Friday, August 5, 2011

Is there sufficient market to sustain planned mixed-used developments in Loudoun?

Today's guest post is from Gem Bingol of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Is there a sufficient market to sustain One Loudoun?  Or for that matter, I’ll add—is there sufficient market to sustain the many mixed-use projects approved and under consideration?

First, a little background:
As residential development was revealed to be extremely costly to the county and taxpayers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and the notion of smart growth became increasingly popular, we at PEC noted a significant shift in the type of developer proposals that started coming into the County (aside from the unsuccessful Greenvest-led developer proposals to change the Transition Area from low density/rural-in-nature-transition area to suburban/mostly residential).

Mixed use developments, dubbed “town centers” were what developers touted as their response to the smart growth movement.  And generally, it is true that mixed use developments offer somewhat more walkability within the confines of the parcel being developed, although at the acreage and scale of many of these projects, they are often spread over too large a distance to be truly walkable (understood to be generally ¼ mile to ½ mile in distance) from end to end.  Without a planned transit component to tie them to the rest of the community, however, they function the same as any other development where people get into their cars to meet their needs. 

With each project the developer has asserted that the residential component of these mixed use developments is needed to draw the office users and make them successful commercial projects.  But the number and location of mixed use developments that have been approved in Loudoun is a major concern regarding viability.  One Loudoun is only one of many mixed-use developments that Boards of Supervisors have approved over the past several years:

Rt 7 & Rt 28 intersection: 
·         Dulles Town Center (latest section is town-center style development) (unbuilt) (Bus transit station planned)
·         Kincora (unbuilt) (Shuttle to metro proffered at some point during the development)
Rt 28 & Greenway (Rt 267):
·         Dulles World (approx 6 miles south of Dulles Town Center & Kincora and within 1 mile of the planned metro stop at Rt 606)
Rt 7 & Loudoun Cty Pkwy (Rt 772):
·         One Loudoun (within 3 miles of Dulles Town Center & Kincora)—no transit planned to serve it
Loudoun Cty Pkwy (Rt 772) & Greenway (Rt 267):
·         Moorefield Station--north side of proposed metro stop, within ¼ mile range
·         Loudoun Station--south side of proposed metro stop—within ¼ mile range approx. 5 miles away from One Loudoun to the north and 5 miles to Arcola Center to the south
Rt 50 and Loudoun Cty Pkwy (Rt 772)
·         Arcola Center—approx. 5 miles south of Moorefield Station and Loudoun Station with no nearby transit planned
Rt 50 & Tall Cedars Pkwy
·         Fox Gate—small residential component with 1 million + sq.ft. of commercial – approx 3 miles east of Arcola Center (shuttle proferred to Metro)
Rt 7 and Belmont Ridge Rd
·         Lansdowne Town Center—approx 3 miles to the west of One Loudoun—may be on the commuter bus route for West Falls Church, not sure
 Rt. 7 & River Creek Pkwy
·         Village at Leesburg—approx 1 mile to the east of Lansdowne Town Center—in the Town of Leesburg, it may be on the 7-7on 7 bus route.
And there’s more in the pipeline for consideration…
Loudoun Cty Pkwy (Rt 772)
·         Loudoun Center—approximately 1 mile or so to the proposed metro station at Rt 772
·         Loudoun Metro—approximately ½ mile to the proposed metro station at Rt 772.

Both are proposed on parcels that have approved but unbuilt keynote office parks —with no residential component.

My answer is that there is not sufficient market to support One Loudoun or most of the other approved and pending mixed-use developments and there won’t be in any near-term time horizon. 

Here is why:
 Loudoun’s commercial market cannot sustain all of the development potential in suburban Loudoun, whether mixed-use, keynote employment-style office parks or flex/industrial.  The further out you go from D.C., the more land there is to develop and it cannot all compete successfully. Loudoun currently has 39.3 million sq. ft. of approved and unbuilt office and flex industrial space.  The current vacancy rates are 16% for office, 14% for flex and 12% for industrial (source-Jan 2011 Economic Indicators monthly report by Loudoun County Dept. of Economic Development) It’s not the style of development so much as our location on the outside edge of the Washington metropolitan region which determines our commercial real estate market.
It takes years for just one of these mixed use developments to build out and become revenue positive. Reston Town Center is an example of the 20 year + timeframe involved. With as many mixed-use developments so close to each other as we have in Loudoun, just like in the traditional commercial market, they will all have to compete with similar developments for their business users.

 Location is still the prime draw for real estate.  For businesses that do choose to locate in Loudoun and want a mixed use site, transit accessibility will probably be a key factor in picking a location.  Internal walkability might contribute to the attractiveness of the site, but the ability to get there without a vehicle would provide an important difference.  That gives Moorefield Station and Loudoun Station a real edge because businesses that locate there can draw internal residents, commuters from outside the county and other Loudoun residents with the least additional vehicle miles sooner than other mixed use developments.  For employees in the future, alternative modes of travel will be increasingly important as congestion worsens and gas prices go up. Since Dulles Town Center has already seen substantial development and has plans for a bus transit center, it still has potential to develop effectively.  

In a separate post I’ll make the case for why residents and taxpayers should beware of the potential fall-out of so many mixed use developments scattered across the suburban area, or elsewhere in Loudoun. 

Gem Bingol
Loudoun & Clarke Field Officer
Piedmont Environmental Council

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