LANGLEY PARK – Where horses once roamed open farmland, now discount furniture stores, Peruvian chicken joints and 95,000 vehicles a day consume the area around New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard.
Here, 35,000 bus riders a day transfer among 11 bus routes. They brave the congested terrain, walking as far as a quarter mile through a dangerous gantlet to their next bus.
A Takoma/Langley transit center would consolidate the bus stops, creating a safer environment and bringing more consumer foot traffic to local businesses.
But critics say there’s a big tradeoff: Those development upgrades may increase business and residential rent, driving out Langley Park’s low-income and high-density immigrant population.
In Langley Park, about 17 percent of the population lives under the poverty line — a stark difference from the 7.4 percent county rate.
About 65 percent of residents are foreign-born. And almost two-thirds are Spanish-speaking residents, most of whom speak English less than “very well,” according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“It’s a working class county with some exceptions,” said Bill Hanna, professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park. “And I think the officials, for the most part, have taken the view: ‘Let’s upgrade and not worry about the poor people.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Hey, there are a lot of poor people here. How can we make their lives better?'”
Most are also new residents dependent on the public transportation system.
In 2000, 68 percent of households had either one or no car, and more than 20 percent used public transportation.
The area teeming with vehicle and pedestrian activity has led to a high rate of pedestrian accidents.
In 2008, there were 6 pedestrian fatalities. Plus, there have been dozens of bicycle and pedestrian accidents in the past decade in the Takoma/Langley Crossroads, said Erwin Mack, chairman of the Montgomery County Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee.
The transit center is designed to help alleviate the dangers by consolidating buses and other transit. It will include new bus bays, pedestrian walkways, a full canopy, restrooms and a stop in the proposed 16-mile Purple Line, which would reach from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
The light rail would connect to Metrorail Red, Green and Orange Lines and MARC, AMTRAK, and local bus services, as well.
“Intermodal connectivity is a big plus for the community,” said Michael Madden, Maryland Transit Authority project manager. “The transit center will not only provide easier connection but create a sense of place for the whole community.”
Despite the best intentions, the center is still a ways from reality. After five years and with $2.5 million each from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, $12.3 million in a federal transportation grant and additional funds from the state, the Taco Bell in the northwest corner of New Hampshire and University still remains, well, Taco Bell.
A cadre of developers, planners and state officials have worked together to transform the location into a transit center, but no ground has been broken.
The owner, California-based Reliable Properties, has declined two different offers by the State Highway Administration to buy a piece of its land.
If the shopping center owner refuses to sell, the state will attempt to invoke its right to take private public for public use through eminent domain.
“We’re moving forward with our design and hope to start construction on the project in 2011,” Madden said.
Reliable Properties could not be reached for comment.
Local officials also plan to revitalize the community to accompany the brand new transit center.
For example, developers have planned new housing, primarily townhomes, which is unlikely to be cheaper.
About 68 percent of Langley Park residents rent, according to the 2000 census. The majority of renter-occupied units range from $500 to $749 a month — a rate that is already 35 percent or more of the household income for the majority of residents.
As a result of new development, the county should anticipate “challenges from displacement as redevelopment occurs,” according to the approved Takoma/Langley Crossroads Preliminary Sector Plan.
The Prince George’s County Planning Department has examined the potential impact of the transit center and is working with social services and programs, like the immigrant advocacy group, Casa de Maryland, to provide assistance for residents, said planner coordinator Aldea Douglas of Prince George’s County’s Department of Planning.
But residents like 18-year-old Sonia Rodriguez say rent increases could cause a social ripple effect that could literally change the face of the community.
“This is a Spanish community,” Rodriguez said. “They are here because the rent is cheap.”
Some officials said residential rent hikes are unlikely.
Increasing rent is “kind of a stretch,” said Prince George’s County Councilman Will Campos. Instead, Campos added, the transit center will bring a safer component to the intersection and boost local businesses.
“Property values generally increase anyway with time,” Campos said.
Outside the Vino Outlet, going-out-of-business and 80-percent-off signs broadcast the store’s impending demise.
Inside, manager Tien Tran, 45, of Silver Spring, folds baby clothes and packs Obama novelty items in boxes.
The discount store will close at the end of the month, he said, taking a few steps down the aisle to box yellow onesies.
Most of Vino’s customers were Spanish-speaking and work in the construction, gardening or housing industry, Tran said.
That’s consistent with census figures that show almost a third of Langley Park residents worked in construction.
Because Langley Park is so dependent on the trades, the housing market crash had a devastating impact on its economy.
Even the nearly 50-year-old liquor store is seeing a drop in sales. A potential rent increase would be crippling.
A lot of other stores are having a hard time making their payments, said owner Frank Starner, 41, of Riverdale.
“It’s hard to stay in business when rent keeps going up, and the economy is going the other way,” Starner said.
Most of his patrons are repeat customers or travelers from the District or Virginia. He approves of the transit but not at the cost of higher rent.
“It (doesn’t) make any difference, because there’s already gridlock,” Starner said.
The rent can’t get any higher for Woodland Indian Vegetarian restaurant owner Ananda Poojary, 42, of Beltsville.
“If I had a choice, I would’ve moved out a long time ago,” he said.