It’s a set-up that frustrates developers, who just want the region to cooperate on infrastructure projects to serve the office parks and residential towers they need to keep building. As Exhibit A, Fuller remembers the mid-1990s fight over the Techway Bridge, which would have eased the commute from Reston to Gaithersburg with a four-to-six lane highway over the Potomac River. Smart growth types lambasted the project as an unnecessary sprawl machine, but Fuller says it actually failed because Maryland officials thought it would make it too easy to get to Dulles International Airport, stealing traffic away from BWI. (“None of these are really good reasons,” he says. “No other region in America that has this kind of coordinating problem.”)
Meanwhile, Fuller had been doing housing market research that found the region would have 200,000 more jobs than places for people to live by 2025, in large part because elected officials haven’t been willing to push local jurisdictions away from zoning restrictions that keep housing density low. And he fretted that without serious attention to the problem, Washington’s economy could be surpassed in size by places like Dallas and Atlanta—certainly a good talking point to take to people whose pride and profit margins are tied to the relative positioning of their home turf.
At the same time, Fuller was thinking about the future of his own center at George Mason.
“He said he was worried, because a lot of the old line people who had supported him were not as active as they were, and there didn’t seem to be any of the next generation who realized the importance of this,” says Bob Buchanan.
So in 2006, Fuller got together with one of his biggest supporters—attorney and Fairfax County real estate mogul Til Hazel, who built Tysons Corner—and came up with the 2030 Group: A collection of 20 local business leaders who would each kick in $20,000 for five years to fund research and outreach that would support regional transportation and infrastructure improvements. Nearly $300,000 of the money went to the Center for Regional Analysis. The broader business community was invited, but the ones who ultimately threw down were those whose fortunes were tied to the soil.
“The fact that it is dominated by people in real estate says something about their commitment,” Fuller says. “They’re third, fourth generation families. They’re paying attention to this region like most businesses don’t. There are corporate leaders in other cities. We don’t have big corporate leaders. We have very wealthy corporations, but they don’t show up for any of these meetings.”
The group launched with a splashy event at the National Press Club featuring studies about job growth and regional governance. Fuller, along with University of Maryland professor Jacques Gansler, lent enough name-brand cachet to soften the perception that a group of heavy hitters was just trying to bully regional governments into acting in their interests.
“I think we found that Steve’s credibility was important so that people did appreciate the academic credentials, and the modeling and the standards he uses,” Buchanan says.
But the brash announcement still put the establishment on edge—the group had shunned existing regional organizations because the 2030sters believed the older groups were inadequate. The Greater Washington Board of Trade has lost membership and influence over the years, while the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (known as “COG”) has always lacked teeth, as well as much in the way of independent spending authority.
“Basically, the political world is controlled by the anti-growth people,” said Hazel at the press conference. “We can’t let the ‘antis’ control the world.”
But those who had worked on regional planning for some time thought members of the 2030 Group just hadn’t liked the outcome, and were trying to take decisionmakers back toward highways over dense, transit-oriented development. “I’m tired of hearing about them,” snapped Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz last summer. “The 2030 Group acts like nothing is happening, and no one has a plan for the future. Darn it, we do. Clearly, the 2030 Group is a return to the past.” COG sent the 2030 Group a prickly letter suggesting that it could best help by throwing its weight behind the Region Forward 2050 initiative, an aspirational plan drafted in 2009 and endorsed by a variety of local players.
Schwartz was particularly frustrated with Fuller, who had also participated in the Region Forward 2050 planning, and now seemed to disregard it. Fuller says the issues are apples and oranges.
“There’s no economic basis for 2050. It’s a wish list,” he says derisively. “It’s very valuable, it sets goals for the region, but there’s nothing in it that says what kind of housing we’re gonna need, who’s going to pay for this, and how is it going to be achieved.”
Those things, of course, can only be achieved by people with money.