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Loudoun Assumes Roles of Edge City

Instead of sleeping here and leaving at 9 a.m., people are coming to Loudoun County to work.

Businesses along three major transportation corridors and a host of major employers, such as MCI WorldCom, America Online, Inc. and several airline companies, bring commuters from in and out of the county.

Though residents work outside the county, enough are staying for parts of Loudoun to be considered “urbs,” according to Joel Garreau, a Fauquier County writer and principal of his own company, the Edge City Group in Broad Run.

Garreau, Maryland developer Robert Buchanan and Loudoun Supervisor Chuck Harris discussed Loudoun’s future on March 27 at the last of four “Reimagining the Suburbs” panel discussions at Northern Virginia Community College. “Whither Loudoun?” was the question they tried to answer in the two-hour panel.

Garreau talked about urbs or edge cities, which he defines in his book, “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier.” Sixteen edge cities are located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, including the one at Tysons Corner, five in Fairfax County and one in Loudoun County, which is located along the Dulles Toll Road corridor. Another two edge cities are emerging along Route 7 east of Leesburg and along the Route 28 corridor. They do not meet all of the criteria of an edge city.

“This is the densest area of edge cities in the world,” Garreau said about the Washington, D.C. area. “These are not suburbs. They are urbs.”

EDGE CITIES have the functions of a city, but typically do not have sidewalks, mayors and city councils. They do have hotels, restaurants, bars and bookstores.

“An edge city is comparable to a downtown," Garreau said. "These things don’t match political jurisdictions.”

Garreau defines an edge city as having five million square feet or more of office space and 600,000 square feet or more of retail space. An edge city is an urb with more jobs than bedrooms and is perceived as one place, an end destination for mixed use, Garreau said. “If people think it’s one place, then it’s one place, no matter how sprawling it is,” he said.

Edge cities once were villages, pastures or wheat fields in the 1970s or later. Their development started post-World War II when residents moved outside of the downtown areas to the suburbs. The malling of America hit in the 1960s-70s as retail centers relocated to where the residents lived. Then, the jobs joined with the living and shopping areas, leading to the rise of edge cities with populations that can exceed metropolitan cities, Garreau said.

“The future of all urban centers is face-to-face contact of one kind or another,” Garreau said, adding that after the late 1940s, businesses did not need this contact. They could spread out their office base and move products through two transportation sources, the automobile and jet plane.

“It also dematerializes humans,” Garreau said.

Computers, the third transportation source, does not keep the worker, shopper and resident from going to the office, stores and neighborhoods, though technology frees people from having to go to a particular location, Garreau said.

“Why do you need any kind of cities in the future at all,” Garreau said. “We’re social animals … The places that are good for face-to-face will thrive. The places that are not good for face-to-face will die.”

HARRIS AGREED with the social aspect of development.

“A good use of public spaces is extremely important to the economy and to how we live our lives,” said Harris (D-Broad Run), Ashburn resident.

Harris said streets are a primary public space, so transportation is about moving people, not about moving cars. “You can design space so it’s pleasant and so the areas have heart and soul,” he said.

Harris showed slides of city streets with several stoplights and traffic congestion, along with slides of streets with fewer cars, fewer lights and green strips down the middle. He quoted Walter’s principal, saying that people who travel through an ugly corridor think their travel time is longer than if they drive down a street they consider “comfortable and pleasing.”

“Growth is inevitable. Ugliness is not,” Harris said. “Optimum community planning can make our community an optimal place to live.”

Loudoun is a well-planned community that did not develop in a hodge-podge fashion, said Buchanan, principal of Buchanan Partners, LLC. He pointed to several major factors for Loudoun’s continued development, including the large number of planned developments and a fiber-optic infrastructure used by data centers. He mentioned the location of Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, the future move-in of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute near Leesburg and the county’s [nine] higher education facilities and satellite campuses along Route 7 and in Leesburg as other factors. One of the colleges is Mary Baldwin College, which is under construction in Countryside, according to the Department of Economic Development.

“We run the risk of outpacing ourselves,” said Buchanan, who developed the Loudoun Tech Center in Dulles.

Buchanan said high housing costs may turn companies away who cannot afford the salary requirements of the area. “Don’t price yourselves out of the labor force,” he said, adding that the average price of a single-family home is expected to be $500,000 by the end of the year.

“We have some very real problems,” Buchanan said, adding that Loudoun should look at older neighborhoods as a way to provide low and moderate-income housing. “Look at how to preserve older communities so people can buy there,” he said.

“The market is trying to tell you something," Garreau said. "People are willing to come here.”

The Loudoun Museum hosted the panel discussions and smart growth exhibit, “Reimagining the Suburbs, Smart Growth and Choices for Change.” The exhibit was housed last month at the Loudoun Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, in Sterling.