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Development


Freddie Mac downsizing is an opportunity for Tysons

While much of Tysons Corner is slated to become a new urban center, parts of the area will remain disconnected office parks for the foreseeable future. By planning for future demand and leveraging rising property values, Fairfax County can encourage more investment in the area and provide new public amenities, like improved transit.


Freddie Mac's campus in Tysons. Photo by the author.

Last week, President Obama announced that the federal government may try to reduce its support for mortgage company Freddie Mac, headquartered in Tysons Corner. If Freddie Mac eventually downsized or consolidated its operations, they might sell their 37.8-acre campus on Jones Branch Drive, far from Tysons' core or the Silver Line.

This may not happen for years, if not decades. By then, it may not be as desirable a location, especially when the Silver Line opens and Tysons begins the transition to a more urban, walkable place. But a land sale could be an opportunity to bring one of its largest office parks in line with the larger vision.

Freddie Mac's campus contains just 800,000 square feet of Class A office space. When built in 2002, it had a very desirable location: direct access to the Dulles Toll Road and adjacent to the Westpark transit center, served by 6 Fairfax Connector routes. It's also close to the new Jones Branch Drive exit on the new 495 Express lanes.


Map of Tysons with Freddie Mac and Jones Branch Drive from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment and edited by the author.

By 2025, much of the land around the four future Tysons metro stations will be substantially developed. The street grid will still be discontinuous, and each of the station areas may act as a discreet hub, similar to Reston Town Center. But the area will have enough density to justify its own internal transit needs, perhaps even exceeding the capacity of bus service.

Meanwhile, the office parks of North Tysons, where Freddie Mac is located, may have filled in with some residential development. But it still won't have direct access to transit, nor is it covered by the design guidelines of the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, which guides the redevelopment of Tysons. Freddie Mac's property will be very valuable, but the current zoning and allowable density prevents major redevelopment from occurring.

In order to take advantage of this site's potential, two things need to happen. First, Fairfax County should rezone the property for higher density and mixed-use development to fit with the larger vision for Tysons Corner. Second, the county should start planning for high-quality transit service to North Tysons that can not only support future redevelopment, but be financed by it as well.


Street section of light rail on Jones Bridge Drive. Image from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment.

The Tysons Comprehensive Plan refers to a light rail circulator that would serve parts of Tysons Corner that are far from the Silver Line. The estimated cost of a 2.5-mile light rail line along Jones Bridge Drive between the future McLean and Spring Hill Metro stations (via a future bridge over Scotts Run) is about $60 million.

This assumes that Jones Bridge's existing right-of-way could accommodate a new rail line. Let's take a worst-case scenario and say the county would need an additional $40 million in right-of-way. For approximately 200,000 square feet of land, that comes out to a very conservative $8.8 million per acre.

With a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 3.0, Freddie Mac's 37.8 acres could easily support 5 million square feet of development. (To compare, the property's current FAR is about .5, and the maximum FAR allowed in downtown DC is 10.) If the county rezoned the property, they could also levy a special tax as was done for rezoned properties associated with the Silver Line, or to cover school and public safety improvements.

At the current assessed price per square foot, a fully built-out development on this property would have assessed value of $2.1 billion, generating $23.1 million in taxes to Fairfax County and $2.1 million in special taxes each year. The county could initiate a bond using the special tax as backing that could pay for all capital costs associated with the light rail.

Is this all pie in the sky? Of course, as is the case with all long-term planning, everything over the course of 20 or 30 years is an assumption based on reasonable estimates created from a past history. If Tysons' critics are right, it may struggle to get development activity going, and vacancy rates could be high enough to undermine the marketability of such a land transfer. If that were the case, the above scenario would not be necessary.

So far, that's not the case. Land sales in Tysons have garnered a lot of private interest, especially for large corporate campuses. If those trends continue, Freddie Mac could sell their property to a developer in the future, and the county as well as taxpayers could really benefit. It would also be a step towards creating a new type of infrastructure in Tysons, giving more options to commuters, workers, shoppers, and residents.

What the sprawl history of Tysons has taught us is that if you don't plan for the future, you are destined to end up with a disconnected mess. Instead of leaving the Freddie Mac property to deteriorate or hoping for a new corporate tenant, Fairfax County needs to plan their next steps and leverage future changes to the benefit of Tysons and the county.

