City on a Hill: Metro: a waste of space

January 21, 2010

“Location, location, location” is the first rule of real estate, and it’s hard to think of a better location than the land around a Metro station. Given the easy access to restaurants, stores, and apartments, the land that the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority owns around stations presents a prime opportunity for development and could provide an infusion of revenue for the cash-strapped system.

Yet much of the land sits unused. In the catastrophe that is WMATA’s budget—$175 million shortfall for next year—unused land is a minor problem. But WMATA’s mistakes with what could have been a small golden goose help explain why Metro remains perpetually in the red,  forced to hike fees, and unable to upgrade its decaying set of cars and tracks.

During the construction of the transit system, WMATA obtained swathes of land in the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Some of this land has been sold or rented out to real estate developers and turned into mixed-used buildings, like the office complex built over the Rosslyn station.

The land around other stations, though, remains vacant, marked by empty lots that bring in no revenue.

Recognizing the missed opportunity to improve both the areas surrounding stations and the organization’s bottom line, WMATA convened a task force in 2006 to find out why so few developers wanted to build on WMATA land, despite the advantages of being so close to a station. The task force’s damning report, released in 2007, criticized WMATA’s joint development program for being difficult, time consuming, and expensive. The task force recommended reforming the process for developing land around stations, focusing on changing the bidding process.

“The guidelines we set up were really helpful,” Cheryl Cort, a task force member and the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said.

WMATA’s Board of Directors agreed with the task force, and adopted many of the report’s suggestions in February 2008.

Metro seemed poised to finally take advantage of its land. But then, the economy folded in on itself, and former suitors for Metro land wanted nothing to do with new ventures.

The recession has affected existing construction around stations. Although WMATA agreed to a new development around a Wheaton, Md. station in June, other proposals, like one in West Hyattsville, Md., have been abandoned by developers.

WMATA has more serious problems than dabbling in real estate development—passenger safety, an intimidating budget shortfall, and the search for a new General Manager after John Catoe’s sudden resignation last Thursday. But the empty areas around stations represent one of many failures on WMATA’s part that have made our transit system so dysfunctional.

Sitting on some prime ideas? E-mail Will at


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