“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."
A recurring complaint that I have heard from people over the course of the past few months since I joined SFDC is that there is no unifying vision for the Route 1/Richmond Highway corridor. The conventional wisdom about the area is that things just happen haphazardly, one property at a time. On the surface this statement is true. Fairfax County’s current planning process allows for so-called “out of turn” plan amendments, which effectively allow individual applicants — regardless of whether or not they own the properties in question — to petition the county to alter the Comprehensive Plan designation for specific sites. This process most definitely leaves the door open for the “spot planning” of individual sites.
Looking beyond this site-by-site process there are many big ideas and cross-currents out there. The Mount Vernon Visioning Task Force’s final report issued in 2011 called for Richmond Highway to become more of a “community Main Street,” with better transit service, higher end retail, and better entertainment options. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is about to prepare a targeted, study of short-term transit needs in the corridor that is — don’t laugh — aimed at actually making improvements in the next 3-5 years. The higher-density, mixed-use Beacon of Groveton development presents a new model for development on Richmond Highway—one that several other developers are looking to replicate in the next few years. Fairfax County is continuing its ongoing $55 million Richmond Highway Public Transportation Initiative (PTI), which has already made great improvements to sidewalks, bus stops, and signals.
All of this is adding up to a vision of sorts for the area. These political and market forces are combining to create a new reality along Richmond Highway, in which there will be:
- Better and more frequent transit service;
- A series of higher-density nodes featuring attractive dining, shopping, and entertainment options;
- Better and safer pedestrian connections both inside commercial nodes and with adjacent neighborhoods;
- A more attractive physical environment; and
- A growing inventory of new, attractive multi-family housing options.
Please note that the above list does not include any promises to fix our well known traffic issues (I know better!), though there are small steps like the Department of Defense-funded widening of Route 1 through Fort Belvoir and the long-awaited Mulligan Road connector, which will connect Richmond Highway and Telegraph Road.
That just leaves the tiny little problem of how to move people and vehicles more efficiently on the seven miles of Richmond Highway between the Beltway and the future Mulligan Road. It is no secret that this issue has been talked and talked (and talked and talked) about for at least a generation, with no resolution in sight. Time and again it comes down to the immense cost of planning, engineering, acquiring rights-of-way, and constructing whatever it is that is needed to make things better, and the fact that neither the Commonwealth nor the County is inclined to foot the bill.
There may be some hope out there, however. I had the privilege of attending a roundtable discussion about innovative ways to finance transit improvements in Northern Virginia. The meeting, which was convened by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, included representatives from Arlington County, the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and WMATA, and featured a presentation from national experts Chris Leinberger from the Brookings Institution and Shyam Kannan from Robert Charles Lesser & Company (RCLCO). Their presentation highlighted several examples of how local governments have been able to fund transit improvements by entering into partnerships with private developers. By establishing such partnerships, governments can use the long-term revenue stream from projects located near transit stations to pay off the bonds used to construct the improvements.
This “value capture” model has been proven to work around the country, but current Virginia state laws limit the ability of local jurisdictions to establish such partnership agreements. The partnership agreement that the City of Alexandria has with the developer at the Potomac Yard Metro Station will have the developer paying the City a flat fee at the completion of the project’s construction, but this arrangement has two drawbacks: 1) it substantially added to the developer’s risk and made it harder to obtain financing; and 2) the City has no long-term upside in the deal. A long-term agreement with no upfront developer payment and the City sharing in the ongoing revenue would have been a far better arrangement for both parties, but such an agreement is not permissible under current Virginia law.
One caveat was that the national research conducted by RCLCO showed a substantial amount of real estate value added by all types of rail transit—including streetcars—but no demonstrable value from Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In fact, RCLCO’s research has found that, in some cases, BRT actually has negative effects on the value of office buildings, as Class A office tenants may actually be turned off by the presence of BRT. This fact suggests that, if we’re going to expend the money and effort to improve transit, we need to be fully committed to building a system that truly works for the long-term.
Thinking big won’t be easy, though. An object lesson from around the Beltway is instructive. I was recently helping my father clean out his office and found a street atlas of Montgomery County from 1974. The atlas showed in dotted lines the location of a planned highway stretching from what was then called I-70S (now I-270) to I-95. It only took another 37 years for that highway—the InterCounty Connector—to open for service. Let’s hope that we can turn our big ideas into reality a bit quicker than that.