Columbia Pike comes to life as new plan proposed

A decade into the plan, street life emerges on the suburban corridor in Arlington, VA — and an expanded code and streetcar are in the works.

  • Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA

    Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA

    Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA, is a commercial strip that is changing to an urban thoroughfare due to new buildings and streetscape improvements stemming from a new plan and code. An expansion of the plan is in the works that focuses on affordability. Photo courtesy of dover, kohl & partners

  • The new streetscape

    The new streetscape

    The new streetscape includes buildings fronting a wider sidewalk, lighting, trees, benches, and on-street parking. Courtesy of geoffrey ferrell, ferrell madden associates

  • 5500 Columbia Pike a decade ago

    5500 Columbia Pike a decade ago

    Courtesy of goeffrey ferrell

  • 5500 Columbia Pike today

    5500 Columbia Pike today

    A new Post Properties apartment building on the site. Courtesy of arlington county

  • A rendering of a streetcar on a multimodal Columbia Pike

    A rendering of a streetcar on a multimodal Columbia Pike

    By steve price, urban advantage, courtesy of dover, kohl

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns
July-August 2012

Ten years after a charrette was held for Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia, people are beginning to walk, jog, and push baby strollers along the 3.5-mile suburban strip corridor. The nascent street life will get another boost as a new plaza is completed.

The Columbia Pike plan and form-based code (FBC), adopted in 2003, were unusual in that they applied to a corridor with many landowners. Most FBCs up to that time applied to single developments. Also, Columbia Pike was an early attempt at large-scale sprawl repair.

Arlington now is moving to expand the code and adopt ambitious affordable housing policies. Affordability is fast disappearing all over Arlington because the 208,000-person county is close to downtown District of Columbia and high-paying jobs. The plan calls for 10,000 to 11,000 additional housing units along the Pike in the coming three decades—while maintaining the current supply of affordable housing.

Another key issue is whether to install a streetcar line connected to Metro. This would be much more expensive than upgraded bus service, but many believe it would instigate investment much more quickly.

The new plan is a vote of confidence for the FBC, planners Dover, Kohl & Partners, which ran the 2002 charrette, and the code subcontractors, Ferrell Madden Associates. Both firms were rehired for the new plan, which the county is expected to vote on in July.

The Columbia Pike initiative had its roots in the late 1990s, when Arlington was already well-known for developments along its Metro corridors—particularly the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which was being transformed into one of the nation’s premier collections of transit-oriented development (TOD).

The Pike began as a 19th-century turnpike connecting Fairfax County to a bridge into DC. It remained largely rural until construction of the Pentagon in the early 1940s. Inexpensive housing was then built for construction workers for the Pentagon, which terminates the eastern end of the thoroughfare. During the last half of the 20th Century, the housing attracted a polyglot community that enjoyed proximity to a great supply of jobs. “It’s been called a world in a Zip code,” says County Commissioner Chris Zimmerman. “There are 90 or 100 languages spoken, and immigrants from all over the world.”

A fading commercial strip

By the turn of this century, Columbia Pike was a fading commercial strip. Much of the county’s planning energy had until then focused on the Metro corridors, where development pressure was high. Columbia Pike had tremendous potential, yet little redevelopment was taking place.

The zoning at the time created what development analyst Chris Leinberger calls a “drivable suburban” pattern. Developers were not interested in negotiations to obtain higher densities that would allow public officials to demand improvements.

Zimmerman began talking to experts from around the country—particularly Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism—who recommended a form-based code as a way to get the Pike moving in a different direction. Residents were attracted to the idea of the Pike as a mixed-use, walkable place.

“There was a vision of Columbia Pike not simply being a commercial strip, a way of moving people from one side of the county to another,” says Zimmerman. “People wanted a main street serving the neighborhood—that’s what led to looking at the form-based code and related New Urbanism concepts. These were tools to make it happen.”

The county was lucky to hire Dover Kohl, Zimmerman says, calling the Coral Gables, Florida, firm “one of few firms that could do this kind of planning.”

Seven hundred citizens participated in generating a new vision.  “The community was protected, because the form-based code ensured that their vision would be built,” he says. “For developers, it resulted in a lower-risk proposition than going through an arduous negotiation.” The code was approved in February 2003, and the first project approved through the code in June of that year.

The blog Greater Greater Washington calls the code “development friendly.” The main goal of the code, however, is to shape development into a form that enhances the public realm.

Changes become visible

A number of projects have been approved over the years, but only in recent years has change become visible. “Up until 3 or 4 years ago people were asking when is this going to happen? It all just started to happen in the last 36 months,” says Zimmerman.

In a commercial strip like Columbia Pike, two primary changes must precede a transformation. First is the adoption of the FBC that molds new development into a pedestrian-friendly form. Equally important is the transformation of the streetscape—the public right-of-way. Typical requirements are street trees, sidewalks (or wider sidewalks), on-street parking, and narrower lanes of traffic to calm the thoroughfare. Columbia Pike needed all of these things and more. Renderings of a transformed street by Steve Price at Urban Advantage helped to sell the new vision to the public.

