers are people who, for whatever reason, are down on their luck. Why else would they resort to asking passers by for spare change? Would you do that if everything in your life was going well?

This falls far short of a revelation, I know, but despite the common-sense nature of this sentiment, stereotypes about panhandlers being “crazy,” “lazy,” or just plain “greedy” abound. Everyone and their brother has a story (of varying quality) about a panhandler who wears a $100 pair of sneakers or a North Face jacket or who has a job but panhandles on the side, anyway.

On top of that, there are the various schools of thought about why a person shouldn’t give money to panhandlers. Some say giving money to a panhandlers is like buying them a drink. Others say you shouldn’t give panhandlers money because, if they can ask for spare change, they can ask “Do you want fries with that?” too. Those on the other side say that if we’re in a position to help the needy, we should do it—especially if all we have to do is pass along some spare change.

The argument over what to do about panhandlers won’t be settled overnight, but regardless of where we stand on the issue, we probably all can agree that (1) there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem of panhandling, and (2) as a demographic, panhandlers are a rather misunderstood bunch. And its not just those of us who get asked for money while stopped at traffic lights that are misinformed.

For example, the February 16 issue of The Gazette (Prince George’s County) quoted College Park Councilman Robert Catlin (District 2) as saying that College Park citizens should be “wary” of giving money to beggars because they may have “very large bank accounts.” According to Catlin, this is the case maybe “30 or 40 percent of the time.”

Earlier this year, Catlin and his fellow members of the College Park City Council met to figure out a way to address what the January 19 issue of The Gazette referred to as the “rise” of panhandling at the intersection of Route 193 and Rhode Island Avenue. Judging by the Council’s suggestions (as reported by The Gazette), they’re as unsure of how to deal with panhandlers as the rest of us.

According to the January 19 Gazette article, College Park Councilman John Krouse (District 1) said that Chapter 148 of the City Code (“Peace and Good Order”) could be used as a basis for issuing “infractions” to panhandlers.

Section F of Chapter 148 reads: “Begging or soliciting. It shall be unlawful for any tramp, vagrant or beggar to beg or solicit anything of value in the City of College Park.”
Councilman Eric Olson (District 3), noted, however, that there are “no clear answers to the panhandling problem” and that “providing services” was critical to addressing the issue.
While we here at The Observer applaud Olson’s more humane approach to the problem, it seems as if the more bureaucratic and strong-armed approach has won the day. As The Gazette reported in the aforementioned February 16 article, panhandling at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and Route 193 had subsided as a result of “warnings to beggars” issued by county police and College Park’s contract officers. [However, as our interview with a panhandler on page 3 suggests, the police handed out more than mere “warnings.”]

Like them or not, though, the “warnings” seem to have worked. I drive through the intersection of Route 193 and Rhode Island Avenue several times a week and at different times of the day, and I have not seen a panhandler there since the enforcement of the city code went into effect. In fact, panhandling seems to have decreased throughout the city—although it hasn’t entirely disappeared.

Most College Park residents probably see this as a good thing. And although I have yet to find myself lamenting the loss of panhandlers throughout the city, it has cramped my style a bit in regard to my efforts with The Observer.

Since I read those two articles in The Gazette, I’ve been on a quest to find out why panhandlers do what they do. But unlike the authors of the articles that ran in The Gazette, I wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth (curiously, the authors of The Gazette articles got comments about begging from everyone but actual panhandlers). So, in the interest of correcting this little oversight, I decided to interview the first College Park panhandler I could find.

That proved to be easier said than done. For a while, I was having a hard time finding a panhandler. Then, a few weeks ago, it looked like I was finally going to get my chance. I was taking my dog to the College Park Animal Hospital on Route 1, just past the intersection with Cherry Hill Road, and I saw a woman asking people for change. By the time I came out, though, the woman was gone. In her place was a man with a laptop sitting in a large, nondescript blue SUV, which I took to be an unmarked police car because it was (1) A little too nondescript and (2) idling near the spot where the woman has previously stood.

Fortunately, the threat of citation or arrest was not enough to keep panhandlers off the streets during the (extended) 4th of July weekend, when it seemed College Park’s panhandlers were out in force.

