The town of South Riding, which will have 5,700 homes when finished, is rising out of the red clay of Northern Virginia as methodically as the jets taking off at nearby Dulles International Airport. It covers just over 2,000 acres once occupied by small farms growing sod, soybeans, and winter wheat.
In the mid-1980s speculators began buying up the farms and assembling them into a package suitable for development, awaiting the day when the construction of 12 miles of sewer and water lines, zoning approvals, and a robust housing market would make it profitable to begin building homes. That moment came five years ago. The bulldozers arrived, the first houses were hammered together, and the moving van became one of South Riding's most familiar sights.
The project's visitors center is meant to suggest an English country house. Here among Oriental carpets, chandeliers, and fresh-cut flowers you will be offered brochures describing the good life available in a new state-of-the-art suburb. The office is run by Toll Brothers, a Pennsylvania-based company that last year paid a European company $45 million for the unfinished portion of the South Riding property and is now constructing some homes as well as selling lots to other builders.
Many of these homes are "neotraditional" in style–a form in which the latest in domestic technology is combined with an exterior that recalls the Victorian age or early America. Toll Brothers has a choice of 45 exterior styles, and beyond that offers lots of options (skylights, cathedral ceilings, whirlpools, extra fireplaces, greenhouses) that are selected in much the way car buyers add on CD players or sunroofs. Base prices throughout the project range from $207,000 to $438,000 for single-family homes, with townhouses beginning at $140,000 and condominium apartments at $110,000.
The nearest supermarket is three miles away, but as South Riding's residents head out every morning to their jobs, many of them in high-tech companies, they can see signs that the milk run is about to become shorter. Work has begun in South Riding's "town center" on a new Food Lion, and a few stores already are open, including a bank, dry cleaner, pizza place, and video store. A vet clinic is open to care for the dogs that are ubiquitous along South Riding's sidewalks. Near the entrance there's a Mobil station to supply the gasoline and a McDonald's to supply the coffee as people fortify themselves for morning traffic that is sometimes a real mess.
The 18-hole golf course is finished and so are some of the swimming pools, tennis courts, and soccer fields. Also open are some of the trails for biking, jogging, or walking, which wend through woods and fields whose preservation has won South Riding an award from an environmental group. Because so many residents have young children, the town already has a private daycare center and dentist's office, with an elementary school opening this fall and a site set aside for a high school.
Among the first students in the elementary school will be six-year-old Delaney Kilbride, who lives in a single-family house on Upper Clubhouse Drive with her parents, Jim and Debbie Kilbride, her three-year-old brother, Austin, and Tex, the family dog. Both parents are in their mid-thirties, typical of South Riding's residents. That's the same age as their next-door neighbors, Dan and Becky Lester, whose four-year-old house was one of the town's first. The Lesters both work in sales for Northern Virginia high-tech firms; Jim Kilbride sells employee-benefit packages to companies, while Debbie stays home as "executive mom."
For the Kilbrides, who met at a small Christian college in Massachusetts, their four-bedroom home–which cost $230,000 –is a symbol of upward mobility. Both grew up in large families–Debbie in a duplex in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Jim in an apartment in Portland, Maine. In suburban Dallas, where Jim had his first job, they owned a four-bedroom house that cost $112,000–so they were hit with sticker shock when they moved to Washington in 1995 and were forced to lease a condominium for three years before they could afford a move to South Riding.
The Lesters met in Washington–Becky is from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Dan grew up in Fairfax Station–and they moved to a single-family house in South Riding from a condo near Manassas. One big advantage: They now have a backyard for their two dogs, Roxy and Max.
WITH 2,700 HOMES AND ABOUT 7,000 residents, South Riding is beginning to reach critical mass. And it is just one of the big developments in eastern Loudoun County that added an average of 8,500 residents a year to the county during the 1990s. Loudoun has become the fastest-growing jurisdiction in metropolitan Washington and third-fastest in the United States–a phenomenon that has brought vast change to a place that once had so many dairy farms it was known as "the milkshed of Washington."
South Riding is an extension of the suburbanization that has been reshaping the Washington region for decades. But what is most striking about the town is its geographical frame of reference, which is very different from the suburbs built in metropolitan Washington after World War II.
Those suburbs were linked by streetcars, highways, jobs, and shopping to downtown DC, but South Riding inhabits an entirely different space in Washington's suburban landscape. It's about 25 miles from the center of DC–the Blue Ridge mountains are visible to the west–and most of the nearby landmarks have a short history.
Dulles Airport, which had so few passengers when it opened 27 years ago that it was regarded as a white elephant, now serves 20 million passengers each year and is an economic growth engine for Northern Virginia. Theodore Lerner, the man who introduced the shopping mall to Washington 40 years ago when he built Wheaton Plaza in Montgomery County, has opened the huge Dulles Town Center, which has four department stores, more than 100 specialty shops, 15 movie theaters opening this fall, and parking for 7,000 cars. High-tech companies are spreading all over the landscape near South Riding, including one site off Route 28 where new offices of America Online and MCI WorldCom stand across the road from each other and next to an abandoned barn with a rusting roof.
DC seems far away from all this, and that is reflected in a map of the area handed out at the South Riding visitors center. Like an inversion of the famous Manhattan-centric drawing by Saul Steinberg, DC is a small shaded area to the east, partially cropped off at the edge of the world.
The District of Columbia–for all its status as national capital with its museums and theaters, its grand Mall and somber memorials–has long since ceased to be the place where most Washingtonians live. The 'burbs–so often held in low esteem by university professors and novelists–are where most members of the middle class live, either by preference or because it's the best option they can afford.
In the Washington metropolitan area–with its 4.6 million residents–nearly nine of ten people live out there on what historian Kenneth Jackson has called "the crabgrass frontier," beyond the gritty city and just short of the spacious countryside. That's the place where most Washingtonians, both black and white, have gone to find their version of the American dream–the place where we've been transformed into a nation of homeowners with a car (or two or three) in every garage.
Everywhere there are signs of suburban ascendancy. Most congressmen live outside DC now, and so do most of the Redskins, who also practice and play in the suburbs. G Street Fabrics, an institution that took its name from its location in DC's downtown shopping district, exists now only on Rockville Pike and elsewhere in the suburbs. All but a handful of the region's Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the suburbs, and downtown law firms seeking to attract high-tech clients have opened branches in such places as Tysons Corner and Reston. George Mason University in Fairfax, which opened with 17 students in 1957 in an old elementary school, now has 25,000. And as Northern Virginia approaches 2 million people, it is hoping to acquire a major-league baseball team to call its own.
Even the country songs on WMZQ, once set in Southern prisons or Appalachian hollows, are just as likely to be ballads of heartache in the suburbs–at least that's where a new song with a line about "the corner of Lonely and Gone" seems to be.
The economic power of the suburbs has become formidable. Three-fourths of area jobs–and nearly all the job growth–are in the suburbs, leaving DC with a still-impressive share but far less than it once commanded. Except for some of the well-to-do–who can afford both a house in DC's Spring Valley and tuition at a private school–most of the region's best-paid residents are ensconced in suburbs, where household incomes are the highest in the country and support a strong market for mini-mansions.
The pace of real-estate development in the suburbs–more houses, more stores, more offices–quickened in the 1990s. Since the beginning of that decade, while DC lost another 87,900 residents, the suburbs added nearly half a million people. The outer suburbs–counties like Loudoun, Prince William, and Stafford in Virginia and Charles, Howard, Frederick, and Anne Arundel in Maryland–were adding residents fastest and became poster children for sprawl, the pejorative now widely used to describe suburban growth.
There are now thousands of townhouses and single-family homes in places that did not exist a few years ago or were tiny rural outposts–places with names like Ashburn, Cascades, Centreville, Chantilly, Lake Ridge, Germantown, Olney, Mitchellville, St. Charles, and Davidsonville. There are so many new streets that developers have trouble coming up with names that aren't already taken, says Hobie Mitchel, one of the South Riding project's top managers. Another result of growth on the fringe: The presence of so many teenagers has turned high schools like Seneca Valley in Germantown and Hylton in Dale City into perennial football powers.
While many appreciate all this growth and prosperity, there are indications that the serpent of discontent has slithered into the suburban garden. Most often it takes the form of long lines of taillights up ahead as traffic piles up for miles and miles. There are other complaints–about the uniformity of malls filled with the same stores, about rising taxes required to pay for schools and public services, and about the loss of green space when yet another pasture is covered with houses or the ducks on the grounds of the Evans Farm Inn restaurant give way to new homes.
