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Is Northern Virginia becoming two different places?

A silver line train approaches at The Spring Hill Station in Tysons. (Photo by Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

Northern Virginia’s economy is undergoing a rocky transition, with ongoing losses of federal jobs, empty office buildings lined up along Route 28, the state’s biggest private building empty for more than a year and Tysons Corner trying to remake itself.

On his blog, George Mason University professor, economist and writer Tyler Cowen regularly offers insight into issues local, national and international. He sees something larger happening in the commonwealth, and this week he wrote a post suggesting that Northern Virginia is gradually splitting into two different places.

Cowen posits that a identity is forming around north Arlington and Northwest D.C. that resembles Santa Monica, while much of Fairfax County is failing. Here’s his post in full:

When I visited Santa Monica in January it struck me how much it reminded me of…Arlington.  Arlington is now essentially a part of Northwest, at least Arlington above Route 50 or so.  Arlington and Santa Monica have never been more alike, or less distinctive.
Parts of east Falls Church will meld into Arlington, and south Arlington will become more like north Arlington.  Real estate prices east/north of a particular line are rising and west of that line are falling.  Fairfax is definitely west of that line.
The Tysons Corner remake will fail, Vienna is not the new Clarendon, and the Silver Line and the monstrously wide Rt.7 will form a new dividing line between parts of Virginia which resemble Santa Monica and parts which do not.
Incumbents aside, no one lives in Fairfax any more to commute into D.C.  Why would you?  The alternatives are getting better and Metro parking became too difficult some time ago.  Fairfax is not being transformed, although some parts are morphing into “the new Shirlington.”  Most of it will stay dumpy on the retail side.  Annandale will stay with Fairfax, whether it likes it or not.
For ten years now I have been predicting various Fairfax restaurants will close — casualties of too-high rents — and mostly I have been wrong.  The good Annandale restaurants are running strong too.  Annandale won’t look much better anytime soon, thank goodness for that.
“Northern Virginia” is becoming two different places, albeit slowly.

Planners and commercial real estate types have begun saying something similar about Northern Virginia and the suburbs in general, though with some differences. Since the recession, a premium has been placed on walkable, urban (or at least urban-feeling) places. In the suburbs, these places are often built around public transit hubs, as Arlington has done around Orange Line stations. When Arlington was referred to recently as “the suburb of the future,” one imagines it was north Arlington the writer had in mind.

On the flip side, places built to serve a single use — shopping malls, office parks, subdivisions — and which are accessible only by car have sometimes ended up losers. Suburban office parks that are not near transit, for instance, are suffering  high vacancy, to the point where experts believe some of them will have to be torn down rather than re-leased. Mall owners are trying to re-invent their properties as mixed-use town centers.

A major question for Fairfax County stakeholders is whether Tysons, outfitted with four Silver Line stations, will join the first group or the latter. Will the growing companies that make up the private sector as government declines choose to relocate in Tysons, or will they shun it they way they do Sterling, because of young workers who ride transit or do not own cars?

Cowen is firmly in the camp betting against Tysons. He wrote in 2009 that Tysons is “like a large box with distant extremities protruding, all laid on top of some multi-level and impassable thick bones.” Harder to classify perhaps is Reston Town Center, where rents are already higher than they are in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor even though Metro has not yet arrived. 

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz