Prioritizing innovation over community threatens College Park's soul
Written by: Zach Wandalowski 🇵🇭
When you think of college towns, what comes to mind? A vibrant, bustling downtown filled with pedestrians? Small businesses connected to the community, such as coffee shops, local restaurants, and things to do?
College Park has very few of these essential characteristics and leadership in the city and county have recognized that. More than a decade ago, the local government proclaimed their plan to turn College Park into a “premier college town”, reminiscent of Cambridge, Berkeley, or Ann Arbor.
As part of the push for new development, the community learned just last month of the closing of many community staples at Campus Villages shopping plaza, which primarily serves students and residents on the northern part of College Park. More recently, proposed development has threatened to displace downtown restaurants such as Northwest Chinese Food, Ritchie’s Colombian Restaurant, and Pho Thom.
It is not lost upon me that the majority of these proposed developments are disproportionately affecting POC-run businesses. With higher rents, these mom-and-pops are finding it more difficult to stay in College Park, leading to a new reliance on well-known chain restaurants.
The newest of these chains is Little Blue Menu, a concept restaurant from Chick-Fil-A that debuts new items that have not been released in the main chain. The store is a delivery and pick-up based restaurant located in the heart of College Park. In the official statement from the corporation, College Park was picked for the first location due to its status as a “hub of innovation” and to “give customers more of what they want”.
But is Little Blue Menu the future we want for our town? This business exemplifies everything that is wrong with the development in College Park. It is a restaurant that defies the sustainable and walkable plan for the region, occupying prime walkable real estate in the downtown for a parking lot filled with delivery vehicles. The express purpose of its delivery-based design eliminates community connection in favor of efficiency. While marketed as innovative and futuristic, I see the concept as soulless, anti-social, and the antithesis of what creates community affinity and connection to an area.
Instead of mixed-use neighborhoods, filled with local businesses, entertainment, restaurants, third-spaces and amenities that appeal to every part of society, College Park is essentially just the university campus and single-family home neighborhoods with a thin strip of retail that is split down the middle by an expanding state highway.
College Park has banked on incoming projects such as the Purple Line light-rail, the Discovery District, as well as new apartment developments to fast-track the area into becoming the highly-desired, hip new town deserving of the university’s status. However, this outsized focus on new, “innovative” development has overlooked the things that make college towns special, and threatens to erase the unique characteristics that College Park can utilize on its quest to become a great college town.
College Park is located in one of the most diverse areas of the country, with the DC metro area being one of the most attractive places for new immigrants to the U.S. The town not only serves a diverse student body, but a county with a majority Black and Latino population. This is what makes the town special. Yet, when walking around College Park, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. Just 5 minutes by car in either direction, whether it be Beltsville, Riverdale, or Langley Park, I can find small shops and restaurants serving every community from Salvadoran and Jamaican to Indian and Nigerian. But observing the retail leaving College Park that is being replaced with chain restaurants, I increasingly feel like the town is becoming a bubble, purposefully distinguishing itself from its neighboring areas. The community fabric of the city is at risk of being lost in an ongoing battle to catch up to our competition, to attract young millennials from moving to DC, to be a hub for tech and innovation.
College Park doesn’t need innovation to be great, it just needs to do the little things well. That means creating spaces that are affordable, accessible, full of amenities, and reflective of the community at-large. Instead of trying to draw in venture capital and techy start-ups, why aren’t the local and county governments focused on investing in the small and immigrant-run businesses that cultivate a self of uniqueness and community to our town? When given the resources, support, and space to work, many of these small business owners can develop ideas and concepts that are more creative and community-centric than many of the ideas cooked up in consulting boardrooms.
Cities are bound to change and adapt over time, and College Park certainly needs to improve in certain aspects to become a better place to live. However, in the push to become a premier college town, College Park leaves behind the community that makes it unique. The diversity of our town and the surrounding area truly set us apart from other college towns. We need to build upon the diverse actors that constitute our town and support them. Without uplifting and supporting the community, College Park risks becoming what Little Blue Menu is – a misguided corporate venture devoid of the soul and character of what makes the town special.