It's time for developers and politicians in Northern Virginia to halt the public bashing of one another in the pursuit of economic prosperity and a better quality of life for commercial and residential interests.
Both sides, in their zeal to achieve their respective goals, can end up unwittingly creating more problems for the robust economy in which they take so much pride.
The current debate over the pace of economic development in Northern Virginia is really pointless as long as the two sides -- developers and those who advocate slower growth -- seem unable to agree that they have a common problem that ought to be addressed in a partnership of business, local government and taxpayers.
Northern Virginia has a severe transportation problem, pure and simple.
Transportation, "in all its aspects, is the primary tarnish on this area at this time," declared John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., arguably Northern Virginia's preeminent developer and for years a leading zoning lawyer.
The problem is likely to reach disastrous proportions by the start of the next century unless immediate action is taken to resolve it through radical improvements in Northern Virginia's road system. That has serious implications for business growth as well as for residents who are forced to depend on the woefully inadequate system. Even with all of its wealth and amenities and its highly touted commercial development in so-called "new downtowns," Northern Virginia has its Achilles heels. A lousy, archaic road system is most visible among them.
If it were possible to stop development tomorrow of all major commercial projects either planned or under construction in Northern Virginia, a serious transportation problem still would pose problems for the economy. Those problems obviously will become more serious if developers continue to overload high-density areas without regard for the impact on facilities already overburdened by vehicular traffic.
Under either scenario, it's likely that at some point Northern Virginia's transportation problems will work against it as corporate executives ponder relocation decisions.
His well-publicized salvos fired last week at so-called antigrowth politicians notwithstanding, Hazel is acutely aware of the threat posed by inadequate roads to his industry and others in Northern Virginia. "My concern now is to get on with things that help the transportation cycle," he maintains.
If Hazel is annoyed by those who would restrict the pace of development, he is angered by what he perceives as foot dragging by the Virginia Highway Department and local highway department officials. "The transportation implementers ... have been woefully inefficient" over many years in moving forward with plans for road improvements in the region, Hazel charged. "In my 30 years out here, nobody has put the monkey squarely on their backs."
The rhetoric of rapid growth versus slow growth notwithstanding, leading developers in Northern Virginia increasingly have been pointing the finger of blame on state and local highway department officials for the transportation mess.
Commenting on the issue in the newsletter of the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Association of Industrial & Office Parks, chapter President James W. Todd observed: "By the end of the 1970s, transportation was an emerging problem that needed to be addressed with vigor. A dynamic, successful, growing business economy was developing in Northern Virginia in accordance with the comprehensive plan for Fairfax County, yet that economy was depending on roads that were largely in place at the conclusion of the Civil War."
Todd, who is president of Hazel/Peterson Companies, the development firm in which Til Hazel is a principal, asserted that those responsible haven't permitted transportation improvements to maintain the same pace as commercial and residential development.
At least two comprehensive plans developed in 1958 and 1971 identified the need for road improvements and construction of new highways in Northern Virginia. Incredibly, adding vital roads to a 19th-century transportation network never was assigned priority status. Subsequent land-use plans contained no provisions for badly needed arterial highways extending westward from the Beltway. The need for better land-use controls at highway interchanges and the necessity for upgrading those interchanges have been treated with as much urgency as the preparation for the coming of the next generation of cicadas. No wonder gridlock threatens economic growth.
"What frustrates me is we don't seem to learn from past experiences," Hazel complained.
Suggestions that growth should be better managed in Northern Virginia generally raises hackles on developers' necks. A 1986 technical report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments on the need for a proposed western bypass in Northern Virginia contains a persuasive argument, nonetheless. Quoting an article in Traffic Quarterly, the COG report noted that "in order to control traffic congestion, transportation plans in suburban and rural areas should be coordinated with land-use plans... . Investment in transportation should be used to promote a desirable land-use form through growth management policies."
As Hazel/Peterson's Todd suggested recently, it's "not the time to point fingers at each other and scream for antibusiness actions." Nor is it time to point fingers at those who are concerned about the impact of rapid growth. It is time, however, for developers, taxpayers and politicians to coalesce and pressure highway officials to make improvements necessary to reduce, if not prevent, economic losses and a deterioration in the quality of life.