The Eminence Grise Behind the Bi-County Parkway

Robert E. Buchanan. Photo credit: Washington Post.

Robert E. Buchanan. Photo credit: Washington Post.

by James A. Bacon

Everybody who’s followed the politics of real estate development in Virginia has heard the name of John T. “Til” Hazel, the high-profile attorney and developer who did so much to shape the human settlement patterns of Northern Virginia. Hazel was gregarious, combative and willing to campaign like a politician to counter environmentalists, NIMBYs, fiscal conservatives and anyone else who stood in the way of his vision for more taxes, more roads and more real estate development.

Hazel, now in his 80s, is no longer active in the public arena. Filling his shoes is a fellow developer, Robert E. Buchanan, the principal of Buchanan Partners. Unlike Hazel, however, Buchanan does not seek the limelight. He is more content to work from behind the scenes.

Jonathan O’Connell did important yeoman’s work in profiling Buchanan last week in The Washington Post. The article highlighted Buchanan’s role in pushing the controversial Bi-County Parkway near the Manassas Battlefield Park, which is critical segment of a larger North South Corridor that would upgrade highway access to the Washington Dulles International Airport.

Buchanan has development projects around the Washington area, including the building of 175 apartment units over a Harris-Teeter grocery store in Alexandria. In response to shifting market demand, he’s getting out of the McMansion business, he says, and building more apartments. In the 1990s, 2/3s of the housing units he built were detached, single-family dwellings. Today, the figure is closer to 5%.

While he can alter the market mix of what he builds, Buchanan cannot as readily change where he builds. Over the years, he has accumulated a significant portfolio of properties west of Dulles airport, including a 400-acre property near the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 606 known as Arcola Center. During the 2000s, go-go area of Northern Virginia real estate, he planned to build some two million square feet of commercial office space, 800,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,000 homes. But development stagnated when the housing market tanked.

Buchanan was instrumental in the creation of the 2030 Group, an organization of Washington-area developers “focused on advancing regional long-range decision-making and solutions that enable a strong regional economy.” That group, according to the Post‘s O’Connell, spent more than $520,000 over three years on economic research at George Mason University and the University of Maryland projecting the Washington region’s population and GDP growth with the aim of showing that region needs to make a commensurate investment in transportation. As one recent study stated:

The region’s economic future will continue to rely on significant investments in transportation infrastructure — investments that will need to provide key transit support for some economic centers and major support and investments for auto access and connections for almost all economic centers.

The 2030 Group website takes a high-altitude perspective in its research, press releases and blog posts, not staking out positions on specific projects like the Bi-County Parkway. Its primary focus has been to push for greater transportation funding, especially in Virginia.

But Buchanan has taken a personal interest in the Bi-County Parkway. In his article O’Connell describes him as sitting quietly in the fourth row of the auditorium in a Northern Virginia hearing organized by the Virginia Department of Transportation hearing while a crowd of  road opponents strenuously objected.

He also sits on the board of the Washington Airports Task Force, a business coalition that has actively backed the North South Corridor in support the development of a world-class air-cargo hub at Dulles. Also, Russ Gestl, executive vice president of Buchanan Partners, sits on the board of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which has been an outspoken supporter of the North-South Corridor and the Bi-County Parkway.

Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Manassas, describes the Bi-County Parkway a “developer’s road” designed to open up large swaths of Prince William County and Loudoun County to development. Corbelis Development, of instance, has petitioned Loudoun County to rezone 737 acres from one home per three acres to one home per acre — an addition of 802 units — in anticipation of the Bi-County Parkway. I don’t know what Buchanan might have planned for his properties in the corridor but there is little doubt that he would be one of the biggest beneficiaries were the project funded.

Building the Bi-County Parkway and up-zoning land along it, should that occur, would create windfall profits of hundreds of millions of dollars for landowners along the route. I have no problem with developers making profits…. even big profits. They take considerable risks in assembling land, developing a plan, getting it approved, investing millions of dollars in infrastructure and waiting for the market to materialize. Capitalism is a beautiful thing. But I do have a problem with developers racking up windfall profits — reaping private rewards while the public pays the freight — because they worked the political system to get highways and interchanges built near their property. Crony capitalism is an ugly thing.

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8 responses to “The Eminence Grise Behind the Bi-County Parkway

  1. Follow Fairfax County’s Tysons approach. Link rezoning and development levels to the funding and construction of specific transportation projects, and use the same funding formula — landowners pay 59.5% of the total transportation improvement costs. (I’m being generous today. The Route 28 Corridor commercial landowners are paying 75% of the costs for rebuilding Route 28 in both Fairfax and Loudoun Counties.)

    Include MWAA and the airfreight companies in the mix too. I’m so sick of crony capitalism.

    BTW, I through out the 75-25 and 59.5 figures to Leo Scheffer in a meeting earlier this year. The silence was deafening.

  2. Aside from the unnecessary plug for capitalism, this is a good post.

  3. without inflating the mans head too much, Bacon is a preeminent voice on a number of Virginia issues not the least of which is transportation.

    What I did find and do find curious about the development community is their absence from the MPO – CLRP process.

    let me translate: MPO = metropolitan policy organization – a Federally-mandated regional transportation organization that – by law determines the transportation priorities ( what gets funded) of the wash/Va/Md region.

    the second term CLRP = Constrained Long Range Plan –

    this is a 20-year time horizon plan with one exceptionally important rule and that rule is this:

    there can be no projects in that plan that do not have identified funding.

    In other words, it cannot be a wish list of what “might” be built – it can only have the projects that have known 100% funding available ( not partial funding).

    Most CLRPs have a section called “unfunded projects” or some such. Some don’t use the word “unfunded” (MWCOG/TPB does).

    the list of funded priorities is done on a majority vote of the regional membership.

    So now you have to go back to the folks who are advocating these other projects and ask where is the identified funding?

    unless the state is going to designate it a corridor of statewide significance… it’s not going to find much funding.

  4. No money; no problem. The landowners can petition the affected counties to form a commercial tax district or the counties can impose a service district on all landowners who would benefit from the new road. Of course, you won’t get buy-in unless there is real benefit.

    I suspect the truth is something like, Hazel took Buchanan aside and said “I’ve been on welfare my entire development career. You can too.” Time to end corporate welfare and crony capitalism.

  5. there’s an argument to be made for a western dual I-95 corridor .. I’m pretty sure VDOT supports it in whatever way it can go forward.

    that’s what the developers have going for them – at least in Va.

    In Md.. at this point.. they don’t want it.

    • Larry, where would the Outer Beltway cross the Potomac River into Maryland? Short of rebuilding the Route 15 Bridge at Point of Rocks, I don’t think any other bridge location would be acceptable to Virginia residents. There are simply too many people living near the Potomac from the American Legion Bridge west who would fight a bridge tooth and nail.

  6. they’d fight it like all NIMBY’s would but how would you get land for a METRO expansion or any other new road without encountering NIMBY?

    It seems totally ridiculous to me to say that transportation solutions in the NoVa area are unattainable because of NIMBY.

    How did we get the American Legion Bridge built or any other bridge in the area?

    Are we now at the point where no new bridges can be built – period?

    that’s how NoVa deals with transportation needs?

  7. If transportation spending were about the efficient and safe movement of people and goods, I think there would be less of a battle over RoW. But as has been made clear, the Outer Beltway is about enriching land speculators and bailing out MWAA’s inefficiencies at Dulles International Airport. Under these circumstances, why would anyone expect people in established communities to agree to a major road and bridge in their neighborhood?

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