Vertical Horizon

Arlington’s popularity is rising, and so are its buildings and real estate prices. When will the county reach maximum density?

When Tere O’Rourke Bradford returned to Arlington for a visit after 20 years on the West Coast, it wasn’t the small-town suburb she remembered. It was much more cosmopolitan.

“This place has changed from a hodgepodge of development to what urban infill should be,” O’Rourke Bradford said, sipping coffee at Rappahannock Coffee on Columbia Pike, one of the newer-generation hangouts offering free Wi-Fi and organic, free-trade beans. 

At the same time, O’Rourke Bradford was relieved to discover that her favorite little pupuseria from the old days hadn’t met its fate via bulldozer. 

She was lucky. Had she come back home craving hot wings at Whitey’s or summer rolls at Queen Bee, she would have been disappointed to find them gone. 

In the past two decades, Arlington has evolved in a way that former residents like O’Rourke Bradford hardly recognize. Clarendon, once home to “nail salons and car lots,” as one native put it, has undergone a wholesale renaissance. Now teeming with trendy eateries, gleaming office buildings, luxury high-rises and an Apple store, it’s one of the primary stops in the string of dense villages along Metro’s Orange Line that some refer to as “Orange Crush.”

Massive change is under way in other parts of the county, too, as Blue Line outposts such as Crystal City and Pentagon Row (and the nearby Village at Shirlington) have emerged as robust shopping and entertainment districts. Walk the streets lined with neatly manicured trees, park benches, modern parking meters and outdoor cafés, and Arlington feels every bit as city-like as some District neighborhoods on the other side of the Potomac.

And the transformation is far from complete. Today, one in five county residents lives in the 22204 ZIP code surrounding Columbia Pike, a main artery into Washington, D.C. that is next in line for revitalization. Private investments are already fueling the construction of new mixed-use buildings that are buzzing with restaurants, shops and apartments. And elected officials have earmarked funds for an eventual trolley line. 

Not to be outdone, the dense stretch between Rosslyn and Ballston has seen construction pick back up this year. Crystal City is poised for a long-term face-lift after changes in its General Land Use Plan were approved in 2010. The County Board has also signed off on a large-scale redevelopment plan for areas surrounding the East Falls Church Metro. Development has even come up in discussions in off-the-radar neighborhoods such as Bluemont.

Such is life in present-day Arlington, where residents have grown accustomed to slaloming orange traffic cones and gazing up at construction cranes silhouetted against the evening skyline.

To outsiders and policy wonks, the county’s transit-oriented approach to redevelopment (which concentrates rebuilding around public transportation nodes) has made it a national model for so-called “smart growth.” Arlington has even been called an urban planner’s dream. 

“The whole corridor along the [Orange] Metro Line is a classic example of how to take an older suburb and reshape it,” says John K. McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the nonprofit Urban Land Institute in Washington, which studies land-use policy.

But at the same time, the frenzied pace of redevelopment has given rise to more than a few tensions between the new and the old. 

Today's Arlington is far different from the neighborhood that Lowell Lam knew as a kid. Back then, Clarendon looked like a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting—big department stores like JCPenney and Sears, Roebuck, a movie theater and a dime store with soda fountains. “Clarendon had everything you wanted,” recalls Lam, who has lived in Lyon Park for 76 years. 

 

Concentrated redevelopment has spawned new commercial districts along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor (top), and in Shirlington Village and Pentagon Row. Courtesy of Arlington Economic DevelopmentLocal lifestyles began to evolve after World War II. Defense and government workers moved into the county and drove their cars to work in D.C. New suburban shopping malls, such as Seven Corners (which opened in 1956) and Tysons Corner Center (which came along in 1968), began luring customers farther afield. But much of Arlington remained unchanged. Even after Metro opened in 1976, parts of the county seemed trapped in time.

