Big plans, empty pockets 

A lack of money is hobbling local governments' plans to transform their towns from sprawling cul-de-sac suburbs into dense urban centers.

"The future of this region lies in creating walkable, livable communities," said Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Our country is broke, our local governments are broke and we need to make much better decisions about our investments."

The region's leaders have tied, or are thinking of tying, billions of public dollars into these new developments, from Tysons Corner in Fairfax to White Flint in Montgomery County.

Over the past decade, it's become an article of faith among suburban and city leaders that "smart growth" -- high-rise, mixed-use developments that allow people to park their cars and walk to local shops and restaurants -- is the wave of the future.

But every local government is facing massive budget gaps, the federal government is turning off the stimulus spigot, and local developers and landowners are balking at the high price tags.

Many of the projects, including White Flint and Arlington's plans for the area around the Rosslyn Metro station, are nearing critical stages, and leaders will be locked into massive development for decades or more.

"It's really important," said Alexandria Deputy Manager Mark Jinks, whose city is planning a massive redevelopment of the Potomac Yard area, which includes building a new Metro station. "I think, clearly, transportation management will determine the quality of life and the economic health of this region."

White Flint is widely regarded as the test case for transit-oriented development. If planners can successfully build a city center in what is now an area of strip malls, it could be a template for the entire region. Indeed, some "smart growth" advocates are pushing for new developments for the areas around the Shady Grove, New Carrollton, Dunn Loring, Twinbrook and Deanwood Metro stations.

The Montgomery County Council is weighing a plan that would require taxpayers and White Flint property owners to take on up to three-quarters of the $895 million price tag.

But the private sector is going through a recession, too. In Potomac Yard and Tysons Corner, negotiations have stalled as private developers balk at the investment demands made by local governments.

"You can't sort of do transit-oriented development," said former Fairfax supervisor and current county Chamber of Commerce Chairman Stu Mendelsohn. "You've got to buy into it, 24/7."

The consequences of failure could be drastic. An ambitious plan for a massive, mixed-use development near the Greenbelt Metro station has stalled, and now Metro is fending off a $160 million breach-of-contract lawsuit by the site's developer.

The Washington region is the nation's model for "smart growth," said University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Robert Cervero, but the approach isn't a panacea.

"Basically, you can't go into a depressed part of the country and expect to improve it by stacking up buildings around transit stations," he said. "It's not automatic, and there's a lot of examples where it does nothing."

Walter Alcorn, chairman of the Tysons Corner planning committee, said that local governments are paying for their ancestors' lack of foresight.

"When you don't have a focused plan," he said, "infrastructure needs sneak up on you."

About The Author

Bill Myers


Mencken said that the job of a good news man was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Sounds great to me.

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