For Prince George’s Hospital, Urban Growth Vision Wins the Day

Prince George’s County’s decision to build a new hospital at the Largo Town Center Metro station is a decisive win for backers of transit-oriented, high-density development over a more traditional vision for health care.

When County Executive Rushern Baker first cobbled together the large partnership that’s now working on the hospital plan, officials at the University of Maryland Medical System were thinking big. They asked for up to 120 acres to accomodate a 259-bed hospital.

But the plan will now proceed with only about one-fifth of that, after Dimensions Healthcare System board members approved a county proposal to acquire more than 25 acres wedged between the Metro site and the existing Boulevard at the Capital Centre development. Dimensions manages county-owned hospitals.

“They made a great decision,” said an effusive Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which made steering the hospital to Largo a top priority. “This is going to be really good for the county.”

The smaller footprint will be able to accommodate the exact same health care programming than a larger campus would hold, said Mark Wasserman, senior vice president of external affairs for the University of Maryland system. But, as developers said Thursday, the smaller footprint puts it closer to adjacent developments and still allows for expansion.

As planning developed over the last two years, UMMS quickly abandoned its original hopes for a big site. First, county officials asked them to think more vertical, Wasserman said. Then, it became clear that surrounding retailers, office and residential buildings would also have a need for parking, which means the county parking authority will likely build a structure to serve all those entities.

In the final analysis, the transit-oriented development concept proved decisive. Even though real estate mogul Ted Lerner personally lobbied for the hospital to be built on his land at Landover Mall, no deal he could have offered made up for its lack of Metro accessibility. (Lerner was unwilling to cover any of the costly infrastructure improvements his site would have needed, too.)

“We have a vision for a walkable, urban environment,” said David Iannucci, the county’s top economic development expert.

That vision played an important role in the final deal that came together with Retail Properties of America Inc., which holds a long-term lease on the county land at Largo Town Center.

Because the future development potential is so enticing, RPAI walked away from its lease rights on 16 acres — and even volunteered to acquire nine more from a private landowner on behalf of the county — in exchange for ownership of the remaining 50 acres or so. There, RPAI believes it can further develop the site, doing well for itself and kicking more money to the county under a profit-sharing agreement.

County Chief Administrative Officer Brad Seamon said the site could end up being the county’s second largest mixed-use development, with the hospital as a powerful anchor. Right now, 7.4 million square feet of development is in the pipeline for plots near the hospital proposal.

University of Maryland Medical System experts are happy with the solution, but couldn’t go any smaller, Wasserman said. “We would have had some real difficulties” without at least 25 acres, he told me.

Cort’s group, the smart-growth advocates, take much of the credit for steering the hospital to the Largo site. Her group published case studies last December showing examples of hospitals bigger than the 259-bed Prince George’s proposal going on plots much smaller than 25 acres.

“This idea that we need 100 acres, we refuted that,” Cort said. “We provided that evidence, and I think that was persuasive.”

Early on, the smart money was on the sprawling, long-vacant Landover Mall location, several politicians said today. But the process proved the smart growth proponents’ ideas essentially dovetailed with the county’s.

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