Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
On the surface, the Bi-County Parkway/Outer Beltway controversy is about transportation. But it’s not. It’s about growth: where should it be in Virginia? The farms of Loudoun, Prince William, and Fauquier? Or along future Silver Line stations, and closer to the core? Some people stand to benefit from more outward growth, but not most residents of our region.
The Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell confirms what many suspected, even though it sounded a bit like a conspiracy theory: People with large land holdings along the Bi-County Parkway route, who stand to benefit personally from building more houses there, are pouring substantial cash into lobbying efforts and campaign donations for the road.
O’Connell pulls back the curtain on the 2030 Group, an organization that appeared in 2010 with the stated goal of encouraging “regional cooperation.” Cooperation is great, but 2030’s version seems to mean getting all officials to cooperate on a certain, predetermined agenda of speeding up outward growth as well as infill.
The group’s founder, Bob Buchanan, started the group largely because he owned 400 acres in Loudoun County but people didn’t want to build there. O’Connell writes:
The family trade was home building when Buchanan returned from the Navy as a young man. He became a master of site development, the business of acquiring large tracts of land, securing the necessary zoning and transportation improvements, and readying lots for other developers to turn into subdivisions, office parks or shopping centers. ...
One of his largest deals, made a decade ago, was a 400-acre property at the intersection of Route 50, Route 606 and the Loudoun County Parkway. At that time, Loudoun housing market was seeing double-digit annual price increases. It was one of the most profitable places in the country to build new houses.
Buchanan Partners planned to turn the grassy, partially wooded site into Arcola Center, with 2 million square feet of commercial space, more than 1,000 homes and 800,000 square feet of retail around a main street anchored by a Target and other big chains.
After the housing bust, construction of exurban subdivisions froze, and the prospects for projects like Arcola dimmed. Land values and housing prices in Loudoun collapsed.
Buchanan also tells O’Connell that he’s changing with the times, being more concerned about the environment, and building multi-family housing and mixed-use instead of just houses. And Arcola is mixed-use, with townhouses, offices, retail, hotels, and more.
If you’re going to build in a greenfield site at the edge of the region, there is better design and worse design. But even the best greenfield town center without transit will generate more car trips compared to the same growth in the core or near Metro.
As the real estate maxim goes, “location, location, location.” If the demand to live southwest of Dulles Airport is weak while prices around Metro are rising higher and higher, that tells you something.
For a developer who doesn’t already own 400 acres southwest of Dulles, it tells you to try to build more housing at Metro stations and in the core. Buchanan, instead, concluded he should lobby the state to spend a billion or so to entice people to live around his 400 acres.
With development stagnant, Buchanan looked to local public officials for solutions but saw none forthcoming, he said. Frustrated, he enlisted like-minded partners to form the 2030 Group. ... In a three-year period, according to the group’s tax forms, the 2030 Group spent more than $520,000 to finance research at George Mason University and the University of Maryland.
2030 hired PR firm Dewey Square Partners to promote its activities and fairly soon after released a list of transportation priorities. Longtime Virginia Outer Beltway advocate Bob Chase and Maryland outer highway advocate Rich Parsons interviewed a group of secret, unnamed “experts” to create a list that ironically matched Chase’s and Parsons’ existing preferences.
Buchanan said critics who worry about 2030’s influence should be more concerned about how the region will handle expected growth, given its political divisions. Not building new roads, he argues, is not going to stop people from wanting to live and work in the Washington area; it will just add to the already acute traffic congestion.
“The development is coming because people are moving here and they want to live here,” he said.
People are moving here. And while some want to live in all parts of the region and all housing types, the greatest demand is for new and existing walkable neighborhoods near transit.
If Buchanan really wants the region to invest where people are moving and where they want to live, he wouldn’t push for an Outer Beltway segment that goes past his 400 acres; he and 2030 would push for, say, a light rail line from Tysons to Merrifield to Annandale to Alexandria, through many places already near transit, already with many roads, and where there’s ample demand for new housing.
People want transit-oriented development. The region needs to build more. There isn’t enough now. To have TOD, you need transit. Therefore, to build what people want, we need regional transportation dollars to go into that transit, not the Bi-County Parkway.