Seizing my opportunity, I approached the first panhandler I saw—a pleasant-looking older gentleman who was stationed at the end of the College Park exit ramp off the Beltway—for an interview. He was reluctant to speak with me and declined my interview. To add insult to injury, I was heckled by a car load of teenagers while talking to the man. [Hmmm, maybe talking to panhandlers was harder than I thought. Perhaps the authors of those Gazette articles got shot down like I did?]

I fared much better, however, on my next attempt on July 2. While driving back from Home Depot, I spied a gentleman standing on the median separating the north and southbound lanes of Route 1 at its intersection with Cherry Hill Road (in between the IHOP and BP station). After a quick U-turn, I pulled into BP and called the man over. Like the older fellow, this man was unsure of my motives. The fates were on my side, however, as he eventually agreed to speak with me. So, there in the parking lot of the BP, I cracked out my trusty tape recorder and asked “Ralph” (not his real name) several questions about what it’s like to be a panhandler in College Park. Here’s what he had to say.*

The College Park Observer: How did you end up out here?

Ralph: I’ve been out here over 22 years, I guess.

You’ve been panhandling for 22 years?

Ralph: Not just [panhandling] alone, maybe about 10 years of this.

Are you homeless?

Ralph: I have a camp. I sleep outside year-round.

So, you’ve been asking folks for money for about 10 years. Before that, what were you doing? Did you have a regular job?

Ralph: Most recently I worked for a contractor. I stayed with him for about 2 1/2 years, but I wasn’t very regular in terms of showing up for work.

So he fired you?

Ralph: No, I ended up leaving on my own, but he has stayed with me. He was with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and a Christian organization. He was always trying to help me get straightened up. He was really good to me. Prior to that, I collected scrap metal—beer cans mostly.

So what made you go from that to [panhandling]? Is it easier to do this?

Ralph: I was drinking. I knew he was disappointed with me because he wanted me to stop and go to AA. But I did stay with him for those 2 1/2 years. He was good to me and helped me save some money.

How often do you panhandle?

Ralph: Generally about almost once per day. I have different places that I go.

One thing they mentioned in a recent article that appeared in the local paper—The Gazette—was that 30–40 percent of the people that are out here panhandling have bank accounts and that they’re just doing this to make some easy money. What do you think about that?

Ralph: That’s not right. None of them have bank accounts. A few have some VA checks, but no Social Security checks. This guy here [points to an acquaintance in the nearby Dunkin Donuts parking lot], he’s a veteran, he doesn’t work the sign, but he works up in Laurel and gets his benefits.

So, is it safe to say then, that the people who are out here are doing it because they have to, not because it’s an easy way to make a buck?

Ralph: A lot of people have just given up on working. They haven’t completely given up on life, but they’ve given up on a 9–5.

How would you describe your interactions with the people you ask for money? Are they nice to you? Do they ignore you?

Ralph: Oh yeah, a lot of them will start up conversations with you, ask you why you’re not working, or tell you to get a job, or something like that.

How about the police? Do they give you a hard time?

Ralph: As a rule, no, but I think that I have to be in court this Friday for [panhandling]. This is the first time that I’ve been arrested for this.

I was wondering because this past winter, The Gazette ran a series of articles about how the city was cracking down on panhandling. So, I was wondering if you’ve personally felt any of the heat from that or if the police leave you alone.

Ralph: Just that one time, about a month and 1/2 ago, I got arrested. I was over on Rhode Island and Greenbelt Avenue.

Yeah, the articles mentioned that intersection inparticular.

Ralph: Yes, the one by the firehouse.

Okay, so you’ve only been arrested that one time, but do you try to avoid the police when you see them?

Ralph: I usually just stand there. I don’t ignore them when they go by. Sometimes they will turn on their beepers or their sirens and that means just to walk on and not to come back—at least for the rest of that day.

If there was one thing you’d like people to know about what it’s like to be out here, what would it be?

Ralph: Not’s just society in general, you know. Some people just drop through the bottom of the net.

So, you’re just out here trying to make a living?

Ralph: I’ve been living like this for so long and sleeping out in the winters and the hot summers I guess I just don’t know any better any more [laughs].

