Are walkable neighborhoods the future?
Christopher B. Leinberger has been pushing the smart growth ethos nearly his entire professional life. As a private sector developer, a consultant and now a business school professor and smart growth advocate, Leinberger argues that building walkable places is the most efficient, environmentally friendly, socially equitable and valuable way of developing real estate.
In his latest research, Leinberger makes the case that walkable, urban places — which he calls WalkUPs — have overtaken the drivable suburban environment as the dominant form of real estate development in the Washington area.
Building on earlier research he produced for the Brookings Institution, Leinberger mounts this argument by looking at 43 Washington area neighborhoods that he says are walkable and also offer regionally significant destinations, such as job centers, colleges, medical centers or cultural, entertainment and sports attractions.
“Market demand for drivable suburban development, which has become overbuilt and was the primary cause of the mortgage meltdown that triggered the Great Recession, is on the wane,” Leinberger contends in the study. “Meanwhile, there is such pent-up demand for walkable urban development — as demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization rates — that it could take a generation of new construction to satisfy.”
This is a different debate than the decades-old back-and-forth about city vs. suburbs. Of the 43 areas Leinberger focused on in his report only 18, or 42 percent, are in the District. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has grown into a central competitor to D.C., and developers in Tysons Corner, Reston Town Center, White Flint and National Harbor are pushing their own urban visions.
But Leinberger’s argument for “new urbanism” does play into a more immediate debate about where the country and region should be making transportation and infrastructure investments. With road congestion still ranked among the highest nationwide and local government leaders struggling to keep their budgets balanced, debate over which transportation projects to fund has intensified.
Examples abound: funding for the second leg of the Silver Line passed by a single vote in Loudoun County, while rezonings in Tysons have been held up for months by the debate over which roads, bridges and public transit projects should be added and who should pay for them.
In this atmosphere, disagreements over what the next big projects will be — whether streetcars, light rail, rapid bus transit, an additional Potomac River bridge or even a second Beltway — occasionally boil over among academics and advocates like Leinberger.
In an October report prepared for the 2030 Group, an advocacy group funded by major regional real estate developers, the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University found that “travel to work by mode in the Washington region has not changed very much over the past 20 years.”
Looking at local economic centers and daily trips by every mode of transportation, the George Mason researchers projected $1.4 billion in growth in the region by 2040 and estimated that 81 percent of that growth would be supported by car trips, with biking/walking accounting for only 12.9 percent of growth and public transit for 6.1 percent. If auto access is so important, perhaps more roads should be built.
But the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local advocacy group for transit-oriented development, immediately began calling the report flawed. “While dressed up with an acknowledgment of transit, the report is focused on justifying a wasteful expansion of highways which would fuel more spread-out development and yet more traffic,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the group.
(The 2030 Group posted a defense of the report on its blog, saying the research was “based on official data and conducted by transportation and economic professionals.”)
In addition to his work for George Washington University, Leinberger works with Smart Growth America, the national advocacy group based in the District. He is president of its network of real estate developers and investors, so philosophically he has long been on the side of smart growth advocates. He is a major supporter of the District’s efforts to build a system of streetcars and is generally not sympathetic toward residents who resist new development in their neighborhoods.
But he also thinks building and buying in walkable places makes economic sense. He argues that making walkable places is also the best way to create real estate value, despite the often steep up-front costs of building infrastructure, adding public transportation and performing “place management” — the cleaning and managing of public places that business improvement districts often support in city areas, and which Leinberger considers of paramount importance.
Leinberger ranked the area’s neighborhoods in his report for George Washington, but we asked him to take his analysis a step further and tell us where these places are headed. As a hypothetical, what if each of the 43 places he studied were stocks?
Which would be the blue chips, those that already have strong economies and are likely to improve? Which are not at the top of the heap today but — through planning and investments — show a lot of upside and are headed for growth?
And which are the stocks that he would short, meaning, who’s falling behind?
Of course, neighborhoods are not stocks. They are communities of people, and Leinberger ranks walkable places based on social equity — which takes into account racial diversity and the costs of housing and transportation — as well. But in a region that is experiencing rapid demographic growth, some places will become more attractive to office renters, apartment seekers and shoppers, and some will not. In Leinberger’s view, walkability will shape all of that.
$53 Rent per square foot for office space in downtown D.C., according to the George Washington School of Business. Leinberger calls the neighborhood “the best downtown redevelopment in the country.”