The Yardstick

We want your input: How can Activity Centers guide development and move the Region Forward?

August 22, 2012 | Tags: activity centers, affordable housing, D.C., development, growth, housing, infrastructure, land use, maryland, population, redevelopment, region forward, Region Forward Coalition, regionalism, smart growth, sustainability, transit, transportation, urban planning, Virginia

Sophie Mintier, Housing Planner at MWCOG working on the update of the Region Activity Centers Map

This is part one of a multi-part series on the new Activity Centers for metro Washington. Read part two which provides more detail on how the new Centers differ from previous versions.

1.6 million. That’s the population of the city of Philadelphia. That’s also the number of people MWCOG forecasts will move to metro Washington by 2040. Accommodating this high rate of growth without exacerbating our already notorious traffic congestion and extending suburban sprawl requires effective planning and targeted development.

MWCOG has recently developed a new set of Regional Activity Centers to shape the region’s future development. The suburban office park has become an obsolete development model.  Instead, businesses—and the young professionals they need to employ—increasingly want to locate in higher density, mixed-use places with access to transit.

Rosslyn (Arlington County)

Examples of Activity Centers can be found throughout metro Washington, including highly urbanized areas, such as Downtown Washington and the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, emerging growth centers like New Carrollton, and traditional towns, such as Manassas. While these places take very different forms, they share the same basic concept: concentrate development in areas that will have the planning and infrastructure in place to support it.

Activity Centers are the cornerstone of the Region Forward vision, which recommends that a majority of metro Washington’s future growth be focused in these activity centers—75 percent of new commercial construction and 50 percent of new households.

However, the Region Forward Baseline Progress Report recently showed new growth had fallen short of the region’s targets in 2010. Activity centers only captured 46 percent of new commercial construction and 31 percent of household growth.

The Activity Centers concept has been in place in metro Washington for about 10 years. The first regional map of Activity Centers was approved in 2002, with an update in 2007. For the last 10 years, MWCOG has mainly used Activity Centers to conduct technical analysis and transportation planning, such as developing growth forecasts, measuring commercial construction activity, and modeling transportation capacity.

But with Activity Centers as the main spatial component of Region Forward, we think they could also be used to guide policy, planning, and investment decisions at the local and regional levels. In launching a new update to the Activity Centers earlier this year, MWCOG staff decided to take a different approach to identifying Activity Centers from past rounds.

Downtown Frederick, Maryland

We started by looking at local planning documents – comprehensive plans and sector plans – and working with local planning staff to identify the places in each city and county that are identified as centers or preferred growth areas. From there, we applied a combination of mandatory and optional attributes to identify centers. These included a mandatory density requirement (combined population and employment), and optional requirements focused on transit capacity, intersection density, land use mix, and housing and transportation costs. The result of this approach is a set of 136 centers throughout the region. There are many more centers than in the previous round, but they are smaller, providing a more focused scale for placemaking. You can learn more about how the centers were identified and view the proposed map here.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring a range of perspectives on why centers are important to the region. In the meantime, we want to hear from you. We are now soliciting new ideas for how we can use Activity Centers to enhance our communities and accelerate progress toward the Region Forward vision. Potential ideas include using centers to prioritize and phase investments, or identifying grant programs to fund capital investments in the centers. Please submit your ideas for how Activity Centers can be used to move the region forward.