College Park: Not your usual college town Residents enjoy the good life apart from UM

Neighborhood Profile

November 03, 1996|By Sarah Cohen | Sarah Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Fast-food restaurants, auto dealers and bars touting beer specials fill the area adjacent to Maryland's biggest school. But the century-old neighborhoods in College Park remain remarkably aloof from the university town that most visitors see.

On a recent autumn Saturday, the U.S. 1 corridor began jamming with cars at 10 a.m., early enough for University of Maryland football fans to begin the traditional pre-game tailgate parties.

A few blocks away, in the Berwyn section, a troop of Brownies could skip across the street near a church, unaware of the football fuss.

In fact, this suburb in Prince George's County, inside the Capital Beltway, is no quaint college town. Instead, College Park lures families and singles alike by promising relatively affordable housing, quiet neighborhoods, historic homes and proximity to Washington's subway system.

Yet, the population more than doubles on a typical fall weekday -- courtesy of the university. Copy shops and convenience stores have displaced supermarkets. Many homeowners can point out which houses, some with overgrown lawns and litter in the yards, are rented to groups of students.

A block away from the magnet elementary school in College Park, an ailing car lacking front tires is jacked up for days outside one of these student group homes. Bottles of lubricants lie on the curb. The car has an old ticket on the windshield.

Fannie Featherstone, a longtime resident and activist in the Lakeland neighborhood of College Park, wants the car towed and the students to clean up the litter. And she worries that many more of the homes will turn over to student housing, changing the neighborhood in which her family has lived for generations.

The town has made efforts to control the student housing, which multiplied as on-campus housing costs rose and restrictions on drinking and smoking sent some students in search of more freedom than they had in dormitory settings.

A 1989 law that would have rezoned student group homes as minidormitories, allowing the city to regulate their number and effects on neighborhoods, was killed by the courts because it was deemed discriminatory against students. But the town-gown strains pale compared with the problems in some other inside-the-Beltway communities surrounding Washington.

In Featherstone's neighborhood of 75 homes, parents don't worry about leaving bicycles unlocked in their yards. It's still easy to find a single-family home for about $125,000 -- a price far lower than in many neighborhoods inside the Beltway.

College Park also has a history unrelated to the university, which has grown to take up nearly half of the town's land mass.

Settled as farmland, College Park grew up around what is now U.S. 1, which was chartered as the Baltimore-Washington Turnpike in 1813. The nearby neighborhoods were helped by the small agricultural college. But the big growth burst occurred at the turn of the century, when a trolley line connected the heart of College Park with other nearby suburbs.

In the Berwyn neighborhood, for instance, 100-year-old Victorian homes surround what was once a trolley stop. A few shops remain, just blocks from the jumble of cars and students on U.S. 1.

In the Lakeland neighborhood, land on which Featherstone lived during much of her childhood has become part of the town's biggest park -- Indian Creek Stream Valley Park, with Lake Artemesia at its center.

There are 11 distinct neighborhoods, and years ago they vied for attention from the county government. "It was like the 13 Colonies joining to form the United States" when the neighborhoods incorporated to form the town of College Park in 1945, said Berwyn resident Robert T. Catlin, adding, "It's still a loose confederacy."

The town has continued to grow through annexation -- most recently taking in the small Cherry Hill section at its northwestern edge, just inside the Beltway at U.S. 1 -- and now covers about 5 square miles.

The university also has continued to grow, both in enrollment and employment -- accounting for about 10,000 jobs.

Oddly, Catlin says, few of his neighbors depend on the university for their living. He can name the handful in his neighborhood of about 200 homes. Neither the town government nor the university had figures on the number of campus jobs held by local residents.

Even the usual amenities of a college town -- bookstores, gourmet shops and fine restaurants -- are noticeably absent from the U.S. 1 corridor.

"We never go to Route 1," said Marcia Scott, who has lived in College Park for more than 25 years. Instead, she goes to the Washington suburb of Bethesda, about 20 miles around the Beltway, for meals out, entertainment or shopping.

A 1994 city survey showed that fewer than half of the permanent residents shop in the city's core commercial district at least once a month.

Scott is hoping that a planned gourmet Safeway supermarket and Borders Books & Music store can keep her shopping closer to home. "I'd almost never have to leave then," she said.

Despite the student group homes, ailing commercial district and the occasional nuisances associated with their university neighbor, residents remain loyal to College Park.

"We've traveled around the country and looked at other places to live," said Michael Nevros. "We've never found anything as affordable or livable."

College Park

Population: 24,000

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 45 minutes

Shopping: Prince George's Plaza, U.S. 1 corridor.

Zipcode: 20740

Median home prices: From $97,000 in the Cherry Hill to $188,000 in College Park Estates (1995 sales)

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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