When Metro Came To Town

How the fight for mass transit was won. And how its arrival left Arlington forever changed.
When Jay Fisette moved to Arlington in 1983, he relied on public transportation to commute to and from his job at the U.S. General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C. “Every morning I would walk across a barren field to a Metro entrance that just came out of the ground,” he recalls.

That station was Pentagon City, which had opened its doors to regional commuters six years earlier. The barren field between the station and his apartment (at RiverHouse on South Joyce Street) is now the site of the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City—one of the many retail hubs that would sprout up around Metro, transforming what was once a quiet bedroom community into a nexus of economic growth and cosmopolitan culture.

Fisette, who now serves as vice chair of the Arlington County Board, says it’s hard to remember what large sections of Arlington looked like before Metro. “The transformation,” he observes, “has been nothing short of dramatic.”

The story of Arlington and Metro begins in the mid-1950s, when the county was struggling to forge an identity within a rapidly evolving region. The post-war boom that had bolstered Arlington’s population growth was over. Newcomers to the D.C. metro area were increasingly choosing to settle in outer-ring suburbs, like Vienna and Rockville, where they could enjoy a more expansive suburban lifestyle.

Arlington, by comparison, seemed quaint and outdated—in part because its neighborhoods and retail centers were not conducive to the automobile culture that was sweeping the nation and redefining the American way of life.

No section of Arlington better encapsulated these shifting social mores than Clarendon. In the 1940s, Clarendon Village was the idyllic sort of central business district that one found romanticized in Jimmy Stewart films and Norman Rockwell paintings. Its walkable retail corridor featured two department stores (Sears, Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney), the Ashton movie theater, the Clarendon Trust Co. bank, and a smattering of mom-and-pop shops. What it didn’t have much of was off-street parking—a shortcoming that would come to jeopardize its long-term relevance.

It wasn’t long before Clarendon was eclipsed by newer retail destinations, including Parkington in Ballston (which opened in 1951 and is now the site of Ballston Common Mall) and Seven Corners (1956). With their sprawling asphalt parking lots and blocky parking garages, these suburban hives catered to the car-centric shopper. From the latter part of the 1950s to the second half of the 1970s, Clarendon devolved from the “Downtown of Northern Virginia” (as many had referred to it) to a secondhand neighborhood that, according to former Arlington County Board member Jay E. Ricks, “was just getting along.”

Meanwhile, as Arlington’s post-war growth tapered off and outer-ring communities thrived, questions of transportation arose. How could the Washington metropolitan region offer easier commutes to workers traveling from far-flung suburbs into the District?

One solution, championed by high-level politicians such as U.S. Congressman William Natcher (D-Ky.), was to construct a series of freeways—a vision that, had it come to fruition, would have turned D.C. into the Los Angeles of the East.

The signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 gave credibility to this idea, and Natcher, who chaired the House Subcommittee on Appropriations for the District of Columbia (and therefore held the power of the purse over transportation projects within the District), used his considerable influence to push a pro-roads agenda.

But the prospect of freeways scared civic leaders in Arlington. Fearing that an influx of new roads and cars would carve up the county’s quiet neighborhoods, they favored an approach championed by C. Darwin Stolzenbach, who served as the administrator of the National Capital Transportation Agency (NCTA) in the early 1960s. An economist by trade, occupying a position often held by engineers, Stolzenbach weighed the potential social benefits and drawbacks posed by both rapid transit and highways.

His conclusion: Rapid transit offered the best solution to the District’s transportation problems. In 1962, under Stolzenbach’s leadership, NCTA developed a plan for an 89-mile, 65-station subway system that included two lines in Arlington.

This plan was met with more than an ounce of skepticism, according to Zachary Schrag, a history professor at George Mason University. In his book, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), Schrag recounts one Arlington County Planning Commission meeting during which Planning Director Richard E. Arms argued that transporting workers by rail would prove too expensive and slow, adding that helicopters might be a more practical solution (though it should be noted that Arms would eventually come to support Metro).

