This is the second part in a series of ongoing reports about the metropolitan Washington, D.C. region’s changing neighborhoods. Listen to the radio version of this story here. The first part highlighted Southeast D.C.'s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.
Columbia Pike stretches three and a half miles through the center of densely populated Arlington County, Virginia just west of D.C. The corridor, extends southwest of Arlington National Cemetery, into an evolving landscape of mixed-use development that builders and community activists alike are hoping to improve into more livable communities. But unlike the nearby Rosslyn-Ballston corridor that was built up around Metro rail, the Columbia Pike has no rail link to attract real estate development. The future does hold plans for a streetcar.
“We’re working toward implementing light rail in the form of the Columbia Pike Streetcar which will connect the density at the west end in Fairfax to Pentagon City and Crystal City in the east end,” said Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member who has been heavily involved in the county’s transit-oriented planning. He said the county just submitted its application to the Federal Transit Administration for streetcar grant dollars.
The future path of a light rail line is currently used by the busiest bus service in the Commonwealth of Virginia at roughly 15,000 daily riders. While residents have access to transit – a key requirement to be considered a thriving WalkUP in a study by George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger – Columbia Pike’s population is missing some important elements. For one, the corridor needs more people.
“We need more density. Density is sometimes viewed by people as the antithesis of what you want in development, but what density has proven to do in Arlington is create places where you can move around easier,” said David DeCamp, a real estate developer, who accompanied a WAMU reporter on a tour of the pike along with John Murphy, the vice president of the board of directors of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.
The corridor also lacks commercial development.
“Mixed-use has three components: residential, office, and commercial," Murphy said. "The pike sorely misses office right now.”
A streetcar line will not be a cure-all, so county planners implemented two other measures to spur development along Columbia Pike: zoning laws were changed to make development easier, and the housing overlay zone was altered to double the unit density. Landowners will be required to maintain roughly one-fourth of their new apartment units as affordable housing; the county will build a streetcar line so their tenants can move easily up and down the corridor.
The combination of maintaining some affordable housing and expanding access to transit will allow the pike to avoid some of the negative consequences of gentrification, namely population displacement, Zimmerman said.
“Our goal is to make it possible for everyone who lives there today to live there tomorrow,” he said. “We believe it’s possible to accommodate the same number of people who make, say, 60 percent of the area median income or less, if we build it into our planning.”
Zimmerman said thirty years ago, when the county began planning for the Orange Line, it was so focused on attracting affluent residents to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor it neglected affordable housing units. That lesson is serving Columbia Pike planners today, he said.
“The community is very supportive of this because people understand that a lot of what they like about the Columbia Pike corridor is its diversity,” he said. “We don’t want it to become homogeneous. We don’t want it to become a place that is just for affluent people.”
Arlington County is considered a national leader in urban planning and land use. Although the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor on the Metro's Orange Line covers about 10 percent of the county’s land mass it produces 55 percent of its tax base, according to George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger.
“If you were to look at it 25 years ago you’d say, this may become a slum. All the obsolete strip retail was vacant,” Leinberger said in an interview with WAMU. “Today they have fabulous public schools. It’s a very diverse community and it’s extremely walkable.”
Murphy and DeCamp believe the same will be said for the Columbia Pike corridor.
“I’m excited about the potential of the pike to save the diversity of residents we have here,” said Murphy, who said the goal of zero population displacement is attainable. “They’ve made that happen. It’s going to be an incredibly dynamic, diverse, energetic engine with the streetcar in combination with the housing overlay.”