Real estate, roads and rivers: Explore Route 1’s changing landscape

A side-by-side image shows two aerial views of the same neighborhood, surrounding what is now Prince George's Plaza and the Mall at Prince George's. On the left is a black and white image showing agricultural lands with a stream running north to south. On the right, we see an intensely developed suburban Mall. Visible is the Prince George's Plaza Metro Station.

Screenshot/Route 1 Reporter

The land surrounding Prince George's Plaza today was once agricultural. Use the interactive photos below to explore how the region's landscape has changed over the past century.

The landscape through which we walk is not the same as trod upon by our predecessors. On one level, this is obvious: development has radically reshaped the built environment of Prince George’s County’s Route 1 corridor, even in the past few years. But it goes deeper than that. Suburbanization, road construction and massive engineering projects have changed the shape of the land itself, altering rivers, flattening hills, raising others, and altering the geographic and social fabric of our communities.

The interactive imagery below allows you to directly compare the landscapes of the past, showing just how much of our surroundings have been altered over the past decades. In each image, you may use your mouse (or finger for you touchscreen users) to drag the divider left and right to compare aerial imagery of the Route 1 corridor from across the years. While these interactive images do work on mobile devices and tablets, they are best explored using a laptop or desktop monitor.

College Park and the University of Maryland – 1938 to 2018

What’s changed: In College Park, the University of Maryland’s transformation from a rural, agricultural research college into a modern flagship university is underscored in this juxtaposition, which compares imagery from 1938 and 2018 of the area in the vicinity of what is now fraternity row and Baltimore Avenue. The differences are striking. In 1938, there was no fraternity row. It was a collection of athletic fields. The northeast, we see the course of the Paint Branch, which was dramatically channelized and straightened as part of a major mid-century flood-control initiative. The old course of the Paint Branch roughly followed what is now Campus Drive between Baltimore Avenue and the College Park Metro Station. The agricultural fields to the north of Maryland’s 1938 campus have almost all disappeared or been replaced with floodland parks and new educational facilities. Also to the northeast is the familiar street grid of the Lakeland neighborhood, with its distinctive angular blocks all tilting toward the old 82 streetcar route along Rhode Island Avenue. Likewise with old town College Park, whose street grid has changed little over the past 80 years.

Riverdale divided – 1965 to 1977

What’s changed: Of all the old streetcar cities lining the Route 1 corridor, few have been so reshaped by highway construction as (what is now) Riverdale Park. Like its neighbors, it was one of the first commuter suburbs in the nation, with regular rail service to D.C. dating to the 1860s along the B&O railroad, later augmented by the 82 streetcar. By the 1960s, it had developed into a mix of detached, but closely-spaced and walkable single-family suburbs. The main east-west connection was what is now Riverdale Road. But that changed with the eastward extension of East-West Highway from Baltimore Avenue.

Unlike areas to the west of Riverdale, where East-West Highway was largely expanded in or alongside the right-of way of existing roadways, planners cut the new highway right through residential neighborhoods that had been linked for decades. The new highway cut the town in half, creating – in some places – a literal wall between neighbors. Dozens of houses were demolished. In the image above, we compare eastern Riverdale in 1965 to 1977, after East-West highway was extended east along a channelized Wells Run. In this small stretch alone, at least 14 houses are seen to have been demolished to make way for the highway. It’s notable that other areas through which East-West Highway cuts, such as Takoma Park, were spared this fate. In other places along the Route 1 corridor, particularly further north in areas that were still more rural in the post-war era, highway planners seemed to have at least made attempts to route east-west highways around existing development, but they had the luxury of much-less developed land to work with.

Prince George’s Plaza – 1938 to 2018

What’s changed: While much of the Route 1 corridor developed as a streetcar suburb, areas further from the central corridor took more time to develop. Such is the case of the old Heurich farm, present day site of The Mall at Prince George’s in Hyattsville. Aerial photography shows an area almost unrecognizable today. In 1938, agricultural fields dominate, lining both sides of the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia as it wends north. The only familiar reference is what is now the intersection of East-West Highway and Queens Chapel Road and the streetgrid of University Park and northern Hyattsville. Today, the central farmstead is located underneath a parking lot built in the 1950s for Prince George’s Plaza, one of the oldest malls in the nation. Here, post-war Hyattsville developed around the automobile, as opposed to rail transport. It is also the site of some of the most iconic mid-century architecture in the region. Its planners thought the area would be heavyweight jobs center, but those plans never panned out. In the 1990s, Metro came to Prince George’s Plaza, but the car still dominates the area, though there are long-term plans to make the area less suburban.

Beltway Plaza – 1938 to 2005

What’s changed: Like Prince George’s Plaza, the area that is today home to Beltway Plaza Mall was farmland in 1938. The alignment of what is today Greenbelt Road is visible in 1938, but it seems to be nothing more than a country lane back then. Most of the area is forested in 1938, too, with large apparent lowlying wetlands. To the eastern edge of the 1938 image, we see a large pond and the reflective veins of tributary streams that lead westward toward the Hollywood Swamp and Indian Creek north of Greenbelt Road. Note how, between 1938 and 2005, the course of Indian Creek and the shape of Hollywood Swamp were radically altered. What was once a lowlying coastal swamp has been constricted and channelized. In our 2005 imagery, the Greenbelt Station residential development – lying in the northwestern corner of our image, had not been built, and the area still bears the scars of industrial activity from a gravel mine that operated there for decades. Since 2005, some of this area has been reclaimed as parkland. Today, planners are also weighing the future of Beltway Plaza Mall.

Bladensburg Road – 1965 to 2018

What’s changed: Mid-century automotive-oriented development also radically reshaped the streetscape of Cottage City and Colmar Manor. In 1965, Bladensburg Road was home to a densely-built strip of streetcar urbanist mid-rise development. But by 2018, the southern edge of Bladensburg Road had been redeveloped into an car-centric retail strip, fronted by a massive parking lot. The scale of space devoted to  automobile storage, much of it apparently unused, is notable in the 2018 imagery, underscoring the “Black Friday” problem of mid-century, suburbanist parking requirements. The juxtaposition invites one to imagine how the neighborhood might be different with a more traditional downtown environment. 

Bladensburg and the Anacostia River – 1938 to 1965

What’s changed: But no area along the Route 1 corridor has been so altered over the past century than Bladensburg. If you’ve lived here for any amount of time, you’ve heard the story: Bladensburg was a wide, deep-water port from the dawn of the colonial era through the 1830s. But agricultural runoff caused by the deforestation of the region filled in the port, and the area fell into decline. Most economic and development activity realigned along the overland routes between the port of Baltimore and a growing Capital city, creating the Route 1 corridor as we know it.

Our two images here focus on the course of the Anacostia River as it flows through Bladensburg, and how that course changed between 1938 and 1965. Visible to the west is Mount Rainier, Cottage City and Colmar Manor and Eastern Avenue. To the extreme north, we see the confluence of the eastern and western branches of the Anacostia, the southernmost-tip of Hyattsville. In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers entirely re-channeled the river, creating the recreational waterfront we know today. The project was still not entirely completed by 1965, either. What is today Colmar Manor Park, set high atop a hill overlooking Bladensburg, is built upon infill dredged from the river. In our 1965 imagery, the park is still just a pile of dredged silt and earth.

2 thoughts on “Real estate, roads and rivers: Explore Route 1’s changing landscape

  1. Pingback: Then & Now: Explore how Route 1 has changed since 1998 | Route 1 Reporter

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