College Park retail vacancy rates drop, small businesses thriving

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By Annika McGinnis, The Diamondback (March 24, 2013)

Smaller, independent businesses are thriving in College Park, as new developments may add thousands of residential units, along with hotels, restaurants and shops to the city, College Park business representatives said at the city’s annual Real Estate Roundtable.

Retail vacancy rates in the city have dropped 0.7 percent over the past year, with about a 5 percent decline just in downtown College Park, city Economic Development Coordinator Michael Stiefvater told about 50 city business stakeholders on Tuesday.

Twenty businesses opened, including Aroy Thai, Big Play Sports Grill, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill and ChiDogO’s, while 12 closed, including Boston Market, Capital One Bank and College Park Convenience Store. Eighteen are planned to open, including Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, Dunkin’ Donuts, Denny’s, Casey’s Coffee and a coffee shop in Berwyn.

As the city urbanizes, the openings reflect a trend toward smaller, often independent establishments rather than larger stores, such as a Best Buy or a grocery store, said Eric Smart, owner of Bolan Smart Associates, Inc.

But because College Park is neither a completely urban city nor a “gated suburban residential community,” Smart said, residents demand both urban and suburban elements. Based on a recent survey, there is still demand for a grocery store in the city, possibly even two in north College Park, said Christine Graziano, a senior associate at AECOM Technology Corporation.

“Everyone around us has grocery stores, but not here,” Graziano said.

The number of restaurants is nearing equilibrium, based on the survey, but retail could still move into the city’s vacant spaces, she said.

Stiefvater asked Smart why everything is “catered to students,” and why there is not a grocery store or more full-service restaurants in the city. In response, Smart said retail is directed toward more of a “mix” of consumers, including employers and university visitors, as well as students.

Compared to the whole of Prince George’s County, College Park has “depth” of retail, he said.

“We do have retail,” he said. “Is it the retail you want? Maybe not. It’s maybe not in places you want, but there is retail.”

Instead of building vertically, shops should spread out a little more to “fill gaps,” Smart said.

To help small, independent businesses, the city launched a program in February that matches grants up to $25,000 to help new or expanding independent establishments, Stiefvater said. And in December, a five-year revitalization tax credit was adopted to encourage investment in projects such as Capital Bikeshare or demolishing old buildings. For a $10 million project, for instance, Stiefvater said the tax credit could result in more than $70,000 in savings.

Several hotels will open soon, including a Best Western Plus in mid-April and a TownePlace Suites, on which construction could begin this summer. Another development has proposed a hotel for the space across from University View.

In June, the first tenants will move into Domain at College Park, a mixed-use housing development aside Lot 1. By late summer, the development will gain a Casey’s Coffee, Gateway Newstands, Subway and Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt.

In the next decade, several large-scale development projects are in the works, Stiefvater said. These include the Cafritz property, which will add a Whole Foods, 100,000 square feet of retail, 22,000 square feet of office space, 981 residential units and a 120-room hotel to Riverdale Park.

The plan for M Square Research Park, near the College Park Metro Station, includes proposed office buildings to develop a business community of science and technology. At the Metro station, early development plans include two hotels and about 300 multifamily units.

As College Park revitalizes, its new slogan, “A smart place to live,” represents the city’s increasing affordability and convenience, as well as its “highly educated population” and “diverse, charming neighborhoods,” Stiefvater said.

“Route 1 is not always the most beautiful place, but if you take a drive a few blocks away, there’s some beautiful places,” he said.

The city will step up its marketing efforts through ads in The Diamondback and on Google and Pandora, he said.

“You may be hearing ‘College Park’ in your music,” he said. original story 


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