- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The 900-acre field west of Manassas stands empty save for a few buildings. George Ma-son University classrooms, a biological research center and a huge swimming pool and gym dominate the sparse landscape.
"They certainly primed the pump," said John Weber, a broker representing the four private landowners of the park, referring to the unprecedented effort by Prince William County officials to rescue the land from financial trouble and turn it into an engine for business.
Now those owners are expecting prosperity to flow into the park, called Innovation at Prince William, after three years of cleaning up a financial mess and more than a decade's worth of plans.
County officials say careful planning and its own 500-acre stake in the project have positioned the park to take off. But some real estate officials complain that the county has undercut them by selling property at below-market prices.
The debate revolves around one of the most vexing development issues confronting outer suburban counties. Bedroom communities like Prince William are struggling to attract offices and industries and reap high property taxes at a time when employers increasingly want to plant roots closer to town.
The relative lack of offices and industry costs counties, not only in tax revenue, but also leaves communities without an identity, said Jay Fissette, a member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, who leads a Council of Governments committee on development.
"You want a better balance of residential and office and retail. That's what gives it a sense of place," he said.

The idea

That's what Prince William County officials had in mind in 1986, when they began collaborating with George Mason University to set up a campus that would be the magnet for creating a high-tech business park.
Today, four companies plan to join the the park's three anchor tenants GMU, the American Type Culture Collection and the Freedom Aquatic Center on the west side of Manassas next to Dominion Semiconductor. The four companies are FM Technologies, Avenir, Ronbotics Corp. and Covad Communications, which planned to move in workers last weekend.
The entire park includes 33 acres of retail space, a 20-acre hotel and conference center, 26 acres for housing and a necklace of ponds and open space. The land is approved for up to 7.6 million square feet of development, except housing.
With new parkwide zoning approved in February, the owners are now pressing for more tenants, hoping to realize a 14-year-old vision of developing a technology park. As one of the few office parks owned and developed by county officials, they see the park as a sign that planning can bring both economic and environmental development.
"It's just starting out," and already attracting tenants to the county, even some who don't settle on the Innovation park, said Martin Briley, executive director of the county's department of economic development.
The attention by tenants is a lesson that jurisdictions around the region can use planning more creatively, said Mr. Fissette.
"It's positive that they are attempting to plan in advance," Mr. Fissette said. It consolidates land use and brings environmental benefits as well as improves its appeal to companies thinking of relocation.

Public-private rivalry

However, even the best-laid plan can cause some bruises. Private landowners and brokers privately complain that the county used below-market land sales to attract the initial leases. They fear that this has hurt the market value of their land and led to hard feelings toward the government that collects its taxes.
"Certainly you don't have an even, level playing field," said Michael Vanderpool, a Manassas lawyer who has represented property owners in the area.
While the county's latest land sale was the market rate of $2.50 a square foot for the parcel Ronbotics Corp. will occupy, its prices have not always been at that level. Last year the county sold land for $1.50 a square foot, a dollar below the going rate.
"It's just competition you can't fight," complained one real estate official who asked not to be identified.
Mr. Briley, Prince William's economic development director, defended the county's effort, saying it has hastened development at the park and should help neighboring landowners by creating an attractive community for commercial tenants.
A real estate lawyer said he would wait and see whether the county gave away too much in its land deals for Innovation.
"A blue light special does make sense in the short run. In the long run, we're dealing with market values," warned Michael Vanderpool, a Manassas lawyer who represents property owners. He said time will tell whether the economic benefits of new companies outweigh a possible decline in land values.
"The jury is still out," Mr. Vanderpool said.

Assessing values

Some have suggested that property owners will ask the county to lower the assessments on their land to reflect the dropping value of land sold by the county. That would result in lower property tax revenue for the county. So far, owners haven't filed more appeals than usual for the area that includes Innovation, according to Allison Lindner, acting director of the county's real estate assessment office.
But the county can expect more assessment appeals if it continues to sell land below market value, said Robert Ruhl, assistant director of economic development for Virginia Beach, which has sold land for office development since the 1960s. Owners have asked for reassessments in light of below-market land sales by the city, he said.
"It goes both ways," he said. "We look at the big picture. The developers understand for certain projects. And the city assessor understands when people request reassessments."
The city judges the prices it requests parcel by parcel, selling above, below or at market rates, he said.
"Devaluation is not something we want to see," he said.
Yet several real estate and county officials countered, suggesting that the park would not have turned out the same way without the county's involvement.
"I don't think this project could have been done without the county stepping in," said Michael Armm, managing director for California-based developer Lee Sammis Associates' Virginia office. "It was resurrecting a project that essentially died."