The Arlington County Board generally supported the idea of mass transit, but its members took issue with Stolzenbach’s plan to run one line (what would become the Orange Line) up the median of I-66, bypassing the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in what amounted to an express route to Fairfax County.

That’s when County Manager Bert Johnson (who held his influential position from 1962 to 1976) and Director of Transportation Clifton (aka “Stoney”) Stoneburner proposed an alternative: an underground route that would service Wilson Boulevard, thereby supporting the county’s goal of breathing life back into a dying corridor.

With the location of routes still in question, the Arlington County Board voted in 1963 to support a mass transit system. Republican Congressman Joel Broyhill, who represented Arlington in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1953 to 1974, pushed the proposal on Capitol Hill, cosponsoring legislation that would have allowed NCTA to proceed with Stolzenbach’s plan. (Although Broyhill’s enduring legacy would be shaped by his opposition to school desegregation, he also took a keen interest in local transportation issues, including the construction of the Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson bridges, as well as a proposal to widen Shirley Highway—the 17-mile stretch of I-395 and I-95 between D.C. and Woodbridge.)

But the plan did not garner adequate support at the federal level, and Stolzenbach resigned from NCTA in 1965. It wasn’t until the formation of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), two years later, that hopes were renewed for a regional subway system. (WMATA, a tri-jurisdictional government agency comprised of representatives from Virginia, Maryland and the District, was formed, in part, to vest local officials with more control over local transportation projects.)

Under the leadership of General Manager Jackson Graham, WMATA began redrawing a map on a scale similar to the Stolzenbach proposal.

At that time, Arlington County officials also hoped to service Columbia Pike with mass transit. “There was so much population density along that corridor,” explains Elizabeth Weihe, who served as the first woman chairman of the Arlington County Planning Commission in the early 1960s.

WMATA did not share this view. Its planners envisioned two lines in Arlington: one to service the Pentagon, Crystal City and National Airport; and another to run along I-66 into Fairfax.

Digging in its heels, the Arlington County Board renewed its push to route the northern line underneath the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Doing so, it explained, would serve the residential neighborhoods along that strip and provide an economic boost to areas that were already slated for redevelopment.

But bargaining power was hard to come by. Hank Hulme, who served as the county’s public works director from 1977 to 1989, says county leaders finally leveraged their position by intimating that they might not pay their share of the construction costs if WMATA insisted on building the Orange Line along I-66. After much debate—in which Hulme says county officials “wore them down with facts,” WMATA finally capitulated and agreed to Arlington’s terms.

The county board was less successful in its efforts to get a third Metro route under Columbia Pike. When WMATA unveiled a map for a 98-mile Adopted Regional System in March 1968, the map included 10 stations in Arlington—five on the Orange Line, four on the Blue, and one (Rosslyn) on both. The station at Arlington National Cemetery wouldn’t be added to the plans until 1972, though the 1968 map did include a trail of thick dashes along Columbia Pike, marking a route that might one day host a possible third-line extension.

Was Arlington the beneficiary of a Metro stop that was originally intended for Georgetown? Shrag describes this oft-cited notion as an urban myth. Though Georgetown residents were opposed to having a Metro stop in their neighborhood, the possibility of a Georgetown station was ruled out in 1963 due to engineering challenges.

If drawing maps and making grand plans are the easy part of planning a mass transit system, convincing the public to foot the bill is the more challenging aspect. “The opposition of Metro was always based on money,” says Weihe, who eventually found herself charged with ginning up support for bonds to cover the costs.

When Arlington put the $54 million bond issue on its November 1968 ballot, many citizens were, not surprisingly, wary of the price tag. As Schrag notes in his book, some pointed out that the construction costs for Metro were equivalent to almost 20 years’ worth of school bonds.

By that time, Weihe had already seen her fair share of political battles. In the ’50s, she played an integral role in the efforts to integrate Arlington County schools—work that took her as far as Richmond, where she testified in front of the Virginia General Assembly. So the task of selling the bond issue that would provide the first round of funding for Metro did not faze her. She decided the best strategy was to give people an opportunity to preview the public transit experience.

