Columbia Pike’s road to revitalization will create winners and losers. But it’s still unclear who will fall into which category.
When Chris Slatt and his wife, Kendra, bought their home in Penrose in 2009, they weren’t just buying into the neighborhood. They were making an investment in Columbia Pike’s future.“I bought my house here specifically because of the changes that I saw coming,” says Slatt, a software developer who has served as the president of the Penrose Neighborhood Association since October 2012.
He’s not the only one keeping a close watch on the evolution of the 200-year-old roadway—particularly the stretch that extends from the southern end of Arlington National Cemetery to Bailey’s Crossroads.
“The living environment of the Pike itself has changed,” says Adam Henderson, president of the Douglas Park Civic Association. “There are more restaurants and more activity. When I moved here in 1998, there was virtually no activity on the Pike in the evening.”
As Columbia Pike undergoes a steady transformation, county officials and civic leaders remain hopeful that it will rise again as one of Arlington’s preeminent avenues for commerce, entertainment and dining. They’d like to position it as a third transportation corridor that complements those built along Metro’s Orange and Blue Lines.
But much of the Pike’s future hangs in the balance as citizens groups and elected leaders battle over which form of public transit is the best fit for an area whose transit ridership is expected to more than double over the next two decades. Whether Columbia Pike will become the juggernaut the county envisions—adding a projected 1,900 new jobs, 14,000 new housing units and 35,900 more residents by 2040—remains to be seen.
Some might say that the first revitalization of Columbia Pike occurred in 1810. That’s when Congress chartered the construction of the road along a cow path that stretched from Long Bridge (a precursor to the 14th Street Bridge) to Little River Turnpike. According to Columbia Pike: The History of an Early Turnpike, a 2010 document penned by John Paul Liebertz for the Arlington County Historic Preservation Office, the route was established to stimulate commerce between Fairfax County and the nation’s capital (Arlington was then a part of the District of Columbia).
By the time the Civil War erupted in 1861, the area we now know as Arlington had been retroceded to Virginia, but the Pike was still little more than a country road dotted with scattered farms—many of them temporarily abandoned by owners who had fled to points farther south. Recognizing the Pike as an important artery into Washington, the Union Army shut it down to all but military traffic, prompting its soldiers to pillage local farms for supplies and livestock, and to dismantle homes, barns and churches to build barracks. When the original owners returned in 1865, many found their properties reduced to rubble.
“There was so much destruction,” says Sarah Collins, a retired archivist for the Center for Local History at the Arlington Central Library. “It just ruined the area.”
After the war, new communities began to emerge around the Pike. Emancipated slaves forged new lives as residents of Freedman’s Village, an African-American community founded just north of the Pike on a portion of the former Custis estate that Robert E. Lee had shared with his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee. (The estate is now part of Arlington National Cemetery.) When Congress disbanded Freedman’s Village in 1900, many of the villagers went on to create the nearby neighborhoods of Nauck, Johnson’s Hill (now Arlington View), South Washington, East Arlington and Queen City (the last two were eventually torn down to build the Pentagon).
Around the same time, Arlington’s Alcova Heights neighborhood took shape along the first electric streetcar route in Northern Virginia. Established in 1892, the trolley line extended from Rosslyn to Nauck, and included a stop at the intersection of South Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike. “The trolley allowed people who worked in D.C. to live out in the country,” Collins says.
Once cars gained in popularity, public transportation fell out of favor and the landscape took another evolutionary turn. In 1933, passenger trains along the Washington & Old Dominion Railway (which included stops along the Pike) were discontinued. The trolley ceased operating in the 1940s.
That same decade saw the arrival of the Westmont Shopping Center (which still stands today at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Glebe Road), the Navy Annex (1941), the Pentagon (1943) and several apartment communities, including the Fillmore Garden Apartments, built in 1942. Suddenly the Pike was flush with new residents and commuters. And it was no longer rural.
“The Pike as we know it today is a product of the ’40s,” says Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO), a coalition of businesses, civic associations, property owners and Arlington County officials dedicated to rejuvenating the aging corridor.
In the late 1990s, Arlington County embarked on a planning process known as the Columbia Pike Initiative (CPI), designed to stem disinvestment and restore the Pike’s status as one of Arlington’s vital main streets. One of its first actions was to engage community members in creating a Form Based Code for the Pike’s four commercial centers. Feedback from more than 200 town hall-style meetings went into the creation of the code, which sets design parameters for variables such as building heights and uses, facade materials, street setbacks and green space.
Housing was another major area of focus. Drawing on feedback from the community meetings, the Arlington County Board in 2008 commissioned a land use and housing study (Phase 2 of the CPI) to map out potential locations for multifamily housing along the Pike and to create an overarching vision for the next 30 years.