* * *

This interview did not go quite like I thought it would. When I first got the idea to interview a panhandler, I assumed that whomever I talked to would complain bitterly about life on the streets, tell stories about poor treatment at the hands of the police, and just plain bitch about how they were wronged by the system (whatever that is). Instead, I got Ralph, one of the most forthcoming and good-natured people I’ve ever met. He didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone or anything, and when it did come time to point the finger, he wasn’t shy about directing it squarely at himself. I was not prepared for that.

I realize, of course, that “Ralph” is merely one beggar among many. However, I’m willing to bet that he is representative of other panhandlers in that, like the issue of panhandling itself, there’s more to him than meets the eye.

It is clear that he could work, but his drinking prevents him from holding a steady job. He has the intelligence and skill to survive outdoors year-round, but he had trouble understanding some of my questions (in addition, some of the responses that appear here had to be edited heavily to aid reader comprehension). He is manipulated by the powers that be— what is the point of fining or imprisoning a homeless panhandler?—yet the state picks up his medical bills. [While we were talking, Ralph told me that he had two frostbitten toes amputated this past spring, and he showed me the shunt in his right arm through which he has been receiving antibiotics for an infection.—Ed.]

Are these the symptoms of a drunken and shiftless man who’s content to leech off the rest of us, or are they the unfortunate attributes of a sick, misguided soul who gave up on finding his place in the world? I don’t know.

The biggest contradiction of all, perhaps, is that while those of us living comfortable lives may feel sorry for Ralph, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. His comments that “some people just slip through the cracks” and “I guess I just don’t know any better any more” suggest a certain resignation to the economic and social realities of our culture and an acceptance of his situation. In a way, it’s as if panhandling is a problem for everyone but him.

Further, what does Ralph’s attitude about his situation mean for those people such as the College Park City Council, the police, and the various social services agencies that are trying to solve the city’s panhandling problem? Can you really help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? I guess it all depends on what one means by “help.” Maybe Ralph and those given up on work need a new outlook more than they need spare change.

On Religious Solicitors (Opinion)

Why Go Easy on Religious Solicitors? The College Park Observer Wants to Know!

Why, o’ City Council, should we tread lightly on those religious groups who knock on people’s doors in the hope of getting them to subscribe to a new set of beliefs. Are they not selling something, too?

Every month or so, some religious zealot comes knocking on my door to tell me about this faith or that, and my response is always the same: get the hell off my porch.

I don’t know about you, but I think that religious solicitors are incredibly more intrusive than someone who knocks on my door with the hope of selling me storm windows. Thus, not only do I think we should restrict door-to-door religious solicitation to certain hours, I think we should go one step further and institute a "No Religious Solicitation registry" modeled after the Do Not Call Registry of 2003.

As you may recall, in 2003, the federal government enacted the “Do Not Call Registry,” a free service created to give people a choice about getting telemarketing calls at home.

Well, I believe that our ability to choose extends beyond the phone line, thus, as I envision it, a No Religious Solicitation Registry would let homeowners choose whether they want to be bothered by those who go door-to-door to sell a particular faith.

The reason for the Do Not Call Registry was clear: People were tired of telemarketers butting in to their lives and they wanted a way to stop getting calls about products or services that they did not need or want. But wait: If I am allowed to keep someone from trying to sell me a magazine subscription or a vacuum cleaner over the phone, shouldn’t I also be allowed to keep those who seek to convert me from knocking on my door?

Few things are more personal than one’s faith. So, if it’s affront for a telemarketer to interrupt dinner with an offer about a subscription to the New York Times, then it’s even MORE of an invasion of privacy to come to one’s home and ask them to consider becoming a Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, or Christian.

Make no mistake: I am not opposed to religion and I firmly believe that everyone in this country has the right to believe and worship as they choose. I am, however, opposed to strangers forcing their religious beliefs on me. And why shouldn’t I be? This is America, after all, and religious freedom was one of the principles upon which this country was founded.

This Just In ... (news briefs)

News briefs of interest to College Park residents:


I read in The Gazette that our fare city recently hired a consultant to provide advice for the elimination of rats. Interested, I contacted the Department of Public Services to find out more about it. My hope was to find out who was “in charge” of rats in our community so that I could do something cool like tag a long on a rat patrol or something like that. Once again, the city neglected to respond to my e-mails. You’ve got to love responsive government. Hey, if anyone from the city is reading this, I’m still interested in learning more about the rat situation in College Park!

