Modernizing Main Street
Smart growth should be a no-brainer. The concept is simple enough: enhancing communities
through development, rather than piling on to existing problems. Yet real estate developers now
see that many practices that made sense for decades were neither smart nor sustainable.
Sure, anyone can have a big lawn and an unobstructed view if they build far enough from a city
center. But the roads required to support that outward expansion create traffic and scatter
the pollution while diminishing the availability of public space and the quality of life for all.
As the greater Washington area prepares to absorb an estimated 1.7 million new residents by 2030, Kogod is focusing on the sorts of sustainable development that make the most sense here and in other rapidly growing metro areas.
As president of Donatelli Development in Bethesda, MD, Chris Donatelli has overseen multiple mixed-use development projects in Washington, including the Kenyon Square condominiums in Columbia Heights. Donatelli serves on Kogod’s Real Estate Advisory Council, bringing his professional insight to the classroom.
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Bike-friendly: 15th Street Bike Lane
In 2009, a southbound bike lane was installed along a stretch of 15th Street in Northwest Washington, traditionally a key car commuting lane for drivers headed downtown. More recently, an expansion was approved to take the lane all the way to the Capitol, a total of 2.5 miles. Although Washington already has about 50 miles of bike lanes, the relatively recent move to incorporate these lanes into busy roads such as 15th Street signals an effort to encourage biking to work and adds to the appeal of downtown housing.
Transit-oriented: Wisconsin Place, Friendship Heights Neighborhood
Not long ago, the area surrounding the Friendship Heights Metro station, on the DC/Maryland border, had large swaths of undeveloped land. That’s changing rapidly with a series of developments, most recently Wisconsin Place, which features high-end retail, condos, and a wide assortment of dining—a total of 1.1 million square feet of office, retail, and high-rise residential space, all on the same block as the Metro entrance.
Pedestrian-friendly: Tysons Corner, VA
Longtime residents of the Washington region may not be able to fathom the idea of walking around Tysons, a region marked by strip malls, car dealerships, and indoor malls and surrounded by traffic-choked roads that lack sidewalks. But that’s changing. In late 2010, a draft plan was approved that would encourage development of residential properties, along with four transit stations and the addition of new office space, in an effort to organize the sprawl around a central, walkable core.
“I do see the future [of real estate growth] in urban development,” says Donatelli, who notes that during the current economic downturn, inner-city real estate values have generally held up better than those in the suburbs. His formula for successful urban development calls for a combination of residential and retail properties close to a Metro station; the practice promotes walking and use of public transportation and creates a sense of community.
This sort of mixed-use development is, in many ways, a return to an earlier time, when people lived in compact towns and were able to conduct much of their business along the town’s Main Street. In contemporary Washington, the concept has only recently been embraced in regions such as the U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights in Northwest and Gallery Place in downtown.
New development in these areas has turned once-deserted strips into vibrant retail and dining centers, with new apartments and condominiums nearby. “For many years, downtown Washington was a ghost town,” says Donatelli, a Bethesda native. “The most striking difference from when I was growing up is how dynamic and international the downtown core has become.”
David Orr, who heads the development firm Orr Partners in Reston, VA, and also serves on the advisory council, stresses that aside from their convenience factor, mixed-use developments can concentrate buildings in a way that limits land disturbance and ultimately leaves more open space for everyone to enjoy. “If we can minimize the consumption of our resources, we are going to be a better planet,” says Orr. “It’s about recognizing patterns of growth and saying, ‘Let’s be responsible and preserve the green spaces.’”
For all of the appeal the notion of Main Street holds in the American consciousness, it is clearly not possible—or even advisable—to attempt to return entirely to the past. Modern cities are too populous and modern life too complex to build all activities around a single city center. Such limits to extremely dense development are particularly applicable in Washington, where a 100-year-old law restricts the height of any building to 110 feet. When developers talk about town centers now, they are referring not only to the downtown areas within cities but also to places like Virginia’s Reston Town Center, where people once went to get away from crowds.
After years of urban residents migrating to the outer suburbs, Reston Town Center—which is more than 20 miles from downtown Washington—offers a kind of modern Main Street in the heart of the suburban sprawl, saving residents long trips into the city.
“The sprawl is there. You can’t make it go away,” explains Robert Lipnick, an adjunct real estate professor at Kogod who focuses on green building. As an LEED-accredited professional, Lipnick believes smart development should not only use space more efficiently but also incorporate green building materials, such as permeable outdoor surfaces that limit wastewater runoff.
“For many years, downtown washington was a ghost town. the most striking difference from when i was growing up is how dynamic and international the downtown core has become.”
President, Donatelli Development
Lipnick says that his dual training in medicine and real estate helps him appreciate that real estate development can impact not just the quality of life but the quality of health as well.
“Part of where I come from is having spent my life in the world of medicine,” he explains. “I have come to appreciate that the American lifestyle, with its heavy reliance on cars, has contributed to a sedentary population and high rates of obesity. The car and the architectural sprawl have both contributed to this problem.”
Although he understands that change will be protracted and that restrictive zoning laws and “not in my backyard” attitudes will have to be addressed before dense, mixed-use development is adopted throughout the region, Lipnick firmly believes that the era of building new roads to accommodate outward development is over.
“We are beginning to take the existing infrastructure and convert it to an environment that is more inviting for people to travel by foot and by bicycle. For students planning careers in real estate, it is imperative that they recognize this.”
Professor Peter Chinloy, whose research at Kogod specializes in real estate innovation, says one need look no further than the Metro station that serves the American University campus.
The Tenleytown area serves the University, other large employers, and residential communities. But in the center of the bustling community is an underused commercial strip of mostly low-rise retail space; several gutted buildings sit vacant at street level. They are a product of the practice of building out rather than filling in.
Yet even the Tenleytown neighborhood is starting to fill in its underused spaces with the addition of new condos, a city pool, and a new library, currently under construction—a testament that sometimes smart growth comes in the second act.