“In the late ’90s, I remember standing on a site in Clarendon and pitching it to the board members of a major non-
profit as its new headquarters,” says Terry Holzheimer, director of Arlington Economic Development. “Their comment was, ‘Who in their right mind would build anything here?’ ” 

Then came the explosion. From 2000-2010, the population of Clarendon nearly tripled, according to Census figures. The total number of housing units along the Rosslyn-Ballston (R-B) Corridor jumped 37 percent as developers began building vertically and filling in airspace with luxury apartments and condos. With those new residences came restaurants, brand-name stores, boutiques, and corporate offices.

“Our neighborhood went from being sleepy to totally thriving,” says Natalie Roy, president of the Lyon Park Civic Association. “[Now] you can walk everywhere.”

Civic leaders point to the county’s transit-focused strategy as one reason it has weathered the current recession relatively unscathed. Arlington now has more private office space than downtown Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas or Denver, according to the County Planning Division. And the current vacancy rate for commercial space along the R-B Corridor is 7 percent. That’s 10 percentage points lower than the national average. 

Arlington’s unemployment rate, which was 3.9 percent (compared with a national rate of 9.1 percent) at the time this story went to press, is also exceptional. Even in the depths of the recession, from March 2008 to March 2009, the county added 4,600 jobs, most of them in information and educational services. 

Holzheimer attributes those gains to the fact that Arlington is so walkable and transit-accessible. 

“From our standpoint, we have outperformed everybody,” he says, “and I believe it’s largely due to good planning.”

  Many locals view Arlington’s urban-style metamorphosis as a good thing. Archie Harders, a longtime agent with Long & Foster Real Estate and a Ballston resident for
the past 15 years, is one of them.
“When I first moved here, there were just a handful of restaurants,” he
says. “I had to get in a car or get on Metro to go someplace for dinner. For ease of living and lifestyle choices and diversity, [the growth] has been terrific.”

Developers have been quick to capitalize on that sentiment. Pentagon Row, which sits next to the Fashion Center at Pentagon City and itself is anchored by a Harris Teeter, Bed Bath & Beyond, Hudson Trail Outfitters and  a Metro stop, is one of several burgeoning villages attempting to get people out of their cars by putting commerce within walking distance of where they live.

“You really have good bones of merchandising, which meets the goods and services needs of the local community,” says John Tschiderer, vice president of development for Rockville, Md.-based Federal Realty Investment Trust, which developed Pentagon Row and redeveloped the Village at Shirlington.

But not all residents feel their needs are being met by large-scale retrofits. Clarendon resident Elizabeth Wray says she misses some of the old retail staples that have been replaced by tony restaurants and fancy stores. “Sears is gone and there’s nowhere to go to get a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, or things like that.”

 

East Falls Church organizer Mike Nardolilli hopes that rebuilding efforts in his neighborhood will  strike a happy medium with mid-rise buildings that respect the scale of nearby single-family homes. Photo by Michael VenturaThe neighborhood fabric has changed too, Wray says. When she moved to the area in 1962, she was surrounded by owner-occupied single-family homes. Now her block has at least three group houses with 20-something renters. And they take up a lot of the parking spaces.

“People don’t stay,” she observes. “They come, stay a couple of years, and leave. I used to know everybody for several blocks around here. Now I know very few people by name.”

Other homeowners who live close to the newer, denser parts of town take issue with the neighborhood transformation that occurs after dark. With bar patrons crowding the sidewalks along Wilson Boulevard (sometimes forcing pedestrians into the road), noise reverberating from the club scene, and occasional drunken revelry after the bars close, it’s easy to understand why nightlife is so often an issue at Lyon Park community meetings, Roy says. Although a noise ordinance is in the works and permit parking has been instituted along residential streets, many county officials see ongoing culture clashes as unavoidable.

“Life on the edges isn’t always neat,” says Robert Brosnan, director of Community Planning, Housing and Development for Arlington County. “In Clarendon, we’ve struggled with the nightlife and its relationship to the community.” 

A line of people file into the hallway of Arlington Traditional School in Bluemont. It’s time for the neighborhood’s civic association to elect new leaders, and the turnout is strong on a sweltering June night. But that isn’t the only reason citizens are crowding into the back of the lunchroom.

