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.There are currently no comments highlighted.