Region's Job Growth a Centrifugal Force
Despite Planners' Visions, Outer Suburbs Lead in New Hiring

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

As a consensus builds that the Washington region needs to concentrate job growth, there are signs that the exact opposite is happening.

Over the past five years, the number of new jobs in the region's outer suburbs exceeded those created in the District and inner suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties. And with another highway slated to be built in Maryland, and military jobs being moved to the periphery, growth is expected to be even more broadly dispersed -- contradicting planners' "smart growth" visions of communities where people live, work and play without having to drive long distances.

Local leaders increasingly agree that better focusing economic growth near population centers and public transit would reduce traffic congestion, save open space and put jobs in closer reach of the residents who need them most. But county projections submitted to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments show that the rate of growth will continue to rise in far-flung areas, even beyond some hubs that are now on the fringes.

"We haven't yet fully made the connection" between growth and transportation, said Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D), chairman of the regional council. "We have had some real successes on a project-by-project basis but also have a lot of disparate, unconnected development and unconnected thinking, and there are consequences."

In Northern Virginia, which has long set the pace for the region's suburban expansion, jobs are moving farther out the high-growth corridor running through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport and beyond.

Loudoun County has gained almost as many jobs since 2001 as Fairfax, and Prince William County is not far behind, giving Northern Virginia nearly half the jobs in the Washington area. The Army's planned transfer of 22,000 jobs from inner suburbs such as Arlington and Bethesda to Fort Belvoir, in a corner of southern Fairfax ill-served by public transit, will contribute to the outward shift.

Meanwhile, there are indications that a similar transition is gaining steam in Maryland. Job growth along Interstate 270, the state's premier economic corridor, has extended to Frederick County, which has gained nearly as many jobs since 2001 as Montgomery.

Also booming is Anne Arundel County, driven by its proximity to rapidly expanding Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Fort Meade, where the Army is moving an additional 5,300 jobs. The area around BWI shows signs of becoming the Maryland equivalent of the Dulles corridor, some planners and developers say.

The approval last month of the intercounty connector linking Interstates 95 and 270 increases the chances of commercial expansion in the areas between the I-270 corridor and BWI, with the potential for a new high-growth band across Montgomery and Prince George's counties and southern Howard County. Growth in central Maryland has already been stoked by the completion of another east-west road, Route 100, and the planned widening of still another, Route 32.

The dispersal is a continuation of what Robert E. Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, has described as a shift into "edgeless cities," office buildings scattered outside of both traditional cities and newer "edge cities" such as Tysons Corner. In a new study, Lang and his colleagues found that 70 percent of office space in the region is in edge cities, edgeless cities and corridors such as I-270, with only 30 percent in the District, Arlington and Alexandria. "It's scattered to the wind," he said.

Economic development directors and others celebrate the spreading economic expansion, which has made the Washington region the biggest jobs producer in the country. But advocates of more focused growth despair.

"Business boosters associated with Dulles want to shift the economic center of the region away from the core toward Dulles, and business boosters in Maryland are seeking to counterattack by doing the same," said Stewart Schwartz, head of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "But it leaves everybody worse off. It's totally contrary to a sustainable course of development."

The gap between planners' hopes and what is occurring was on display this month at a workshop at the Baltimore Convention Center, where 300 government officials, businesspeople and civic leaders gathered to discuss how best to accommodate the growth expected in central Maryland over the next 25 years.

Grouped around tables, participants debated where to target future residential and job growth, placing color-coded Legos in the desired locations on a large map. Most groups chose Baltimore and its inner suburbs or inside the Capital Beltway along transit lines in Prince George's -- areas that have a strong infrastructure and that have lagged economically behind much of the state.

But other participants said these hopeful towers of white, blue and yellow Legos in more urbanized areas were out of step with reality. At one table, participants clustered more growth in Howard and Anne Arundel, in acknowledgment of jobs moving to Fort Meade.

"We've got people at this table who are living this reality, who understand what's really going on," said Scott Keenum, a mortgage broker based in Columbia.

Some officials play down predictions of the intercounty connector spurring commercial development across central Maryland. They note that little land along the route is zoned for such growth, aside from the 2,000-acre Konterra parcel in Calverton near the connector's juncture with I-95. Howard's planning director, Marsha L. McLaughlin, said the county doesn't want to see the road sparking growth along its southern edge and is trying to focus jobs along its beleaguered Route 1 corridor.

But others say the connector will inevitably pave the way for a new growth corridor. "If you look at things historically, anytime you build a major road improvement, it does lead to new development," said Christopher Kurz of Linden Associates, a commercial development firm that works mainly in Howard and Anne Arundel.

Some closer to the core remain hopeful that the outward trend will be reversed. The Sarbanes-Oxley accounting law is creating more demand for legal office space in the District, and every few months bring word of a new high-rise project in the inner suburbs that mixes shops, offices and housing. Hopes are highest for Prince George's, where county officials want to interest developers in extensive underused land near the county's many Metro stops, said Kwasi G. Holman, the county's economic development director.

The number of jobs expected to be located in mixed-use projects across the region is relatively limited, though, and in most cases residents don't find jobs in their own residential complexes. Several such projects, including ones in Springfield and along Route 1 in southern Fairfax, are not within walking distance of Metrorail.

In theory, locating jobs on the outer fringes where people are moving should shorten commutes for workers, yet driving times continue to increase, given the scattered nature of suburban development and the fact that some residents end up moving even farther out. And serving outer suburbs with transit is difficult, though it is being attempted with the planned Metrorail extension to Dulles.

Gerald L. Gordon, president of Fairfax's Economic Development Authority, said jobs will keep moving toward the fringes, because employers' first priority is being near a qualified workforce, and residents continue to seek affordable, spacious homes and good schools in more distant communities.

"Wanting to change the patterns is just wishful thinking," he said. "Businesses know what they need and where to find it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company