All of this is shaping local and state politics on both sides of the Potomac. In Maryland, Governor Parris Glendening has made stopping sprawl a priority–pushing through "smart growth" legislation in 1997, canceling a proposed highway linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and using state funds to buy land along the Potomac to save it from development. In Virginia, a voter backlash against sprawl was a factor last fall in the defeat of long-serving incumbents in Prince William and Fairfax counties and in a wholesale replacement of the Loudoun board of supervisors.
Rapid development often breeds its own resistance, as some people who've just moved in seek to pull up the drawbridge and keep others out. Residents of South Riding, some of whom were signing anti-growth petitions within months of their arrival, provided many of the votes that elected a slow-growth candidate to the Loudoun County board of supervisors last fall. In that election, one of the biggest contributors to slow-growth candidates was a wealthy businessman with a farm south of Leesburg who had made his money in a high-tech company that had brought hundreds of employees into the area.
Among most citizens, there seems to be a sense of futility about suburban sprawl and its consequences. Sometimes it looks like developers are going to build houses, malls, and office parks on every square inch of space from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge and from Baltimore to Richmond. The traffic appears to be getting worse by the day. All the options–more highways and bridges, more carpool lanes, new mass-transit lines, more parks and farmland preservation, downzoning and denial of building permits–seem expensive, time-consuming, unpopular, or hard to push through a political system fractured by jurisdictional conflict and by feuding between business interests and environmentalists.
The dawn of the new millennium is also the 200th anniversary of the relocation of the nation's capital from Philadelphia to Washington–two centuries during which the place has spread outward with increasing velocity. Suburbanization has been driven by technological changes like the invention of the automobile and the mass-produced house, by social divisions based on race and class, and by the interaction of government regulation and consumer choice. How did the suburbs come to be? Is sprawl the inevitable result of prosperity? Are there any promising alternatives? Will the American dream die with a whimper in stop-and-go traffic on the Outer Loop of the Beltway?
THERE GO THE FARMS
The District of Columbia, from the beginning, was hemmed in by its history in a way that limited its population and increased the pressure toward eventual suburbanization. It was confined to no more than a square ten miles on each side by the 1790 congressional agreement creating it as the nation's capital–part carved out of Maryland and part out of Virginia. That was reduced in 1846, when the 39 square miles on the Virginia side of the Potomac (now Alexandria and Arlington) were returned to the Old Dominion. Later on, DC's federal status foreclosed the opportunity for expansion through the annexation of surrounding land, a growth strategy used by many other cities during the late 19th century. DC thus ended up with 61 square miles, making it one of the most compact of the nation's most populous cities–larger than Boston (50 square miles) and San Francisco (46 square miles) but far smaller than New York City (304 square miles), Chicago (228 square miles), or Philadelphia (128 square miles).
The federal government also claimed a lot of space with its expanding array of offices and monuments. A height limit, imposed in the 1890s after construction of the 12-story Cairo Hotel set off a protest, meant no Washingtonian would ever find an apartment in an 80-story tower built by Donald Trump. The result is that DC's population density is lower than in most of the older cities on the Eastern seaboard–about 9,531 residents per square mile, compared with 11,700 in Philadelphia, 11,900 in Boston, and 23,700 in New York City.
Washington's first outlying neighborhoods were built inside the District but north of present-day Florida Avenue, which was as far as Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design for the center of the city extended. Places like Mount Pleasant, LeDroit Park, Brookland, and Cleveland Park were subdivided out of farmland much like suburbs today, linked to downtown by new streetcar lines, and marketed as places to escape the hurly-burly of the post-Civil War city.
"Plenty of elbow room, woods and fields, peacefulness, coolness in summer, and comfort in winter. It is as beautiful a spot and as free from the annoyances of the city as if it were in the heart of the Adirondacks," promised an ad in 1904. That was the sales pitch for Cleveland Park. Just over the line in Maryland, Chevy Chase Village was marketed as offering disenfranchised DC residents a chance to vote.
The demand for houses in these early suburbs and in the hundreds that followed was triggered by a rise in the country's population–from 63 million in 1890 to 151 million in 1950–and by the movement of rural Americans and immigrants into cities. Washington did not have the industries to attract many blue-collar workers, so it never became "Hog Butcher for the World" like Carl Sandburg's Chicago. But the presence of the federal government created a demand for desk workers that kept Washington's population growing and turned it into "Paper Pusher for the World." Especially during national crises like the two world wars and the Depression, newcomers poured into Washington–whether young New Deal lawyers or government girls in the typing pool. Everybody seemed to be from someplace else–and everybody needed a place to live.
The end of World War II and the return of the GIs accelerated the move to the suburbs. The government, fueled by the Cold War, continued to provide more jobs, and there was pent-up demand for housing, little of which had been built here during the Depression or the war.
The baby boom was on, too. Developer Carl Freeman, who got his start building and selling houses after the war, once recalled what this meant: "Our best prospect was the guy walking down the street with his wife and family. He was holding the hand of a five-year-old, she had hold of a two-year-old, and she was pregnant. The guys used to say, 'There goes a man who has just screwed himself out of his apartment.' "
The suburban housing boom was made possible in part by good economic times, as household incomes rose and interest rates remained low. But it was encouraged too by government policy, which offered easy credit through the new GI Bill and the Federal Home Administration program passed during the New Deal and allowed tax deductions on mortgage interest and property taxes. Limits on how much could be financed under federal programs created an incentive for builders to put up low-cost starter homes that young families could afford. Home ownership, which only a small percentage of Americans had attained before the war, began a steady rise to its current level of 67 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.
The construction of new federal highways after the war also played a role in suburban development by making it possible to own a house farther out and still drive to work, either on the radial routes running downtown or by linking up with the new Beltway. That sweeping 64-mile circle, finished in 1964, had been conceived as a bypass for traffic moving up and down the East Coast. The notion had been inspired by the Pentagon, which remembered the difficulty in moving troops and equipment through bombed-out German and Japanese cities and wanted no such problems in the event of a nuclear war. But the Beltway, which ran about ten miles from the center of DC, was a dream come true for home builders, who snapped up the land along it for subdivisions and turned it into a commuter road.
The government also hastened suburbanization by moving some of its agencies into the nearby countryside under a policy of "strategic dispersal" designed to protect them from a nuclear attack with the Capitol as ground zero. Some agencies had left the city earlier–the National Institutes of Health moved from Foggy Bottom to a farm in Bethesda in the mid-1930s, and the Pentagon was built in Arlington in the mid-1940s. The shift to suburbia gained momentum after the war, with the creation of a campus for the new Atomic Energy Commission (now a part of the Department of Energy) in Germantown as well as the move of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to Gaithersburg, the Central Intelligence Agency to Langley, and the US Geological Survey to Reston.
This means that only about half of the area's federal employees now work in DC and that some agencies continue to settle in the suburbs. The new National Reconnaissance Office near Dulles, the spy-satellite complex that got built without anyone knowing its spooky purpose, is fueling some of the growth in Loudoun and western Fairfax.
The conversion of farms and woods outside the city to low-density subdivisions also was driven by the availability of land. It was plentiful in Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George's counties, was relatively cheap, and could be acquired in large parcels.
William Levitt, a builder from New York, put up 9,000 homes on 2,300 acres of the Bel Air estate near Bowie in the early 1960s. Robert Simon, another New Yorker, bought 6,750 acres owned by the distillers of Virginia Gentleman bourbon for his new town of Reston. And agents for James Rouse, of Baltimore, quietly assembled 180 farms comprising 15,000 acres as the site for Columbia, though their purchases set off rumors that the land would be used for everything from a Volkswagen plant to a tropical-disease research lab.
Home builders also perfected mass-production techniques that allowed them to put up houses that were affordable. Levitt could turn out 150 houses a week by using specialized crews for slabs, frames, wallboard, and roofing. At Dale City, in Prince William, Cecil Hylton took standardization a step further by arranging his subdivisions in alphabetical order–Ashdale, Birchdale, Cloverdale, and on up through Queensdale.
To a generation that had lived through the hardships of the Depression and World War II, these detached single-family houses offered an appealing lifestyle. It was nice to have a place of one's own that was much bigger than an apartment, promised a little privacy, and was filled with conveniences like dishwashers.
