New commercial construction in Prince George's County nearly doubled during the second quarter of this year, providing the first statistical glimpse of what county developers and officials have said for months: Prince George's is becoming one of the Washington area's hottest locations.

The dramatic surge in construction starts contrasted with a steep drop in Montgomery and a decline in Fairfax County, compared with the same period last year.

The statistics, and interviews with development experts, suggested not only increasing popularity among developers of Prince George's, but also possibly a slowdown from the dramatic growth in new projects in Northern Virginia. Developers in the Virginia suburbs deferred or dropped 18 commercial projects during the same quarter, compared with 11 in Maryland and one in the District.

And the commercial vacancy rate in Fairfax is the region's highest. It has risen recently in all area jurisdictions except Prince George's and downtown Washington. A high vacancy rate suggests that growth of new projects is exceeding the demand of businesses for more space.

The new construction growth in Prince George's partly reflects a shift in markets as developers scramble to get tenants for recently completed projects in Fairfax and Montgomery before starting new ones there.

Although part of the reason for the new popularity of Prince George's was a lull in activity in overbuilt counties, it also showed that developers are stepping up building in long-ignored Prince George's, the last place around the Capital Beltway with large tracts of land available for commercial construction.

"It shows that the Prince George's economic development renaissance is going on," said Jay Langford, chief of planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which yesterday issued the report on new construction. The increase was the largest for Prince George's in percentage and square footage since COG began keeping quarterly figures in 1980, he said. It was also only the second time new commercial construction had exceeded 1 million square feet in Prince George's, a figure Fairfax routinely exceeds.

Additionally, the value of the construction tripled, suggesting that in addition to inflation the quality of projects in the county has improved markedly. Most of the new construction was in research and development facilities and office space.

Although one quarter of statistics does not make a trend, development experts said the figures back up what they have seen for some time. Around the Beltway, new office towers are sprouting in Greenbelt and in Largo near the Capital Centre. Similar commercial growth is occurring off old U.S. Rte. 1 in Laurel, which also has attracted new shopping centers. New offices are rising, too, in Bowie, both in the town and along nearby Rte. 301. Although smaller in scale, new business also is moving to older inner Beltway areas such as the Rhode Island Avenue and Central Avenue corridors.

"Obviously, we're very pleased," said Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening. He said county plans call for dispersed growth and an improved transportation network to avoid the growth pains experienced by Fairfax County in Tysons Corner and by Montgomery County along the high-tech I-270 corridor.

John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said Prince George's "cheap land, good location and active {pro-growth} government" had contributed to a trend he saw "pretty well set in concrete." Herrity said the figures reflect economic trends combined with a political climate in Fairfax increasingly hostile to growth.

But John McClain, another COG planner, said the apparent slowdown could give counties such as Fairfax a chance to catch up "in terms of facilities and services they need to serve that development."

According to the report, new commercial construction in Prince George's increased from 518,000 square feet during the second quarter last year to 1 million square feet between April and June this year, compared with a decline in Montgomery from 891,000 to 329,000 square feet during the same period. In Fairfax, new construction declined from 2.3 million to 2 million square feet, the report said.

District construction fell from 539,500 to 437,035 square feet. In other jurisdictions, construction in square footage during the second quarter declined in Loudoun County from 395,022 to 295,320; fell in Prince William from 312,786 to 173,431; rose in Alexandria from 23,752 to 55,900; and increased in Arlington from 418,210 to 636,900. Figures were not available for Howard, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties. The construction costs of Prince George's projects tripled from $21 million to $65 million during that period.

Although developers deferred or dropped some commercial projects in Northern Virginia, new commercial construction on a more modest scale increased in Alexandria and Arlington, reflecting in part Metro-related development in the Clarendon neighborhood. "In Northern Virginia, the strength of the market is still very much there, but vacancy rates are starting to get up there and there were more {project} deferrals in Fairfax than in the past," said COG's Langford. The region-wide commercial vacancy rate is 13.4 percent, compared to 12.9 percent three months ago, according to Thomas Owens, a vice president of Spaulding & Slye, a real estate company.

The rate in Fairfax is 17.3 percent, the region's highest, compared with 15.1 percent in Prince George's and 9.2 percent in downtown Washington.

Owens predicted two more years of sustained growth in Prince George's, aided by the county's location between Baltimore and Washington. He foresaw a 25 percent construction drop in Fairfax in the next year. Montgomery County, he said, "is a tricky one. Its vacancy rate is being driven up by {new offices} in Silver Spring and {along} I-270." High vacancy rates, he said, could dampen builder enthusiasm for new projects.