How Walkable Urbanism Is Guiding NoVa Growth and Redevelopment

Image credit: Virginia Business

by James A. Bacon

Between Amazon, Micron Technology, and smaller deals too innumerable to list, Northern Virginia continues to dominate the economic action in Virginia. In previous business cycles, economic growth unleashed disconnected, low-density, auto-centric development that served immediate needs for office space but literally embedded in asphalt, concrete and steel one of the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation systems. This time, there are indications that the region will get it right — well, maybe not entirely right but better than before.

Fast-growth metropolitan regions everywhere are afflicted by two inter-related diseases: unaffordable housing and overloaded roads and highways. A consensus has emerged in much of Northern Virginia — and, trust me, after 35 years of monitoring NoVa growth issues, I haven’t seen such widespread agreement — that the old suburban-sprawl growth model is no longer viable. Northern Virginia must evolve toward walkable urbanism.

Indeed, local economic developers are expressing the hope that walkable urbanism will enable Northern Virginia to move from a second tier technology center to a Tier 1 center without choking on its own growth. In a profile of the massive activity occurring in Tysons, Arlington, and Alexandria, Virginia Business magazine quotes Christopher Leinberger, the professor of urban real estate at George Washington University who popularized the concept of walkable urbanism. Northern Virginia “is sitting pretty,” he says. “It’s a remarkable thing it has pulled off. … It’s nailing its audition for the part by busily creating precisely the kind of high-density, multiuse neighborhoods this new world demands.”

Northern Virginia already has among the most congested roads and highways in the country, and a population influx stimulated by the arrival of Amazon and its business ecosystem will ratchet up the pain threshold of the daily commute and rising home prices. Pushing growth to the metropolitan periphery is no longer an option — the expansion capacity of interstate highways and other arterials are maxxing out, and there is not enough money in the world to add more lanes. The only viable alternative to growing “out” is to grow “up” by allowing more density.

There is dysfunctional density and well-planned density. Good density — walkable urbanism — pays special attention to how individual projects interconnect to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. A mix of office, residential, retail, and civic uses allows people to access a wide variety of destinations within walking distance, or, if they must take a car, within a short driving distance. Density and walkability also improves the economics of mass transit, and it addresses the issue of housing affordability by freeing developers to build more apartments and condominiums across a broad spectrum of price points than they could have under comprehensive plans that favored neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.

The region’s challenges are still immense, especially in Tysons where developers and local government must effectively re-build billions of dollars of dysfunctional infrastructure. But the demand is ferocious and developers can tap unprecedented sums of money for development and re-development.

There is no silver bullet to address the fallout from Northern Virginia’s growth. Such a weapon does not exist in mankind’s urban-planning arsenal. History has shown that economic growth always creates stresses and strains. But some transportation/land use systems can accommodate those stresses and strains better than others. Northern Virginia appears to be moving in fits and starts toward a system that will allow the region to continue growing without creating the conditions for its future paralysis and collapse.

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22 responses to “How Walkable Urbanism Is Guiding NoVa Growth and Redevelopment

  1. “In previous business cycles, economic growth unleashed disconnected, low-density, auto-centric development that served immediate needs for office space but literally embedded in asphalt, concrete and steel one of the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation systems. This time, there are indications that the region will get it right — well, maybe not entirely right but better than before.”

    Sorry Jim, this is total unadulterated baloney. Have you learned nothing over the past 8 years on this blog?

  2. It’s baloney because it is a concoction of pretty words without nuance, that erases history, ignores complicating facts, a grossly misleads the reader as to it what has happened, how it happened, and what in fact is really going on now. The amazing fact is that this blog has been the very place where this detail has laid out and explained for years. Now you step in and act as if this means nothing as if each new post of yours erases all that has gone before here on the subject.

    • I’m baffled. How did I erase history? Here’s how I opened the post: “In previous business cycles, economic growth unleashed disconnected, low-density, auto-centric development that served immediate needs for office space but literally embedded in asphalt, concrete and steel one of the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation systems.”

      Do you disagree with that statement? Am I sugar-coating something here?

  3. following………

  4. “In previous business cycles, economic growth unleashed disconnected, low-density, auto-centric development that served immediate needs for office space but literally embedded in asphalt, concrete and steel one of the nation’s most dysfunctional transportation systems.”

    Absolutely I disagree. In the middle of those wastelands built in northern Virginia, the Ballston Rosslyn corridor was build sector by sector against all odds upon the bones of a series of linked older highly successful walkable urban communities built between 1890s and 1950s. Plus the old walkable urban cities / towns of Alexandria and Georgetown dating back to the 17 hundreds meanwhile thrived, as did many other brand new places built like those far older places, small and large, inspired by folks like Andrés Duany. The potentially good news is that Fairfax and a few other places now hopefully are forced to give up on Fairfax’s failed model of stealing interstate highways to build “office parks.” But all this now will be a very hard and speculative task, with much between the lip and cup, but perhaps this new just formed quasi-government coalition of inspired state, local, and private interests, built again on Arlington’s earlier model, and the earlier models of others, can pull it off, giving northern Virginia a chance at a whole new era, which right now is unfolding before our eyes. That’s a tiny thumbnail. A great old and new untold story is yet to be told.

