Correction: ●A previous version of the article misstated the last name of a former member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. She is Andrea McGimsey, not Andrea Gimsey. This version has been corrected.
Onstage, it was a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer pitching a controversial road project between Loudoun and Prince William counties. To many in the crowd of several hundred people, though, it felt as if someone else was pulling the strings.
Someone like the man in the dark sport coat, sitting in the fourth row of the wood-paneled auditorium and listening quietly to the uproar exploding around him.
The man, Robert E. Buchanan, is a third-generation real estate developer who has become a central figure in shaping the future of the outer Virginia suburbs, home to picturesque farms and soaring incomes but also to roads that are regularly choked with traffic.
Nearly five years ago, Buchanan formed a business group to pressure local officials to back regional infrastructure investments. The 2030 Group and its members have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign contributions, academic research, polling and public relations. They are influential members of local chambers of commerce, are close to elected officials and count among their ranks a member of an influential state transportation body.
With Metro’s Silver Line coming to Loudoun County and expansion envisioned for Dulles International Airport, the road project has become a flash point in the politics of regional development. Not since the 1990s, when the zoning attorney John “Til” Hazel was championing plans for a Disney theme park, has a project so roiled the outer Virginia suburbs.
The proposed road would run north-south along the western edge of the Manassas Civil War battlefield, connecting Route 50 to Interstate 66.
At the VDOT meeting, held last month at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, the crowd bombarded state officials with boos. Outside, activists handing out fliers said the project would damage their rural way of life and the Rural Crescent conservation area.
But in an interview, Buchanan said that the road is a crucial opportunity for elected leaders to think outside their narrow jurisdictional interests. Maddening traffic, an ailing Metro system and deteriorating local bridges are byproducts, his group says, of balkanized area leadership that struggles to look out for the greater good of the region.
“I think it’s a shame that we don’t come together as a community around these issues,” he said. “That’s why the 2030 Group was formed.”
Drive through Loudoun and Prince William, along I-66, Route 7 or the Dulles Toll Road, and Buchanan’s vast portfolio — over 1,700 acres of land and 3 million square feet of buildings — is on display.
But with his low-key, soft-
spoken style, Buchanan seems an unlikely lightning rod for the land use debates that have played out for decades in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. It was a role far more suited to Hazel, whose enthusiasm for exurban development led some to call him the “king of sprawl.”
Since Hazel’s heyday, though, the development business has changed, and Buchanan with it.
The family trade was home building when Buchanan returned from the Navy as a young man. He became a master of site development, the business of acquiring large tracts of land, securing the necessary zoning and transportation improvements, and readying lots for other developers to turn into subdivisions, office parks or shopping centers.
Environmentalism, almost a dirty word when Tysons Corner was being built, has become central to Buchanan’s outlook, he said.
He’s getting out of the McMansion business. Of the 4,000 residential lots that are in some stage of development on his properties, about 5 percent will be single- family, detached homes. In the 1990s, two-thirds would have been.
In Old Town Alexandria, he is building 175 apartments above a Harris Teeter. “Years ago I would have thought — nobody wants to live above a grocery store,” he said.
Buchanan also has bet heavily on the area west of Dulles, where real estate has been slower to rebound since the recession.
One of his largest deals, made a decade ago, was a 400-acre property at the intersection of Route 50, Route 606 and the Loudoun County Parkway. At that time, Loudoun housing market was seeing double-digit annual price increases. It was one of the most profitable places in the country to build new houses.
Buchanan Partners planned to turn the grassy, partially wooded site into Arcola Center, with 2 million square feet of commercial space, more than 1,000 homes and 800,000 square feet of retail around a main street anchored by a Target and other big chains.
After the housing bust, construction of exurban subdivisions froze, and the prospects for projects like Arcola dimmed. Land values and housing prices in Loudoun collapsed. The median sales price for single-family homes was $611,638 in 2005, when 10,606 homes sold; by 2010, the median sales figure was $390,000, and there were 5,008 sales.
With development stagnant, Buchanan looked to local public officials for solutions but saw none forthcoming, he said. Frustrated, he enlisted like-minded partners to form the 2030 Group. The year 2030, they thought, was when many of their concerns would come to a head.
At first 20 people — mostly developers, consultants and general contractors — committed to contribute $20,000 annually over a five-year period. Others have joined since.
Thomas S. Bozzuto, chairman and chief executive of the Bozzuto Group, a major home builder based in Greenbelt, was a founding member. He said the group’s purpose was to “force the political community to think a little bit more broadly than they usually do.”
“We provide a view that in some cases otherwise is not out there,” he said.
With its considerable war chest, the group set about cultivating academic credibility for its agenda. In a three-year period, according to the group’s tax forms, the 2030 Group spent more than $520,000 to finance research at George Mason University and the University of Maryland.
GMU researchers led by economist Stephen Fuller predicted that the area will add 1.6 million jobs by 2030 and will need 35,000 new housing units a year. They also forecast, to the surprise of some experts, that locals’ use of cars would increase far more quickly than their use of alternatives, such as public transit, biking or walking.
Members of the 2030 Group have made numerous political contributions, part of a statewide push for influence by the real estate industry.
From 2008 to last year, real estate and construction companies gave $5.2 million to county and local candidates in Virginia, far more than any other industry, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Since 1999, Buchanan Partners has given $47,975 to Virginia politicians, campaign committees and political groups. Buchanan personally contributed an additional $7,750.
One 2030 member, Gary Garczynski, a Woodbridge home builder, sits on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, an influential body that has backed the Bi-County Parkway as part of a 2011 plan to create a North-South Corridor. Garczynski did not return a call seeking comment.
Critics of Buchanan’s efforts say they believe the 2030 Group was formed not to foster regional leadership but to benefit the members’ companies and resurrect an idea that has been seen before — an outer beltway that would provide a link from Fredericksburg to Dulles and then across the Potomac into Maryland.
Buchanan Partners owns a half-dozen properties on either end of the proposed Bi-County Parkway. Those tracts have the potential for building thousands of housing units and millions of square feet of commercial space.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) called the project a “developers’ road” and suggested that rather than addressing traffic problems, its purpose was to create an “opening for extensive development which would only create more traffic problems.”
Andrea McGimsey, a former member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, said that proposals like the North-South Corridor are nearly identical to a previous idea under a different name, the Western Transportation Corridor. “The difference now is that they took away local authority,” she said. “How can anyone look at this little piece here and say that’s significant to the state?”
Local leaders of both parties and from nearly every jurisdiction agree with Buchanan about the need for greater regional cooperation in solving the Washington area’s chronic transportation and infrastructure shortages, even if they don’t agree with him.
Buchanan said critics who worry about 2030’s influence should be more concerned about how the region will handle expected growth, given its political divisions. Not building new roads, he argues, is not going to stop people from wanting to live and work in the Washington area; it will just add to the already acute traffic congestion.
“The development is coming because people are moving here and they want to live here,” he said.