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‘Waiting In The Wings’: Years-Long Delays Of Transit Lines Are Slowing D.C.-Area Housing Development

Over the next four years, the broader D.C. region is scheduled to open over two dozen passenger rail stations: 21 Purple Line stations from the Maryland Transit Administration, six from WMATA's Silver Line Phase 2 and one infill Blue/Yellow Line station.

Together, those stations will move thousands of additional passengers in and around D.C. and its suburbs, dramatically remaking the transit options available to a growing region. The problem? Not one station will be delivered on time.

Construction on the Purple Line tracks at the Silver Spring Transit Center

The delays, which have pushed the opening of the Purple Line back to 2026 and the Silver Line opening back from 2018 to later this year, are hurting businesses and slowing investment in transit-oriented developments, forcing developers to pump the brakes at a time when zoning changes and high demand for housing should be pushing them full steam ahead.

“All these projects are very complicated, but you have all of this private sector development that's just like waiting in the wings,” said Bobby Gilbane, vice president at Gilbane Development. "'Waiting for Purple Line.' Sounds like a horrible movie, right?”

The region as a whole is suffering from a housing shortage even as it expects enormous pressure for jobs and housing near transit.

To address the housing shortage, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government in 2019 convened local officials across the D.C. region to set new targets to produce a total of 320,000 new homes in the area by 2030. Housing advocates are calling for 17,000 affordable housing units to be created or preserved along the Purple Line corridor.

A March 2021 forecast by MWCOG found that 55% of new job growth and 42% of new household growth between 2020 and 2030 will be within a half-mile of the region's 225 current or planned transit centers. 

As public officials plan for that growth, however, construction setbacks on the transit projects are potentially creating delays in the housing developments envisioned around the train stations. The Purple Line was originally scheduled to begin carrying passengers in March 2022, but it has now been pushed back by at least four years. 

Derick Berlage, Prince George's County's deputy planning director, said he is aware of "a number of projects lined up at the door" for approval once the Purple Line begins. He expects the delayed construction will likely slow the influx of mixed-use developments but ultimately won't prevent developers from taking an interest in Purple Line stations. He said approvals for dense, complex projects in the county typically stay in effect for at least six years before expiring. 

"Are there projects that haven't happened because of the delays? Probably," Berlage said. "But by no means has our TOD vision, you know, been turned upside down." 

Several projects that would create hundreds of housing units along the Purple Line have received approval but have yet to break ground. 

In Prince George's County, the planning department in December 2019 approved a townhome and graduate housing project near Adelphi Road station, and in May 2020, it approved a 224-unit and 14K SF retail mixed-use project near Beacon Heights/East Pine Station. Berlage said that "several other multifamily complexes in the immediate vicinity" are also mulling redevelopment. 

Advantage Properties and Cove Property Management in May 2021 won a contract with the county's redevelopment authority to convert the former Maryland-National Capital Park Police headquarters into a 350-unit, 250-affordable mixed-use residential project. The JV hasn't broken ground, and when reached by phone, Advantage principal Alex Gross said he was "bullish on the future" but didn't provide further details on the property.

Gilbane has dealt with his fair share of problems building transit-oriented development over the past few years. His Rhode Island-based firm was selected to develop a 440-unit residential project near the College Park-UMD Metro stop, also the site of a MARC stop and a future Purple Line station.

A rendering of Gilbane Development Co.'s 440-unit residential project near the College Park-UMD Metro station

But almost immediately, Gilbane ran into issues. After he had submitted his plans, the Purple Line had notified the county of its intent to move a 60-inch water main that would have dramatically altered the new residential project. Gilbane said it took months to work through the challenge with the Purple Line, the county and the utilities, only to see his project halted again by the pandemic and WMATA's decision to temporarily close the College Park station.

Gilbane said he still expects to break ground on the project, albeit years after he originally intended. Though he doesn't believe the blame lies solely on the Purple Line's construction issues, he does think his experience in College Park demonstrates the difficulty of coordinating with so many competing agencies to get a development completed.

"I do think Purple Line will be a value-add. To a certain extent right now, it remains a cautionary tale," Gilbane said. "I think there should be lessons learned not only in the procurement, the approval process, but just also how communities handle this type of disruption."

The Purple Line isn't the only transit project suffering from delays. The years-long delay of the Silver Line's second phase, extending the Metro line from Reston to Ashburn, has also impacted development around the stations.  

In Loudoun County, Comstock Realty Partners has completed 750 residential units and over a dozen shops and restaurants at its Loudoun Station development as the company awaits the long-delayed completion of Ashburn Metro station, the new terminus for Silver Line Phase 2.

A rendering of the Loudoun Station development once complete and connected to the Ashburn Metro stop

Comstock Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Leasing and Development Tim Steffan said the developer has been forced to extend discounted rents for its retailers as the delays drag on.

