In a hole, stop digging: Zombie subdivisions need to die!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bradley wrote this column about what is happening in Prince George’s County, but the circumstances and choices apply to Frederick County. Simply put, there are areas that have had zoning changed, and/or where significant developments have been approved, even though the zoning or the development does not conform to the Frederick County Comprehensive Plan…or smart growth principles; even though the development will contribute to sprawl; even though there is no effective plan or funding for adequate infrastructure, and so on.

Some of these developments will be built out, entirely or partially. But approvals and permits do not last forever.

Currently, there is diminishing market demand for large, relatively isolated, auto-dependent subdivisions of single-family homes, especially in distant suburban, exurban and rural areas. For many reasons, this trend is expected to continue.

In the column below, Bradley Heard argues that many of these once-approved projects, where developers have not moved forward, for years…and which he refers to as “zombie projects”…should not have approvals or permits renewed or extended.

Prince George’s County has a backlog of suburban-style subdivisions that were approved for construction years ago, but never built. Now, the county faces a choice: Let those projects live on and sap up demand, or cancel them so more urban developments can rise.

newemptystreetsEver since 2009, the Prince George’s County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George’s, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway.

Instead of extending them for two more years, through the end of 2017, it’s time for the council to give up the ghost on these long-dead projects.

Zombie projects are clogging the county’s pipeline

About 80% of the development projects approved but not yet constructed in Prince George’s County are low-density single-family homes. Over 13,000 of them are planned for outside of the Beltway, away from transit. This chart from 2011 shows just how widely spread out these projects are:


But the county already has more single-family units than it knows what to do with, and developers seemingly haven’t found it to be in their financial interest to pursue more of these projects for years.

Everyone but the council seems to realize these projects are effectively dead. It simply makes no sense to keep trying to bring these zombie projects back to life.

County planners have already concluded that such scattered sprawl development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.”

Moreover, the county’s continued lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it “at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

When approving the current General Plan last year, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude that the county actually had “too many” Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would “undermine economic growth.”

But if the council would instead allow these old projects to die a natural death, developers and planners could reorient their efforts to smarter projects. Even if the market later shows there’s still demand for single family homes, starting over would give officials a chance to design them with more walkable streets.

Ideally, the county could direct some much-needed attention towards its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near DC.

This column was originally published here.

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