Anyway, below are some guidelines that the city suggests we follow to help control rats.

* Place all garbage in trashcans
* Notify City Code Enforcement of residents and businesses that are not properly disposing of their garbage
* Clean up spilled feed for birds, squirrels, or any other type of wildlife. Spilled feed will attract rodents. As much as it seems like a nice thing to do, wild animals are capable of finding food
* Clean up and dispose of all pet waste * Report any burrows or evidence of rodents.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Department of Public Services at 301-864-8877

Red Light Cameras

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do…. Keep an eye out for the red light camera at the intersection of Route 1 and Cherry Hill road, that’s what.

According to the College Park website: The installation of the first red light enforcement camera in College Park has been completed. This camera is intended to identify red light runners on Route 1 northbound at Cherry Hill Road. After traffic studies conducted by ACS State and Local Solutions, the City’s contractor, this site was selected due to the large volume of infractions. The Mayor and Council approved initiation of red light camera enforcement in College Park in an effort to improve public safety. In the future, the Council may consider other locations with a significant number of violations. The City’s red light camera enforcement program is managed by Prince George’s County Police and ACS. Under Maryland law, red light violations recorded by camera result in a civil penalty of $75.00, assessed to the vehicle owner.

It’s Baaaaack! Emerald Ash Borer Found in Prince George’s

The Maryland Department of Agriculture recently reported the On Monday August 21, Emerald ash borer larvae were detected in a sentinel ash tree placed in the 2003 eradication area as part of follow up survey activities. The larvae also were found in a girdled tree just outside of the eradication area, but still within the quarantined area.

In response, the Maryland Department of Agriculture issued a revised Quarantine Order on August 22 that prohibits anyone from moving ash trees, products, or any hardwood firewood into or out of Prince Georges’s County until further notice.

The pest was first found in Maryland in August of 2003 when a Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) inspector found emerald ash borer-infested ash trees at a single Prince George’s County nursery. Eradication efforts were completed in March of 2004.

College Park to Restrict Solicitors

According to The Gazette, the “The College Park City Council has begun to examine the city’s solicitor rules to restrict some solicitation,” although not on “nonprofit and religious groups.” The article quotes Director of Public Services Bob Ryan, who said that the city could “finesse” the city code to provide more privacy for residents.

Although there is apparently no deadline for when a decision will be reached, among the changes to the code could be provisions, including “a requirement for solicitors to obtain a county, state or federal solicitor’s license before being issued a 30-day College Park license.” Currently, the city code mandates that solicitors must present a city-issued ID whenever they are asked to by a resident.

Prince George’s County already restricts solicitation to between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., however, Ryan said that restating this rule into the College Park city code would enable the city’s code enforcement officers to issue fines.

A solicitor is fined $100 for his or her first violation, the second costs $200 and subsequent city code violations add $200 to the solicitor’s fine.
Source: “City Council could change licensing rules,” Thursday, August 17, The Gazette (College Park edition)

Final Report Detailing “Main Street Vision” for Route 1 Now Available

The final version of the report Achieving the Vision: Options for the College Park US Route 1 Corridor is now available on the City of College Park website. According to the document’s executive summary, “the report discusses the current conditions in the City of College Park, including an analysis of the local market, city, and county development regulations and comments from local participants. The report then outlines key steps the city and county can implement to help achieve the Main Street vision for US Route 1.”

For more information, visit the College Park website at

City Offering Homeownership Grants for Owner Occupants

The City of College Park is offering grant assistance, on a first-come, first-served basis, to encourage the conversion of single-family rental properties to owner-occupied housing and to encourage police officers and city employees to make their homes in College Park. Grant amounts range from $5,000 to 7,500 depending on eligibility. Funds are provided at settlement for use toward purchase of the property, and participants may use grant funds in conjunction with other housing programs.

For more information about eligibility and program requirements, visit the College Park website at

Professor Says 2006 “A Bad Year for Ticks”

Note: If we don't have a cold winter, 2007 will be, too.]

The Capital (Annapolis) has reported that, according to experts, “both the abundance of ticks and the prevalence of Lyme disease are increasing in this area.” The paper quoted Michael Raupp, an entomology professor at the University of Maryland–College Park, saying that he’s “seen more ticks than he has in years.”

