Town center sprawl

Coming soon: A new “Town Center.”

That’s the buzz word used by politicians and developers these days to gloss over the fact that hundreds of new homes are being built along Prince William County’s ever-congested roadways.

That’s not to say that a town center in it’s true form is not an asset to its community, but the term seems to be thrown around like any other overused sales pitch.

We have town centers planned in Gainesville, Cherry Hill, McCoart (that’s western Lake Ridge, eastern Manassas, northwestern Woodbridge or whatever that geographical area around the county administrative center is called) and Belmont Bay.

Belmont Bay doesn’t belong in the same category as the others because it is actually being built with the same ambition and amenities as were planned years ago.

When the county first began to pitch “town center” zoning, it was envisioned that developers could create artificially what has occurred naturally in the town of Occoquan. This includes a pleasant, close knit community with street grids and town attractions that center around a focal point in Occouqan’s case it’s the river and in Belmont’s case it’s Belmont Bay. Other regional examples include Old Town Alexandria and the Washington Harbor on the Potomac River near Georgetown.

Town centers are supposed to include mixed use buildings for people who want to “live over the store.” This includes shops and stores on the ground level with apartments, condominiums and office space on the upper floors. The high density keeps the development from spreading out in the classic suburban sprawl design which currently plagues U.S. 1 and the eastern end of the Prince William Parkway.

In Gainesville and across from the McCoart Administration Center, town centers are planned in name-only. There is no existing focal point and they are not planned around mass transit hubs (such as a VRE station). These are town centers seem to be planned in the sense of “Chesterfield Town Centre” near Richmond which takes up acres of land with a shopping mall, asphalt parking lots and nearby strip malls.

The town center planned for the intersection of the parkway and Ridgefield Road may provide some nice shopping and office opportunities for those living and working around the neighboring county government buildings, but this does not necessarily make it a town center. Yes, offices are needed near the McCoart building for those doing business with the county government. But building office space across the street does nothing to encourage pedestrian traffic a must for a town center. Most of these workers will jump in their cars and drive across the street to conduct business at the McCoart Center. So far there are no pedestrian bridges or tunnels planned to cross the parkway.

One thing the term “town center” does is make it easier for developers to build homes. It takes the edge off a zoning application. There has been little work toward a proposed town center in Cherry Hill but home construction hums right along. The same can be said for the McCoart town center on Ridgefield Road. Those homes went up fast.

The concept of town center development is a good idea as long as it remains faithful to its name. The developments currently in the works for the McCoart area and Gainesville may prove to be nice developments but they should be called something other than a town center. It doesn’t do justice to real towns.

Similar Posts