They’re at odds over the fate of their grocery store.

One group of locals has commissioned a study to explore the option of replacing their aging Safeway at Wilson Boulevard and North George Mason Drive with a multistory building of residential units stacked on top of retail space. Opponents fear such a move could push Bluemont down a slippery slope to “becoming Clarendon,” meaning more people, more cars, more density, more transience, and possibly more crime. 

The idea of change is causing unease among homeowners who cherish the small-town vibe of their neighborhood, where folks ring the firehouse bell on holidays and watch each other’s kids. In a recent survey conducted by the Bluemont Civic Association, nearly 46 percent of respondents said that rental housing was a concern. At the same time, 70 percent said they’d welcome a village center (presumably including apartments). It’s complicated.

“You have to contend with crowding, density, theft and more particle emissions from vehicles and pollution,” says Barbara J. Wien, who opposes redevelopment in Bluemont. “I’m not afraid of change,” she explains. “I just like small-scale because I think it’s more human-scale.”

Questions of scale are a common concern, acknowledges Brian Coulter, a partner with the JBG Companies, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based developer that has built a number of signature projects in Arlington County, including Waterview in Rosslyn and Arlington Gateway in Ballston. JBG has participated in recent discussions about redevelopment in Bluemont. “Sometimes density is just sort of shorthand for ‘It’s too big and there’s too much,’ ” he says. “It’s not that they don’t like density. It’s that they don’t like traffic. Other times it can be about how tall and big these buildings are going to be.”

Similar tensions are mounting in East Falls Church, where planners hope to transform pockets of single-story commercial buildings—intersected by a maze of I-66 on-ramps—into a more pedestrian-friendly hub with a definitive center. In a county where most transit stops are now surrounded by high-rises, the parking moat around the East Falls Church Metro stands out as a prime target.

Recognizing this reality, a small group of East Falls Church residents began working with the county in 2000 to effect change on their terms. Again, density is a touchy subject— particularly when it has the potential to encroach on the quiet single-family neighborhoods that fan out around the Metro station.

“There was a universal feeling that we didn’t want Ballston and we didn’t want the heights of some of the buildings in Clarendon,” says Mike Nardolilli, vice president of the Arlington-East Falls Church Civic Association. “[But] we liked the idea of the streetscape in Clarendon.”

Higher-density housing options have already arrived in East Falls Church at the corner of Lee Highway and Westmoreland Street with the rise of the Westlee, a five-story condo building, and The Crescent, a six-story apartment building across the street that stands adjacent to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.  Both buildings have ground-floor retail space. They are part of a big-picture plan that calls for a new “neighborhood center” made up of low- and mid-rise buildings connected by walkways and bike paths. 

But the piece that’s garnering the most attention is a proposed overhaul of the Park-and-Ride lot at the Metro station, which would place shops and cafés around a central civic plaza. Organizers envision a residential, office or hotel development of three to nine stories on that plaza. 

Perspectives on this proposal vary. “We were lucky that we didn’t end up with a plan for 18 stories,” says John Wilson, a neighborhood resident who took part in the planning. “There are forces out in the county that think it’s a waste of space not to put 25 stories near the Metro.”

 

Many worry that Columbia Pike’s funky architecture and cultural diversity could soon disappear. The vibrancy seen in street fairs (below) and everyday life could give way to homogeneity.  Photo by Lloyd Wolf /Columbia Pike Documentary ProjectLynn Campet, co-owner of La Côte D’Or Café on Lee Highway and a local resident since 1978, is generally enthusiastic about the plan (and the prospect of more customers) but concerned that it could increase traffic congestion. She also worries that a proliferation of tall buildings could dwarf her quaint French provincial restaurant, which already sits in the shadows of the Westlee and The Crescent.

“It’s always exciting to have something new,” Campet says. “I just don’t want to be like the little pancake house [the IHOP] in Ballston with all of those big buildings surrounding it.”

