STAN SETTLE JR., PULTE'S LAND-USE rainmaker, poured ferocious, never-say-never, round-the-clock attention into what was internally referred to as the “Fairlee” project for 24 months or more. After mountains of technical pre-work and data gathering, impact assessments galore, an unending stream of political cajoling, and grassroots canvassing for community support, the moment of truth culminated with a vote, a simple majority decision that happened to be entirely out of his control. Not that he didn't like his chances. Still, the resolution felt like waiting for a jury to come through with a verdict: You just never know until it's in.
Frayed nerves aside, Settle and company came out on top. In December 2004, after painstaking efforts by Settle and other stakeholders, the board of supervisors of Fairfax County, Va., revamped its land-use plan, paving the way for redevelopment near the county's Vienna Metro station that would turn what is currently a one-dwelling-per-acre zoned parcel into a high-density mini-city. The decision brought Pulte a step closer to building what would be, according to the Washington Business Journal, a $1 billion project—a project that would include 2,250 residential units ranging from three-story townhomes to 12-story multifamily buildings, in addition to 400,000 square feet of commercial. Replacing 61 single-family homes spread across 56 acres, the new Metro West project a massive hive of residential and retail activity feeding into the commuter transit artery connecting Vienna to the downtown streets of the nation's capital—may provide a glimpse at suburbia's more mindful future.
The Fairfax County board's move marks a philosophical about-face, ending decades of low-density zoning synonymous with suburbia's identity. In light of Fairfax's stature as an American suburb's suburb, consistently ranking as one of the top two wealthiest U.S. counties, and as a standard-setter in areas ranging from education to luring world-class companies, the board's decision could very well serve as a harbinger for other metropolitan counties grappling with such suburban challenges as sprawl, traffic congestion, and that all-too-elusive American notion of work and life balance.
Which may help explain how transit stations may just be poised to become a juggernaut of opportunity for builders, not only in the Washington, D.C., metro area, but in other large and small communities. New transit lines and stations, in fact, are on the drawing board from coast to coast in suburbs and cities alike, potentially creating lucrative parcels for builders (see map).
Between now and the year 2025, people establishing as many as one in four new households—an estimated 14.6 million households—will want to reside within a half-mile radius of transit stations, according to a September 2004 study from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development and funded by the Federal Transit Administration. Since there are currently 6 million households residing within a half-mile of transit stations, some experts project that builders have the opportunity to build no fewer than 8.6 million new homes in the vicinity of train hubs and terminals.
Putting a value on the market is hardly scientific, but UBS analyst Margaret Whelan says that she is “definitely hearing about” increased builder interest in transit-oriented development (TOD). While speculating that demand for TOD may be even greater than the FTA study suggests, she calculates that based on the study's estimates, at least a $2.25 billion sub-industry is in its fledgling moments. “Definitely, it's a concept that makes a lot of sense, and so there's going to be more demand going forward,” she says.
For sure, meeting the demand won't be easy. “For communities, transit systems, real estate developers, and financial institutions, this potential demand for housing presents not only a tremendous opportunity, but a challenge as well,” says FTA administrator Jennifer Dorn. According to the study, a big barrier will be in the area of rezoning work. Builders no doubt will need more people like Settle to get the job done.
Settle, Pulte's vice president of land acquisitions, and Jon Lindgren, Pulte's land acquisitions assistant manager, are particularly passionate about the Vienna, Va., Metro West project. “If you're going to have transit-oriented development that's going to be successful, this is the place where it's going to happen,” says Lindgren. “You've got all the ingredients here.” Such ingredients, he says, include a prime location and a sizable parcel of land that amounts to a clean slate for design opportunities.
While he asserts that the issue of tax revenue never entered the debate, Connolly can't be unhappy with the prospects for extra cash in the county coffers, either. A Pulte-funded study estimated that the project would bring an additional $26 million in tax revenue over seven years.