By Steven Pearlstein

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on Friday, March 5, 2004
In the Washington development game, there is no hotter idea these days than transit-oriented development — so hot, in fact, that when the Greater Washington Board of Trade held a conference on the subject last week, 300 architects, planners, environmentalists and politicians showed up to show their support.

And why not? With traffic congestion a major problem and $9 billion already invested in a world-class Metro system, surely everyone can agree that the next wave of growth should be concentrated in high-density projects around Metro stops.

As is often the case, however, there is good transit-oriented development and there is bad.

To understand bad, take the Red Line out to the Rockville station. Cross the rather unfriendly pedestrian bridge from the station and you find offices, apartments and a cluster of county government buildings, with retail storefronts at ground level. And yet this ’80s version of the mega mixed-use project has been a disaster — cold, impersonal, soulless, characterless, often deserted in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. An enclosed mall that was part of the original project was so unsuccessful it’s been torn down, with hopes now pinned on a new “town center” going up in its place.

What was missing in Rockville, as with many transit-oriented projects until now, was any sense of place or community. Imagine an attractive plaza where people might sit on benches to read the paper or admire the plantings. There might be a bandstand for summertime concerts, or a regular farmers market on weekends. Maybe there’d be a bocce court where old men could while away the afternoon. Opening onto the plaza might be a news stand, a day-care center, a coffee shop or an Italian restaurant with outdoor seating.

These aren’t my ideas. They come from Fred Kent, a New York-based land-use planner and consultant who really stole the show at the Board of Trade conference. Kent’s point was that the reason so many transit-oriented developments fail is that place-making is invariably let out of the process.

One reason, he notes, is that most successful urban “places” evolve over time, in the kind of messy, organic way that isn’t allowed for when you have a single developer coming in with a 100-acre proposal and the expectation of finishing it off in five years.

Another is that place-making isn’t really a top priority for anyone in the process — not the developer, who would rather use every square foot for rentable space; not the developer’s leasing agent, who prefers to rent all the stores out to national chains; not Metro officials, who tend to be more worried about preserving parking spaces than creating neighborhoods; and not local officials, whose primary aim is to maximize tax revenue and minimize political fallout from angry neighbors who want no development at all.

Planning officials around the region now acknowledge that their early efforts at transit-oriented development have fallen short, and what they wound up with is all the density of an urban environment without any of the urban character. In the next round, at stops like White Flint, College Park and Vienna, they vow to do it better.

Out in Vienna, for example, pressure from Fairfax County planners, neighbors and smart-growth advocates has persuaded Pulte Homes and Clark Realty to dramatically revise their billion-dollar proposal for high-rise offices and houses. Rather than an inward-looking project that ignores both the Metro station and the surrounding neighborhoods, the new plan is oriented around a two-block-long promenade leading to the Metro stop, with shops, an outdoor ice rink and other town-center amenities. “Pocket parks” have been sprinkled through the development, and pedestrian walkways will provide easy connections for residents of surrounding developments.

If there is a lesson here, it is that development can’t be left just to the developers. Markets on their own do not create vibrant urban places in suburban locations. That requires the active involvement of public officials willing to be patient and tough.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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