It was nice to have a yard where you could get out on the weekend to mow the sweet-smelling grass, grow flowers, or fire up the barbecue. A real-estate ad in 1962–a year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique–conveyed a sense of all this with a promise to housewives that they would enjoy being a girl in West Springfield.
The suburbs were appealing as a place to raise kids. The schools were modern and sent lots of their graduates on to college. Walt Whitman High in Bethesda was among the nation's leaders in producing National Merit Scholars. Serious crime was rare–the mean streets of the city replaced by the kinder and gentler cul-de-sac. Suburban government was good government–dull perhaps, but clean, responsive, and open to citizen participation.
The suburbs also were attractive to some middle-class whites as a way of distancing themselves from DC's black population, especially the black poor. Following the US Supreme Court's 1954 decision ordering the desegregation of public schools, so many whites in DC fled to the suburbs that the city's schools were soon mostly black. Officially, DC became a majority-black city in 1957.
Most African-American families were unable to follow the exodus immediately. Sometimes they were barred by in-your-face discrimination of the sort conveyed in covenants and the brushoff by real-estate agents. But many were kept out of the suburbs by subtle forms of exclusionary zoning, in which large lot sizes and amenity requirements pushed housing prices too high.
After a growth spurt during the 1960s, metropolitan Washington hardly resembled the DC-dominated region that existed at the end of World War II. The 1970 census confirmed the trend. DC remained the single largest jurisdiction with 756,668 residents, but that represented continuation of a decline that had begun in 1950, when the city's population peaked at 802,178. Prince George's had grown to 661,719 residents, Montgomery to 522,809, Fairfax to 454,275. Just over seven of ten area residents lived outside DC–almost an exact reversal of the situation in 1930.
WHO NEEDS THE CITY?
The Beltway Counties–sometimes called "bedroom suburbs" because people had homes there but worked downtown–soon became aware of a flaw. One of the things people did in those bedrooms was produce babies, who grew up to require public schools–a taxpayer expense to go along with more firefighters, police officers, libraries, and parks. In the calculus of public finance, single-family homes, especially the more modest ones, produced fewer dollars in taxes than they consumed in public services–and that was a big problem for suburban governments.
But once the bed was made, the suburbs had to lie in it. They faced the prospect of paying for public services with ever-rising property taxes on homeowners–hardly an inviting prospect for local politicians, who turned instead to the strategy that came to be known as "balanced growth." This strategy involved trying to relieve some of the upward pressure on the property taxes of homeowners by expanding the commercial tax base. Shopping centers, office buildings, and warehouses produced no schoolchildren and demanded in services only a fraction of what they generated in taxes.
The shopping mall was on the leading edge of this commercial development. The region's first, Wheaton Plaza, was created in 1960 by Ted Lerner, who went on to develop White Flint Mall, Landover Mall, Tysons Corner Center, and Tysons II Galleria. Suburban consumers flocked to them, attracted by abundant free parking, their weather-free enclosed atmosphere, and stylish new anchors from out of town–first Bloomingdale's, then Macy's and Nordstrom. Today the region has nearly 50 major shopping centers, all but seven in the suburbs.
But the real mark of suburban maturation was their transformation into office centers–symbolized by Tysons Corner in Fairfax County and the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County. For years now all of the suburban jurisdictions have operated economic development offices, which are out there trying to attract companies and their payrolls into an ever-growing number of office parks and high-rises.
Marriott, Lockheed Martin, Gannett, America Online, MicroStrategy, MedImmune, American Management Systems, Nextel, Fairchild, and hundreds of other companies–as well as many trade associations–are now headquartered in suburbs. Which is no surprise: The rent is cheaper than in DC, the parking is easier, the space is more flexible, and you're only an e-mail away from anywhere in the world.
All these jobs in the suburbs changed the pattern of commuter traffic. While thousands of suburbanites still drove in and out of DC each day, thousands more now commuted within the suburbs. By 1990, according to studies by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 70 percent of those who commuted by car stayed in the suburbs–a fact that explained why congestion, which used to be thought of as a central-city problem, has become so decentralized. That trend includes some new features–more "reverse commuting" from close-in locations to jobs outside the Beltway; an influx of workers to Washington's fringes from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and distant Maryland and Virginia counties; and a big increase in the flow of traffic out of the Maryland suburbs into the high-tech corridors of Northern Virginia.
Washington's suburbs have become more diverse, multidimensional, and self-sufficient than the white-bread bedroom suburbs of the 1950s. Alongside plenty of fast-food outlets, there are now more-distinctive ethnic eateries and spinoffs of places once limited to downtown (Sam & Harry's, Morton's, the Palm, Clyde's). And while DC remains the region's cultural and entertainment capital–some say that will become the main function of central cities in the 21st century–the suburbs are not the wasteland sometimes imagined. Consider these venues: George Mason's Center for the Arts, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Strathmore Hall Arts Center, Wolf Trap, Round House Theater, Nissan Pavilion, Signature Theatre, the Patriot Center, FedEx Field, three minor-league baseball teams, and new arts centers coming to Germantown, Bethesda, and the University of Maryland.
Though the suburbs still have neighborhoods that are nearly all white, they also are now home to thousands of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa–many of whom skip the old practice of first settling in the city. Asians especially are concentrated in the suburbs, with Montgomery and Fairfax ranking among the nation's top 20 counties in the size of their Asian population.
This is obvious in the ethnic restaurants and shops in Seven Corners, Annandale, Wheaton, Langley Park, and elsewhere. It is now common in the suburbs to see a new mosque going up or churches with Oriental script on the signs out front. And a trip to a motor-vehicle registration office can be like a visit to the United Nations.
The immigrant influx is especially noticeable in suburban public schools. According to the Greater Washington Research Center, there are 20,149 students with "limited English proficiency" in Northern Virginia and 13,003 in suburban Maryland–about 55 percent of whom speak Spanish. The highest concentrations of Hispanics are in Arlington and Alexandria; many Koreans and Vietnamese live in Fairfax. In Montgomery County, 120 languages are represented, including Urdu, Amharic, Farsi, and Tagalog.
The region's African-American population is much more suburban than generally realized, with about 70 percent of it living outside DC. According to figures complied by demographer George Grier, Prince George's County is 62 percent black and has 133,000 more African-Americans than DC. It has emerged as one of the wealthiest majority-black suburbs in the country.
Though DC has a heavier concentration of low-income residents, just over half of the region's poor live in the suburbs, about a third of them in Prince George's. In the public schools of both Arlington and Prince George's, more than two of every five students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.
Most suburbs, while safer than many DC neighborhoods, have experienced a rise over the past two decades in the rate of assaults, robbery, rapes, and homicides. There were 176 murders last year in suburban Washington, 95 of them in Prince George's County; that compares with 228 murders in DC, far fewer than the 489 in its peak year of 1991. Police departments in several suburbs are on the lookout for gang activity, and there are enough burglaries in the suburbs now to make the security features of "gated communities" as marketable as carports were in the 1950s.
While most suburbanites know that DC has lots of cultural attractions, it has become easy for busy people to go weeks or months without venturing into the city. Typical is a man who lives in Herndon–he got mugged on his last trip to Georgetown and now prefers to eat out at the Rio Grande or McCormick & Schmick's in Reston Town Center.
And though most experts argue that a healthy central city is crucial to the well-being of its suburban neighbors, the flexing of economic muscle around the Beltway has been accompanied by a certain indifference toward DC. This was especially true during Marion Barry's last years as mayor, when it was easy for suburbanites to view DC as riddled with corruption and incompetence, plagued by drugs and murder, and saddled with failing schools.
New Mayor Anthony Williams may be turning that around a bit, and new figures indicate that DC's loss of population–some 87,900 or nearly 15 percent in the 1990s–is slowing. The net loss last year was just 2,400– to an estimated 521,426. That is encouraging for DC's vitality, but it's still doubtful you'll see a lot of suburban guilt when Fairfax or Montgomery snatches another company or trade-association headquarters from DC or much suburban enthusiasm for allowing DC to impose the sort of commuter tax that is common in other metro areas.
The counties and cities of the Washington region now officially cover 4,000 square miles, though not all of that is developed. But it's expansive enough to warrant zoned editions of the Washington Post, even zoned weather forecasts by Channel 9.
Metropolitan Washington is also big enough that its suburbs are not monolithic. Researchers now break the region's jurisdictions into several subsets–each with different population densities, housing markets, and racial and ethnic characteristics.
