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Belmont Bay: Community Critique

A simple, sensible neighborhood evaluation system can be useful in several ways. It can recognize the accomplishments of talented designers, planners and developers. It can be a teaching tool, illustrating the ways hybrid developments can be improved. And it's a way to communicate good urban design principles: It supplements guidebooks, case studies and checklists, and provides a more objective definition of new urbanism.

There are numerous evaluations systems in use or under development. Criterion Planners/Engineers have developed one of the most objective systems that relies on the number-crunching power of GIS. The system known as LEED-ND may turn out to be the most comprehensive and authoritative. Still, there's a need for a simple system that non-experts, with no specialized tools, can use with commonly available information. Invariably, a simplified system will miss things that some people consider critical. The advantage is greater participation and awareness of the quality of the built environment.

This article applies a simplified evaluation system to the community of Belmont Bay, in Woodbridge, Va. The site is 14 miles south of Washington D.C. in suburban Prince William county, gloriously situated on the banks of the Occoquan River. It is sandwiched between the major I-95/Route 1 transportation corridor and the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. To the east and south there are fine views of the river and the marshlands.

Belmont Bay is a complex project to evaluate. Its 325 acres have several discontinuous areas of development, each built at different times, under different ownership structures, and with different zoning codes. As I toured the community, I was by turns disappointed and pleasantly surprised. Belmont Bay's town center is the only section developed with a new urbanist zoning code, while the other parcels were or are currently being developed as various forms of conventional suburban development. Therefore, this evaluation focuses on the 80-acre town center.

Planning for the town center took place in 1998-99. Prince William County encouraged modifications of the existing zoning code to create a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented town center. Groundbreaking took place in 2000 and the development has been extremely successful, boasting strong appreciation in home prices over the past four years. Belmont Bay's first condominium was the county's largest, superseded only by the nine-story condominium now under construction one block away. Underlying all this activity is the county's sizzling growth in jobs -- last year it had the fastest employment growth rate in the nation.

About the ratings: All ratings are on a scale of 1 to 5 stars. In general, 5 stars is equivalent to a well-designed, early twentieth-century, urban neighborhood in the United States. All ratings are based on existing construction and future plans as of October, 2004.

A one-way, one-travel-lane side street. Photo: Laurence Aurbach

Existing residential types are about 55 percent condos of various sizes and 45 percent townhouses, with a few detached dwellings. The southern portion of the town center may be developed as condo towers, which would decrease the score. On the other hand, counting the townhouses and detached dwellings in the land parcels near the town center would increase the score.

There are public and private recreational facilities, a specialty shop and a school within walking distance, while planned uses are office, specialty retail and restaurants, regional science museum, church, and hotel. Developer Preston Caruthers donated land for the school, commuter rail station and future museum.

An early version of the site plan. The residential areas are built as illustrated. The areas in
yellow (mixed-use and age-restricted components) will use a different plan. Image courtesy
of EFO Management.

This is a measure of how direct are the travel routes within the development, and how many options there are for traveling between any two points. A rough measure used by several municipalities is the connectivity index, defined as the ratio of street segments (links) to intersections and dead-ends (nodes). The connectivity index gives a rough idea of how many 3 and 4-way intersections are in the development. In Belmont Bay, there are 111 links and 77 nodes for a ratio of 1.44, or three stars. However, 10 percent of the nodes are short alleyway dead-ends with connecting pedestrian passages. The pedestrian network has 155 links and 97 nodes, with an index of 1.60 equaling five stars. The average of both indexes is 1.52.

The town center has a 10,600 foot perimeter, but the property is surrounded by water, a National Wildlife Refuge, and wetlands. Only 2,700 feet of the perimeter are adjacent to developed or developable land. There are two ingress/egress points, with an average of 1,350 feet between ingress/egress points. Most greenfield TNDs score poorly on this.

This is measured by the percentage of dwellings within walking distance, sometimes called "ped shed." Ped shed of school: 100 percent of dwellings will be within 1 mile of a school -- 5 stars. Ped shed of town center: 90-100 percent of dwellings will be within 1/4-mile of town center -- five stars. Ped shed of parks: 90-plus percent of dwellings will be within 1/8-mile of a park or green -- five stars. Ped shed of transit: No dwellings will be within 1/2 mile of a transit stop -- one star. However, consider the bike shed for transit: All dwellings will be within 2 miles of a major commuter rail station with bicycle racks -- five stars.

Average block length measured along the longest axis is 370 feet.

The following five elements (streetscape, frontages, architecture, civic space, location) involve more subjective judgement.

There are good street widths on the side streets. As an example, one-way, one lane streets with parking on one side have a remarkable width of 18 feet. The main thoroughfares are somewhat oversized. An example is a 36-foot width for a two way, two lane street with parking on both sides. Curb radii are short throughout, which helps calm traffic and makes crossing the streets easier. Sidewalks average 4 feet in width. Good attention is paid to paving materials and street furniture. Traffic circles are properly sized and configured. Utility, phone and mail boxes are often intrusively placed.

Variable design quality. There are some very tight frontages; the best of these create the high level of civic comfort that exists in traditional Virginian towns. Substantial street walls reinforce lot lines in some locations. Many porches and balconies are too narrow at 4-5 foot depth. Some ground floors should be a few feet higher above the sidewalk. Some landscaping is a bit suburban for the intensity of land use.

Ranges from an a-contextual, middling quality to fairly good in some cases. Developer Jim Epstein worked with production builders to improve the details, such as brick siding instead of HardiPlank on prominent facades; the results vary. Sometimes the proportions, massing, and siting are managed well, while certain other instances are disappointing or clumsy. Alleyways tend toward the mechanical repetition common in many TNDs. The range is 2 to 4 stars with an average of three.

A private marina in the heart of Belmont Bay's town center. Photo: Laurence Aurbach

Excellent waterfront promenade at marina. In three spots, greens at mid-block interrupt the alleyways, providing visual variety and views of landscaping. Several other mid-block passageways provide extra pedestrian paths. Some awkward configurations and intruding utility fixtures. Caruthers has discussed the possibility of placing a church steeple to terminate the vistas from the main entrance and from the waterfront park; if executed, this element will be a fine enhancement.

On the shore of the Occoquan River, with no or minimal buffer. That's a bad thing from an environmental point of view, but from an urbanist's point of view, the rustic scenery is the main reason the high density condo buildings have sold so well. The removal of the natural shore buffer vegetation must be balanced against Belmont Bay's environmental advantages: less land consumption and paved surfaces per person. The site is in a suburban area, near a major transportation corridor; driving is required for most daily tasks. At the time of purchase the site was zoned industrial and was sandwiched between rail tracks and a Army weapons research complex.

Environmental and financial performance are extremely important, but at this point I can only offer comments, not ratings.

Of Belmont Bay's 325 acres, 60 percent are developed and 40 percent are open space (golf course and wetlands). The town center is part of Belmont Bay's stormwater district that directs most runoff to the surrounding golf course, ponds and wetlands. In the town center, runoff goes to small catchment basins before being discharged into the river. The marina promotes non-polluting boating practices.

The condominiums along the shore were the fastest-selling projects in the Washington, D.C. region for 2002. Condominium prices have appreciated more than 60 percent over the past two and a half years.

There are many other important factors that could be evaluated, given enough resources for research and reliable standards for evaluation, like construction quality, affordability and governance. More importantly, the weighting of individual factors is something few people can agree on. This rating system is without question incomplete, and should be continually refined, developed and tested.

In summary, Belmont Bay successfully creates a sense of place and a reasonably attractive, walkable environment for its residents. Its current character is that of a resort, retreat and low-maintenance bedroom community for young professionals and retirees. The execution of design is uneven, although certain elements are quite well done. Belmont Bay's ultimate quality as a town center destination will depend on whether future phases are seamlessly connected to existing phases, whether they match the existing character of the town center, and whether they employ the techniques of full pedestrian orientation.

Note: A complete guidebook to using the TND Design Rating System is available for download here.

Belmont Bay Statistics

Name: Belmont Bay Town Center
Location: Woodbridge, Va.
Designers: Torti Gallas and Partners (existing components), Belmont Development Associates (future commercial and age-restricted components)
Developers: EFO Capital Management, Belmont Development Associates
Area: Total Belmont Bay property: 352 acres. Town center: 80 acres
Number of dwellings built or under construction: 452
Total dwellings permitted: 1350