Missing a chance to create a great transit hub – New Carrollton

If you were to rank Metro station areas by some abstract measure of ‘potential,’ New Carrollton would have to be at the top of your list. It’s not in Washington’s ‘favored quarter,’ but as development moves east, it’s well positioned to take advantage of new and old transportation links.

The eastern terminus of WMATA’s Orange Line; easy MARC access to DC and Baltimore; Amtrak service to New York and the rest of the Northeast Corridor. For auto access, you’ve got freeway links in all directions via the Beltway and US 50 into the District and connecting to Annapolis. Now add in circumferential transit: construction is underway (if behind schedule) for the Purple Line light rail system.

Beyond just the transportation links, New Carrollton has land. Lots of parking lots and underdeveloped sites can support much more density – all within a short walk of these valuable transit connections.

There’s the opportunity to transform New Carrollton into a walkable, transit-oriented business district, but some of the Purple Line design choices might limit that potential.

The Vision: Mass Transit ‘Theater’

Start with MNCPPC’s 2010 plan for New Carrollton: It calls for, among other things, making the station entrance a civic place, surrounded by development and active uses. The stated goal is to create a ‘transit theater,’ not just connecting the infrastructure but creating a place to support adjacent walkable development.

Diagram of north side station area (including the Purple Line), 2010 TOD Plan. Note the existing IRS office building in the lower right.

The transit station is uniquely important at New Carrollton. Not just because of the transit links, but because of the development potential around it. While there’s substantial development potential on either side of the railroad tracks, there’s no way to get between the two sides except by going through the station. Even car circulation between the two sides requires getting on one of the adjacent freeways.

Fully realizing the development potential on both sides of the tracks means making the station itself the critical hub for all kinds of circulation. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t just need to function, it needs to be great. The success of the transit station and the surrounding development depend on it.

Executing the Vision with WMATA Joint Development

Complex development projects don’t move fast. Almost as soon as the MNCPPC plan finished, WMATA put out a solicitation to develop their parking lots – and the first phase of this development is just now taking shape.

Just to get a sense of the timeline: MNCPPC published their plan in May 2010. In September of that same year, WMATA and the State of Maryland jointly issued an RFQ for development partners to execute that plan. In 2011, the selected a development team (a joint venture of Urban Atlantic and Forest City).

Negotiations for the full development agreement concluded in 2015, when the developers released their vision for the south side of the station – fully embracing the 2010 plan’s vision. In April 2017, developers signed a tenant to anchor their office component, allowing them to break ground in October 2017 on the first phase.

Rendering of the WMATA Joint Development by Urban Atlantic/Forest City for the south side of New Carrollton

The developers and WMATA have taken care to create a sense of place, meet all of WMATA’s programatic needs (bus bays, parking, etc – documented in this lengthy report) and support a substantial development project. The lengthy partnership between the parties also helps align their incentives.

Purple Line Planning:

The 2010 plan located the Purple Line station next to Ellin Road, reserving space between the Purple Line and the Amtrak right-of-way for development.

Site Plan for New Carrollton – note the provision for future extension of the Purple Line to the south

By the time the Purple Line was in preliminary engineering, the plan called to shift the tracks and LRT platform to abut the Amtrak ROW and position the platform immediately adjacent to the existing Metro station entrance. Bus bays, kiss-and-ride, and short-term parking would occupy the rest of the space between the railroad and Ellin Road, suitable for future redevelopment and with logical circulation for both cars and pedestrians.

2013 Purple Line design, with the LRT platform as close as possible to the existing station entrance; bus bays and short-term parking configured around ‘normal’ signalized intersections.
Original Purple Line design for New Carrollton.

The original concept also included an extension of the existing WMATA station tunnel, new vertical circulation to connect passengers between the bus bays/LRT station to an extension of the existing tunnel to WMATA/Amtrak/MARC/South Side development.

As the Purple Line finally started construction, the contractor and State of Maryland agreed to several design changes to save money, particularly notable at Silver Spring. The contractor also put forward an Alternative Technical Concept for New Carrollton, which the State accepted.

As WMATA is involved in station planning to integrate the Purple Line at transfer stations, some of their Board of Directors presentations have hinted at the alternative designs.

Alt. Concept for New Carrollton, via WMATA. I believe the red box indicates the future north side joint development area.

The new layout limits costs by retaining the existing entrance (6 in the image above) and avoiding alterations to the pedestrian bridge. Bus bays and parking are re-arranged to allow the LRT station and tail tracks to shift north alongside Ellin Road.

Two concerns with the new design: first, the Purple Line platform is now further away from the Metro station entrance, asking more walking of passengers making the transfer. Second, the design doesn’t improve on the current north-side passenger experience – theres no sense of destination. Third, the barriers around the LRT station and tracks (including retaining walls) means that pedestrian circulation to the potential development sites to the north are limited and indirect.

All pedestrians from points north must use either the existing pedestrian bridge or the LRT entrance via the far side of Ellin Road/Harkins Road

Ellin Road’s current condition as a suburban stroad isn’t welcoming to pedestrians, so this hardly seems like a loss under the circumstances. But the potential of New Carrollton as a walkable place depends on the quality of the walk to and from the station.

Most of the parking shown here is part of future phases of the WMATA Joint Development, so this isn’t a permanent condition. Additionally, the developer’s efforts to improve the south side bus bays is encouraging. Still, there’s a big contrast between the importance of place to the development team (as shown on the south side) and the incentives to shave costs by the Purple Line team on the north.