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Pr. William Wants to Build 25 Centers Around Transit

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

Prince William County wants to reinvent itself, by centering growth in 25 walkable, environmentally friendly areas to reduce sprawl.

Unlike similar projects across the region, which focus on one section of a county or town, the Prince William plan is more ambitious. The county wants to transform almost 20 square miles, about 12,500 acres, into "centers of community" and "centers of commerce" -- half-mile circles of high-density, mixed-use projects built around mass transit.

Residents, developers and business owners had their first opportunity to comment on the plan last night at a Planning Commission hearing on the concept proposed by the Land Use Advisory Committee. The panel of eight people appointed by supervisors to review the county's Comprehensive Plan spent a year rethinking how the county approaches development.

Every chair in the 150-seat board chamber was filled, and more than 50 people signed up to address the commission. Many speakers seemed to support the concept but questioned the number of centers, where they would be and the significant shift in the county's land-use policy.

"We have no identity; we have no destination," said Mary Ann Ghadban, 54, a lifelong Prince William resident and commercial real estate broker. "This is an opportunity to finally get on the radar screen of Class A businesses. It will allow us to get competitive with Loudoun and Fairfax" counties.

Before the hearing, Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said he has noticed growing support for mixed-use development, such as Reston Town Center, across the region.

"There is a sea change in thinking," he said.

Empty-nesters, retirees and single workers will dominate the home-buying landscape in the next 15 years, Schwartz said. They will want to live near public transportation in communities where they can walk to the store or coffee shop. There is a similar effort underway in Montgomery County to convert Rockville Pike from a jumble of strip shopping centers into a walkable town center.

Prince William's plan raises significant issues, Schwartz said, because it appears that the county is adding development rather than shifting it.

Schwartz said the 25 centers "sound like too many. In order to get public support without undermining their efforts, the county may need to prioritize which ones and where."

The 19 community-focused centers would be made up of low- to mid-rise offices, townhouses, county parks, libraries, schools, religious institutions and public safety facilities.

The six centers of commerce, located along Interstates 95 and 66, would be designed for regional use. They would serve as urban town centers, with a mix of big-box retailers, malls, movie theaters, hotels and mid- to high-rise condominiums and corporate, government and high-tech offices.

Planning commissioners did not vote on the proposal last night, but they are expected to do so in coming weeks. The overhaul of the land-use chapter of the county's Comprehensive Plan is tentatively scheduled to go before the Board of County Supervisors in December.

Approval of the plan will not give developers the right to build, said Ray Utz, the county's chief of long-range planning. Supervisors will need to make subsequent decisions to allow that growth to occur.

"We don't have a blank slate here in Prince William County," Utz said. "We want to respect what we have while we talk about change. Our current regulations often preclude the type of quality development we want as a community. This allows an opportunity for us to let our bad regulations get out of the way of good ideas."

Several elected officials, including Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), have raised questions about a potential conflict of interest of advisory committee members. Some members are developers who did not officially disclose that they have a financial interest in the location of some of the centers.

Bob Pugh, an investment manager and former financial analyst for the county, said developers on the committee stand to personally benefit.

"This is nothing but a scheme to promote high-density development in the county," Pugh said.

Gail H. Johnson, chairman of the Prince William Architectural Review Board, said the plan does not ensure the protection of the county's historic land.

"We don't know if [the centers] are sitting on assets that the state has determined to be of historical value," she said. "Before developers dig, clear-cut or purchase that land, I want them to understand that that is historic land, and you have to take into consideration what that means."

The county has not done enough public outreach to sell people on the plan, Schwartz said, and officials should give it three more months of staff analysis before the Planning Commission votes on it.

"The public wants greater certainty about where development is going to go and how it's going to happen," Schwartz said. "They are working toward the right concept for planning for the future. But there are still issues that need to be resolved. In the current real estate slump, there is no rush to finish this."

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