At the center is the "urban core," consisting of DC and the "inner suburbs" of Arlington and Alexandria, whose population densities–7,394 residents per square mile in Alexandria and 6,625 in Arlington–are not much less than DC's 9,531 and greater than such Sunbelt cities as Phoenix (2,300) and Dallas (2,900).
Just beyond are the big "Beltway suburbs" of Fairfax (with 929,239 residents), Montgomery (840,879), and Prince George's (777,811). On top of several decades of earlier growth, these counties continued growing at a fast clip throughout the '90s–11 percent in Montgomery, 10 percent in Fairfax, and 6 percent in Prince George's. Traffic jams have come to fast-growing communities outside the Beltway like Gaithersburg and Germantown in Montgomery, Centreville and Chantilly in Fairfax, or Mitchellville in Prince George's.
These counties also have older sections inside the Beltway that are increasingly urban in their density and social problems. Prince George's County, as a recent Brookings Institution report points out, may be in the toughest bind of all: "It must deal with both the high costs of social distress in inner Beltway communities and the high costs of new growth elsewhere in the county."
The bigger news in the '90s has been the explosion of growth farther out. In suburban Maryland, the decade's highest growth rates were in Calvert (40 percent), Howard (26 percent), Frederick (24 percent), Charles (17 percent), and Anne Arundel (11 percent). In Northern Virginia, the highest rates were in Loudoun (67 percent), Stafford (42 percent), and Prince William (21 percent).
Many of these new residents are here because the region's companies, including the 12,000 or so in the high-tech sector, have been creating jobs at a rapid rate, especially in Northern Virginia. Real-estate developers are eager to provide houses in a variety of price ranges for these new employees, and they're pushing farther into the countryside in search of land.
Some people who prefer to live in DC or the inner suburbs find it astonishing that anyone would choose to live in places so far from downtown. But that ignores two factors. Many of these new neighborhoods are well within commuting range of suburban office centers beyond the Beltway–from a house in Reston to a high-rise in Tysons Corner, or from a townhouse in Germantown to Rockville.
The distant suburbs also offer house deals that can't be found closer in. In the middle and upper price ranges, the new houses out there give a buyer more space and amenities for the same dollar. And these communities are filled with lower-priced townhouses that allow singles and families of modest means the chance to own a home too.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
Political conflict over development often runs in cycles driven by the economy–resistance to growth flaring up as good times quicken construction and dying down as recession slows it. In Fairfax County, fast growth while Jack Herrity, a Republican, was head of the board of supervisors led to a backlash that allowed a slow-growth candidate, Democrat Audrey Moore, to defeat him in 1987. Montgomery County became so concerned about the pace of growth during the 1970s that it instituted a moratorium on construction of new sewer lines.
While conflicts still arise in closer-in counties over issues like approval of home construction on Evans Farm near Tysons Corner or over the building of the intercounty connector to relieve traffic in Montgomery and Prince George's, the strongest backlash is occurring farther out.
In Prince William, voters last fall defeated Kathleen Seefeldt, the Democrat who headed the board of supervisors during the county's fast-growth years. And the pace of growth dominated a bitter election last year in Loudoun County. Dale Polen Myers, chair of the board of supervisors, was defeated in the Republican primary by Scott York, a slow-growth advocate, who went on to win the general election in which a slate of eight slow-growth candidates took control of the board. Several of the winning candidates refused to accept money from real-estate interests.
This puts the Washington area in tune with slow-growth sentiments throughout the country. In 1998, voters approved nearly 200 state and local ballot measures to limit development or preserve green space. New Jersey approved $3 billion for land preservation. Georgia, faced with a cutoff of highway funds for failure to meet federal pollution standards in Atlanta, gave the governor power to appoint a new regional authority to coordinate transportation and development.
The political appeal of anti-sprawl efforts shows up in polls, and Vice President Al Gore has tried to capitalize on it by announcing a "livability agenda" that includes modest steps to help communities control growth. Last year, while reminiscing that he had bought 20 acres and built homes in a subdivision when he was a young man, he joked that he didn't want to follow his gaffe about being inventor of the Internet with a claim that he was "the inventor of urban sprawl."
A lot of anti-sprawl angst is associated with traffic, which has become to suburbanites what the weather is to farmers. It is a constant reminder of how most of our low-density suburbs are laid out in a way that makes us dependent on the automobile, which remains much loved for the freedom of movement it offers. Washingtonians make about 13 million trips a day by car, about a fifth involving jobs and the remainder for shopping, recreation, ferrying kids, seeing the doctor, and countless other errands.
Washingtonians own more than 3 million vehicles–compared with 56,000 in 1920–and the number has been rising all the more as the number of women working outside the home has increased (now about 70 percent, the highest figure in the country). The suburbs have added just over 200,000 vehicles since 1994, according to a study by the Greater Washington Research Center, and there are several places where the average is more than two cars per household–Fairfax, Loudoun, Stafford, Frederick, Charles, and Calvert. That may explain why many suburban high schools have vast parking lots for students or why it's sometimes hard to find a parking place at the mall. One of the familiar scenes of modern Washington involves drivers roaming parking lots, stalking anyone who might be vacating a space.
As all these cars and SUVs come pouring out of cul-de-sacs and side streets, congestion on the highways has become so bad that the idea of a morning and evening "rush hour" seems like a joke. Every year a national study rates cities by how horrible their traffic is, and no one is surprised that Washington captures a spot near the top. Our congestion is rated second-worst behind Los Angeles, with every Washington driver stuck in traffic an estimated 76 hours a year–up from 30 hours in 1982.
Another study, by a group promoting highways, says four of the nation's 20 worst bottlenecks are in this area–in places where the Beltway intersects with other interstates (I-66 and I-95 in Virginia and I-270 and I-95 in Maryland). And it's going to get worse–one study says the number of daily vehicle trips will reach 20 million by 2020, a 60-percent increase over 1990.
The cost of all this adds up. Drivers must pay for gas wasted while stuck in traffic, and businesses face higher shipping costs and the lost productivity of workers. Congestion leads to more accidents–an overturned truck with a load of toxic materials or frozen meat has become a Beltway standard–as well as making the air dirtier. The air pollution affects everything from the health of people to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, which gets runoff from rain that carries airborne pollutants into rivers.
The good news on air pollution in Washington is that it's been declining, thanks to more stringent car-emission standards and other factors. Washington now meets five of the Environmental Protection Agency's six air-pollution standards, falling short only on ground-level ozone. That reached unhealthy levels seven days last summer, compared with an average of 35 days during the 1970s.
None of the statistics captures the stress of commuters who face choked highways. Some worry about being on time to pick up children at daycare centers. Leaving home early and coming home late to avoid traffic has cut into the time working parents can spend with their children–a factor, Al Gore has claimed, in the decline of the bedtime story. It's also conventional wisdom that traffic stress is contributing to "road rage," though no incident here has been quite as shocking as the one involving Alabama woman who last year pulled a .38-caliber revolver out of her car's console and killed another woman with whom she had been jousting in rush-hour traffic near Birmingham.
Coping with traffic has altered the habits of many Washingtonians in less deadly ways. Some get up at early hours in hopes of avoiding the crush. Some search for the "alternative route" as if it were the Northwest Passage, often finding that it is just as crowded or is nothing but myth. They listen to radio reports of bumper-to-bumper here or slowing-for-an-accident there, which have made traffic reporters like Stacy Binn and Walt Starling better known than most congressmen.
Bored drivers daydream, chatter on a cell phone, listen to books on tape, shave or apply makeup, tap away on a laptop, read the newspaper, or watch miniature TVs. Fairfax police last year handed out more than 2,000 tickets for "failure to pay full-time and proper attention." Eating and drinking in the car are so popular that you can now buy coffee bibs for commuting, and some new vehicles come equipped with small refrigerators.
The rapid building of thousands of new homes has strained the ability of suburban governments to keep pace in the construction of public facilities. That's most obvious in school systems, though it also affects police departments, fire-and-rescue units, libraries, and other services. Existing schools become overcrowded the moment they open and have to add temporary trailers. Centreville High in western Fairfax, which was built for 2,000 students a dozen years ago, now has 2,800 and uses 45 trailers. Keeping up with the population costs money–Loudoun plans to spend $660 million building 26 schools over the next six years.
Many counties try to finance new public facilities by shifting costs to developers, through "impact fees" on each house constructed or by way of "proffers" in which developers donate park land, school sites, or other amenities in exchange for zoning approval. Developers pass on most of these costs in the form of higher home prices, and they don't fully relieve the pressure on governments to raise property taxes.
In a repetition of what happened to bedroom suburbs like Fairfax and Montgomery, fast-growing counties farther out are seeing their tax rates rise. Loudoun's rate went from $0.85 per $100 of assessed valuation in 1990 to $1.11 in 1999. Such tax increases are used by anti-sprawl advocates to argue that preserving farmland has a tax benefit–a point summed up by Ralph Grossi of the American Farmland Trust in the quip that "cows don't go to school."
Critics of sprawl also complain about how much green space it consumes. Every year it seems to take longer to get out of the city and into the countryside to pick apples or pumpkins, visit a secluded inn, or enjoy the uncluttered beauty of the landscape. Merry-Go-Round Farm in Potomac–where muckraking columnist Drew Pearson once sold manure advertised as NO COW! ALL BULL!–is now subdivided for upscale houses, and the same is true in dozens of other suburbs, where the agricultural past is preserved only in place names like Franklin Farm and King Farm.
The Fairfax County Fair–once a showcase for cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses–is now a celebration of high-tech gadgets. Dairy barns and silos have been converted to suburban arts centers, golf-course clubhouses, daycare centers, and private homes. And last fall the Post ran a doomsday article in its Food section gravely warning that suburban sprawl may threaten the supply of fresh cream.
Anti-sprawl advocates lament "leapfrog development," in which the building of homes, office parks, and shopping centers spreads unevenly–leaving undeveloped patches as it moves out to engulf country towns and threaten their historic character. Leesburg, Manassas, Warrenton, and Fredericksburg in Virginia are surrounded by new developments, as are such Maryland towns as Frederick, Middletown, Ellicott City, and Upper Marlboro. Some are "executive estates" featuring a few acres of manicured grass and a horse or two enclosed by a board fence, topped off by a quasi-palatial house. Haymarket, the Virginia town just off I-66 near the proposed Disney theme park that was canceled after much protest in 1994, is surrounded by four new developments zoned for 7,000 homes.
Critics of sprawl also find little to like in the commercial landscape of suburbia, which is regarded with a contempt usually reserved for Wonder bread. Strip malls–scattered among car dealerships, hotels, gas stations, and the like–have proliferated, from Rockville Pike and Route 301 in Waldorf to Tysons Corner and Sudley Road in Manassas. Gucci, Tiffany, and Hermès shops are in an elegant building on Route 7 in Tysons surrounded by a gas station, a pet-supply store, and a pizzeria.
Strip malls are all variations on a formula–with a supermarket, drugstore, retailers, chain restaurants, and a multiscreen cinema surrounded by a vast parking lot. Kmart, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Pearle Vision, Toys R Us, Pier 1, Blockbuster, Staples, Chili's, Starbucks, KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Fuddruckers, Taco Bell, Subway–these and dozens of other strip-mall tenants suggest how far we've come from the corner store or the downtown Penneys.
Though such malls are usually an economic success, plenty of people find them unattractive. The dominance of chains and attempts at attention-getting architecture–barbecue joints with Wild West facades, Mexican restaurants done up in adobe, and pizza parlors mimicking downtown taverns–have the effect of making everything seem uniform and unreal.
"The strip malls . . . on the edge of Washington look like those on the edge of Albuquerque or Birmingham or any other American city," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Every place winds up looking more and more like no place."
Some of the same aesthetic criticisms extend to suburban neighborhoods, which are thought to lack the charm of old tree-shaded neighborhoods filled with turn-of-the-century homes. The new neighborhoods seem raw in a way that Cleveland Park did a century ago–lacking the patina of age and with saplings that have yet to grow into mighty oaks.
Houses in new upscale communities–lampooned as McMansions or "Estatelettes"–seem gluttonous with their 5,000-square-foot floor plans squeezed onto tiny lots and ostentatious with their grand foyers, cathedral ceilings, and turrets meant to ape historic and aristocratic styles. Along Route 7 in Fairfax you can see a small country church of white clapboard dwarfed by single-family houses next door. At the other end of the market, more-affordable houses, especially tracts of townhouses, seem sterile to the critics, recalling the "ticky tacky" label laid on the Levittowns of an earlier day.
Critics of sprawl argue that the suburbs are degrading to the human spirit, that residents have no sense of community, and that loneliness and rootlessness are more common than in cities or small towns. It's a persistent theme–as old as the fiction of John Cheever and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and as contemporary as last fall's hit movie American Beauty.
You will find suburbanites out walking with their kids and dogs or chatting on the lawn with the people next door who find such notions snobbish and ridiculous, but critics insist that something's lacking in the soul of suburbia.
Finally, there are those who emphasize that all the growth in Washington's suburbs has had serious negative effects on DC–a point reiterated most recently in a report by the Brookings Institution. Half a century of flight by middle-class whites and blacks has left DC with the burden of too many of the poor, who are isolated in neighborhoods with failing schools, dilapidated housing, joblessness, and high rates of crime. For suburbanites to ignore such problems, say these critics, is to risk deterioration of the entire area.
Dealing with growth problems in Washington's suburbs–sometimes even agreeing on what's a problem and what's not–is a messy political undertaking.
It touches issues of race and class, taxation, highways, mass transit, housing, regionalism, state rivalries, land-use policy, the environment, and fundamental questions about the balance between the marketplace and government regulation. And consensus is elusive, as well-organized and well-financed interest groups go at each other's throats, brandishing ideologies fashioned from very different values and influencing elections with their contributions.
On one side of the growth debate stands the business community, much bigger and more diverse than it was a generation ago when Washington was mostly a government town. About 78 percent of the region's jobs are now in the private sector.
On the front line is the real-estate industry–the developers, homebuilders, construction companies, zoning attorneys, real-estate agents, and others whose interests are directly affected. Behind them is a broader business community that includes bankers, retailers, high-tech companies, and utilities; one of the biggest lobbyists promoting the Disney theme park in Prince William was Virginia Power.
Dozens of groups speak for business–from the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which is increasingly suburban, to chambers of commerce in every locality and specialized groups promoting high-tech or other sectors. Every jurisdiction has an economic-development agency that is out trying to attract new companies and ready to pop the cork when it scores.
To most of these people, the wisdom of growth is an article of faith. They see it as the engine of their own and everyone else's prosperity, resulting in more tax money to pay for public services and more jobs that allow people to buy all those new homes. Washington's problem is not too many people but too few–by one estimate Northern Virginia's high-tech companies have 19,000 unfilled jobs.
Businesspeople would prefer to let the market rule, allowing developers and consumers to build and buy with less interference from local governments. The land on the suburban fringe, the growth advocates argue, is a commodity to be used, to be lifted up from cow pastures to its "highest and best use." There's plenty of farmland across America to grow food, and there's no sense in standing in the way of progress or shedding tears over the disappearance of a few barns.
On the opposite side of the growth debate stand environmentalists, who have become far more prominent in the past 30 years. Washington has offices of many of the national groups fighting sprawl–from the Sierra Club, which runs local bus trips called "tours de sprawl," to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose president, Dick Moe, a former chief of staff for Vice President Walter Mondale, was a key figure in forcing Disney to cancel its theme park here. Moe has taken on sprawl as a top priority.
There are a couple of dozen regional groups that banded together during the Disney fight and now form a coalition against sprawl, including the Piedmont Environmental Council, headquartered in Warrenton, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, based in Annapolis. Some federal and state agencies also lean toward environmental protection–from the National Park Service, which is steward of much of the region's parkland, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created in 1970, during the Nixon administration. The EPA runs an anti-sprawl grant program that the conservative Cato Institute has attacked as biased.
These groups, allied in what is sometimes called the "smart growth" or "livable communities" movement, view the suburbs from an angle very different from that of the real-estate developer. They remain interested in traditional concerns about air and water quality, but they have moved beyond worry about runoff from oily parking lots and soil erosion at construction sites to a broader critique of sprawl.
They regard it as wasteful. It consumes land and destroys trees, costs too much in new suburban schools and streets, underutilizes land and public facilities at the region's core, and wastes gasoline and people's time in traffic. It makes no sense that people have to burn "a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk." They also think that sprawl–or "dumb growth," as it's been called by the Sierra Club–has been encouraged by federal policies, in everything from highway spending and tax breaks on mortgage interest to sewer and water subsidies and the movement of government offices out of cities. It's not so much that growth can be stopped or that it is not desirable for the economy but that it ought to be harnessed–urban planning having the same status with anti-sprawl groups that the marketplace has with the business community.
In battles over specific projects, the anti-sprawl forces usually can count on local citizens to be motivated by not-in-my-backyard sentiments. NIMBY uprisings are common in Washington for reasons beyond the fact that no sensible resident likes to have the stability of a nice neighborhood disturbed. Some suburbs are now nearly built out, and that means that any new project affects somebody, a situation quite different from 40 years ago when relatively few houses had to be torn down in the path of the Beltway. The suburbs are loaded with educated residents who have skills in everything from lawsuits and fundraising to press relations and Web pages.
Disney's theme park, which threatened the tranquility of Northern Virginia's horse country, set off a war that reached epic proportions before the Mouse retreated. There have been dozens of other battles, from the one over a proposed shopping mall near the Civil War battlefield in Manassas in the late 1980s to last year's struggle over construction of upscale homes on Evans Farm near Tysons Corner, which was much loved for its country-style restaurant and friendly ducks. The NIMBY forces lost that one, though there was one moment when they forced eight members of the Fairfax board of supervisors to admit they had accepted campaign contributions from the project's developers.
So it goes in the politics of sprawl–each side regarding the other with distrust. Environmentalists are seen as naive obstructionists who would deny ordinary people the houses and the free use of cars that they desire, while developers are demonized as greedy, vulgar, and blind to the social costs of their profit-making.
Another obstacle is that Washington has traffic and land-use issues that are intertwined–and affect us all–but depend on decisions made in a balkanized political system.
Consider the regional players: At the core is a federal district with elected local officials and congressional oversight; on either side of the Potomac are separate states, each with a governor, a legislature, and political traditions that are quite different. While Maryland gets plaudits from the Sierra Club, Virginia earns high marks for its business climate.
Local government in Washington is less fragmented than in some places–a Brookings study points out that metropolitan Chicago has 265 municipalities–but the area still includes ten counties and independent cities in Virginia and seven counties in Maryland. Each of these has its own elected government–with separate school systems, tax bases, and zoning rules–and each has problems to worry about that can distract it from the bigger picture.
These jurisdictions also are economic competitors. They engage in bidding wars to lure companies away from one another–some of which decide to stay put, as Marriott did in Montgomery County, and some of which choose to relocate, as Gannett will in moving from Rosslyn to a high-rise in Tysons Corner.
Sometimes the jurisdictional conflict gets intense. Maryland has resisted allowing Fairfax County to build an intake pipe to draw more water from the Potomac River. Arlington is battling a plan to widen its portion of I-66 to ease traffic for commuters who live in Fairfax County and beyond. Prince George's, which has been hoping for years to see an upscale resort community built along the eastern bank of the Potomac near the Wilson Bridge, resents protests against it from Alexandria.
A few American cities have tried to overcome this sort of fragmentation by creating regional governing bodies with some authority over taxation, zoning, and transportation. Washington's major effort in this regard has been the construction and operation of the Metro subway system, which runs through and is partially paid for by DC and five suburbs. There is some cooperation in regional parks, sewer and water authorities, and other specialized areas, and all the local jurisdictions belong to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which was created in 1957. It acts as a forum, does research, coordinates efforts to meet federal air- and water-quality requirements, and performs other valuable work, but it does not have authority to tell jurisdictions what development to allow and what not to.
Nobody tells Fairfax that it can't coax Gannett to move its headquarters and USA Today to a new building near Tysons Corner. Nobody tells Arlington taxpayers they have to pay for construction of new schools in eastern Loudoun. And nobody tells Montgomery to allow a new bridge across the Potomac for a highway that might ease traffic in Virginia.
SHOW ME SOME GREEN
If you drive north on Interstate 270, you reach a point just beyond Germantown where the tract houses and strip malls give way to some of the prettiest countryside you'll ever see. The farms have the picturesque perfection of every city dweller's imagination–old barns and white houses surrounded by oaks, a mailbox at the end of the lane, pastures sloping down hillsides, cattle or horses at their ease. Off to the west stands Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1,300-foot forested knob that's just over the line in Frederick County and is reachable by turning north at the Comus Inn, whose dining room has been serving people out on a relaxing drive for more than 30 years. At the top of the mountain, on a clear day, you can see not only the rural landscape stretched out below but the high-rises of Washington's suburbs.
Some of what you see from here, about 30 miles from the White House, is part of an "agricultural reserve" that Montgomery County has worked over the past two decades to keep off-limits to intensive development. It covers just over 90,000 acres in the northern part of the county and is an example of what smart-growth advocates think is one of the keys to containing sprawl. By combining zoning restrictions with economic rewards for landowners, the idea is to keep this land relatively undisturbed and to turn the tide of houses, strip malls, and offices inward toward the southern end of the county.
The "green belt" approach has been tried on a grander scale elsewhere, including European cities such as London. But much recent attention in the United States has focused on Portland, Oregon, where a "growth boundary" has been drawn around the metropolitan area and an agreement reached that there will be no suburban development beyond it. It seems to have succeeded in preserving farmland and turning new construction inward, though it's also restricted the supply of new homes so much that house prices have doubled over the past decade, putting once-affordable Portland in a league with high-priced San Francisco. It's a nice windfall if you're selling, but it's tough on families trying to buy.
Some sort of protected green space in Washington's suburbs has been a dream of urban planners for years, spelled out most elaborately in a "Policies Plan for the Year 2000" that was published in 1961. Also known as the "wedges and corridors" plan, it envisioned a series of alternating zones radiating out from the central city. There were to be six corridors of intense development running out 30 miles from DC like spokes, built up along radial highways like I-270, Route 50, and Route 5 in Maryland, I-66 in Virginia, and I-95 in both states. Wide wedges between them were to be open space.
But Washington, which began with L'Enfant's elegant plan at its core, has never had much luck imposing the order of a single vision on its suburbs. Three years after the wedges-and-corridors plan was published, the Beltway was finished, bringing with it a new set of political and economic realities. Thirty-five years of development around it, shaped only in limited ways by local governments, have turned a lot of wedges into corridors.
But not entirely. John Parsons, a regional official with the National Park Service, points out that Washington's suburban counties still have considerable protected green space. This undeveloped land doesn't constitute a perfect circle or a perfect wedge. But enough open space is left to make Washington greener than most other metropolitan areas.
Some of this is a result of Washington's position as the nation's capital, which has meant that quite a bit of suburban land is firmly in the grasp of the Park Service, the military, or other federal agencies. To the northeast, between Washington and Baltimore, there are several thousand acres occupied by the National Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and Greenbelt National Park (a remnant of a New Deal program to build "new towns"). To the west and south lie thousands of acres more in Great Falls National Park, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Quantico Marine Corps Base, Prince William Forest Park, Piscataway National Park, and Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which is renowned for its bald eagles. Here and there are other sprawl-free sanctuaries, notably the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park that runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac.
Some of these places were saved from development by odd twists of history. The bankruptcy of the old C&O Canal Company has turned out to be a great thing for modern hikers and bikers, and you can camp today in Prince William Forest Park because the worn-out farms there were bought out by the government during the Depression and allowed to return to woods. People who hate sprawl can also celebrate the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which led to the downsizing of such surplus military bases as Fort Meade in Maryland and the transfer of 7,600 acres of its land to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
Local political decisions to declare certain land off-limits to sprawl may be susceptible to reversal as the region's population increases, but at the moment some open space enjoys such protection.
Besides Montgomery County's agricultural reserve, there are other examples of open-space preservation on Northern Virginia's western fringe. Loudoun County, in a deal between environmentalists and pro-growth forces, has tried to concentrate development on its east side, between Dulles Airport and Leesburg, while keeping most of the land west of Leesburg in farms. Fauquier County tries to protect its farmland by curtailing development everywhere except around the county seat of Warrenton and several of the county's villages. Prince William recently trimmed about 30,000 potential home sites from its zoning map in its west end to lighten the density on about 80,000 acres and to preserve it as a "rural crescent."
Keeping farmland free of sprawl often involves policies that go beyond a simple denial of zoning approval or a refusal to extend sewer and water lines. The secret to part of that Montgomery County scene you see in the distance from Sugarloaf Mountain has been "transferable development rights." Twenty years ago the land was downzoned to allow just one unit per 25 acres, but property owners were allowed to recoup the resulting loss of value by selling their development rights to homebuilders, who traded them for permission to build more densely in the county's urbanized lower end.
Tax incentives play a role too, by giving farmers and other landowners on the suburban fringe a way to avoid higher property taxes as their land becomes ever more valuable as a site for development. Both Maryland and Virginia have programs guaranteeing these owners that their land will be assessed at the lower agricultural rate if they agree not to develop.
Because these tax breaks often benefit the landed gentry, especially in the Hunt Country of Northern Virginia's Loudoun and Fauquier counties, they are sometimes resented by working-class or middle-class homeowners whose properties don't qualify. This was apparent during the battle over Disney's theme park, when supporters attacked the tax breaks as an example of government favoritism toward wealthy Hunt Country landowners who opposed the Disney plan.
Other suburban land has been protected in the most direct way possible–by conversion into parks under the control of state and local governments. Among the region's largest are Little Bennett, Seneca Creek, and the Patuxent River parks in Maryland and Mason Neck, Huntley Meadows, and several tracts along the Occoquan River in Virginia.
They have come into the public domain in all sorts of ways. Scotts Run Nature Preserve, along the Potomac in McLean, exists because local residents agreed to tax themselves to buy the land from a developer. The federal government transferred Huntley Meadows Park to Fairfax County when the Navy no longer needed it for classified radio research. Fairfax County is considering preserving 2,500 acres of the old Lorton prison site as a park.
Sky Meadows State Park, a mountain sanctuary in western Fauquier County, stands just a little beyond today's suburban fringe, but it illustrates how open space gets protected. In the 1970s, the proposed development of homes on the mountain came to the attention of a landowner a few miles away whose viewscape would have been degraded. No problem: The late Paul Mellon simply bought the mountain and donated it to the state.
As worry about sprawl escalates, there's been more talk of making government land purchases a higher priority, especially in Maryland. Montgomery County planners have proposed spending $100 million over the next decade on new parkland, and Maryland's new smart growth program includes money for direct purchases. Governor Parris Glendening spent $25 million to buy 1,850 acres of land along the Potomac in Charles County that had been slated for a 4,600-home development called Chapman's Landing.
Glendening, a Democratic former county executive in Prince George's now in his second term as governor, has become one of the nation's crusaders against sprawl. Last year, he was singled out for praise by Al Gore when the Vice President announced his own anti-sprawl agenda, and he is sometimes mentioned as a Cabinet secretary in a Gore administration. He speaks frequently of his aversion to sprawl, recalling fishing and camping trips with his son along the quiet Potomac in southern Maryland and warning that such experiences for future generations are threatened.
The smart-growth program that Glendening guided through the legislature in 1997 altered the ground rules on development throughout Maryland. It gives more power over land-use policy to the state–one reason some of the opposition came from the Maryland Association of Counties. It anticipates using the millions of dollars the state spends on roads, schools, and sewer lines to put a damper on sprawl. Every new classroom costs $90,000, the governor says, every mile of new sewer line costs $200,000, and every lane-mile of highway costs $4 million.
The grand strategy of smart growth is to stop sprawl by denying state funds for public facilities on the suburban fringe–thus making it hard or impossible to build new homes there–with the hope that development can be channeled inward to communities where schools and streets already exist. The state might refuse money for a new school to serve yet another tract of homes in upper Montgomery or outer Prince George's, for instance, investing instead in inside-the-Beltway communities like Silver Spring or New Carrollton and hoping that private developers will follow the state's lead. The result, according to the theory, is that farmland will be preserved on the fringe and that older communities closer in will be revitalized and become more densely populated, thus better using existing investment in everything from schools to the subway system.
Whether this will happen in real life remains to be seen. Some critics say smart growth may also serve to reduce the supply of more affordable housing on the suburban fringe or slow Maryland's economic growth by encouraging more companies and people to go to Northern Virginia.
To some extent smart growth is occurring naturally inside the Beltway, as unhappiness about traffic in the outer suburbs has increased demand for houses that are closer in. In Northwest DC and inner suburbs like Bethesda, Silver Spring, Arlington, and Alexandria, the economic imperatives are right for the construction of "in-fill" housing. Every vacant lot or little tract of trees is being cleared for new homes, and many small ramblers or cottages built a generation ago with spacious yards are being knocked down and replaced by two or more houses crowded together. While these may allow more people to ride the subway, they too are proving controversial. Many neighborhood residents dislike the large new houses–often out of scale with older homes nearby–and regret losing another little patch of green.
Sprawl also is commanding the attention of reformers who fly the banner of "new urbanism," a movement that relies on planning and architecture to make suburbs better places to live. Kentlands, west of I-270 in Gaithersburg, is the area's leading new-urbanist exhibit–developed by Joseph Alfandre and designed by nationally known architect/planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
The idea at Kentlands is to give suburbia more of the flavor of a high-density city neighborhood or a small town. Walking is encouraged. The car is subordinated by putting garages in back alleys, narrowing streets to slow down the traffic, creating attractive sidewalks, and putting an elementary school not far from the homes as well as shops nearby in a town center. Interaction with neighbors is encouraged by keeping houses close together, putting mailboxes on the street, designing homes with stoops and porches, and setting aside plenty of vest-pocket parks and playgrounds. A sense of history and place are created overnight by building most homes in historic Georgian, Federal, and Victorian styles.
Much of this seems admirable, and some of it has become commonplace in the newer "planned unit developments"–PUDs, as they're called–that are going up. Most jurisdictions now require sidewalks in townhouse developments and single-family communities where houses are close together–something that often was not the case in subdivisions developed after World War II.
But the new urbanists have not convinced everyone. The communities they create are often islands in a sea of sprawl, making life better for a limited number of people who still must venture out into a landscape of crowded highways, strip malls, and endless tracts of houses. It is not entirely clear–in an age of Internet chat rooms, far-flung jobs, and frequent moving–that porches and white picket fences make for the sort of community thought to exist in small towns.
Others complain that the picket fences and rigidly neotraditional architecture are a little too cute and nostalgic. "I hate being forced to choose between hideous sprawl and preapproved nostalgia," says architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable–a choice between "the real awful and the awful unreal."
"PROSPERITY HAS WON"
Many drivers stuck in traffic may be surprised to learn that Washington is something of an overachiever when it comes to alternative forms of commuting. Nearly 16 percent of us get to and from work in carpools, the highest percentage in the nation–encouraged by park-and-ride lots, slug lines, and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, the first of which opened in the early 1970s on I-395 and are now also used on I-66 and I-270. About 14 percent take buses or the Metro subway system, which will reach its originally planned 103 miles and 83 stations sometime next year, 31 years after construction began. Some 18,000 people ride the Maryland Rail Commuter train, and 6,400 take the Virginia Railway Express, and about 4 percent walk or ride bicycles. There even used to be a couple of guys who canoed across the Potomac from Bethesda to jobs at the CIA.
This means that about 63 percent of us drive solo, well below the average in the nation's big cities. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of cars on the roads, and they have so overwhelmed highway and bridge capacity that transportation is being pushed to the top of the region's political agenda. Last year, in the run-up to the fall elections in Virginia, both Democrats and Republicans rushed to get ahead of voter frustration over traffic by announcing transportation wish lists.
Highways, bridges, and mass-transit facilities take years to plan and construct, so it's hard to predict which will be built and which won't. A replacement for the Wilson Bridge has been knocking around in dozens of studies, drawings, public hearings, protests, and lawsuits for years.
Fixing Washington's traffic woes or even maintaining the status quo is going to cost billions of dollars in the face of continued suburban growth, which is expected to boost the area's population to 5.6 million residents by 2020. There's the question of where the money will come from, with options including tolls, increased gasoline and titling taxes, a general sales-tax hike, or perhaps a regional transportation agency with authority to issue bonds, as proposed by Senator Charles Robb and Congressman James Moran. There's also the matter of getting highway projects approved by government officials and the courts–nearly every project faces protests.
On one side of the transportation debate are those who believe that low-density suburban growth is inevitable and that a large part of the solution to traffic is building more high-capacity, multilane highways and bridges as well as widening and improving the ones we have. The Greater Washington Board of Trade is the leading voice for this approach, though its views are shared by business groups on both sides of the river and by highway-user organizations like the American Automobile Association.
Til Hazel, the Northern Virginia zoning lawyer and developer, has been pushing state and local politicians to build and improve suburban highways for years. "Prosperity has won," he says, and the crowded highways are a common-sense argument that more should be built. Most recently he has accused Governor James Gilmore III, a Republican who resists raising taxes to pay for transportation, of being "in total denial" about the traffic problem and continuing a "decade of delusion."
The business community worries that Washington's growing reputation for gridlock–we're number two behind LA–may be an Achilles heel that endangers the region's ability to attract companies and jobs. Stories, perhaps some apocryphal, are passed around about CEOs who come here searching for a place to relocate their companies but are so horrified by the traffic that they head back to Dulles for a flight home. Economic-development officials and real-estate brokers who show off potential sites are faced with a dilemma–is it better to show the sites off from the air, which may give them a panoramic view of the traffic, or risk going by car and getting stuck in a jam? Prince George's County, which has always struggled to keep up with Montgomery and Fairfax in attracting companies, now touts its lower level of congestion as one of its pluses.
Highway advocates argue that Washington has reached this point in history with fewer miles of freeway than most places its size. The Board of Trade says that Washington has the fourth-smallest highway network among the nation's 40 biggest metropolitan areas. It laments the fact that many highways once on the planning maps have been abandoned during the past 40 years–129 lane miles in DC and 1,338 in the suburbs–along with seven new bridges over the Potomac.
This is a legacy of an anti-highway movement in Washington that won major battles in the early 1960s–creating political pressure for the construction of Metro–and that has continued to display the power of citizen protest ever since. Some of the highways killed were to be built at the region's core, including one ringing the central portion of DC (part of which exists as the Southeast-Southwest Freeway), an extension of I-95 south from the Beltway through Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Northeast DC, and an extension of I-270 south through Bethesda and Northwest DC. Thousands of homes and dozens of acres of parkland would have been destroyed. One of the protest leaders was a young black activist named Marion Barry, who led the chants against "white men's roads through black men's bedrooms."
Farther out in the suburbs, highway advocates had more luck getting the Beltway and radial highways like I-66, I-95, and I-270 built. But visions of a couple of circumferential highways beyond the Beltway have never materialized, though portions of them have been debated for years as suburban Maryland's intercounty connector and Northern Virginia's Fairfax County Parkway.
Nobody these days argues that it makes sense to ram big freeways through DC, though some people may be tempted as they sit in the traffic on Georgia Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, or Reno Road. With so many homes, jobs, and cars in the suburbs, the highway builders think they have a stronger case for laying more asphalt outside DC.
Their argument: Only so much can be done with "congestion-management" techniques like better traffic signals, HOV lanes, surveillance cameras, traffic tracking by cell-phone volume, and better exit and entrance ramps. While Metro has been a great thing, its radial lines were based on the premise that most people would always work in downtown DC, and it doesn't run to some of the big new suburban job centers like Tysons or the Dulles corridor. Rail lines to those locations, linked to Metro at West Falls Church, would be a good idea, but there remain lots of places where suburban density is too low to make rail pay and that would be better served by roads that are cheaper and quicker to build. The hard fact is that the private automobile remains a form of transportation that most people don't want to give up because it allows them to go where they please when they please.
On the other side of the debate is a coalition of groups, many with environmental concerns, that oppose most new highway building. They are often joined by NIMBY groups whose neighborhoods would be exposed to more air pollution and noise, mostly for the convenience of commuters who are just passing through.
These people argue that federal subsidies for highways like the Beltway were a factor in triggering sprawl in the first place, that these subsidies continue to encourage building of homes, offices, and malls ever farther out into the countryside, and that a lack of alternatives to highways in the suburbs gives residents no choice but to become dependent on their cars. Building more highways on the suburban fringe, says Dick Moe of the National Trust, is like "trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt."
What's required instead, according to this view, is a long-term revolution in social attitudes and public investment that weans us away from the private car in favor of mass transit and other alternatives. The cost of driving ought to be raised–with higher taxes on gasoline and parking or by charging tolls on more highways and bridges, perhaps with an extra surcharge during periods of "peak use." Metro would be expanded to reach parts of the region that are now unserved–perhaps with new lines to Largo, Tysons Corner, Dulles Airport, Centreville, and Woodbridge as well as a new line running around the Beltway. There also would be more buses, more HOV lanes and other incentives for carpooling, more bike trails, and encouragement for people to work at home.
Important too would be shifting population from the suburban fringe, where the population density is too low to support mass transit, into higher-density neighborhoods near Metro stations. That is a bedrock principle of smart growth and is already occurring in places like Arlington, where the clustering of high-rise apartments near Metro stations like Crystal City is being expanded along the Orange line at Rosslyn, Court House, Clarendon, Virginia Square, and Ballston.
While such strategies may someday play a bigger role in guiding growth, the region's list of major highway projects over the past few years includes some that have become reality and others that remain dreams.
Modernization and widening projects have increased capacity on I-270 to the north, Route 50 to the east, I-66 to the west, and I-395 to the south as well as on Route 28 near Dulles Airport. Portions of the Fairfax County Parkway are open as well as the Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Greenway, the region's first privately financed toll road. A big fix for Springfield's infamous "mixing bowl" is under way, and a federal appeals court ruling last winter cleared the legal way for a new 12-lane Wilson Bridge, assuming the decision withstands any appeal and that Congress comes up with an additional $600 million.
Other big highway projects are still on a lot of wish lists. In Northern Virginia, they include completion of the Fairfax County Parkway, widening of the Beltway, a "techway" over a new Potomac bridge linking Fairfax and Montgomery, and widening of I-66 from Manassas to DC. This last one is certain to face a court challenge from Arlington County because it nullifies a promise the county got two decades ago from the US Department of Transportation to limit the highway to four lanes. In Maryland, there are plans to widen Route 301 on Washington's eastern fringe.
But Governor Glendening's decision last year to cancel the intercounty connector linking I-270 and I-95 across Montgomery and Prince George's counties was red-hot controversial. Environmentalists and residents along the route, who argued the highway would destroy wetlands and neighborhoods, were pleased. But the cancellation infuriated many commuters, the Maryland business community, and County Executives Douglas Duncan of Montgomery and Wayne Curry of Prince George's, who think it's needed to relieve congestion and attract jobs. They have vowed to fight the governor's decision, and it's possible that the ICC–which has been discussed for 50 years–might rise from the dead.
Another highway project with enormous implications for the future pattern of development in the region is a "western bypass" that would run in a sweeping curve through the Northern Virginia countryside several miles outside the Beltway. Many routes have been proposed over the years, most of which branch off from I-95 near Fredericksburg, run north through Stafford and Prince William counties, then on into Loudoun past Dulles Airport. In its grandest conception, the bypass would then cross a new bridge over the Potomac into Maryland and run on through Montgomery or Frederick counties to hook up with I-270 near the city of Frederick.
The long-running conflict over this highway says a great deal about how difficult it is to reach political consensus.
The business community, led by the Board of Trade, has argued that the highway and a new Potomac River crossing are much needed. A western bypass would divert long-haul traffic, especially trucks, off the Beltway; it would improve access to Dulles for passengers and cargo; and it would encourage regional cooperation between Virginia and Maryland in high-tech and other industries.
The highway's opponents, represented by the Piedmont Environmental Council and other groups, have an entirely different take. They are unconvinced that a western bypass would make much of a dent in Beltway traffic, and they argue that it will degrade wetlands, forests, farms, historic sites, and parks along the route, including Manassas National Battlefield Park and the C&O Canal. Montgomery County is opposed to running the highway through the agricultural land on its western border that it has so painstakingly protected, and the state of Maryland too has shown little enthusiasm for the project.
Central to this opposition is a belief among environmentalists that the western bypass is mostly a scheme to enrich developers and that it would be counterproductive in the fight against sprawl. It would promote land speculation along its route, and before long it would be lined with more strip malls, office parks, townhouses, and mini-mansions.
In short: If you build it, they will come–and traffic will be worse than ever. To which the highway's promoters respond: If you don't build it, they will come anyway–and traffic will be worse than ever.
That's something Dick Moe has heard before, along with all the other objections to smart growth–that it's a movement standing in the way of progress and naive in its belief that sprawl can be harnessed by sound public policies. He concedes nothing and is not giving up–persistence being one of the traits that served him and his allies in getting Disney to give up its theme park.
Moe realizes that suburban growth has a long history, is driven by powerful economic forces, and is a formidable enemy that local governments are ill-equipped to control.
Without a new vision and intervention by state governments, he says, "It's like trying to stop a flood with a picket fence."