“Most people didn’t even know what the Metro cars looked like, so we brought one to the parking lot at the Kann’s department store in Virginia Square and let people go inside and experience it for themselves,” says Weihe (at 98, she now lives in the Goodwin House, a retirement community in Falls Church). “It was a popular event, and we handed out fliers with information about the routes.”

Although this savvy public relations move generated plenty of goodwill, the Arlington County Homeowners Association opposed the bond measure.Weihe remained unsure about whether voters would ultimately support it until Nov. 5, 1968, when her fears were put to rest. The bond issue passed with more than 70 percent of the votes, signifying the public’s approval for a new era in transportation.

Arlington was officially on board.

With Metro slated to run underneath Wilson Boulevard, county officials began shoring up plans to revitalize the aging corridor, recognizing that their track record on redevelopment was both a boon and a bust to their credibility. In the early ’60s, Bert Johnson and the county board had shepherded an overhaul of Rosslyn, turning a low-rise area filled with lumber yards and pawn shops into a sparkling enclave of commercial office buildings and hotels. But it wasn’t exactly a home run in the field of reinvention. Despite the obvious improvements, the new Rosslyn’s dearth of residential and retail options made it something of an urban desert once workers left for the day. And its preponderance of uninspiring architecture earned negative reviews from residents, who feared similarly lackluster development would surround the coming Metro stations and threaten existing single-family neighborhoods.

One of the more vocal citizens to express such concerns was Elizabeth Weihe’s son, Ted Weihe. Although he supported the arrival of the subway system, he worried about the ramifications of dense development and wondered aloud whether planners had truly thought things through.

“The assumption was that density automatically increases tax benefits,” says the younger Weihe, who holds a master’s degree in planning from the University of Virginia and currently manages a cooperative development project for the fair-trade organization Equal Exchange. His concern was that the economic value of Metro would prove less significant once required investments such as new sewer systems, new fire equipment and increased solid waste collection were factored into the financial equation. Protecting the character of Arlington’s older neighborhoods was another issue.

In 1971, Ted Weihe and three others cofounded the Committee on Optimum Growth, a group that quickly joined forces with residents of other jurisdictions to become the Coalition for Optimum Growth (Co-OPT). Soon after, the group published a study (“Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor: Citizens’ View”) that advocated placing limits on high-density development in order to protect the neighborhoods adjacent to the Metro route. Speculators had already begun to buy up properties in Ashton Heights and Lyon Park, recalls former Co-OPT member Julie Mangis, with the intention of tearing down the homes, consolidating the land and rezoning the neighborhoods for high-rises.

Neither Mangis nor Weihe was ideologically opposed to tall buildings, but both questioned their intended locations. “We wanted to model the system after the Toronto Metro, where stops are located in residential neighborhoods,” says Weihe, who now lives in Sarasota, Fla.

Susan Nelson, who moved to Clarendon in 1974, remembers seeing a poster on a telephone pole advertising a public hearing on the rezoning of Wilson Boulevard. She attended the hearing and became alarmed at the prospect of 16-story buildings coming into her neighborhood.

Co-OPT began partnering with other local grassroots organizations (including one called the Neighborhood Conservation Group) to voice the concerns of citizens who didn’t want their neighborhoods cast in shadow by high-rises. The engagement of these civic groups stands as one of the earliest examples of what has come to be known as The Arlington Way: a tradition of active dialogue between citizens and county officials over planning initiatives.

“A lot of our supporters were for no growth or as little growth as possible,” recalls Joseph S. Wholey, who sat on the Arlington County Board from 1971-1978.

But no growth simply wasn’t an option. By the 1970s, Arlington’s population was on the decline. (The county lost 21,685 residents between 1970 and 1980—the only decade in the 20th century during which its population backtracked.) Board members saw dense development with a mix of retail, office and residential space as one way to help reverse this trend and reposition the county as a desirable place to live, work and play.

Taking its citizen concerns under advisement, the county board established a Long-Range Improvement Project Committee in 1973, and tasked the group with proposing land-use policies for the areas around Metro.

