Air rights are rapidly becoming a hot topic in Northern Virginia. Some heavy-hitters in Fairfax are pushing for development over the Silver Line stations on the Dulles Toll Road. And on Wednesday, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) announced that the state is seeking ideas from private developers about building over Interstate 66 in Rosslyn, and over the tracks leading to the East Falls Church Metro station, both in Arlington County.
The “Request for Information” by the state suggests the area of I-66 immediately adjacent to Arlington Gateway Park, or the “Rosslyn tunnel” as the radio traffic reporters call it, might be a good place to develop, and that the stretches of I-66 to the east of that area, and to the west of the park/tunnel, would also be possibilities. This would appear to be about three blocks from the Rosslyn Metro station, which the Request calls “the northern and eastern edges of the Rosslyn metro area.” In East Falls Church, which Arlington did an extensive plan for in 2011, the Request suggests building directly over the tracks on the west side of the Metro station, and then also in the north parking lot immediately adjacent.
“By leasing airspace above certain transportation facilities owned by the Commonwealth,” McDonnell said in a press release, “we can better utilize our existing infrastructure to generate additional revenues to fund future transportation improvements, while at the same time attracting new jobs and economic development.”
In addition to devising a comprehensive plan for East Falls Church, Arlington has also begun working on a plan for Rosslyn. County Board Chairman Walter Tejada said in the governor’s press release that “We will ensure that any potential transit-orientated development using these air rights in Arlington County is consistent with our community’s vision and is consistent with the county’s land use and transportation plans.”
Fairfax Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), one of the big supporters of air rights along the Metro stations being built in Fairfax, applauded the move by the state’s Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation and Metro.
“Governor McDonnell, Secretary of Transportation Connaughton, and the partners responsible for this RFI,” Herrity said, “obviously see the value in air rights with their statement today, and see their feasibility in Northern Virginia. We should be exploring similar options along the Dulles Toll Road corridor.”
One problem that has been raised with sale of air rights, and likely becomes relevant again, is that there is no shortage of existing office space in Northern Virginia, and the cost of building over an existing Metro station or busy highway is, well, high.
Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth raised the question for Rosslyn about “whether they are getting close enough to buildout that air rights development might not have the effect of undermining existing plans and development being proposed.” At East Falls Church, he wondered how air rights would fit with Arlington’s new plan for the area, and whether it would again raise the issue of widening I-66, which Arlington has fought fiercely, and successfully, for many years.
There’s also the question of what this potential opportunity might do to the market for Tysons Corner. Developers are being recruited there on the premise they’ll be near Metro stations. Might this give those developers another option, without the tax burden imposed on businesses around the Silver Line, and hurt Tysons’ future growth? The future is wide open.
Bob Brosnan, Arlington’s director of community planning, housing and development, said that the state has promised to work with Arlington and abide by the plans the county has established for Rosslyn and East Falls Church. “Rosslyn does have a lot of development potential,” he said, but added, “we had never thought of doing development over the highway. Who knows what might develop?” Similarly, at East Falls Church, “the idea of going over 66 is nothing we had talked about before. If developers think there is a market, then we would be willing to entertain whatever proposals they have.” He thought development around either station could lead to better connections with the surrounding neighborhoods.
Sean Connaughton, the secretary of transportation, told me, “these two sites came up as maybe perfect projects for us in pursuing air rights. And if we’re successful here, we would for other places not only in Northern Virginia but throughout the Commonwealth, use air rights to spark development and use the money to defray the cost of transportation.” He did not think the development possibilities would take away from Tysons because they are different types of areas, Tysons already having two large existing shopping malls (and no parking around the new stations), Arlington being more commercial at Rosslyn and residential at East Falls Church.
Bob Chase with the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a consortium of businesses in the region, said, “Exploring the use of air rights and other measures to increase transit-oriented development in the I-66 and other corridors makes sense,” though he added that on I-66, “such development would also need to be accompanied by and require widening the roadway inside and outside the Beltway. The Orange Line is approaching capacity. Once the Silver Line opens, things could get tighter. To succeed, development of this type will need good highway (and Express Bus) access. Just as with Dulles Rail, if the corridor develops as planned the net result will be far more new auto trips than new transit trips. Doesn’t mean rail isn’t important, but that auto is and will continue to be the most preferred mode by most people.”
Here is the Request for Information from the state, which is not the same as a Request for Proposals or other solicitation for state business: