An Exurban Dilemma: To Urbanize or Not to Urbanize?

At its July 3rd meeting, the Loudoun County, Virginia Board of Supervisors voted to support the extension of the DC-area’s Metrorail rapid transit system into the county, a decision that the president of Loudoun’s Chamber of Commerce called “a huge investment in Loudoun’s future…important not just for our economy in the next quarter or the next year, but for a payoff that will be generational.” Only two weeks later, the same Board of Supervisors bucked a national trend toward regulation of large-format (i.e., “big box”) retailers and eliminated a fifteen-month-old provision of the county zoning ordinance that required such retailers to seek a special exception in order to locate in the county’s commercial districts. According to Supervisor Ralph Buona, the zoning amendment was intended “to show we’re open for business.”

Both the Metro approval and the big box reversal were accomplished in the name of economic development, but they represent markedly different approaches to urbanism – one vote an apparent embrace, the other an apparent repudiation. For exurban communities on the fringes of America’s cities, Loudoun’s seemingly inconsistent approach illustrates a dilemma: in the midst of this nation’s “urban renaissance,” are exurbs better served economically by becoming more or less like the urban centers they orbit? And, regardless of the answer, which path will they choose?

Through at least three of the four jurisdictions it will traverse, the Metrorail extension (known locally as the Silver Line) will provide a showcase of sorts as to the evolution of urbanism in Northern Virginia’s Washington, DC suburbs. Extending from the historic urban core of the District, which demonstrated remarkable resistance to, and thrived in spite of, the Great Recession, the new line will pass through Arlington County, Virginia, which decades ago embraced a Metro-oriented philosophy of focused density (and which recently adopted its own special exception requirement for “big box” retailers). Continuing outward, the Silver Line will also pass through the Tysons Corner region of Fairfax County, an historically auto-oriented commercial cluster composed primarily of office and retail uses. For years the prototypical “edge city”, Tysons Corner is now, with the impending arrival of Metro, actively preparing to transform into a “walkable, sustainable, urban center.”

The embrace of urbanism on display in Metro DC’s Silver Line corridor is not unique to the capital region, but is rather reflective of a nationwide phenomenon driven at least in part by generational housing preferences and evidenced by recently-released census data showing that for the first time in the automobile age,cities are growing faster than their suburbs. Retailers, including traditionally large-formatted retailers, have not failed to note this trend toward urbanism and have been taking steps to enter or expand their presence in the marketplace. Thus, while Loudoun removed its special exception requirement because it “imposed too much regulation on these uses,” several “big box” retailers of the sort the county aims to attract have been altering their formats, entering into community benefits agreements and making generous charitable donations in urban markets characterized by particularly heavy regulation.

And therein lies the land use dilemma for Loudoun County and exurbs like it.

Itself a product of decades of explosive auto-oriented growth, but now faced with popular preferences trending toward urban amenities, Loudoun must wrestle with what Caitlin Gibson of the Washington Post terms its “evolving identity.” Within a two-week span, the Board of Supervisors took concrete steps in two different directions. In committing to the Metrorail extension, the Board embraced a quintessentially urban amenity that has been leveraged by neighboring counties to transform and grow their built environments in an urban fashion. In contrast, by reversing course on its regulation of large-format retail, the Board looked to the anti-urban, auto-centric model of development responsible for much of the county’s growth to date, even as target retailers move to capitalize on the urban trend. In the years ahead, whether Loudoun charts a path of continued auto-orientation, fully embraces the targeted urbanizing potential of Metro, or seeks some balance between the two, it will undoubtedly be a fascinating study for other exurbs (and the retailers who serve them) searching to find the right track – or, perhaps, the road to prosperity – in changing times.

Related topics: Retail, Transportation