Learning From History to Shape Our Built Future

The George Mason Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship hosted a two and a half hour guided exploration on September 27 of more than three centuries of Northern Virginia development history.  The special evening lecture was given by Andrew Painter, a land use attorney and shareholder with the well-regarded real estate law firm Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh PC.  Painter is an avid follower of the region’s land development history and is also the author of a book on the history of the Virginia wine industry recently published by George Mason University Press.

His lecture focused on how the built environment of Northern Virginia developed into the places we live, work, entertain, and commute in today.  For seasoned real estate professionals in the audience, it was a walk down memory lane as Painter discussed major real estate and infrastructure projects as well as shifting land use policies which shaped the region.  For others who were more recent residents, the lecture was an opportunity to understand how the cities, towns and counties of this dynamic region evolved their downtown cores, neighborhoods, road networks, public buildings, open spaces, and even the history of naming their streets and communities.

A 1930s view of farms down Route 123 from Tysons Corner towards Vienna

The lecture provided a strong reminder of how far Northern Virginia has come from the sleepy farm- and dairy-based economy it was at the turn of the century.  Within a few short amazing decades after World War II, Northern Virginia changed rapidly through the 1940s to the 1970s into bedroom communities for the  growing number of federal workers in Washington, D.C.  Change accelerated and moved out further out to the suburbs of Loudoun County and Prince William County with the growth of the private corporate and technology sectors that triggered new waves of development through the 1980s up to today.

Painter pointed out that the high quality of life that continues to entice new residents to move here is the result of good decisions made by planners, politicians, and developers decades ago.  The construction, expansion, and improvement of major roads; the establishment of the Northern Virginia park system; the development of world-class educational institutions and hospitals; the construction of well-designed communities such as Reston, the Ballston corridor and Old Town Alexandria; and the development of impactful projects such as the Tysons Malls, Fairfax Corner, and Reston Town Center are examples of planning decisions that still provide societal benefits decades after their implementation.

Better designed communities and connected streets: Mosaic District in Merrifield today

He also pointed out that the problems we encounter today are also  the direct results of poor decision making, short-sighted community design choices, and political compromises likewise made decades ago.  One example is the shift in the design of neighborhood street networks from the traditional grid pattern of historic towns to the cul-de-sac laden pattern of modern subdivisions. This placed heavier traffic loads on fewer and fewer road connections.  This development trend has begun to change in the last decade or so with a shift back to more connected street design.

Other examples Painter pointed out were decisions to not proceed with major road projects and decisions to downzone parts of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties.  While these decisions may have been made for good reasons at the time, the impacts seen today are more traffic on existing roads and increased costs for housing.  One serious challenge for the region that Painter emphasized was continued population and economic growth coupled with a decreasing supply of developable residential land.  This will lead to a worsening housing affordability problem in the decades to come and needs to be the focus of public officials and developers.

Painter predicted that the dynamism of Northern Virginia will sustain the growth and quality of life that has marked the region over the last several decades.  “After all,” concluded Painter, ” the next chapter of Northern Virginia’s development history may perhaps begin with Amazon!”


(Photos from A. Painter presentation)

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