Whole Foods clears its last zoning hurdle

August 10, 2012

BY SUSIE CURRIE — Developers for the Cafritz property in Riverdale Park have been  granted the rezoning required to  bring the county’s first Whole  Foods – as well as nearly 1,000  residential units and four acres  of retail space – to one of the last  wooded stretches of Route 1.

The 36-acre parcel just northeast of the East-West Highway intersection had been zoned as residential, allowing for up to 250 single-family homes. On July 9, the Prince George’s County Council voted 7-2 to extend the boundaries of Riverdale Park’s mixed-use town center (MUTC) zoning to include the property. That designation allows for a much higher density of residential units, in addition to retail and commercial space.

In the Cafritz plan, the retail space alone is more than four times the size of  Hyattsville’s recently completed shopping center on Route 1.The Shoppes at Arts District Hyattsville, at the intersection of Jefferson Street, has 37,000 square feet of retail on three acres.

At 35,000 square feet, the proposed Whole Foods will be nearly as big. But it represents only a fraction of the project’s 162,000 square feet of retail space. Plans also include 22,000 feet of office space and 995 residential units.

The ambitious plan has been the subject of intense controversy among local residents. Opponents cite traffic and environmental concerns, as well as long-term impacts on the existing infrastructure, such as roads and schools.

Supporters claim the project would attract business, make the area more walkable and boost the local economy. Any potential school overcrowding, they say, would be alleviated by Hyattsville’s new elementary school. It’s scheduled to open in August 2013, whereas groundbreaking for the Cafritz project is expected no earlier than January 2014.

The College Park City Council voted against the plan, while Riverdale Park’s supported it unanimously. Hyattsville and University Park also voted to support the change, but by much thinner margins.

In February, after hours of impassioned hearings, The Prince George’s County Planning Board unanimously approved the rezoning request. When it came before the District Council, as the County Council is called when it votes on zoning issues, the issue proved so divisive that the vote was delayed for three months as the council heard hours of testimony and received stacks of documents on both sides.

County Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3), who represents the district containing the property, voted against it.

Before the vote, he said that “a mixed-use property or a new town center was never envisioned for this property,” which is “more than 90 percent wooded” and has “limited transportation access.”

Rather than ignoring the current zoning, he said, “we must follow the zoning ordinance and we must have more respect for our communities than to say that we will take development at any cost.”

There had been whispers of the organic-market chain coming to the area since at least 2006, when the Cafritz family first began floating development plans at community meetings.

Discussion intensified in May 2011, when Whole Foods signed a lease. Chip Reed, a lawyer representing the Cafritz family, said that the company has committed to opening the store by January 2015. It will be the centerpiece of Phase I, which includes 100,000 square feet of retail and 100 townhomes.

The property is owned by Calvin and Jane Cafritz. Calvin’s father, Washington developer Morris Cafritz, acquired it in 1954. The last major development of the site was in 1942, when the National Capital Housing Authority built tract houses for federal workers at an aircraft factory.