- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Earlier this month, about 300 elected officials and area leaders from more than 20 regional jurisdictions representing housing, business, community and environmental groups met to get a leg up on how the Washington area might prepare the next 25 years and the region’s projected growth of 1.6 million people and 1.4 million jobs by 2030.

Equipped with colored Lego-brand blocks representing jobs and households, those participating in the one-day Reality Check seminar, sponsored by the Urban Land Institute’s Washington District Council and the Washington Smart Growth Alliance, were broken up into 30 groups. They were given grid-covered maps of the region and the task of allocating jobs and housing over the next 25 years.

The preliminary report on the vision and recommendations of those gathered reflects some of the hard choices facing the region.

It was no small task.

Over the next 25 years, the population of the Washington metropolitan area is projected to increase from a 2000 count of some 4.5 million to more than 6.1 million, according to the most recent growth trends report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

During the same period, the number of area households is forecast to increase by more than 484,000. The largest increase in households is projected for Loudoun, Fairfax and Montgomery counties. Loudoun County, for example, is expected to add 144,000 households to its 2000 base of 60,000.

Jobs are projected to grow by between 50 and 60 percent across the entire region during the next 25 years to more than 4.1 million, led by Prince George’s, Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Job growth in Northern Virginia, according to the report, will increase 62 percent — just ahead of the Maryland suburbs’ projected 58 percent. The District is expected to post a 50 percent increase in jobs by 2030.

Topping the to-do list for all area jurisdictions is finding some way to cope with increasing demands on the transportation system.

During the next 20 years, the report projects, the operation and maintenance of the existing highway and transit systems “will consume about 77 percent of available transportation revenues for suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, and almost all of the District’s transportation revenues.”

There is no shortage of viewpoints when it comes to plotting strategies for addressing the area’s growth.

Some suggest there will be a return to self-sustaining communities clustered around Washington.

Some champion a neighborhood-based approach with tree-lined streets, open spaces, off-street parking and front porches.

And, of course, there is the popularity of the “mixed-use” community with a “town center” at its core.

“The development of planning in the Washington region parallels the evolution of the profession throughout the nation, but with unique circumstances due to the presence of the national capital,” according to the National Capital Planning Commission’s (NCPC) recent “Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital: Federal Elements.”

Unique circumstances aside, it helps to understand some of the trends.

“New urbanism,” for example, has been characterized as “the most significant movement in urban planning and architecture in this century” by Yan Song and Gerrit-Jan Knapp of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

This movement, as explained on the New Urbanism Web site (www.newurbanism.org), seeks to end urban sprawl, protect the environment and increase the quality of life through “a reordering of the built environment into the form of complete cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods.”

A Song-Knapp study looking at the effects of new urbanism on housing values analyzed the movement’s design elements that commanded a premium in the real estate market.

Many of these elements are familiar, including neighborhood structure; transportation choices; quality of life; mixed-use developments containing convenient access to a “mix of shops, offices, apartments, and homes” close enough to encourage walking; and shared civic and recreational buildings and centers.

Akin to new urbanism is “transit-oriented” development, promoting growth, including so-called “compacted developments,” aligned with transportation capacity. In layman’s terms, this means denser development near Metro stations.

Some in the field consider transit-oriented development to be the best option — planning that accommodates growth while reducing traffic congestion, saving open spaces and providing housing close to jobs.

Transit-oriented development was the focus of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, along with the Virginia Sierra Club and Washington Regional Network, supporters of the proposed Fairlee-Metro West development in Fairfax County.

The project will transform a former neighborhood of single-family homes near the Vienna Metro station into a virtual mecca for new urbanism and transit-oriented development.

The project, developed by Clark Realty and Pulte Homes, would include high-rise office and residential buildings close to the Metro stop, ground-floor retail, midrise apartments and town houses with about 2,250 residential units on 70 acres.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth estimated that the same number of housing units would have consumed 750 acres to 2,250 acres — from three houses per acre to one house per acre — not including roads and services, if built at typical suburban densities.

The coalition issued a statement that said demand has been growing for “walkable” communities like Fairlee-Metro West among young professionals, empty nesters and retirees.

There are those who believe redevelopment along the order of the Fairlee-Metro West project is needed to accommodate expected growth.

“We are built out,” says Elizabeth Friel, general manager for development and planning director for Falls Church.

Ms. Friel says that there are no vacant areas within the city limits to develop and that future changes will, of necessity, come through redevelopment.

She is leading an effort to develop a new “center city,” to include many new-urbanism elements, such as mixed use along a four-block area. The plan focuses on well-designed density, sustainable growth and affordable housing.

On a larger scale, NCPC Executive Director Marcel C. Acosta says the commission charged with planning for the area’s federal elements will continue to work with jurisdictions to address shared challenges, including transportation and economic development.

Mr. Acosta says the commission continues to look for opportunities to revitalize areas in the District and spur economic development. As an example, he points to the relocation of the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Near Southeast neighborhood in Washington and how it is helping to revitalize the Anacostia waterfront.

So, faced with the challenges that confront the D.C. region, how did those 300 planners and politicians in the Reality Check seminar exercise deal with those Lego blocks representing job and housing growth during the next 25 years?

The full preliminary report is available online from the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education (www.smartgrowth.umd.edu).

The summary of principles that emerged from the exercise includes preserving and protecting open spaces, focusing development near transit stations, maintaining a jobs and housing balance, concentration of development along transportation corridors and near existing towns, creating mixed development nodes, developing east of the region, and offering housing choices.

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