The second most important thing to understand about the great victory at the Vienna / Fairfax / GMU METRO station is that it is just 22 years late. The most important thing is that there is still time to make amends, but it will just cost a lot more.

In the early 1970s, the 1960s decision to end the Orange Line at what became known as Vienna / Fairfax GMU was reconfirmed. This decision and the reconfirmation was based on the fact that there were nearly 800 acres of vacant and underutilized land here and the alternative in Tysons Corner was “all built out.”

Since then Tysons Corner has intensified by a factor of 4 and adding METRO or some other shared-vehicle system to make it functional will cost billions.

In the 70s and early 80s the Fairfax “comprehensive plan” provided incentives for land assembly to create transit oriented development (long before the term TOD was coined) so that the capacity on the Orange line could be used in both directions in peak periods.

Public action reduced the available vacant land to 100 +/- acres by the time the Orange Line got under construction beyond Ballston. Subdivision Recycling projects for the METRO West site and others surfaced as the opening of the station neared. To thwart the Virginia Center plan on still vacant land, the county’s “comprehensive plan” was amended to strip out the incentives for parcel consolidation. Project after project with METRO supporting patterns and densities of land-use were turned down by the County.

The main players on the public side for this activity were former county supervisor and now Virginia Delegate Jim Scott and former county supervisor, county board chairperson and recently appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth Kate Hanley.

But for their efforts there would already be the sort of development that the market documents is in the most demand. The Orange line would be carrying more people in the off peak direction, it would be taking in more revenue and would come closer to being part of a functional shared-vehicle system.

Hundreds of acres now must be recycled at great cost and disruption to evolve a real METRO oriented urban enclave.

There is a silver lining: 45 +/- acres of land in public ownership lies at the heart of this area and is being wasted in road rights-of-way, surface parking and deck parking with no urban uses on the top. To make matters worse there is no provision to add them without tearing down the garages.

This 45 acres could be decked over and at modest density, replace the employment uses at AOl and World Com and Wal*Mart-in-the-Weeds in Loudoun County and with the adjacent 400 +/- acres within one half mile of the METRO platform, create a village-scale station-area urban agglomeration with a relative balanced of jobs / housing / services / recreation / amenity.

It would have cost so much less to do it right the first time. We would have saved thousands of acres of Countryside and provided the sort of places the market demonstrates that people want to live, work and play.

Will METRO West perform as advertised? We will all have to wait and see. The current project has one hand tied behind its back by the pattern of land use on the rest of the 800 acres that were part of the original reason to put the METRO station in this location.

Any analysis of the project will be hamstrung by the failure to create a comprehensive plan for the station area and to develop an intelligent vocabulary to describe the organic components of the station-area settlement pattern. See “Words Matter” and our Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 three part series on Vocabulary at

There are three overarching lessons from this experience to date:

The loss from the scrapping of an intelligent plan to capitalize on the METRO potential at Vienna / Fairfax / GMU that evolved from the late 60s to the early 80s can never be fully recovered.

The lost of opportunity due to the refusal of the public agencies (especially between 25 and 20 years ago) to allow the market to reflect the potential of METRO access effects not just Fairfax County but the entire Virginia portion of the National Capital Subregion.

The loss of potential public revenue due to the failure to create public-private partnerships to assure public benefit from the public expenditure on the METRO would pay for much of the needed public infrastructure and services needed to support an urban enclave.

The record shows there were many of us who spoke out on these public agency failures at the time.


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3 responses to “METRO WEST — 22 YEARS TOO LATE”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ed, Thanks for the historical perspective. I can see the dysfunctional aspects of the way things are today, but it’s helpful to know how they got dysfunctional in the first place. It’s also helpful to know that our current miseries didn’t “just happen” — they are the bitter fruit of deliberate actions taken in the past.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    We have had our differences here, but in some ways we think alike. What is a constant source of amazement to me is that you somehow start off OK and then come to conclusions that, I feel, are out of orbit.

    Jim’s is right, we didn’t get this way by accident: our current conditions are the result of actions taken by previous generations of planners and polititcians, and partly at the behest of market conditions at the time. In retrospect those decisions now appear to have been wrong, but at the time they may still have been the best available. One thing we should remember is that history gives us no reason to believe that our decisions will end up being viewed with any less amusement or disdain.

    So, OK, running Metro down the right of way whwere it had to compete with an existing travel structure was a lousy idea: it would have been better to put it where there was no other means of travel.

    At that time, Fairfax was in its slow growth mode and there was strong sentiment similar to TMT’s against causing construction that would inevitably add to county costs. Later PW and Loudoun went through the same cycle, with the same eventual results.

    And, sure enough, redevelopment is far more expensive than doing it right the first time. But premeature developmet is also expensive, as the AOL and WorldCom examples show: the market isn’t there, yet. (AOL and WorlCom also have other problems unrelated to their location: GEICO relocated and was highly successful: not everything is location dependent, and probably less so than EMR would hae us believe.)

    So tell me, is there anywhwere in the world where forty five elevated acres have been decked over and used for development? Who in their right mind would want to live on a concrete slab over a highway and train?

    You claim that thousands of acre of country side could be saved with this forty five acre proposal. Even if that is true, what would we do with that countryside? Surely we don’t need it for farms, at least according to the market. Given that the former countryside is already partially developed, where is the savings that would come from spending billions from redeveloping Tysons and Metro West? If your policies ever succeed, how do you avoid having two economies: one for people who choose to live in a manner you choose to call “dysfuntional”, and one for those who choose to live in a manner you call “vibrant”? Is it really necessary or worth it, and is it what people want? How will it be paid for and how much is going to wind up coming out of the public pocket? How much of that is going to come out of the private pockets of people who don’t benefit?

    Finally, you describe this as a great victory. I belivve that is yet to be seen, and in the overall picture the results may turn out to be minor, or maybe even laughed at in the future. By describing it as a great victory you subscribe to the winner take all attitude that you so often denigrate. I think this is unhelpful to your cause and will raise great bitterness among those who, in good faith, and for reasons that may be just as valid as the ones you subscribe to, opposed this project. That is the kind of bitterness that casuses the whipsaw backlashes we have seen in Loudoun, Oregon, and previously in Fairfax.

    I already know the answer: see your previous writings. That is fine, but as far as I can see they are hypothetical in the extreme, and do very little to describe how what we are doing now can be incrementally improved without ripping up everything we know at great expense. By contrast, Jim’s article above makes concrete suggestions, some of which can be implemented ata lmost no cost (jitneys).

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s time for the old story that neighborhood criticism killed higher density along the Orange line in Fairfax.

    In truth, it was the marketplace. There just wasn’t demand for much commercial floor space at these locations. It was less than two years ago that a long-planned, and advertised, 10-story office building just a stone’s throw from MetroWest at Vienna had to be scrapped. The developer has spent three years looking for a tenent, with no luck.
    So they’ve converted the plan to townhouses.
    Commercial real estate brokers look at MetroWest and see no demand for the office space that all agree would be necessary to make walkable “transit oriented development” work.
    Add to that the fact that BRAC is opening up 3 million sq. feet of prime Crystal City space; much of Tysons will move there to be closer to the Pentagon, further reducing demand for space at MetroWest.

    MetroWest risks becoming just another townhouse/condo canyon, the opposite of the TOD label that’s been abused in this project’s name. Neighbors weren’t opposed to higher density, but calls to properly phase the development so that residential units were built in proportion to commercial space were not heeded.

    TOD would be good; but this is bait and switch. The approval of MetroWest isn’t just a defeat for residents, it’s a defeat for genuine TOD.

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