Out of Phase 2 came the Neighborhoods Area Plan, adopted in July 2012, which broadly envisions high-density mixed-use buildings (combining residential and commercial space) along the Pike, with an emphasis on revitalization and housing affordability.
To avoid the displacement of existing low-income residents, the plan calls for the preservation of more than 6,000 affordable housing units. It dovetails with CPI plans for urban design improvements such as enhanced landscaping; modified crosswalks; wider sidewalks, curbs and gutters; bicycle lanes on streets that run parallel to the Pike; and underground utilities (namely, power lines) to make way for future transit additions. A working group of county staff and civic association representatives continues to oversee the implementation of these improvements.
Certain pieces in the redevelopment puzzle have already begun to take shape. The six-story Siena Park apartments, just west of South Wayne Street, opened in May 2010 with ground-floor commercial tenants such as XSport Fitness and William Jeffrey’s Tavern. Next door, on Barton Street, the massive Penrose Square development, which opened in 2011, includes apartments, shops, a Giant Food and a public square that hosts outdoor movies and live music in the summertime.
Some venerable landmarks remain, such as the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse at the corner of Columbia Pike and South Walter Reed Drive. It occupies the former Arlington Theater, a protected historic structure that was built in 1940. It faces the Halstead, an eight-story, mixed-use building that opened in December 2008 on the site of a former electrical substation.
“The whole area around Walter Reed and Columbia Pike has been radically transformed,” observes Nina Janopaul, president and CEO of the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), which has several development projects in the area. “There’s a whole lot of new and lively investment in retail. The apartments have also created a new buzz.”
Still, some local business owners—particularly restaurateurs who are new to the area—wish the pace of redevelopment would accelerate. They say the customer base they had hoped to find on the Pike has yet to materialize.
When Doug Bai opened RedRocks Bistro in Penrose Square, he figured the Pike was ready for an upscale, small-plate dining concept. (Other RedRocks locations had been well received on H Street in D.C. and in Alexandria.) But so far, he says, that concept hasn’t resonated with denizens who prefer more budget-friendly food options. In response, Bai has revamped his menu to include items such as fried calamari and sandwiches. Kids can now eat free on Saturdays, and the restaurant has begun offering carryout and delivery. “We can survive, but we’re surviving by doing things we normally don’t do in our business model,” he says.
Other restaurant owners say they’re getting by with weekend and evening business, but the lunch riddle remains unsolved. Some even explored the feasibility of a shuttle bus to bring Pentagon workers (who are two miles away) to the Pike around the noon hour, but the cost proved prohibitive. “It’s tough for lunch,” says Greg Whelan, co-owner of P. Brennan’s, an Irish pub that opened in the Halstead in 2010. “When [you work nearby and] you’ve only got an hour, you’re always going to take the quickest, most convenient option.”
Chris Lefbom, a co-owner of William Jeffrey’s Tavern, believes that additional stores would help magnetize the Pike as a lifestyle destination. “Some more retail would be great,” he says. “There is no bookstore. There are no clothing shops. There are no boutiques.”
Residents like Douglas Park’s Henderson still lament the loss of service-oriented retailers such as Arlington Hardware, which closed to make way for the Halstead. “It was nice to have something like that in the neighborhood rather than driving to Home Depot to get those needs filled,” he says.
But Matt Kennedy, who rents on the Pike and works for a federal contractor, says it’s unrealistic to hope for the return of lost mom-and-pops. “More retail would be great, but I don’t think it’s likely,” he says. “We don’t really need it. Pentagon City is very close, as are Ballston Mall and Clarendon, not to mention Bailey’s Crossroads and Potomac Yard.”
At present, all eyes are on the public transportation debate and how new transit could shape the Pike’s economic future, as well as its physical landscape. Columbia Pike is currently the busiest bus transit corridor in Virginia, according to county estimates. Demographers predict that 65 percent of Arlington’s population growth and 44 percent of its employment growth over the next 30 years will occur along Columbia Pike and U.S. Route 1 in Crystal City.
At the same time, commuter volume along those routes is rapidly rising. Whereas 2010 saw 24,700 daily bus trips along the two corridors, the number of daily transit trips is projected to reach 59,800 by 2035.
To accommodate that growth, county officials have proposed a 4.5-mile streetcar line that would extend from Bailey’s Crossroads to the Pentagon City Metro (Blue and Yellow Lines) and then proceed to Crystal City, where it would connect to another streetcar line running down U.S. Route 1.
Streetcar advocates tout the project as a critical piece of green infrastructure and a much-needed boon to the Pike’s economy.