Demographics


Mapping underwater mortgages shows shocking divide

The Washington Post created this astounding map of the places where the greatest percentage of mortgages are "underwater," or owe more than the home's current value.

The Post's article, which talks about how home prices have risen, says:

Many of the homeowners with mortgages higher than their home's value were clustered in the eastern parts of the District and in Prince George's County.
This makes it clear that the economic recovery is not hitting all areas or all people equally. We need more jobs east of the river and in Prince George's County, especially at Metro stations, to help our economic success benefit all.

Development


Would mortgage tax reform slow sprawl and gentrification?

The co-chairs of the deficit commission created by President Obama released several proposals this week as a starting point for a conversation about deficit reduction. One of the proposals drastically reduces the largest home ownership subsidy, the mortgage interest tax deduction.


Photo by Dean Terry on Flickr.

The proposal would lower the mortgage cap within which mortgage interest is deductible from $1 million to $500,000 and eliminate the deduction for second homes and home equity loans. Such a structural change in housing incentives could have big consequences for sprawl, gentrification and other housing and land use patterns.

Sprawl: This subsidy encourages people to build more expensive homes, which are generally bigger, detached, single-family homes. Reducing this subsidization of home sizes would thus lead to greater density as a natural outcome of the free market.

Gentrification: A common response to the argument that reducing this subsidy will reduce sprawl is that it will also reduce urban infill of condos that are more expensive than existing housing. While this may concern some urbanists, I think this would be great. Poor and working class neighborhoods would upgrade their housing stock more organically, without the sudden displacements of existing residents that can occur through government-subsidized luxury condos.

Furthermore, by encouraging people to leverage themselves to the hilt, this subsidy helps undermine communities when home buyers bet big on the housing market and lose. This is true whether the buyers move into new sprawl developments in Prince George's County or infill in Columbia Heights.

The idea that the mortgage interest deduction boosts home ownership rates is a myth, as numerous economists have demonstrated. But simply comparing home ownership rates by country makes the same point.


Home ownership by country.

The United States is one of only four developed countries that allows homeowners to deduct mortgage interest. And the other three (Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands) tax imputed income from home ownership.

Clearly, offering the most generous housing subsidies in the developed world is not the key to boosting home ownership.

Before 2010, most opponents of the mortgage interest deduction considered it a sacred cow. But with the deficit commission's co-chairs attempting to insert real solutions into the deficit debate and Tea Party-supported members of Congress talking big about deficit slashing, perhaps this massive subsidy is no longer off the table.

Roads


Rewarding urban living in mortgages and insurance

For over 50 years, the U.S. economy has shaped itself around suburban development and car-centric life. From mortgages to insurance, companies assumed that the standard household occupied a detached single-family home and drove to work. This built-in bias meant that even as Americans, from young singles to empty nesters, started to crave walkable cities once more, the economic deck was stacked against city life, keeping the middle class largely out of the cities.


Transit is no longer just for creeps
and weirdos. From a 2003 GM ad.

Now, the market is responding to the recent demand by creating products tailored for urban living. Pay-as-you-drive insurance and location-efficient mortgages both give people credit for the driving they don't do and shouldn't have to pay for.

Progressive Auto Insurance is being, well, progressive by offering the nation's first pay-as-you-drive policy.

Drivers who sign up for MyRate will install a small wireless device in their cars that transmits to Progressive not just how many miles they drive but also when those miles are driven and, to some extent, how they are driven: the device measures the carís speed every second, from which Progressive can derive acceleration and braking behavior. Which means that Progressive will not only be able to charge drivers for the actual miles they consume but will also better assess the true risk of each driver.
According to Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner, between pollution, congestion, and damage from auto collisions create negative externalities to society of $300 million a yeareach time someone drives a mile, society pays an average of ten cents beyond what the driver is contributing back in gas taxes or tolls.

People who commute by transit, foot, bike, rollerblade, scooter, or carpool save a lot of money in transportation costs (and more with PAYD insurance). Why not account for that in determining mortgage qualification? Lower expenses mean someone can reasonably afford a higher mortgage. That's the idea behind the Location-Efficient Mortgage, which are available so far in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and the SF Bay Area to home buyers who purchase homes in efficient locations.

It takes time for the economy to shift to accommodate new consumer demand, but it does. And the consumer demand is there for more walkable, transit-oriented urban neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a townhouse with a corner grocery nearby, but more people do than can find safe, affordable townhouses. As long as cities allow more to be built, insurers and mortgage lenders will adapt.

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