Students, Residents March to Save the Guilford Woods
By Pierce Panagakos
This article has been updated
On Oct. 15, students and city residents gathered at the University of Maryland (UMD) to protest the university’s plans to clear a portion of Guilford Woods for the Western Gateway project, a development that would bring graduate student housing and town homes to this now-forested land.
In March 2019, the finance committee of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents recommended that the university sell just over 9 acres of Guilford Woods to Gilbane Development Company for construction of private townhomes, and lease an additional 2 acres to build graduate student housing. Eleven acres of forested land would be cleared for the development; this sparked a movement known as Save Guilford Woods.
UMD President Darryll Pines, in an Oct. 7 University Senate Meeting, said that the efforts to save Guilford Woods were not based on science, but on emotion. Pines’ comments prompted Save Guilford Woods members to protest the university’s planned actions. Activists at the protest, on the campus’s Mckeldin Mall, shared their concerns with the Here & Now.
Janet Gingold, a member of the Prince George’s Sierra Club, believes the Western Gateway Project is just one example of a much larger issue in the county. “All over Prince George’s County, we’re cutting down trees, and we need more trees because we’re in a climate crisis, and people go from day to day without ever thinking about it,” Gingold said.
Lily Fountain, also a Prince George’s Sierra Club member, reacted to Pines’ comments. “This university has tremendous reach, across the state people care about this issue. We have thousands of signatures from the student petition, the Sierra Club petition … hundreds of faculty on campus have signed a petition, and to call your own faculty ‘emotional’ and ‘not scientific,’ I don’t think that’s appropriate … The way to solve a problem is to bring in the people who know how to do it,” she said.
Stuart Adams, a city resident and former president of the Calvert Hills Citizens Association, shared his concerns, too: “You look at the Southern Gateway project, you look at the city hall, you look at all these different developments that are happening around us, and they are done with a truly collaborative, community-focused approach. This project really was sole sourced to one developer, who owns some land in a certain location, and we’re sacrificing our wooded, sustainable forest for a project that’s really not doing what it’s intended to do.”
Maryland State Senator Paul Pinsky spoke about his concerns to the university’ plans, “There are times when projects are needed for the public good, but let’s look at this project. Three hundred units for a need of 4 or 5 or 7,000 graduate houses… There’s a lot of graduate housing that is needed … but what is the trade-off? One of the trade-offs is building eight private homes virtually on the campus, and as someone who’s on this campus a fair amount, that doesn’t sit well with me. I think we need to minimize the privatizing of our public university.”
Protestors marched from McKeldin Library to the university’s administration building, where the crowd chanted slogans in opposition to the Western Gateway Project — Stop the chop, President Pines, save the pines and We say no way to the Western Gateway.
On Oct. 21, during a student-held forum, College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn expressed his support for the Western Gateway Project, “The city, historically has been in support of it, because we have long needed affordable grad student housing and really our first opportunity in several decades, that we have to get that.”
On Oct. 28, in a letter to graduate students and campus leadership, the university announced its plan to temporarily halt the Western Gateway Project. Instead, the university intends to focus on another development prospect: Old Leonardtown. “The university will pause current planning on the Western Gateway development to continue to listen, learn and adapt plans to address the critical need for graduate housing. The administration will continue to study this area to address environmental concerns related to the proposed development. This builds on the university’s stated commitment to achieve a Net-Zero Carbon Neutral campus by 2025,” the letter said.
Lee Poston, of the Save Guilford Woods movement, released a statement on Oct. 29 in response to the university’s letter: “We support graduate housing solutions and smart growth developments that are transit oriented, minimize climate impacts, preserve biodiversity, and include robust stormwater management. For these reasons, we strongly support the University’s new plan to provide much needed graduate housing through true infill redevelopment at the Old Leonardtown site on the UMD campus, an alternative long promoted by Guilford Woods advocates.”
As the university shifts gears and focus, Guilford Woods appears to have at least a temporary reprieve. We owe a debt of gratitude to the local activists, residents and students alike, who rose to protect these wooded acres that bring nature into the heart of College Park.