Three keys to successful projects

August 11, 2010

In the early '70s, I took my freshly minted planning degree to Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from the District of Columbia, to staff the county's unique Neighborhood Conservation Program.

Most of the neighborhoods I was assigned to were in an uproar over the coming of the Metro subway system. They feared that rampant development at the rail stops would spill over into their lovely, tree-lined communities, causing overflow parking, traffic congestion, and worse.

Whippersnapper that I was, I had absolutely no idea how to solve these problems. Luckily, I was privileged to work with Thomas C. Parker Jr.

Tom, who holds architecture and planning degrees from Virginia Tech, taught me all the things I missed in planning school: how to dissect documents for hidden zoning violations, how to stand up to lawyers who wanted an extra floor or two for their clients' projects, how to calm down overwrought community advocates, how not to look like too much of a jerk when addressing the plan commission.

Recently, I asked Tom, happily retired after 30 years as deputy planning director and economic development chief, for a tour of our old stomping grounds. What I saw amazed me.

At Pentagon City, once a clay pit, there stands a gigantic mixed-use retail center, with luxury apartments atop commercial structures; it attracts a third of its business from across the river, thanks to the Metro. At Virginia Square, a decrepit shopping center has been refashioned into a handsome office/residential complex. It is also the new home to George Mason University's law school.

Most amazing of all, Ballston. "See how it cascades from high-rise at the center, to mid-rise, to townhouse?" my guide pointed out — a near-perfect progression of densities from the center outward, with minimal impact on the surrounding residential community.

How did it work so nicely? "Three things," Tom said. First, a zoning scheme that encouraged developers to assemble multi-use developments around Metro stops. Second, a county board that stuck to its guns on the master plan.

And third, a more sophisticated design and construction process than in the early days, when hotshot lawyers and developers could play games with density restrictions. Today, the very size of the projects demands a sophisticated Building Team approach, where owners, designers, and contractors have to work together, with local government, or complex projects won't get done.

So, good planning. A legislature committed to enforcing it. And a new kind of Building Team. Not a bad formula for success.


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