Millennials, empty nesters and people in between are flocking to walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods. As they do, the debates about development have surged — from Takoma to Bethesda, Alexandria to Reston, and even in areas sorely in need of revitalization, such as Seven Corners in Fairfax County.
Tired of driving and sitting in traffic, people want the convenience of being able to walk to the store, bike, take transit or simply have more time with their families. The demand for walkable, transit-oriented places is such that prices have been bid up. and finding affordable housing is a challenge. For people with lower incomes, it’s a crisis.
Yet wherever infill and walkable, transit-accessible development are proposed, existing residents are either saying no to development or forcing it to be cut back so much that the region isn’t producing the new housing we need.
Some of the most strident opposition comes from our wealthiest and most fortunate neighborhoods. This is the case even though these neighborhoods have benefited as their property values have soared by virtue of convenient access to Metro and all of the jobs, restaurants, grocery stores and services that transit-oriented development brings.
It is a good thing that people are passionate and actively engaged in planning decisions in our communities. We need everyone at the table, and we need to pay serious attention to good design, transportation, public spaces, affordable housing and other community benefits. We need to ensure we balance development, historic preservation, public parks and other community assets. But the intensity and hostility of the opposition are suppressing thoughtful discussion about the benefits of transit-oriented development for the community, transportation and the environment.
Beyond the impact on housing affordability across the region, the net result of just saying no will be worse outcomes in terms of the environment, economy, fiscal health and traffic. It will push more and more growth back to the fringes of our region, leaving older neighborhoods to decline, isolating jobs far from lower-income residents and generating longer-distance commutes and yet more traffic and air pollution. That was where we were headed in the 1990s when the Coalition for Smarter Growth and its partner conservation groups began advocating a better way to grow.
In contrast to extending highways and more sprawling development, focusing development at our Metro stations and in commercial corridors in the District and its suburbs offers a way to handle regional growth while minimizing driving trips and pollution and maximizing walking, bicycling and transit trips. It reduces the loss of farms and forests and ensures better access to homes, jobs and services. Transit-oriented development has revitalized dozens of neighborhoods and is finally bringing investment back to the east side of the region.
Living close to jobs and transit offers people lower combined housing and transportation costs than living farther away. People who walk, bike and use transit to get to work are measurably healthier compared with those who sit in cars every day. Compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development is also critical to fighting climate change, combining energy-efficient buildings with major reductions in carbon emissions from transportation.
Between 2000 and 2015, the District added more than 100,000 people. The percentage of car-free households is growing. Rates of walking, bicycling and transit use continue to rise with the economy and tax base.
Arlington has added millions of square feet of development in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor without increasing traffic over what it was in the 1970s. At its peak, before Base Realignment and Closure made an impact and before sequestration, Arlington’s two transit-oriented development corridors were generating nearly 50 percent of Arlington’s property tax base on just 11 percent of the county’s land. As a result, residential property tax rates remain the lowest in the region.
Metro planners recently looked at what full build-out of transit-oriented communities at all of our Metro stations would achieve. It would mean trains fully used in both directions generating greater revenue and moving Metro from needing an operating subsidy to having an annual surplus. That surplus could be reinvested in maintaining and upgrading the system. Metro planners also found transit-oriented development generates higher property values and tax revenue for localities and mitigates regional traffic.
We cannot fail in the mission to fix our Metro system. We must also meet our affordable-housing needs. This means every tool in our toolbox — beginning with approving more housing at Metro stations and in revitalized commercial corridors and more public funding and incentives to include affordable units in new development. We can’t afford to reject the form of development that offers us the most sustainable way to grow.
The writer is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.