In late March, a county-commissioned study by the New York-based consulting firm HR&A Advisors indicated that a streetcar line could bring an additional $3.2 billion to $4.4 billion to the Pike (via increased real estate values, higher densities and retail revenue), sparking hundreds of new jobs and generating more than $300 million in new annual tax receipts for Arlington over the next 30 years.
The study also concluded that bus rapid transit (BRT), a transportation alternative favored by some citizens and elected officials, is not a viable option because of inadequate capacity and the fact that the Pike may not be wide enough to accommodate dedicated BRT lanes.
“The return on investment study…demonstrates that the best and highest-capacity bus service that can be built on Columbia Pike will not [be enough],” says Douglas Park resident John Snyder. He chairs Streetcar NOW, a citizens group that advocates for higher-density development and the streetcar. Even with a dedicated bus lane, “[BRT] would not even carry the number of passengers expected at peak rush hour times,” Snyder says.
But with a revised price tag of $358 million—now $100 million higher than previous estimates—the streetcar project remains controversial, with citizens and public officials still deeply divided on the issue.
On the opposite side of the debate is Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit (AST), a group that says the BRT option (estimated at $67 million) should be further explored as a cost-efficient alternative to streetcars. Beyond budget concerns, advocates of BRT point out that buses offer more flexibility than streetcars and can maneuver around traffic accidents and blockages in a way that streetcars on fixed tracks cannot.
“The [Arlington] board chairman and other stakeholders have attempted to argue that the definition of BRT requires that BRT operate in a dedicated lane,” AST member Catherine O’Malley maintains. “They are wrong about that definition.”
Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey, who opposes the streetcar plan, takes a similar view. “A streetcar-like bus can do everything a streetcar can for a fraction of the cost,” she says. “You don’t have to lay down tracks and wires at $60 million per mile. You can paint them. Or [delineate the bus route] with different paving materials.”
Many saw John Vihstadt’s special election to the Arlington County Board in April as a public referendum on the streetcar debate. A Republican-turned-independent and vocal critic of the proposed trolley, Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat since 1999 to be elected to the board, which is now solidly divided on the issue. Chairman Jay Fisette and members Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes favor the proposed streetcar, while Vihstadt and Garvey oppose it.
Critics see the streetcar’s ballooning cost estimate (the most recent increase was $48 million) as a red flag, particularly after the infamous “Million Dollar Bus Stop” across from Penrose Square sparked public outcry and became a symbol of government waste. “The taxpaying public is not having a lot of confidence that governments can deliver these projects on time, on budget, or in an effective manner,” Vihstadt said recently in The Washington Post.
Streetcar proponents note that the super stop—the first of 24 new stops designed to eventually serve both buses and streetcars—is a prototype and that subsequent stops will be less costly to build now that there’s a model in place. They also point to Arlington’s investment in Metrorail in the ’70s (and the profound renaissance that followed along the Orange and Blue Line corridors) as an example of what a streetcar could do for Columbia Pike.
But funding remains a significant sticking point. Arlington’s share of the streetcar cost is currently estimated at $287 million (with Fairfax County covering the remaining $71 million), according to the county’s proposed budget. That includes $140.5 million that officials hope to secure in federal funding, $86.4 million in state and regional funds, and $59.8 million in anticipated commercial real estate tax revenue.
Arlington failed to secure federal funding for the streetcar in 2013 (the Federal Transportation Administration rejected all such applications for new funding nationwide that year). But County Board member Tejada is optimistic that Virginia’s new transportation tax (an outcome of last year’s bipartisan state transportation bill) will open up additional state funds to buoy the project. “I’m excited that we will have those transportation funds to complement the other funds we are getting,” he says. “All of those funds together can make our streetcar happen sooner rather than later.”
Although at this point, “sooner” means breaking ground in 2018, with streetcar service starting in spring 2021 at the earliest.
Karantonis supports the streetcar project as the next big puzzle piece in the Pike’s comeback, but he worries that the current time frame may leave certain businesses vulnerable to failing in the interim. “[The streetcar] is probably five years out and this affects business decisions,” he says.
Bai, the owner of RedRocks, views the streetcar project as a lifeline that can’t come soon enough. “I think the sustainability of Columbia Pike relies on the streetcar,” he says. “I’m deeply afraid that if it doesn’t end up happening, we’re going to see restaurants disappear. Once that happens, the whole dream of the Pike becoming a destination is lost.”
For now, Pike organizers remain hopeful that ongoing street improvements, combined with greater cultural options—such as outdoor concerts and festivals in Penrose Square and the new Arlington Mill Community Center plaza—will bring new life to the area. “The [plazas] create a nice public realm that invites people to stay and shop within a walkable distance from home,” Karantonis says. “There are 36,000 people who live immediately within half a mile of the Pike. We need to try to keep them here instead of bleeding these customers to Bailey’s Crossroads, Shirlington or Clarendon.”
