Former Apostle of Sprawl Now Touts Walkable Urbanism

Stephen S. Fuller

Fairly or unfairly, I’ve always thought of Stephen S. Fuller, the George Mason University professor and expert on the Washington regional economy, as a guy who made his living providing the intellectual justification for the business-as-usual pattern of real estate development in Northern Virginia. The real estate lobby hired him to conduct innumerable studies and forecasts, which invariably were used to justify opening up new areas to low-density development and support construction of the transportation infrastructure to serve it. As it turned out, his mid-2000s forecasts of population and economic growth stretching into the infinite horizon turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

But agree with him or disagree with him, his views on economic trends in the region carry a lot of weight with important people. So I was startled (in a good way) to read of remarks he made to the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce. Reports Inside NoVa:

While Fuller feels that the county is generally well-positioned for the next decade or so, he warned that Prince William officials will need to find a way to build more high-quality, walkable communities if they want to attract talented young workers (and the companies that covet them).

“What companies want most these days is a good workforce,” Fuller said. “And that puts pressure on areas having good housing, parks, these amenities, more so than 10 or 20 years ago. Businesses don’t go somewhere and think the talent will follow. It tends to be the other way around.”

In particular, Fuller suggested that the county might look at attracting developers of higher density communities to come to Prince William, particularly in areas with access to public transit like Manassas or along the “I-95 corridor.” He’s also bullish on the potential of Innovation Park near Mason’s Prince William campus to attract development, calling it a “gold mine,” though he urged patience from county leaders to not abandon the area if growth looks sluggish.

“You have two or three major nodes that will generate good jobs, you need to build communities around them,” Fuller said.

I disagreed strongly with some of Fuller’s past prognostications. This time, he’s got it right. Prince William is the county that sprawl built. It will not age well. Older, car-centric subdivisions will lose relative value in the metropolitan area compared to walkable urbanism. Over time the middle class will move out and lower-income and working-class households will move in.

While it’s always tempting to keep the growth Ponzi scheme going by busting into the sparsely populated Haymarket area in the western part of Prince William, it makes far more sense in the long run to build walkable communities concentrated in a few nodes that (1) will attract Millennials and employers, and (2) will create development patterns offering a better balance between tax revenue and infrastructure spending.

I don’t know when Fuller became a convert to higher-density, mixed-use development — I haven’t tracked his activities closely in the past few years — but I’m glad to see that he’s made the switch. Given his reputation in Northern Virginia as an economic guru, he can be a force for positive change.

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5 responses to “Former Apostle of Sprawl Now Touts Walkable Urbanism

  1. Statistics without imagination, vision, and other means of productive application, will drive you over the cliff every time.

    The fact that Steve Fuller’s pronouncement now in 2017 that folks in Northern Virginia are better off if they live closer to where they work, is a revelation to anyone vaguely familiar with the area, astounds.

    And we’ve only just begun the end of our beginning into the age of analytics.

  2. I have no reason to cast doubt on Mr. Fuller’s honesty. But it strikes me that the one defining factor of his career has been his ability to support real estate developers’ goals even to the point of making some far-from-accurate forecasts. His message has sometimes been characterized as “Taxpayers need to pony up for infrastructure because all these people are coming to NoVA.”

    So now he seems to supporting real estate developers’ goals of adding high (or relatively high) density. Isn’t he doing the same thing and making the same argument “Taxpayers need to pony up for infrastructure because all these people are coming to NoVA.”

    I see no reason to give Fuller anymore credibility than he has. He’s a hired gun (and a reasonably good one) for real estate developers. Nothing has changed, but the goal of the developers.

  3. Dr. Fuller simply drafts custom tailored reports to support the present land use application of whomever is currently writing him a check. In this case, it is a particular developer with a particularly nasty and unpopular application cloaked in “mixed use” and “walkable” verbiage.

    The guy is an absolute joke and little he has ever written is supported by facts other than those that accidentally work in his favor. He delivered a report 180 degrees from these statements not more than six months ago and despite being informed of an egregious math error at the Planning Commission level, made the same presentation to the BOCS and got called out for it a second time. Nothing but a paid shill.

  4. Yep. Fuller is basically a hired gun who delivers a customized “study” that “proves” the developer’s proposal is “good”.

    Whenever a large development is proposed in exurban Stafford or Spotsylvania, chances are he will deliver the goods – for a fee.

    • Another reason why I am skeptical about expert witnesses and people seeking government funding. They need to be tested to determine whether they are credible and whether their assumptions and reasoning is sound.

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