Flexibility for developers (“Hey, let’s see if Mikey will eat it…”)

Ever see the TV commercial for Life cereal, where the older boys fed some cereal to the youngest kid to see if Mikey would eat it?

The developers are doing the same to Prince William and Loudoun counties, telling the supervisors in both places that “flexibility” is required for new development.  According to Leesburg Today, the developers are even pitching the same Powerpoint about Fairfax Corner.  (If you attended the October 21 session for the Prince William “business community” to comment on the draft Land Use and Transportation chapters, you’ll remember that long, long, long presentation at the end.)

Just what do the developers mean by “flexibility”?  If they can get both Prince William and Loudoun to swallow what they’re selling, how will that shape where offices are built?

Developers want parcels in Prince William to be rezoned for greater density, and are selling the idea that “mixed use” will create walkable communities instead of housing-only subdivisions, retail-only shopping areas, and office-only job centers.

The Planning Commission in Prince William has endorsed mixed use, and proposed in their draft of the Land Use chapter that rezonings based on promises of mixed use should include some performance-based measures.  Requiring development of residential/retail/office is linked phases will ensure that the full range of office, as well as housing/retail, will be constructed.  According to the Planning Commission, rezonings should include phasing, so developers must construct  a significant percentage of the promised office space before moving on to construct the full amount of permitted housing.

However, the developers (and the Prince William Planning Department staff) are fighting proposals to require phasing development by use, and requiring construction of substantial office space before they can develop 100% of the maximum residential space.  Developers claim performance requirements to ensure a mix of uses, as a parcel is developed, would be too constraining.

Developers are pushing for “flexibility,” authority in a rezoning to build 100% of residential units right away – because that’s where developers can make a quick profit.  Years later, developers will come back and construct the commercial space.  The refrain is “trust the developers, give them flexibility.”

Why should the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors care what the developers build first?

Once the new residential units are built, Prince William will have to build more schools, fire/police stations, parks, libraries, and roads for the new residents.   Revenue from commercial property taxes will stay low, while builders concentrate on adding “rooftops” and retail.  One day perhaps, the developers will decide the market is ripe and complete the full mix of uses promised in a rezoning.  Trust ’em, they’ll do it.  Someday.

If both Loudoun and Prince William give “flexibility” to developers to build whatever they want/whenever they want, think those developers working in both Loudoun and Prince William will first construct offices on Route 28 near Dulles before building commercial space somewhere down in Prince William, where profits/square foot are significantly lower?

Even if the Prince William officials make it a priority to extend Route 234 north through the Rural Area, creating a new road though South Loudoun subdivisions and then to the back side of Dulles, think those developers will:
– construct offices on the east side of Dulles on Route 28, with direct access to the airport and close access to Tysons/DC
– construct offices miles away in Gainesville, where the access to Dulles is via Route 28… or an extension of Route 234 that goes to the wrong side of the airport?

“Flexibility” means developers can fill up their empty spaces in Loudoun and Fairfax, while building just a few token offices in Prince William county. “Flexibility” means Prince William will plan for mixed use, but get just the residential part of the mix.  How will Prince William pay its bills, while waiting, waiting for the promised boom in commercial real estate construction?

When Prince William County has to pay for schools and other services, and has only residential real estate to tax in order to fund the basic services… guess what happens to the taxes on homeowners?
Hint: Watch the current budget discussions, where the only question in setting the 2011 budget guidance is how high the Board of County Supervisors will raise the taxes on homeowners.

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