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Residents, City Officials Weigh in Progress Made in 2010, Make Wishes for 2011

As yet another year has just disappeared from the city’s screen, residents and the City officials engaged in a lively discussion on what they think about the progress made in the past year and what to expect in the new year.

The City saw the leanest budget in years, due to thousands of dollars of loss in State revenues and property taxes, yet there were signs of progress that several City officials tried to show off.

On the other hand, overall reactions from most residents can be summarized as “mixed”.

The issue of public safety seems still a hot button issue. While the county’s overall crime rates have seen a 35 year drop in the past year, the city has seen a modest rise in violent crimes such as assaults, homicides and robberies. For example, the overall violent crimes against persons, from 2009 to 2010 have increased 10%, whereas crimes against properties, such as burglaries during the same period have gone down 18.4%.

There are however attempts to improve public safety, especially in downtown area.

Crime is an issue, but as a result of a state grant we were able to install about 20 security cameras downtown at year’s end.  In 2011 we will be able to judge their effectiveness and determine if such cameras are an economical substitute for adding more police.” – said District 2 council member Bob Catlin.

There were no such security cameras for north College Park residents. The area residents were shocked by a sexual assault incident when a 15 year girl was attacked by a stranger at the north entrance of Greenbelt station in the past summer. Though the suspect was arrested 3 months later, residents felt a security camera at the Metro entrance could’ve prevented the incident. The City will soon send a 300+ signature petition to WMATA asking them to install the cameras at the Metro entrance.

There were also concerns about police presence. PGPD’s District 1 had a new police chief in 2010 (Maj. Liberati) and  a new community liaison officer (Mr.Jaron Black). The new leadership is also publishing crime reports for the north and the south College Park on a weekly basis and having a weekly morning coffee club gathering to update neighbors about the crime incidents.

However, that did not stop some residents from expecting more. “the police still do not get out of their cars and their reports still include inaccuracies and people still have trouble with responsiveness – I don’t think we will see any real changes unless and until we have our own police force.” said Stephen Jascourt, a north College Park resident. Mr. Jascourt however thinks that attempts have been made to involve the police more in the community and getting more information more quickly to the community.

The City is still struggling to revive its Neighborhood Watch program, which has been effectively running leaderless for the past several months. The City has been searching for several leaders in the city and the neighborhood levels. The initial December 13 application deadline was extended until December 24 to get more citizens involved.

“(We) have been attempting to overhaul the neighborhood watch program city wide to make it more effective.  I’m especially proud of the role Councilwoman Mitchell has taken in trying to spearhead this effort.  Thankfully in West College Park we have Rex Powell and Zari Malsawma leading the charge so our program is already pretty strong” – said District 4 council member Marcus Afzali. Malsawma is also thankful for the support the Woods community received over the past year. “I’ve also been delighted with the encouragement & support that Public Services & the City Council have provided for Neighborhood Watch Programs in the city.  As Coordinator of NW for College Park Woods, I have found their support to be invaluable!” – She commented.

Afzali acknowledges that the city still has the reputation of being unsafe. “Crimes of opportunity still happen too frequently and home/car break-ins are still major concerns;” he said, however he is also hopeful about the prospect of a safer 2011. “the PGPD can better collaborate with the UMD Police and perhaps expand their concurrent jurisdiction areas,  expand our security camera network which went online this year, and grow our neighborhood watch program.” – Afzali added.

On public safety, council member Bob Catlin is also hopeful. He said blue light phones will be soon installed at the Greenbelt Metro and the Trolley Trail at Berwyn Road.  He also thinks speed cameras that were installed in November were primarily designed to increase pedestrian safety.

Regarding City-University relations, the results were mixed. For example, Marcus Afzali, who is an UMD graduate student said ”the University hinting that they might stop paying the A & A Tax and their continued opposition to the state preferred Campus Drive alignment for the Purple Line are big negative”, however he thinks “going forward the new UMD president Dr. Loh’s decision on the Purple Line will be a big factor in continuing to improve relations.  The development of East Campus also provides a chance for working in a collaborative manner.”

District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn agrees with Afzali. “I believe we will make strides this next year with the new president, Dr. Loh, who has expressed interest in developing a stronger relationship with the City.  We will work with him and with Chief Mitchell of the U-MD public safety department to address concerns about student rioting and drinking both off-campus and on.“ – he said. He also pointed to the first College Park Day event in early October, which was jointly organized by the many residents and  UMD student volunteers.

Afzali also touted his personal accomplishment of “passing a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Maryland and the City of College Park which requires the University to consult with residents within one mile of any construction project planned by the University”. Commenting on the agreement, he said “(this will) ensure residents are informed about projects that may add noise and light pollution to their communities before they happen.

There were also words of praise for “the Explore and Enjoy College Park Tour”, a monthly meet-up event at various restaurants within the city. The purpose was to bring residents from across the city together to build a sense of community and talk about local issues in a relaxed setting. Several key figures in local politics, including UMD president Dr. Loh attended the tour.

