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As we got set for the weekend, I gazed out over a sobering sight to remind me that Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is not always simple to achieve.

We were waiting to board the bus for New York for a weekend with our niece and her girlfriend.  My wife looked out over the scrim of new condos  at the edge of a bare field, and expressed her disgust at the “ticky tacky” new developments.  I told her that this was the MetroWest development, which was an exciting redevelopment of a formerly single family complex right next to the the metro station.

This metro station at the end of one of the busiest lines in DC’s system had long been designed as though its sold purpose was to lure drivers off the interstate  and have them take the last 20 miles of their ride on the train.  Once 5,000 cars filled up the decks, then the function of the metro station was essentially done for the day, and it would run trains at wide intervals to serve the few stragglers who arrived by bus or *gasp* foot.  The number on foot would be very low, as the station was situated in the  middle of a highway next an offramp.  The housing developments that surrounded the station had nothing to do with it when it was built around 1984.

Over the years, subdivisions came in that were higher density in recognition of the rail line’s capacity and connection to jobs downtown.  But there were nothing but housing developments here and there.  They were “Texas Doughnuts”, with parking surrounded by 3-4 stories of housing to allow every apartment or condo 2 parking spaces.  They were built dense for transit, but they still had to allow lit e in the suburbs.  Resident used transit only for the commute, but for everything else they needed a car in traffic.  The station was built in the middle of an interstate next to an offramp.

We lived in one of these Transit Adjacent Developments (TAD) for 2 years during my first job out of school.  I used to walk through the metro station to get to work.  But there was nothing but housing.roads and parking.

This made MetroWest exciting, as it was designed a s a complete suite of hosing , jobs and retail to satisfy our needs for walkable stimulation and service.  I remember thrilling to this during an interview with AECOM (nee EDAW) and looking forward to a Fairfax County that finally got it.

But now they’ve built all the residences they can stand in MetroWest, and the Commercial and Retail promise is a grass stormwater promise awaiting development.  The residents walk across the field to get to the station.

Angel of Suburbia

Angel of Suburbia

The problem is that the commercial real estate market is not what it needs to be.  One sure way for a developer to go bankrupt is to build a multi-million dollar office tower that sits as vacant as downtown Detroit for an indefinite period.  They need tenants for this to happen.  Without the commercial, there is no structure and no market of the retail, mostly restaurants for the office lunch crowd and resident dinner crowd.

Office demand has not gone down a great deal in the DC area, but it has gotten much more compact.  It was an embarrassing adage ten years ago that offices devote as much space to parking each worker’s car as they do to the worker’s office.  Now that ratio is down to twice as much space for each workers car.  An office simply devotes much less space to each worker than it use d to.  This is great for businesses that lease, but a catastrophe for those that build the buildings and that they would actually want to lease int. And of course a problem for those of us who took commercial office development as a granted and important piece of every thriving TOD.

12 years ago, when I was just learning about the filed, a keynote speaker proclaimed that commercial office was the lynchpin of TOD.  Without it the TOD will fail.  Well now what?

So MetroWest will have to wait for a critical mass of successful tenants to come occupy the space.  And they will have to of this in competition with all the other office buildings in the DC area.It a great place for an office retail compile,x but there has to be the real estate market to support it.  Full Stop.

MetroWest is a great wiring  that if you draw it, they may not come.  At least I can be confident that these real estate forces are not particular to TOD, but affect traffic dependent and walkable developments the same.

* BTW, I wrote this in a bus going down I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike.  It added a certain piquancy to my ordinary typographic style.