Columbia Pike, abandoned and virtually forgotten by the real estate community for decades, is making its own comeback. Here, residents seem optimistic about the potential for new stores and restaurants.

Nowhere is the excitement more apparent than at the opening of a new Giant on the Pike in late June. A child asks his mother if he can walk on the red carpet leading customers inside. A supermarket employee is handing out raffle tickets, and a band is playing in the background. It’s a party.

“The old [Giant] was a quarter of the size and not very nice,” says a customer as she checks out. “The only nice thing about it was that it was convenient.”

In the past five years, four high-rises have sprouted up on the Pike: the eight-story Halstead, six-story Siena Park, six-story Penrose Square (the ground floor of which is home to the new Giant) and 10-story 55 Hundred building. So far, residential construction has been concentrated in four emerging “town centers.” The idea is to create enough foot traffic to lure pioneering retailers and restaurateurs.

“I hope we bring everyone on the Pike the advantages of a smart-growth approach where we have a walkable Main Street environment and where people can shop, go out to dinner, go to a park, and visit their friends in close proximity to where they live,” says Inta Malis, a Columbia Pike resident who is also a member and former chair of the Arlington County Planning Commission. 

The Pike won’t have an underground Metro system, but planners are considering a streetcar that could transport passengers from Pentagon City to Bailey’s Crossroads as early as 2016—that is, if the necessary federal funding materializes.

Local resident Greg Godbout, president of the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, says the area’s growth potential played a big role in his decision to buy the vintage theater (a local institution) six years ago. New construction, he says, has given his enterprise a much needed jolt.

“As a business owner, I see [redevelopment] as an imperative to improving my neighborhood,” he says. “If you left it as it was, people wouldn’t invest.”

At the same time, history shows that investment in “emerging neighborhoods” like Columbia Pike can often produce mixed results. While organized efforts are under way to “Keep the Pike Funky” with its patchwork of quirky architecture, the new buildings—and high-rises in particular—can’t replicate the patina of time and often end up with a cookie-cutter look compared with the old stuff.

Revitalization could also elbow out some of the mom-and-pop businesses that give the Pike its flavor. Godbout points to the many small businesses in Clarendon that were displaced when new competitors came in and rents skyrocketed, including family-owned Vietnamese restaurants and beloved dive bars.

But the biggest casualty on the Pike could be a loss of cultural diversity. The 2000 Census counted people from 128 countries of origin living on or near the stretch of road spanning from the Navy Annex to Route 7, including more than half of the county’s Hispanic population. 

This is how it’s always been, Malis says, noting that the Pike has welcomed many waves of immigrants over the course of its history. “Because we’ve had affordable housing,” she says, “we have made ourselves available to many groups who would like to live in Arlington.”

The influx of people is sure to continue over the next decade. In areas within a quarter-mile of bus service, the population could very likely jump 24 percent, from 30,200 to 37,500, according to county projections.

It’s the makeup of that population that’s uncertain. If the laws of gentrification come into play, the Pike could become a very different place. As people, jobs, retailers and new restaurants arrive to fill new or renovated buildings, incomes and housing prices usually go up. 

A macro view of the county, which has undergone massive redevelopment over the past decade, confirms this economic theorem. According to Census statistics from Bloomberg Businessweek, from 2000 to 2009, Arlington’s average annual household income increased by $12,705—a jump more pronounced than any other municipality’s in the country.

This trend partly explains why affordability and diversity have become a rallying cry for community leaders along Columbia Pike. 

“People are concerned about [the potential for displaced residents] and are working to stop it,” says John Snyder, president of the Douglas Park Civic Association. The neighborhood lies due south of the Pike between Walter Reed Drive and Four Mile Run.

 

Courtesy Arlington Economic DevelopmentOne explicit goal, as stated in the Columbia Pike Redevelopment Plan, is to preserve 100 percent of the apartments that are affordable for families earning 60 percent of the area’s median income. This is no easy feat, considering that in the past five years, the county has already lost nearly 10,000 affordable units—mostly because landlords bumped up rents. “They’re jacking the rents up $400 or $500 [a month] and dislocating a lot of folks in the process,” says Ken Aughenbaugh, the housing director for Arlington County. 

