City Paper is not for tourists
In Prince George’s County, there’s a traditional conception of economic development: Leverage your low land prices to get the General Services Administration to lease space in your town, and build around it. It helped with Greenbelt, Laurel, Suitland, and a handful of other jurisdictions that have landed large federal tenants.
“I hate to say GSA, GSA, GSA, but…we really need that federal partner to help us establish that seed,” said Mike Smith, vice president of developer LCOR, at a Coalition for Smarter Growth forum last night on developing around Metro stations in the County.
The problem is, that’s becoming a less sure-fire strategy, in the new era of federal leasing consolidation. Uncle Sam is trying to live within his means these days, and has plenty of existing space to work with. Smith advocates pressing the agency harder to relocate from old buildings to newer, greener developents, which would put other areas in play—but it’s a hard sell, at a time when pennies per square foot can make the difference between a winning bid and a losing one.
Fortunately, there’s another way, as described by EYA’s Aakash Thakkar. Just get Andy Shallal to open a Busboys and Poets location in your mixed-use project, and the rest will sort itself out.
That’s what EYA did first when putting together its Arts District in Hyattsville: Offered Shallal lots of money for buildout and low, low rent. Having landed Busboys—and the yuppie clientele it’s nearly certain to attract—EYA was able to go to the county and make a case for incentives that could move the project along. After that, they approached Yes! Organic Market’s Gary Cha, who said, “‘If Andy Shallal wants to be there, I want to be there too.'” Next came Tara Thai, a small Virginia chain.
Finally, EYA was able to land the biggest coup of all: Chipotle, which had passed on the development originally. “Once they saw that lineup,” Thakkar told the audience, “We were able to charge them $10 more a square foot in rent.”
The snowball effect has continued to operate, bringing in other yuppie must-haves like a yogurt shop and day spa. None of these are open yet, but once they are, Thakkar expects the young folks to come streaming in.
Why is Busboys such an effective economic catalyst? Because it’s a signal to the kinds of creative, upwardly-mobile types who are willing to take a risk on small towns outside the urban core: This is your kind of place. Each of Shallal’s locations has so far been so wildly successful that there’s almost no way it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.
Of course, Shallal can’t rescue every development in Prince Georges. But at a time when the federal government can’t either, the principle—find a local entrepreneur with undeniable cool and make him an offer he can’t refuse—seems worth heeding.