Comstock has also pressed pause on a new office building at Loudoun Station, which CEO Chris Clemente said Comstock already has designed but won't move forward on until the end of the year, when Silver Line Phase 2 is scheduled to finally begin boarding passengers.

"Retail is a function of foot traffic, right? Foot traffic's a function of office buildings during the day and residential at night and the weekends. So when you don't have Metro and the office market hasn't come there yet so you can't build even mid-rise office, I don't have the daytime traffic," Steffan said. "That affects retail. If I don't have the Metro, I don't have people."

In addition to the delays, Metro has also suffered from dramatic service reductions over the last several months caused by issues with the 7000-series trains. 

Liz Price, WMATA’s head of real estate and parking, said she is aware of the challenges that service disruptions have created for developers and riders, but from her vantage point, pursuing projects with multi-year timelines, she is confident that new stations will entice new riders and, importantly, development.

"We know without anyone telling us that transit is key to the region and has been a huge source of the growth that we've seen," Price said. “By the time [developers] are delivering new opportunities, new houses, new offices, we'll be in, we hope, a very different place, both in terms of the pandemic as well as service levels.”

For all the delays, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have taken steps to support businesses and development surrounding the Purple Line. 

Stewart Schwartz, founder and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said D.C. provided an early model for assistance when the city provided grants to businesses affected by the construction of the DC Streetcar on H Street.

Montgomery County has similarly begun its own business grant program administered by the Latino Economic Development Center that would disburse grants of up to $5K to businesses affected by Purple Line construction along its 16-mile corridor.

Schwartz said the construction delays, for all the problems they have created, also give time for the counties to think ahead about housing and supporting business during and after construction.

"I think it's important to provide grants and investments in local businesses so they can handle both the construction period as well as adjustment to a changing market," Schwartz said.

Recent zoning changes advanced by Montgomery County and Prince George's County indicate that the jurisdictions see transit-oriented development as a key aspect of their future growth, despite the service disruptions and delayed openings that have plagued transit projects. 

A map of the new zoning districts in Prince George's County, with overlays for newly zoned transit centers.

Prince George's County beginning April 1 will implement five new Transit-Oriented/Activity Center Base Zones that will usher in additional density near transit, with the highest level of density proposed for the region's transit hubs in College Park, New Carrollton and Largo Town Center.

Montgomery County is also updating its land use plan. Council members are making final tweaks to the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan before voting on its final approval. Once approved, the guide is expected to encourage greater mixed-use development around transit and in eastern portions of the county.

The Purple Line project team itself is leveraging federal funding to support transit-oriented development. The Maryland Transit Administration received a $2M TOD planning grant from the Federal Transit Administration in 2018 and expects to issue a draft implementation plan for those funds this summer, Purple Line Executive Director Matt Pollack said in a statement.

"MDOT MTA continues to work with our partners in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as they identify their priorities for TOD designations along the Purple Line Corridor," Pollack said.

The county programs point to signs of continued transit-oriented development around the region, but the delays may have already come at a cost.

Gilbane said he has heard from smaller developers who bought up tracts of land near future Purple Line stations years ago and have since waited for zoning changes and the trains to arrive. Those developers are now seeking joint ventures or bleeding money as the delays continue.

“You just hear the increasing frustration in their voice, and to some extent, desperation, where it's like, in their minds, this is still the greatest opportunity. But the world, whether it's the capital markets or otherwise, has passed them by,” Gilbane said.

The developer said he has been able to get access to low interest rates and had the capital to sit on a project like his College Park development over the long term, but other developers without the market heft would likely either get squeezed into bankruptcy or be forced to pass on their costs to renters.

"That just fundamentally exacerbates the existing housing crisis," Gilbane said. "I think through all of this I had a pretty good appreciation for certainty of outcomes previously, but even more so now."

The construction delays have also caused pain for existing businesses along the transit lines. Dan Reed, a transportation and smart growth advocate who lives in Silver Spring, has seen firsthand how drawn-out transit construction can harm communities.

"Growing up, I can remember seeing U Street just completely torn up during construction of the Green Line and how that harmed businesses in that community," Reed said. "We still have a chance to avoid that outcome here."

Reed said the upheaval from rail construction is significant regardless of whether it is below ground, at grade or raised. The drawn-out Purple Line construction process has harmed business along Bonifant Street in Silver Spring, and Reed wants Montgomery County and other public entities to offer a lifeline to businesses that hope to one day take advantage of the increased customer base but are currently suffering.

"It's a virtuous cycle," Reed said. "These businesses ... they give the Purple Line a reason to exist, they're going to give people a reason to want to take the Purple Line and to want to live and work near the Purple Line. And we need to make sure they can stick around."

CORRECTION, FEB. 16, 10 A.M. ET: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Stewart Schwartz, founder and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The story has been updated.