While the outlook for many new businesses along the Pike remains tenuous, the fate of some older businesses has already been sealed. A new 110-unit, six-story apartment building at 2400 Columbia Pike, for example, is slated to displace L.A. Nails and Rappahannock Coffee.
“I worry about us losing the small businesses,” says Penrose homeowner Slatt, who favors the streetcar but is nevertheless aware of its potential repercussions. “The buildings that come in are brand-new and the landlords have really high rents. We don’t want the Pike to become Clarendon. We have diversity, and we would like to keep it.”
Although the Pike’s Neighborhoods Plan emphasizes the preservation of affordable housing, some locals still fear that the area’s ethnic diversity could be compromised by gentrification. A 2001 Brookings Institution report found 130 nationalities represented along Columbia Pike (specifically the 22204 ZIP code), making it one of the “most diverse areas in the metropolitan region.” That melting-pot status is something current residents cherish. “At Christmastime, you can see a Feliz Navidad sign on a Chinese restaurant,” Snyder says.
Photographer Lloyd Wolf, who is working on a documentary project about Columbia Pike, says he has already noticed a change in the Pike’s cultural fabric. “The heart of the immigrant community is moving farther away,” he says. “I’m not seeing the same mix I saw six or seven years ago.”
To prevent a further exodus, county officials are working hard to hold the line on affordable rents, with policies such as a requirement that 25 percent of the units in any high-density residential building be set aside as affordable; tax-exempt financing to help nonprofit developers cover their application costs; a tenant assistance fund to help residents displaced by redevelopment; and tax credits that incentivize for-profit developers to maintain affordable housing options.
“Just saying we’re going to protect affordability isn’t good enough,” says County Board member Tejada. “We need to put policies in place that will protect it.”
Last year, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) received more than 3,000 applications for its 122-unit Arlington Mill Residences, a project built exclusively for residents earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. For a family of four, that’s about $64,000 per year.
“People want to live near [Arlington schools] in a transit-rich community,” says APAH’s Janopaul. “About 40 percent of the applications were from Arlington; another 40 percent were from Alexandria.”
But the twin goals of affordability and economic development are often at odds in a ZIP code where median home prices rose from $340,000 in 2004 to $445,000 this year, according to Zillow. Kennedy, the federal contractor who currently rents on the Pike, says he would like to buy a house in the next couple of years, but he already doubts that he can afford to buy where he lives now. “When I look at houses around Penrose Square, I just assume they’re well out of my price range,” he says.
Despite all the uncertainty, Tejada has faith that the Pike will rise to enjoy a new heyday. “A lot depends on how [the] economy fares, and there could be some constraints,” he says. “We’re not expecting this to happen overnight. But the hope is that with this location, [Columbia Pike] will continue to be an attractive place to work, live and shop.”
Les Shaver has been covering the real estate industry for more than a decade.
In the Pipeline
2400 Columbia Pike
Developer B.M. Smith & Associates has already made its mark with the massive Penrose Place development, as well as a number of older residential buildings that it built many years ago. Its next addition will be a mixed-use, market-rate, 110-unit apartment building with retail on the first floor. The company plans to introduce new retail options once it breaks ground in mid-2015. “There are a mix of food and service providers leasing up the space now” who will have to leave, says David Peete, a partner with B.M. Smith.
Arlington Presbyterian Church
The Arlington Presbyterian Church, located at the corner of South Lincoln Street and Columbia Pike, has a three-part vision for its property. It would like to tear down the existing buildings and create a combined facility with a church, coffee shop and child care space on the first floor and 120 units of affordable housing on the upper floors. The church is working with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH).
Columbia Grove Apartments
Owned by APAH, the 208-unit project at the corner of Frederick Street and Columbia Pike could soon be adding more units, thanks to a density allowance from the county. “We would like to take some of the open space [such as surface parking] and convert it to new apartments,” says APAH President and CEO Nina Janopaul.
Evergreene Homes is building a 22-unit project—that will include eight luxury townhomes and a five-story building with 14 condos and first-floor retail—behind the Rite Aid at the intersection of South Walter Reed Drive and 11th Street South. It’s hoping to complete the project in the first quarter of 2015. “The values in the corridor haven’t risen to [what you see in other parts of Arlington],” says Evergreene CEO Rob Cappellini. “This was an opportunity to get in a little bit earlier in the development cycle.”
A massive two-pronged development is under way on the former Rosenthal Chrysler Jeep site at the intersection of South Glebe Road and Columbia Pike. Penrose Columbia Pike Associates is building a 257-unit, five-story residential building with ground-floor retail and a parking garage. Next door, NVHomes is building the 44-townhome Pike 3400 Towns project.