In Praise of Density

Post editorial writer Lee Hockstader wrote this op-ed Monday:
Say the word "density" to a local homeowners association and brace yourself for brickbats. Say it to a group of Washington area business, development and political leaders, as economist Richard Florida did at a conference the other day, and you get a spontaneous burst of applause.

Florida, a professor at George Mason University, has become the guru of a generation of urban planners by describing the formula of how cities attract, or repel, the talented and creative people who give a place vigor and flair. Some cities have it (Seattle, Austin), some don't (Cleveland, Buffalo).

And then there are towns that have it in spades, like Washington, but worry desperately about losing it. That's where density comes in -- development that goes up, not out, and helps keep a city vital.

The importance of density was one big theme at the Greater Washington Board of Trade's Potomac Conference on the future of this region, which is growing, thriving -- and sprawling -- at breakneck speed. You never saw such a conflicted bunch of suburban leaders, torn between awestruck self-regard for their own spectacular success and queasy anxiety that the symptoms of regional vigor -- traffic and housing prices -- hold the seeds of some future debacle.

Since 2000, the Washington area has gained more jobs than anyplace else in the country; it added more last year alone than greater New York or Houston managed in the past five. It has more college graduates and PhDs per capita than Boston or Seattle.

But "there are downsides to the success," as Alice M. Rivlin, director of the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program, said. One is that prosperity and growth are tilted heavily to the west, particularly to suburban Northern Virginia, which accounted for 45 percent of the regional economy last year -- double the District's share and a third more than suburban Maryland's.

A related problem is sprawl. The outer ring of counties -- especially Prince William and Loudoun in Virginia -- is growing blindingly fast, fueled by demand for affordable housing and a decent back yard. Half a million exurbanites now make the commute to offices around or inside the Beltway.

Sure, plenty of regions would kill for headaches like these. But the problem here is whether turbocharged growth also drives up the misery index. For there is no slowdown in sight.

Take the example of Loudoun County, once largely rural and a weekend playground for the rich and their horses, now an exurb on growth hormones. Last year builders broke ground on 6,000 homes in Loudoun -- a quarter of all the metropolitan area's housing starts. An additional 32,000 are in the pipeline. Once that gets done then the real building boom will start. In just one cranny of the county west of Dulles Airport, developers have drawn up plans for 28,000 more homes on about 6,000 undeveloped acres. That would translate to more than 75,000 people, including some 16,000 schoolchildren.

The most ambitious of the developers, Greenvest LC, which wants approval to build 15,000 homes, isn't touting them on the basis of quick commutes or ethereal landscapes or vast back yards. Greenvest's argument is more basic and more frightening: Let us build or your prosperity will die.

Packie Crown, a Greenvest vice president, makes the company's case by pressing the two hottest buttons on the regional agenda: traffic and housing. Without approval for its project, she says, Greenvest will not make the road improvements the area desperately needs -- but will go ahead and build 2,800 new homes granted by existing zoning. She goes on: If county authorities deny projects such as Greenvest's -- that is, if new housing development is blocked not just in the Dulles area but elsewhere in Washington's outer suburban ring -- where will the deluge of new workers expected over the coming years live? In West Virginia?

At first glance, it's a compelling point. Regional employment is forecast to grow by 50 percent, to 4.2 million jobs in 2030. Population, now around 5 million, is expected to swell to 7.1 million.

But projects such as Greenvest's will add to sprawl and traffic, no matter what road improvements and other enticements the developer offers. Greenvest promises to widen Route 50, a major east-west artery. Fine as far as the promise goes -- which is only to the Loudoun County line. So thousands of new eastbound commuters will be funneled across the county line into Fairfax, where widening Route 50 is a non-starter. And there they will sit.

The better answer, and also the politically unappealing one, is more density, especially near Metro stations. More in the District itself, which has shed population for decades. More in the older, inner-core suburbs. More in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, particularly in Tysons Corner. And more, too, in Prince George's County, whose 15 Metro stations and large pool of well-educated workers make it ripe for job growth.

"The only way we'll really add to our prosperity is to add to our density," said Florida. "And we have to because we've almost reached the limits of carrying capacity and infrastructure."

Of course, plenty must change for all that to happen, starting with extending Metro to Tysons and dealing with crime and substandard schools in Prince George's. Most important is building a broad regional consensus that might give politicians some cover to make the case for density.

By Steve Fehr |  March 7, 2006; 4:46 PM ET  | Category:  Development, Growth , Government , Neighborhoods , Politics
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