- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Even in a real estate market most agents characterize as “stabilizing” — if not slowing outright — Ann D’Ambrosia says she is pleasantly surprised at the ongoing buzz around the Prince George’s County real estate market.

Ms. D’Ambrosia, branch vice president at Coldwell Banker’s Bowie-Upper Marlboro office, says that whether it’s a condo or an upscale single-family home, properties that are fairly and competitively priced continue to fly off the market across the county.

“If you go up [U.S. Route] 301 through Upper Marlboro, practically the only thing you see are those communities and houses with all the bells and whistles,” she says. “They’re not priced for the first-time buyer,” she says, and often start in the $600,000 to $700,000 range.

Yet she and others familiar with the market say there’s room in Prince George’s County for singles, too, and families in middle-income brackets, and retirees, and people relocating to the area to work for the government.

“The future is very bright for the county in the coming decades, based on the strong residential real-estate market and the growth of the office sector,” says Kwasi Holman, president and CEO of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp. (PGEDC) since 2004.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission predicts that the county’s housing units will number 389,012 in 2030, up from 2000’s 304,377. For that matter, its population is projected to grow to 967,778, up from the 2000 figure of 807,946.

The PGEDC, Mr. Holman says, is seeking ways to “increase employment opportunities for county residents so we can transform ourselves from a bedroom community, where 60 percent of residents travel outside the county for employment, to a more balanced economy that has a mix of uses” and provides more opportunities to live, work and enjoy free time without necessarily having to head to the District or Baltimore.

Beth Tyler, a Realtor in the county for almost 20 years, says she is seeing a range of clients coming to Prince George’s, from families who are moving out of the District in search of a slightly larger home to individuals attracted to the Victorian and other architectural styles of houses peppering College Park.

Then there’s one of Bowie’s special features.

“One of the neat things there is you have 900 single-family homes built as a ‘Levittown,’” Ms. Tyler says, referring to those houses built after World War II for veterans by Abraham Levitt and his sons in Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states.

“When they built these, they created the suburban lifestyle as we now know it,” she says. “The houses don’t have basements, but you get a house with a yard, often for a town house price.”

Realtors, residents and county planners keep an eye on the past in myriad ways, seeking to incorporate Prince George’s County’s rich history into future growth opportunities.

One case in point from the not-so-distant past: in Hyattsville a half-century ago, the Lustine-Nicholson Motor Co.’s new showroom on U.S. Route 1 epitomized swanky midcentury style.

Today, there is a movement afoot to preserve the building — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and make it one of the architectural stars of the county’s two-mile Gateway Arts District, spanning Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville.

The redevelopment of the area is being spearheaded by the Hyattsville Community Development Corp [HCDC], the Prince George’s County Planning Board, and other stakeholders.

The Lustine building “is a truly exceptional historical resource of the recent past,” says Isabelle Gournay, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “This is the only car dealership of the 1950s in suburban Maryland which has not been demolished or altered beyond recognition. If it is demolished or mistreated, we lose one of the few mementos of Route 1 history.”

“Car sales,” Ms. Gournay says, “are part of our suburban culture as much as tobacco farming was in ColonialMaryland.”

Advocates hope the Lustine building will be a focal point of a $120 million development dubbed the West Village, which is being developed by EYA and will include some 450 row houses, condos and live/work spaces — expected to start in the low $300,000s. Some 25,000 square feet of new retail space is planned, as well. The site’s redevelopment was designated a “Priority Place” by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in April 2005.

“It was believed that because we have such successful neighborhoods here in Hyattsville, we didn’t feel a great pressure to revitalize the residential areas,” says Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the HCDC.

“EYA grabbed on to what we are trying to do,” Mr. Eisenberg says. “They’ll reconstruct the community as if certain events hadn’t happened — say, if we hadn’t become an automobile sales cluster” in the middle of the 20th century.

Work on the west side of Route 1 is expected to begin this spring, he says.

Not only is Hyattsville luring new residents with its focus on history and the arts, but with relatively affordable homes.

“We have a large number of writers, artists, musicians and dancers living in Hyattsville now, and they tend to be price-sensitive until they are at the top of their game,” Mr. Eisenberg says.

“Prince George’s County has more than 300 years of history, a lot of it often overlooked,” says Chris Currie, a county resident for almost nine years and a member of the Hyattsville City Council. “We have more historic mansions of estate-type properties that are publicly maintained than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.”

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission maintains many historic sites, from working farms to residential districts that showcase examples of the arts-and-crafts architectural style.

For example, the Marietta Mansion, home of Gabriel Duvall — who in the 19th century served on the Maryland and U.S. Supreme Courts and in the U.S. Congress — is located in Glenn Dale and houses the Prince George’s County Historical Society and the Frederick S. DeMarr Library of County History.

The federal government is a key component of the Prince George’s employment landscape, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center one of the county’s chief workplaces for more than 40 years. “I’ve been working there since 1992,” says Robert Peirce, who was raised in Bowie and relishes his Beltway-free commute to work as a federal information technology contractor.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center in Suitland and the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville are some of the other federal agencies and offices in the county.

Mr. Holman says he doesn’t want to stop there; he and other county leaders are working to generate additional investment in the area by federal and state government.

He points to growth in the federal government’s presence in Suitland, New Carrollton and College Park; for example, earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broke ground for NOAA’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, slated to open in late 2007. The 268,762-square-foot building is planned to house 800 NOAA staff and contractors.

Mr. Holman also says he expects changes resulting from the military’s ongoing Base Realignment and Closure process that could bring still more residents and jobs to Prince George’s County.

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