Tick season runs from May to September, and where ticks are reported, worries of Lyme disease are not far behind.

Most people are aware that Lyme disease is often transmitted from animals to humans by ticks. Less known, however, is that not only deer can carry Lyme disease and pass it on to ticks. According to Raupp, mice and small rodents also pass Lyme disease on to ticks. They may even be more likely reservoirs of the disease.

Raupp cautions that the tick that usually transmits Lyme disease is the black-legged tick, which is smaller than other ticks—sometimes as tiny as a little freckle.

Ticks are typically found in “transition areas” between a field or lawn and the woods. When in those areas, experts recommend using an insect repellant containing DEET, wearing long-sleeved-shirts, tucking pants into socks, and wearing light-colored clothing (to assist in spotting ticks).

Source: The Capital, “Abundance of Ticks Increases Lyme Disease Fears” June 19.
For more information on Lyme disease, visit the American Red Cross website at

Professor Raupp has an interesting, informative, and occasionally gross “Bug of the Week” website. Check it out at

Welcome to the College Park Observer Blog

It occurred to me the other day that people who say that “the world is getting smaller” don’t have a clue. I get the gist of what they’re saying, of course—that getting from point A to B has never been easier or faster and that places that were once difficult or even impossible to get to are now accessible by plane, car, or foot (or some combination thereof). Nevertheless, I respectfully disagree.

As I recently drove from College Park to Tampa, Florida, and back, I was struck by just how big this country of ours really is. As developed and plowed over as it sometimes seems, a car ride like this is a great way to remind one’s self that there is still an awful lot of open space out there (let’s hope it stays that way)—and that was just what was visible from the four-lane asphalt river known as Route 95.

What I find really interesting, though, is that, in addition to the world (still) being a big place with a lot of geographic diversity, the world is also getting larger.

Let me explain....

When I say that the world is getting larger, I don’t mean that more space is being added to the earth. Rather, my point is that the humans whom we share this planet are a clever bunch and adept at creating new spaces—nooks and crannies of culture, if you will—where none had existed before.

I see this happening everywhere, including right here in College Park, or as I affectionately call it, “The CP.” At first glance, The CP seems to be a rather dull and boring town—a horrible insult for a place with a large academic institution smack dab in the middle of it. But after living here for a while, I developed an ability to look past the obvious—the congestion of Route 1 and the sprawling commercialization that has grown up along side it—and see the things that the locals have done to make College Park unique.

Thus, in the same way that a supposedly smooth surface will reveal a striking topography when examined more closely, so do the places we call home, wherever we happen to live.

* * *

I moved to College Park in 1997, after neglecting the advice of a friend who insisted that I live in Bethesda. I confess: If Bethesda was a more affordable place to live, I would have never ended up here. Thankfully, though, College Park was the only town I could afford. I say thankfully because, since those days, I’ve become attached to College Park in a way I never thought possible. Be it the Paint Brach Trail and the Dog Park, or Plato’s Diner and College Perk, I think this town has a lot to offer.

My affection for The CP, however, has not blinded me to its problems. Route 1, whether you drive on it or merely try to walk across it, is enough to drive anyone crazy, we’ve got a healthy population of panhandling and homeless folks (see page 1), and our mosquitoes are simply unbeatable. Nevertheless, I dare say that I love this place, and I feel the need to give something back. Hence this newspaper—The College Park Observer (CPO)—my attempt to add a little flavor to College Park’s existing “cultural stew.”

My original intent was to make The CPO a full-fledged newspaper with reporters and everything. But after a little reflection, I realized that I didn’t have the time, resources, or money to do it right (read: to compete with College Park’s already established newspaper). Hence this blog.

* * *

So, now that you know how I feel about College Park, why I’ve decided to publish The College Park Observer, I’d like to close by inviting you to support our mission of enhancing the culture of College Park by participating in this little endeavor.

As always, comments are encouraged (see the letters policy to the left), but you can take it a step further by submitting an article for publication. I’m willing to work with anyone interested in contributing (although it would help if you contacted me with any article ideas before you start writing).

Well, that’s it for now and thanks for reading.