Their solution struck something of a compromise between the concerns of citizens and the county’s economic goals. Under the plan, land within a quarter-mile radius of each Metro station would be rezoned for dense, mixed-use (residential and commercial) development, placing the tallest buildings in closest proximity to the subway line. From there, the allowable heights of the buildings would taper off as they reached the perimeter. Commonly referred to as the “Bull’s-Eye concept,” this solution gave county officials the green light to build up urban-style nodes, while protecting the single-family neighborhoods that bordered the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

To prevent the Orange Line from becoming one homogeneous strip of tall buildings, the county simultaneously pursued a sector planning process that gave each Metro station a distinct identity. Rosslyn would remain a commercial office district. Court House would become a government center. Clarendon—much to the relief of Susan Nelson and her more concerned neighbors—would retain many of its low-rise buildings in an effort to create the feel of an urban village. Virginia Square would become an education hub (George Mason University Law School acquired the old Kann’s department store property in 1975). And Ballston would overhaul the Parkington Shopping Center to reposition itself as a contemporary residential and shopping destination.

Metrorail’s plans to the south were less controversial, and on July 1, 1977, the Blue Line began operation in Arlington County. Its impact was immediate and mostly positive. Merchants in the Crystal Underground—a subterranean shopping venue in Crystal City that opened in 1976—reported an immediate increase in business (though, according to a Washington Post story, one shop manager, Mareen Rolls of the Spectacle Shop, also reported a “greater amount of shoplifting.”)

In 1978, home assessments throughout all of Arlington County rose by 13 percent. Although multiple factors may have precipitated this bump in property values, observers speculate that the arrival of the Blue Line and the anticipated arrival of the Orange Line were chief among them.

The Orange Line subsequently opened in December of 1979, kick-starting a flurry of redevelopment projects along its route. Between 1980 and 1984, several hundred townhomes and condominiums popped up around the Ballston stop, rapidly urbanizing an area previously occupied by small single-family homes, woods and meadows. County officials began promoting Ballston as a “New Downtown” and even referred to Fairfax Drive as the future “Champs-Élysées” of Arlington.

Ballston’s most notable landmark, the Parkington Shopping Center, commenced a $100 million renovation project in 1982 that would transform it into the Ballston Common Mall. To spur additional mixed-use development in the area (and prevent Ballston from becoming just another swath of office buildings), the county created a special zoning category for Ballston’s commercial core—one that allowed developers to build higher, provided their buildings offered a 50/50 mix of residential and office space.

“It was essentially like giving developers free land,” says Mary Margaret Whipple, a former Virginia state senator who served on the Arlington County Board from 1983 to 1995. “We decided to use Metro as a catalyst of economic redevelopment.”

Of all the areas served by the Blue Line, Pentagon City underwent the most profound transformation. Despite moderate efforts by residents of nearby Aurora Highlands to limit development on the fringes of their quaint neighborhood, the massive Fashion Centre at Pentagon City opened its doors in 1989, becoming one of the Washington region’s preeminent shopping destinations and rivaling the new Ballston Common Mall.

Clarendon’s transformation to the north was slower. Many of its existing stores were independently owned, and the owners had no intention of selling to developers. As rents declined in the ’70s and ’80s—partly due to mounting retail competition from suburban malls—a slew of Vietnamese-owned businesses moved into the village, many of them run by immigrants who had fled their home country after the Vietnam War. For a time, Clarendon became known as “Little Saigon.”

It wasn’t until the ’90s that Clarendon began taking stock of its strengths, realizing that its ethnic restaurants, dive bars and mom-and-pop shops gave it a quirky character that other Orange Line neighborhoods lacked. At one point, a mural of a single eye with the words, “Keep Clarendon Weird” adorned a building at the corner of Wilson Boulevard and North Fillmore Street. John Aaron, who ran the unorthodox Museum of Modern ARF (an art gallery whose name was a playful variation of the word “art”) from 2002 to 2006, remembers Clarendon as a “hippie enclave” that stood to benefit from public transit. “[Metro] allowed people to get to our shops without having to worry about parking,” Aaron says.

