More Than A Vision; A Walkable Way of Life - Downtown St. Charles, MD

Monday, June 22, 2015

The vision for a Walkable Downtown St. CharlesOver the last year, St. Charles has submitted proposed master plan amendments to Charles County planning officials with the goal of improving on our original master plan to create Downtown St. Charles -- the type of walkable, mixed use retail center, supported by a community of apartments and single family homes that has long been sought for Charles County. Downtown St. Charles is designed to include a high-end grocery store, a fitness center, restaurants, and an open air concert and event space that would link Downtown St. Charles to the activities at White Plains Park.

After thorough review, our proposed amendments were welcomed by many residents and businesses in St. Charles, supported by County staff and unanimously approved by the planning commission in March 2015. Nevertheless, those changes can create uncertainty about what we are proposing. St. Charles has consistently been transparent with its residents, some of whom have been with us since the 1970’s. We want to take this opportunity to summarize the core of the amended plan:

  • The apartments planned under the amendment are 1) 3-4 story luxury garden apartments, 2) will be market rate, just as we have developed at Gleneagles and 3) will include 3-4 story, market-rate luxury apartments that are age-restricted for people over 55.
  • St. Charles is already approved to build these apartments – but the current plan has them placed in an area more removed from the core of the community. The amendment proposes to move them to an area better supported by roads and amenities – in line with well-proven Smart Growth principles.
  • The nature of apartment residents—fewer/smaller families with children--puts less demand on public schools than single family homes and townhomes. Because 220 of the apartments would be age restricted, they would not use any school seats. And by Charles County's own school student generation formula, the remaining 416 units would generate about 150 students--less than 1/2 of 1% of the total enrollment of Charles County Public Schools. However, the new apartments would generate $5 million in school construction excise taxes.
  • No discernible difference exists in the appreciation rate of properties located near apartment communities and those that are not.  In fact, a Harvard University study* of census data between 1970-2000 confirmed that apartments pose no threat to nearby single family house values. And a Virginia Tech study* concluded that well-placed, market rate apartments with attractive design and landscaping,  like those that currently exist and are proposed by St. Charles, actually increase the overall value of detached houses nearby.
  • Apartments generate less traffic per unit than other residential development. They make walking and public transit more feasible by bringing together the concentration of population required to support public transportation.  Traffic studies consistently demonstrate that commercial uses (currently in the existing plan) create more daily traffic trips than apartments. Additionally, apartment residents make significantly fewer average daily car trips than residents of single family detached homes.
  • Crime rates at apartments are consistent with those at other types of housing. That's because when police data are analyzed per unit, apartments actually create less demand for police services than comparable numbers of single family homes. And studies show apartments are significantly less likely than single family homes to be burglarized.
  • Lower density development increases air and water pollution and destroys natural areas by paving and urbanizing more land. Studies* have concluded that compact development like St. Charles can achieve a 30% reduction in runoff and an 83% reduction in water consumption--and these studies were conducted before Maryland imposed stringent new stormwater management regulations. Increasing density as St. Charles has proposed also directs investment to existing areas--a key component of smart growth.
  • Landscaped roads, fountains and quality architecture help create a sense of place in a community. Our proposed downtown St. Charles at the Fairway Village commercial center, in addition to including a proposed high-end grocery store, will include a community concert and event space, as well as walking trails that link to the ball fields, tennis courts, and other amenities at White Plains Park. These attractive and vibrant improvements will reinforce trends in stronger demographics in Charles County over the last ten years, raising the chances of attracting the type of grocer and higher end retail long sought by residents.
  • 1/3 of the proposed apartments will be active adult, age restricted garden style apartments. By covenant, these cannot ever be subsidized rentals. St. Charles has developed numerous apartment communities at market rates and maintains occupancies in the 90% range consistently. We have an impeccable track record of bringing luxury apartments into our community.

Why would St. Charles want to revise its plans for this particular area? It would be easy enough for St. Charles to continue to build “by right” – building these same apartments in a more remote area of the community and building light industrial and commercial buildings with hundreds of parking spaces, necessary commercial lighting, and increased traffic on these parcels. But we believe there is a better future for St. Charles and for the communities located around these parcels. We believe that shifting apartments and retail to a new Downtown St. Charles location will result in a stronger, more resilient community with vibrant, high quality retail, traffic patterns supported by roads with more capacity along a corridor already planned for growth and a more walkable, higher quality core for our community. Our vision for Downtown St. Charles is unique to Charles County but well-proven, defined and documented, as per this article from Planetizen

What can you do to support a plan to bring vibrant, walkable retail to St. Charles? Support Smart Growth.  Sign our petition here and tell the Charles County Commissioners to take sensible steps to bring improved grocers and a sense of place to St. Charles.

*"High Density Development: Myth and Fact.” National Multi-Housing Coalition, Sierra Club, American Institute of Architects, Urban Land Institute.