Azeezat A. Adeleke
North Point High School
Maryland – 2nd Place Winner
Grow Smartly, Live Smartly
Grab your keys; it’s time for a road trip across the Washington area. Pulling out onto the Beltway, many of the wonderful facets of this region come into focus: the grandeur of downtown Washington and the row house lined streets that surround it, the defense powerhouse that is the Dulles corridor, and the biotechnology and science epicenter in Maryland. However, this storied loop also carries us past parts of this area that cannot merit praise. The Beltway can be described more often than not as a parking lot, not a highway. Much of the development in Maryland and Virginia relies on the car centric policies of Eisenhower’s day, resulting in communities that are neither dynamic nor walkable. The District has its fair share of blighted areas in need of intervention. In the current economic climate, smart growth and smart development are more essential than ever. The task of today’s local government, along with up and coming entrepreneurs, is to foster those principles in the hopes of building a sunnier economic future for this region’s citizens, especially its youth.
Luckily, Washington has its share of examples for future growth. Our next stop is New York Avenue, in the heart of Downtown. The place is abuzz with the melodies of construction: concrete being poured, jackhammers roaring, truck doors slamming. Witness the rise of City Center DC, a development poised to bring offices, apartments, condos, retailers, and restaurants to what was previously a surface parking lot in the heart of an urban tapestry. The project is confined to ten acres, promising a dense and vibrant new neighborhood. Pedestrian oriented streets will get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalk. This piece of land will never be the same. Continuing along I-495, we reach another bright spot in the region: Silver Spring, Maryland. What works here is obvious: mixed use planning and entertainment options that appeal to the youngest and oldest citizens make an average weekend night on Fenton and the surrounding streets a fun adventure. The energy is irresistible. The scene is very similar at our last stop: Old Town Alexandria. King Street, the main artery, offers diverse boutiques, eateries, and other diversions. The availability of public transportation makes the area easy to explore. All of these hotspots welcome visitors and give them plenty of reasons to stay.
It is easy to see that all of Greater Washington’s jurisdictions know what makes great development. The next step is to encourage new projects that follow in the path of City Center, Old Town, and Silver Spring in areas that are at the opposite end of the smart growth spectrum. These are places where freeways block pedestrian access, every building is strictly commercial or residential, and retail is limited to the same cadre of national chains. An initial step that local governments can take in this direction is adapting zoning laws to encourage mixed use planning. Regulations that were set decades ago do not reflect current trends. They must be kept up to date. Jurisdictions should also issue tax breaks toward the cost of acquiring land for infill development. Often, there are more hurdles to building on a site that is flanked by existing buildings as opposed to one on a recently cleared patch of forest. A contractor taking on that challenge should be rewarded. Presently, finding space in the budget for such tax breaks is a top concern, and rightly so. However, the long term benefits of new development outweigh the short term costs.
Often, the most visionary talent in a field, those most likely to make a splash, is the youngest. This holds true for the realms of development and architecture as well. Young managers and designers may not always receive the consideration they deserve because contracts are awarded to companies that adhere to the well treaded ideas of the status quo. The status quo, however, does little good. Local governments should focus on encouraging young firms by awarding design contracts based on the innovation present in a proposal. In effect, they should recognize forward thinking over an ability to play it safe. In return, young thinkers must step up to the challenge of being innovative. This idea is beneficial in two ways: first, the District, Maryland, and Virginia would gain exciting new projects and second, the design community in the Metropolitan Area would experience a renaissance. In this way, the area can begin to make itself into not just a government, science, and technology center, but an artistic one as well.
Young business leaders in different fields will reap the rewards of a renewed government focus on smart growth. Millions of square footage in office and retail space means the door of opportunity opens for new start ups, clothing stores, restaurants, and other ventures that would otherwise be shut out of the real estate market. In the District, office vacancy rates stand in the low teens as spaces go for an average of $47.60 per square foot1. For a young, small group of entrepreneurs just starting out, those conditions do not beget success. Local governments can foster the growth of the next generation of business professionals in the region by giving them, literally, room from which they can grow their projects. In turn, they will grow the region.
There is one question still unanswered: why the focus on development? How does it impact everyday citizens in Greater Washington? The answer is simple. Smart, well planned, and well placed development results in huge gains in quality of life for all segments of the population: wealthy, working class, toddlers, young adults, retirees, and anyone in between. More density on a given unit of land results in more economic output in said area. Envision a ten story apartment building on a plot of land in the Maryland suburbs. Now, imagine that building with four floors of apartments, two floors of retail, and four floors of office space, all on that same land. The reduction in car trips from stores being mere footsteps away is an environmental triumph. Families, office workers, and shoppers mix, all benefitting from increased access to goods and services.
The availability of new employment opportunities cannot be overlooked, especially during the current downturn. A startling 18.1% of Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty four are jobless2. The overall unemployment rate is half that, at nine percent, and still a crisis in itself. New development promises to breathe life into the struggling economy, creating a ripple effect that will doubtlessly aid the youth unemployed. Those two hypothetical floors of retail could provide jobs that finance a twenty-three year old’s MBA, or help an eighteen year old pay off her car loans. Additionally, the revenue taken in by these new commercial projects will be subject to taxes that prevent cuts to the youth programs that are often first to go during a recession. This generation stands more to gain from smart growth than any other.
Nothing defines a city more than the places that its inhabitants spend their time, be they the office, the movie theater, the coffee shop, the park, or home. What the youth of today and their elected leaders must decide, then, is what that definition should be. Is this area one where development is single use and isolated? Where we are only connected by wide lanes of asphalt? Where there is no recognition of young talent and innovation? Where young business leaders are forced to struggle just to remain in the game? Greater Washington is better than that. Through intelligently planned communities, this region can ignite its economy, strengthen its artistic culture, help new businesses grow, repair the environment, and receive attention from every part of the country, all while launching the careers of young professionals. This opportunity is too attractive to pass up. Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the time is now. Act.
- Capital Business. "D.C. Office Vacancy Rate Up, Office Rental Rates up." WashingtonPost.com. The Washington Post, 17 May 2010. Web. 10 Sept. 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/14/AR2010051404379.html.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment and Unemployment among Youth Summary." U.S. Department of Labor, 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Sept. 2011. http://bls.gov/news.release/youth.nr0.htm.