I attended the last two “Experience & Enjoy College Park Tour” events and thoroughly enjoyed them – what a great idea!  It benefits everyone involved – businesses & residents alike!” – said one resident.

There were however times when things didn’t go so smoothly in the resident / student relations. For example, the proposed student housing at the current Book Exchange property drew many city residents, including its student population into a heated debate. The debate divided the city residents roughly across its north-south border.

Be more sensitive to the residents and stop playing politics in Old Town as it applies to the proposed development of the MD Book Exchange.”– said a resident, who supports the proposed housing plan.

This resident however thinks the UMD is too powerful in many city affairs “I am opposed to having the University in essence dictate to the city and some members of council bow down to them.” – she added.

There were also words of optimism in reducing student / resident tensions in residential neighborhoods. “(these tensions) results from a lack of understanding.  Students renters are often living on their own for the first time, so they don’t really know how to live as part of a community.” said Alex Weissmen, an UMD student living in a residential neighborhood. “Noise, parking, trash, and a host of other issues stem from the fact that students see their home in College Park as a “place to live”, and not necessarily a community with all of its rules and benefits.  Sending out cold, impersonal flyers and tickets is not going to engage students – they need someone to extend a warm hand.” Weismann suggested.

A number of City officials, including council members Bob Catlin, Marcus Afzali and Patrick Wojahn, gave accounts for the development projects that made progress in the past year and will make their ways in the current year.

The city saw a few progresses made on the business development front. The Ledo’s Restaurant opened in the late summer in downtown, whereas the north College Park saw the opening of the electronic chain store Best Buy. Also, recently Jerk Pit signed a five year lease for the old College Perk Coffee place. A new business may also potentially move to the old The Thirty Turtle which closed down last year.

To spur businesses in the city, council member Afzali encouraged residents to check out www.shopcollegepark.organd sign up to follow Shop College Park on twitter and facebook.

On the development front, Northgate Park (a university project on Route 1), which began construction last year, which will include a second pedestrian bridge to campus across the Paint Branch Avenue. The student housing “Varsity” which has already started building, will include three retail spaces which should open this year. The City will also resume efforts with County for a public school at the old County school on Calvert Road.

In north College Park, the City added pedestrian safety lights on Lackawanna Street last year, but caused controversies among local residents. This year the Mexican restaurant Azteca is expected to open on Route 1 in north College Park. Also, in this year, the County will finally be building the long-awaited improvements to the Rhode Island Ave. and Edgewood Road intersection. “That area (Edgewood / Rhode Island) gets so horribly backed up.  I know it is on someone’s radar screen it would just be nice to have it completed.” – said Moira McGuire from north College Park.

The City also plans to develop for a replacement facility for the Public Work’s trailers at Davis Hall.

On transportation, the City is working to enhance public transportation, with the Purple Line as a long-term project, and with enhanced bus service on US 1 in the short-term.   With funding from the Council of Governments to institute a priority bus corridor on US 1, to institute a priority bus corridor on US 1, and funding from the County and from private developers, the City is hoping to institute a newly-branded bus line specific to the US 1 corridor, which brings students and residents back and forth to the University and to the housing projects and shopping opportunities up and down US 1.  This will hopefully help address the congestion problems on US 1. In north College Park last year, the City also added way finding signs directing people from the Metro and from US 1 to the Hollywood Commercial District.

Some north College Park residents think development in the downtown is causing an increase of traffic in the northern part of the City. “Why should north College Park take on the brunt of development and traffic?” – said one north College Park resident.

Other residents think the City should make the business owner in this part responsible for keeping them in shape. Route 1 in north College Park, which has a number of vacant businesses just north of Rt 193. “Make Route 1 property owners beautify/maintain better their vacant properties” – said resident Alan Hew.

The code enforcement in the city also received a mixed rating. Most think the City did a fairly good job in clearing extraordinary amount of snows from the City streets in the earlier part of the year last year.

Commenting on clamping noise control, one long term resident, who did not want to give his name, said: “There has been over recent years, and still continues, a decrease in noise and disturbances from U of MD students, especially (for me) from those in rental houses in my neighborhood. “.

Others want more stringent code inspections for bars and insure that business that open in residential areas are what they say they really are.  At least three businesses in the city stirred controversies in the past year for questinable business practices; Thirsty Turtle in the old town and the Bamboo Eater and the Comfort Zone in north College Park.

Some also wants more should be done regarding code enforcement laws on signage in the windows in businesses. “Look at Mundo Latino store on Edgewood (in north College Park).  It looks awful.” – said one resident.

Speaking of the progress made in the past year, and the challenges ahead, council member Afzali said:  “I know we have a lot of serious issues we need to deal with and that the changes we all want to see take place in College Park aren’t going to happen quickly.”

“I have always believed in the saying ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re on the right track, if you don’t keep moving forward you’ll still get ran over’. But I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction and that College Park will be known as one of the better college towns in the country “– added Afzali.

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