Though each neighborhood around Metro evolved in its own way and at its own pace, the subway system’s profound impact on the county was undeniable. The decade from 1980 to 1989 saw the construction of 95 buildings greater than three stories, according to county records, which collectively added approximately 6,200 residential units and 14 million square feet of office space to the Arlington landscape.

And the subway certainly delivered the economic boost that local officials had hoped for. In 1980—three years after Metro first began operating in Arlington—the county’s median household income was $31,045. By 2011, that figure had increased to $99,651. Area median home values saw a similar spike during the same time period, ballooning from $92,900 to $575,600.

As Fisette puts it, Arlington changed from a quiet suburban community into a “vibrant urban village”—all the while keeping charming single-family neighborhoods like Ashton Heights (where Fisette now lives with his husband, Bob Rosen) intact, thanks to the county’s decision to limit dense, mixed-use development to the corridors.

Today, Arlington County is often cited by urban planning experts as a model of transit-oriented growth. Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of urban design at Georgia Tech and author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, describes Arlington’s approach to redevelopment as “way ahead of the curve.” She has taken students on field trips to the Orange Line corridor to give them a sense of how suburban communities can leverage public transit to improve their retail sectors and residential offerings.

But that’s not to say that Arlington’s transformation has been perfect. One oft-repeated complaint, among residents and outsiders alike, is that certain sections of town lack character.

“A lot of Ballston is just big buildings, one building per block,” says Dunham-Jones. “It’s boring to walk by. It’s much more interesting to walk by a shop that’s 25 feet wide, and then another that’s 25 feet wide and features another kind of display.”

She prefers Clarendon, noting that “the quality of the public spaces and the pedestrian experience make Clarendon better.”

But even trendy Clarendon—a neighborhood that has become one of the region’s most popular destinations for dining and nightlife—has not escaped criticism. Many bemoan the loss of its independently owned, quirky shops and ethnic restaurants; places such as the Museum of Modern ARF, Queen Bee Vietnamese restaurant and the dive bar Dr. Dremo’s.

Stand at the intersection of North Fillmore Street and Clarendon Boulevard today and you’ll find Crate & Barrel, a Cheesecake Factory and a Container Store within your immediate line of sight—chains that make this stretch of suburbia hardly differentiable from Reston Town Center and other exurban mixed-use developments (though plenty would argue that nondescript retail still trumps the used-car lots that once dominated Clarendon).

One notable trade-off is that the buildings along the Orange and Blue lines do generate a huge chunk of tax revenue. Real estate assessment records show that in 2011, buildings along those two corridors were expected to pay 48 percent of the county’s total real estate taxes.

Still, not everyone wants to see other sections of Arlington emulate the rise of Rosslyn-Ballston or Pentagon City-Crystal City.

Jan Kennemer, a real estate agent who has long worked in the neighborhoods that flank Columbia Pike, says many South Arlingtonians don’t want the Pike—which is currently undergoing a significant redevelopment and is the proposed location for a trolley line—to turn into “another Ballston or Clarendon.” She says many Pike residents see the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor as too dense and too clustered with high-rise buildings.

“We want to keep the funky independent businesses,” she says. “We’re not looking for another Starbucks. We want to keep the Rappahannock Coffee store. But I don’t know if that’s going to be possible as the area redevelops.”

Indeed, finding that delicate balance between cultural preservation and new development remains a tricky challenge. And all eyes are on county planners to see what their next move will be.

“The leadership in Arlington recognized the potential power of a subway system very early, when other jurisdictions in the suburbs did not express interest in transit planning,” observes Schrag, the George Mason history professor.

Fisette concurs. “The people who sat on the county board in the ’60s and ’70s were way ahead of their time,” he says. “They implemented smart growth before the term had even been coined.”

Will that clairvoyance continue in the 21st century? Wait and see.

Kevin Craft is a writer in Arlington. He runs a blog for the international design firm Gensler and contributes to The Atlantic.

Categories: Local History