The history

For all the planning in place now, Innovation started by accident.
In 1989, developer Russ Aaronson assembled a 970-acre tract on the western side of Manassas. Innovation held great promise with a strategic location in a roaring economy, close to Manassas airport, the VRE train station, Interstate 66 and the new Route 234 bypass.
Mr. Aaronson's plan, called Broadview Centre, was to build 15.8 million square feet of new construction. The plan included high-rise offices and other business uses, but was not specific.
The timing for the development was poor, however, coming out around 1991 just as the real estate recession was starting. Mr. Aaronson filed for bankruptcy, and his lender, Mission Bank of Kansas, seized the land. Unwilling to pay the overdue property taxes, the property wound up back in the hands of its five original property owners. Those owners included Bob Sowder, Paul and June Kline, Miriam Weaver, David Hersch and WMK, a group half-owned by Bridgewater College of Virginia.
The sale not only divided the property, but also diminished its economic development value. The land was burdened by Mr. Aaronson's generous proffers, and new owners were unwilling to fulfill those obligations.
"That was an unmarketable mess, to be blunt about it," said Rick Lawson, director of Prince William's Department of Planning.
The county felt extraordinary action was necessary to make the land usable and, in 1997, bought about 500 acres. The following year, the county huddled with the landowners to craft a plan to market the property as a technology park in line with one of the county's main economic development goals.
In the process, Prince William County went several steps beyond what a county normally does on a development project.
The county developed a master plan and set about rezoning the property. It set up urban design guidelines and hired a respected Connecticut architectural firm to review those guidelines. It established covenants for landscaping, parking and the types and proportions of businesses allowed in the park. It created an owners board with three public and two private members and an architectural review board for the park.
The close attention was appropriate, officials said. "It's a level of detail that is typical for a property owner," said Sherman Patrick, community resource manager for the Department of Planning.
Architectural rules, written to encourage a high-tech buildings in a park-like setting, are a good example of useful attention, said Mr. Patrick, one of the county's three representatives on the five-member architectural review board.
"If you put up an investment, you won't have a prefab metal building going up next to you. We're creating a protected environment," Mr. Patrick said.
This is a common problem with large commercial developments, said one architect hired by the county to review its guidelines.
"Industrial parks are all sequestered off, the buildings all different from each other. It's a god awful mess," said Chad Floyd, partner with Centerbrook Architects, the Essex, Conn.-based firm.
Rules about building height, alignment, materials, landscaping and the layout "create a sense of overarching intelligence," he said. It all gives the park its sense of place.
Writing the rules is harder, but it does more to attract businesses and improve the environment, he said. "It's our duty to do so," he said.

Shaping growth

Planners cannot and do not claim all the credit. County and private real estate industry officials agree that development is coming because of the economy and a good location.
"We're running out of space. Rents are spiking. Manassas is quaint, the county government is reducing taxes. It's just one of those maturing markets," said Guy Gravett, a broker at Farms & Acreage.
Prince William County has begun to attract large facilities, such as the America Online center in Battlefield Business Park, and new speculative development, which is making up for a shortage of office and industrial space, said Larry Fitzgerald, a broker with Grubb & Ellis.
But officials said it takes planning to shape the growth. One example is the the aim to bring biotechnology companies into the park. That's why the county wanted GMU and the ATCC in Innovation, said Randall Edwards, executive vice president with the university.
So far, no new biotech companies have emerged, but partnerships with unnamed companies are in the works, he said.
The Freedom Center also is a magnet for companies, he said.
"There are companies like Dominion that are recruiting against Silicon Valley. It gives us an advantage," he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide