July 30, 2018

The Challenge of Planning and Implementing TOD in Metropolitan USA

Metro West development site south of the Vienna Metro station. Photo: Hiroaki Suzuki

by Hiroaki Suzuki, Former World Bank Lead Urban Specialist

After retirement, my wife and I started to look for a place to downsize and to reduce our carbon footprint. We visited a TOD site, adjacent to Vienna station of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Metro Orange Line, called Metro West (MW), located in the state of Virginia, USA. On the brochure of the developer, MW looked like an ideal place for us without depending too much on automobiles. The original plan of MW was approved by the Fairfax County Government in 2008. MW contains roughly 1200 resident units combined with retail uses and office spaces. It appears to meet most of ITDP’s TOD Standard criteria: Walk, Cycle, Connect, Transit, Mix, Densify, Compact, and Shift. We were attracted to MW because of its accessibility by transit to Washington D.C’s downtown, two international airports, suburban town features with various retails and restaurants, and good amenities such as the community center.

Several months later, we revisited the site and noticed that a huge block just in front of the metro station (see photos below), where the retail uses, restaurants, and office spaces were supposed to be constructed, remained vacant and undeveloped. We asked the developer when this block would be completed and learned from them that the block would be developed by another developer and that the timing of its completion was uncertain.

Aerial view of the Metro West site with undeveloped lots. Source: Google Earth

I did a quick Google search and found that the mix land use plan of this site was facing a big challenge. The Fairfax County Government approved the developer’s plan to develop MW as mix land use town center but at the public hearing meeting held several years later, the developer of the retail spaces and office spaces announced a possible scale down of the development, due to lukewarm regional economy. It seems that MW did not attract enough demand for their office spaces as reflected in the low occupancy rate of the office buildings in the Fairfax County.  In addition, MW is competing with other full-fledged suburban town centers already developed, such as Reston Town Center of the WMATA’s Silver Line and Mosaic District of the same Orange line, both within 5-15 miles from MW.

In the absence of adequate office space demand, the day time population of MW is not large enough to justify full scale development of retails and restaurants. It seems that the developer has not yet submitted the plan modification to the Fairfax County Government, which would be most probably rejected by the Fairfax County Government.  So, the full development of MW is in limbo, 10 years after the construction started.

The difficult path of MW development highlights two interlinked important factors which affect TOD implementation, the timeline and the condition of the regional economy- particularly that of the real estate market. Any TOD development cycle easily takes a long time, often 20 to 30 years from its planning to implementation. Over this long period, the market condition assumed in the original plan evolves, sometimes not in the direction of the developer’s forecast. The factor which makes the developer’s job more challenging is that several similar suburban town projects are planned and implemented within 10 to 15 miles distance.

The challenge of MW reminds me of the importance of planning TOD, not only at station level, but also at the corridor level. Thanks to good guidelines of TOD such as ITDP’s TOD Standard, many cities started to adapt them in their TOD projects. It is important for them to understand that mixed use and density are the elements of TOD which are affected by not only specific site conditions but also that of the regional economy.

As a Japanese urban development expert, I wonder how Japanese transit agencies, developers and local governments would tackle a challenge similar to MW. First, it seems that the Japanese counterparts have much longer planning vision and master plans often developed in a collaborative manner by these stakeholders. However, they cannot escape from the unpredictable market development, not anticipated in the original plan. Second, if they faced the same challenge, I imagine that they would take a more proactive and strategic approach to create demand. They would revisit the original plan to find a way to increase demand for the day time population and transit use. Some of the measures would be to develop magnet facilities such as a satellite university campus or an outpatient hospital visitor center.  Third, they would more efficiently use the huge parking space and bus terminal by constructing three to four story buildings with bus terminals located on the underground or first floor and the above said magnet facilities and other retails and restaurants housed on the floors above. The construction cost of this multiple purpose complex can be jointly born by, the transit agency or the local government (whoever owns the land for the bus terminal) using the land of bus terminal as equity and the developer (the developer can construct more residential units thanks to the efficient use of the land) and other investors such as a university or hospital. Fourth, they would consider extending metro catchment areas by offering more frequent commuter feeder services, probably an adoption of a auto-drive bus system, as many condos are being developed adjacent to MW. Finally, at the later stage when the initial stage would be successfully implemented and more demand would arise, they would construct the facilities serving both the population of Vienna West and Vienna East, over the connecting bridge of the metro line and the Route 66, like the one built in the busiest JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo.

US federal, state, and local governments, transit agencies, and developers may not have enough incentive to adopt these projects, which require complex stakeholder collaboration and innovative but complex engineering and financing solutions because of the availability of ample lands and spaces, however, the lack of proactive and innovative approaches has made the USA’s capital area the most congested metropole in the country and forced people to commute long hours by car, as far as Winchester, located almost 76 miles away from Washington DC. Metro West initiated with a collaborative and innovative concept could provide wonderful solutions for air pollution, green gas emissions, and housing affordability, if all the stakeholders review the original plan with fresh eyes.

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