Affordable housing isn’t all that’s been lost. During the first decade of the 21st century, as redevelopment efforts began to hit full-swing in much of Arlington, the state of Virginia saw an 11.6 percent increase in its African-American population and a 91.7 percent increase in its Hispanic population. Arlington County’s African-American and Hispanic communities decreased 0.9 percent and 11.02 percent, respectively, in the same time frame. 

Although the owners of some of Columbia Pike’s venerable garden apartment complexes, such as the Barcroft and Fillmore Gardens, say they have no plans to sell, the county is nevertheless offering tax exemptions and other financial incentives in an attempt to preserve affordability. 

But ultimately there’s only so much anyone can do to maintain rent controls once redevelopment pushes up land prices. To make a profit on the land purchase, developers have to ask for higher rents or sales prices. 

“Arlington [officials] have done their best to encourage moderate-income housing, but they don’t have that many options,” says Rick Hausler, a principal at McLean, Va.-based Insight Property Group and former head of acquisition and development at McLean-based Kettler, a company that put up a number of high-rises at Pentagon City. “The land is itself so valuable.”

That upward trajectory isn’t expected to turn around. Experts predict that Arlington’s appeal will only increase as gas prices continue to rise and traffic becomes even more clogged on Northern Virginia’s roads.County officials project that by 2040 Arlington’s population will grow by 18.7 percent, to 252,000, and employment will increase 35 percent with the addition of 281,100 jobs.  

Near Metro, the influx will be even more pronounced. The number of people living within a half-mile of the subway is anticipated to grow by nearly 38 percent. 

This has many locals worried about added congestion in areas they already perceive as log-jammed. Lori Weiner, who lives in Bluemont, laments that she can no longer pop over to Clarendon to grab takeout without spending 15 minutes just to find parking. 

“If I lived in an apartment there, it would be easy,” she says. “But by the time I go through 15 or 16 stoplights, it feels like I’m just battling things.”

One Columbia Pike resident says traffic has lengthened his daily commute into D.C. by at least 15 minutes. It’s especially rough whenever a lane on the Pike is shut down for construction.

And it’s not just automobile gridlock that has community members concerned. Riders on Metrorail trains, which have accommodated a 21 percent increase in weekday boardings over the past 10 years, are feeling more and more like sardines. Once the Silver Line to Dulles is in full swing, it will most likely exacerbate conditions along the Orange Line. 

“Anybody who takes the Metro knows it gets pretty squeezed by the time you get to Clarendon or Virginia Square or Courthouse,” says Lyon Park’s Roy. “It’s pretty tight.”

And yet county officials still see Metro as the best solution in a place where everyone wants to be. In keeping with Arlington’s long-term vision, they’re continuing to focus on clustering the bulk of the population expansion along public transit routes. 

“It has been up to the county to figure out how we’re going to accommodate all of the folks who want to come to this area and funnel them into taller buildings along the Metro corridor,” says Stacey Whyte, president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and a former Clarendon resident. “I think they did an excellent job there.”

As Arlington becomes more and more city-like, homeowners will surely continue complaining about traffic, bar noise, parking, public drunkenness and the other countless offenses that come with urban redevelopment. 

Mary Hynes, vice chair of the Arlington County Board, says this tug-of-war between citizens and real estate developers isn’t new. It has been going on for the past 30 years. She adds that one of the county’s main goals is to ensure that there are still single-family homeowners around to complain. 

“As we continue to evolve, how do you stay true to that county plan philosophy?” Hynes asks. “We want to keep single-family neighborhoods untouched or preserved in some manner as opposed to turning into Manhattan. That’s the real challenge of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to have our cake and eat it, too. So far, we’ve been able to do it.” 

Les Shaver, a lifelong Virginian, is a writer who lives in Arlington. He has covered the real estate business for the past decade. 

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