How D.C.'s future stacks up

Growth: An exercise maps strategy for the area.

February 03, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Imagine being handed a map and a stack of Legos and being told you have three hours to determine the future quality of life for the Washington metropolitan area's 5.5 million residents.

That was the daunting task laid before 300 elected officials, business owners and activists yesterday when they met to discuss strategies for handling the region's growth boom.

Leaders from 20 jurisdictions, including Howard and Anne Arundel counties, were broken into groups of 10 and handed a bin of Legos representing the 2 million people and 1.6 million jobs projected to enter the Washington area by 2030. They then had to agree on locations for every person and every job.

Organizers called the event, Reality Check Washington, a rare opportunity for leaders to discuss growth issues outside the context of local land-use hearings. The 2 million people projected to enter the area in the next 25 years would match the total that arrived between 1970 and 2000, an era of worsening traffic and soaring housing prices.

"Right now, these decisions tend to be made at the local level, even though the impact is often regional," said John Frece of the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research. "This is an effort to help people see the issues more broadly."

Len Forkas, partner in Milestone Communities Inc. and chairman of a Washington growth think tank, described the Washington area as a stepchild with 20 parents.

"There's no sense of ownership of the region," Forkas said. "Everyone's focused on their own back yard. One of the points of this exercise is to force people from various viewpoints to focus on the problem as a whole and take ownership of it."

Yesterday's event, held in downtown Washington and modeled on a similar exercise last year in Los Angeles, was organized by the Urban Land Institute's Washington District Council and the Washington Smart Growth Alliance. The organizers said they would like to arrange a similar exercise for the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Several Baltimore representatives were on hand to observe yesterday, and they said growth in the two cities must be viewed as related. "They really act as one, especially when it comes to housing," said Dunbar Brooks, manager of data development for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Faced with plastic bins of blue and yellow Legos, each representing thousands of jobs and residents, yesterday's participants agreed on several broad themes: Growth should be pushed toward urban areas served by mass transit; communities should feature a balance of new homes and jobs; and farms and open space should be preserved.

"We had no disagreement on the principles," said Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Anne Arundel councilwoman from the Annapolis area. "It's the application that's the hard part. Two million, that's a lot of people."

Samorajczyk's table was one of several where the Legos were stacked in towers around Washington and its immediate suburbs, with outlying counties in Maryland and Virginia absorbing little of the growth.

When asked whether she was protecting her home turf - only a few Legos appeared around Annapolis - Samorajczyk laughed and said, "I'm trying."

Other tables featured more even distributions, with residential development flecked into such distant Virginia suburbs as Fredericksburg and Warrenton, and such Maryland outposts as Thurmont.

"It's been interesting because the general assumption for a lot of people is that you build near transit, but then you hear from people in Virginia and they're really making a pitch for some of the development too," said Marsha McLaughlin, a Howard County planner.

McLaughlin stacked blue Legos, representing thousands of jobs, along Howard County's Route 1 corridor. "We really see that as our growth frontier," she said.

McLaughlin's group featured lively debate, with some members pushing for more open space and others saying property rights must not be forgotten. One businessman placed a tower of Legos on the Southern Maryland town of Waldorf, declaring that it could be the next Bethesda.

When a Virginia man placed several Legos in a rural stretch of Howard County, McLaughlin said, "I'm sorry, you cannot do that there. That's our Smart Growth area."

The most Lego-filled areas on many maps were in Prince George's County and Northern Virginia. "That's fine with me," said Albert G. Dobbins, a Prince George's planner. "I think we have much more development capacity than other jurisdictions in the area."

Each group was forced to use all its Legos because no matter what local governments do, market forces will cause growth in the area, Forkas said.

"The problem is we've got such enormous job growth ... and we're not producing enough housing to meet the demand," he said. "Also, based on the growth factors, it's going to be impossible for us to build enough infrastructure to keep up with the growth."

Reality Check organizers plan to release a report in April detailing the conclusions. "The goal is not to create some perfect map of where the growth should go," Forkas said. "It's to look at what the key, driving themes are."

Forkas added that the report should "identify examples in the region where leaders are reacting to the exercise in a positive way to plan for their fair share of the growth in the region."

He said that after the report is released, the land institute might try to organize smaller-scale exercises for local jurisdictions.

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