The streetscape can be transformed in at least two ways. When development projects are built, the right-of-way along that project can be improved, adding the pedestrian amenities. That’s a piecemeal approach that could take decades to produce substantial change. Another solution is for the community to make improvements on the assumption that land values and tax revenues will rise to cover the costs.

Here Arlington faced a quandary. The Pike, unlike most roads in the county, was owned by the state. Even a move as simple as putting in a needed crosswalk could take years in regulatory approvals from various state agencies, Zimmerman says. The county finally decided to acquire ownership from the state—and did so in October, 2010. Now Arlington is making improvements ahead of development projects, which is hastening the sense of transformation.

Some key projects have also been completed. Penrose Square, the site of a former 20,000 sq. ft. grocery store fronted by parking, was the most significant. That grocery is now a drugstore. On the former parking lot are ground-floor retail, a 60,000 sq. ft. grocery store on the second floor, and four stories of apartments above.

A plaza, which gives the project its name, is under construction and will be a major public space for the Pike. The development is served by structured parking. The developers, a joint venture of BM Smith and Carbon Thompson Development, got this project approved and financed in the depths of the real estate recession by putting up a lot of their own capital.

Next to Penrose Square is a former Safeway site that was vacant and has been redeveloped into 30,000 square feet of retail with five stories of apartments above.

Affordability in danger

But if the county does nothing, affordable units are expected to disappear. Many of the apartment complexes along the Pike corridor are 60 or 70 years old and nearing the end of their useful life in their current form. In this market, owners are tempted to sell to an institutional investor that would turn units into luxury apartments.

“Vast numbers of market-based affordable units are at risk along the Pike — as they are all over Arlington,” notes David DeCamp, a real estate developer and sales agent who serves on the board of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. “The County has attempted a study in order to come up with a plan to preserve as many affordable units as possible. The basic idea is to grant additional density to legacy owners of large blocks of market-based affordable units along the Pike in exchange for converting the market-based affordable units into committed affordable units.”

Most of the new units on the Pike are expected to be market-rate. Yet total affordable units of all varieties would increase from 7,334 now to approximately 9,000 in 2040, according to the plan. The primary strategy is to increase the number of committed—legally binding—affordable units from 1,200 to nearly 5,000.

The density bonuses would come with a requirement that 20 percent of the bonus units be affordable for not less than 30 years to households earning 60 percent of the median area income.

The county also operates an Affordable Housing Investment Fund, which provides “bridge” financing. This fund fills the gap between low-income housing tax credits and bank financing. The county puts money into the fund annually, but loans are also paid back, replenishing the fund. This fund can be used to preserve committed affordable units along the Pike.

Other strategies also will be used. One example is what was done on the site of a closed-down grocery store; the county bought it and converted it into Arlington Mills Community Center. The county is leasing unused land on the property to a developer that is providing 122 units of affordable housing.

Another idea called for in the plan is property tax abatements for affordable housing, but these would require a change in state law and could take years to implement.

To the degree that it’s possible, Arlington would like to preserve garden apartment complexes along the Pike—with some changes in urban design and improvements in connectivity. This is an ambitious vision and a potential step forward for New Urbanism.

“We have proven that there is value in the market to this kind of development—making places where people can walk, and the public realm is as important as the private realm,” Zimmerman says. “The price of it is going up very fast. It’s great for the environment, great for economics, but what about people who don’t make 120 percent of median income? Can we do this without displacing the people who have to work in these buildings? Can we do transit-oriented development that doesn’t displace people who use the transit?”

The streetcar debate

The transit that many promoters of a more urban, walkable Columbia Pike would like to see is the streetcar.

“For lots of reasons, many people like to ride streetcars more than buses,” DeCamp wrote in support of the proposal. “Maybe it’s vanity. Maybe streetcars are more fun. Maybe it’s confusion over Byzantine bus routes. I just know it’s true for a lot of people.”

But the streetcar is controversial. Opponents of the streetcar make some reasonable arguments. Columbia Pike is already ripe for development, and it will happen to a degree, whether the streetcar is built or bus service is improved. “Articulated bus [is] a practical and far more cost-effective alternative than the modified streetcar,” said Joseph Warren of the county’s Transit Advisory Committee. An articulated bus system would cost $39 million to $68 million, he said, while the streetcar would cost from $249 million to $261 million. Warren’s resolution favoring buses was narrowly defeated, 6-5. 

Greater Greater Washington argues that articulated buses are no substitute. “To realize the smart growth vision for Columbia Pike, Arlington needs a streetcar,” the blog asserts.

Realizing the vision is going to take decades. Although pockets of urban life have emerged, there are miles of commercial strip. “When we did this, everybody understood it was a long-term plan — for a generation,” Zimmerman says.