    • Reed, Reed, Reed…. you’re talking about Arlington and parts of Alexandria. Yes, they did get land use patterns right, and I suppose I should have noted that exception. (I’ve made the point so many times in the past that I didn’t know it needed reiterating.) But the rest of NoVa — in other words, the vast majority of the region — was a planning/land use disaster

      • The problem was that I, and I assume most people, assume that Alexandria City and Arlington County are part of Northern Virginia. Hence you can’t talk accurately about what is now happening to Northern Virginia, without touching on the who, the what, and the Why of what’s going on. Most readers need grounding in pertinent facts, otherwise the story, however summary, is lost on them. That is my beef, Jim. Don’t short change history, and its ongoing dynamics, behind the monumental change that hopefully will benefit an entire region, the Nation’s Capital, and state of Virginia enormously.

  5. But meanwhile Tysons landowners are pushing for higher parking maximums and Tysons-related cut-through traffic plaguing nearby neighborhoods continues to grow.

  6. “In the middle of those wastelands built in northern Virginia, the Ballston Rosslyn corridor was build sector by sector against all odds upon the bones of a series of linked older highly successful walkable urban communities built between 1890s and 1950s.” The Ballston Corridor follows the route of the Arlington-Fairfax interurban rail line along which commuter communities like Falls Church and Vienna grew before WWI — with all that implies for the early growth of the residential and commercial areas surrounding that corridor (and the nearby and roughly parallel W&OD) with their walking-dependent transit facilities. Why shouldn’t Metro’s Silver Line have the same effect out beyond Tysons? As for Tysons itself, that cesspool of misbegotten auto-centric commercial sprawl has a long way to go before anyone would call it “walkable urban.” A few new buildings connected by skywalks to a Metro station and plopped down among 60s apartments and an 80s office park do not a “walkable urban” landscape make.

    • Yes, Acbar, good comment.

      The wondrous electric trolley working in tandem with an exploding Federal bureaucracy ignited by Pres. McKinley, and T. Roosevelt then turbo charged W. Wilson’s WW 1 that birthed one of the first new and truly modern urban / suburban neighborhoods centered within a suddenly new and grown up County, one then made distinct from Alexandria City.

  7. Loudoun County Population Growth Percentages:

    1960 – 1970: 51.3%
    1970 – 1980: 54.6%
    1980 – 1990: 50.0%
    1990 – 2000: 96.9%
    2000 – 2010: 84.1%
    2010 – 2018: 30.3%

    Where do you think these people work? Hint: DC’s population almost doubles every workday with commuters. Only Manhattan has a higher rise in population from commuters.

    https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2014/05/manhattans-and-dcs-populations-nearly-double-every-day-with-commuters/371451/

    Loudoun is now Virginia’s third most populous county.

    Millennials are leaving the urban core and buying more cars.

    No amount of “walkable urbanism” will offset the buildout of Loudoun and Prince William County with DC / Arlington based commuters.

  8. I too think “walkable urban” is more of an amenity for some selected enclaves where the stars align for re-development but for most of the NoVa region – and it’s exurbs – it’s the same-old same-old auto-centric game.

    One of the biggest challenges right now is how to keep cut-through traffic out of existing neighborhoods and so-called “walkable” enclaves.

    I’ve attended my share of seminars and training in NoVa and NoVa-like places to tell you that most office parks have “walkable” around them but if you want to go to a restaurant or other place – you will die trying to cross the streets!

    It’s just not happening. Most existing subdivisions in NoVa do NOT have sidewalks AND they would refuse to have them put on their property – and so the kids and others play and walk in the streets.

    I bet most of Henrico “‘works” this way … I bet Jim Bacon’s place of abode is not “walkable” and nor is much of Richmond if you have to cross major streets..

    The truth is that most folks – take Steve here – they don’t want to get out of their cars – they don’t want to bike, or walk – they just want to drive to where they are going!

    I tend to think we all yearn for “walkable” in our hearts but in the real world -walkable does not happen unless it’s built in to the development plans and even then – it’s walkable only within those enclaves – the only connectivity is METRO and the trail system that is basically built on low-lying land subject to flooding and not buildable.

    Where I live in exurban Spotsylvania – the BOS – which is conservative is adamently opposed to the requirement that new developmet build sidewalks (that end at the edge of the development) and trails – which they say are not a legitimate use of taxpayer money AND people do not want trails near their homes.

    My guess is if you surveyed most exurban counties of NoVa and Richmond – you’d find similar governance attitudes.

  9. I think people like freedom and their own open space, especially space for their children. They do not like having to ask the building manager if they can reserve the playground for a party. In addition, you youngsters might like to take the time to ride your high-speed bicycles to work on hot, cold, rainy, snowy days and then showering at work, but we older folk rather use our time with the family and our energy at work for work.

    • You’re right, many people do like their “freedom and their own open space”… but at what price? Everybody makes trade-offs. Is that freedom and open space worth, to pick an example for purposes of illustration, an extra $100,000 on the price of a house?

      • just to add………. most commuters in the Fredericksburg area – say they do that commute because they cannot afford a conventional single family detached home with a yard – in NoVa and they don’t want to live cheek by jowl with others.

        The thing is anyone who has an interest in these issues needs to really understand why drives commuting.

  10. I think there actually is an urban lifestyle. A ton of people live IN places like NYC where they do not have their own “open space” and they have adapted to public spaces.

    It’s not for me – and not for a lot of folks but I have to say commuting to the exurbs to get your own “open space” is a hefty trade-off. Hours and hours of your life are given up for that lifestyle and the irony is – that in most exurban neighborhoods – the kids – they play in the streets because there are no sidewalks or other places besides their own yard and bikes in a backyard just don’t get it!

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