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Building Strategies To Map Out Growth

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page B01

In 25 years, experts say, there will be 2 million more people, 833,000 more homes and 1.6 million more jobs in the region. Area leaders gathered for a planning exercise designed to help calculate their next moves.

The challenge of Washington's daunting population growth has been turned into a board game that might be called Everybody Squeeze!, and yesterday 300 government, business and civic leaders gathered to play.

The "Reality Check" growth summit held at the Ronald Reagan Building drew more than 300 participants, including George Vradenburg of the District, left, Andrea McGinsey of Ashburn, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Kim Hosen of Woodbridge and Nanci Porten of Bethesda. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: John McClain, deputy director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, discussed property tax assessments and housing around the metro area.
_____Growth and Development_____
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With 2 million more residents anticipated in Washington and its suburbs over the next 25 years, the crowd of players -- which included Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly and District Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- gathered around table-size maps of the region and tried, using yellow Lego blocks to represent dwellings, to locate homes for the coming throngs.

All around the game room at the Ronald Reagan Building, there were signs of conflict and cajoling: Some environmentalists drew bold lines around lands they consider ecologically sacred. Politicians and county planners hemmed and hawed, trying to think regionally but keeping an eye on their own dominions. And some developers looked askance at proposals to build homes closer to or even on top of one another.

"Not all the 2 million people are going to want to live like they do in Manhattan -- we're not an urban community, we're a suburban community," one Charles County developer, Gary Kret, warned his neighbors.

Despite the diverse interests at the 30 map tables, the solutions reached by afternoon shared a remarkable number of themes.

Most of the map groups largely kept the Lego blocks -- yellow for homes and blue for workplaces -- out of the undeveloped areas at the region's fringe, rather than "sprawling" them outward.

Most of the groups stacked up blocks at Metro stations instead, arguing that denser populations are best served by trains. And most of the groups favored pushing new development into underused areas of the District of Columbia and Prince George's County.

The prescriptions, in many ways, reflected the "smart growth" principles that have become the new planning orthodoxy.

"It seems that today to say you're going to go build everything out in the green fields is as socially acceptable as lighting up in public," said John Bailey of the Urban Land Institute's Washington District Council, which organized the event.

Yet even among some of the most enthusiastic participants, there was ample skepticism about whether the growth visions espoused yesterday can ever come to fruition.

"This event is called 'Reality Check,' but I think we checked reality at the door," Connolly said.

For one thing, the high-density development prescribed by many tables is difficult to achieve over the opposition of neighborhood groups. And pushing development into underused areas of eastern Washington and Prince George's County will require drumming up more market demand for offices and homes than has existed there in recent decades.

"The market tells me the demand isn't there," said Gary Garczynski, a Prince William County developer and former president of the National Association of Home Builders. "Can it be created there? I don't know."

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