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Plans Coming Down the Pike

Board set to look at Columbia Pike Revitalization Initiative.

When military bases close, Bryant Monroe goes to help the surrounding communities recover. He organizes them, sits them down, and gets them to start planning for the now-vacant tract of land next door.

Working for the Defense Department, Monroe talks to community leaders when the bases close, encouraging them to think realistically about what they would like to see develop on newly empty acres. That process, Monroe said last week, is a lot like what he has seen happening along Columbia Pike

"It’s a process of building community consensus," said Monroe, who also served as a member of the group pushing for revitalization of the south Arlington’s main drag. "You start off with a concept and vision, then you’re faced with 1,001 details. But the broader vision puts you in a position to have discussion about the details."

In a special meeting next Tuesday, County Board members are set to put their seal of approval on a four-year-long move to spark a renaissance on Columbia Pike. But that approval comes after a long process of hashing out the details.

The draft plan, coming before the board at a special meeting set for March 12, would put in turn Columbia Pike into a development site, a southern rival to Clarendon and Wilson.

Running along the 3.5 mile strip of the Pike, the draft plan would establish five centers, integrated through a corridor plan – roughly analogous to plans shaping the development of Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston.

Those centers would be linked by residential neighborhoods. Running through all of those, the plan calls for greater traffic capacity, expanded bike trails, sidewalks and an expanded transit system – light rail, or faster buses.

The plan would allow larger developments on the Pike, primarily in the development centers. In exchange for increased space, developers would have to agree to comply with design guidelines, which will be set during a community process beginning later this year.

The plan comes to the county "after four years, and more than 130 meetings in the last 22 months," Tim Lynch said last week.

Lynch, president of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, has been a driving force behind the Columbia Pike Initiative. He predicted success for the plan, joined by county officials and neighbors of the Pike.

As approval of the plan looms on the horizon though, Lynch predicted that Columbia Pike would soon be awash in development. But he was still hedging his bets.

"Once the county approves this, rather, should the county approve this, we’re going to see a real flurry of activity," Lynch said. "Some projects are waiting on the sidelines right now. We’re hoping, within the next three to five years, to see 100,000 square feet of development."

<b>Centers of Discussion</b>

<bt>The planned revitalization of Columbia Pike begins, as the road itself, on federal land. In the plan, the area now occupied by the Navy Annex becomes the Eastern Gateway.

Plans for the gateway are the least refined in the plan, calling only for future consideration when the US government makes more concrete decisions on the future of the Navy Annex, Arlington National Cemetery and prospective museums and memorials along the Pike.

There are a number of possibilities in play for that area, Lynch said. "One part of government stands to lose a lot of office space with the Navy Annex. So if they can put in an office campus, they would like to. Others want housing," he said. "Others have suggested a Potomac Yard sort of thing."

At a planning commission meeting on the draft plan last week, commissioners encouraged county staffers to include some recommendations for the area even before federal plans were known, concentrating especially on possibilities for a park in the area.

Down the pike, between South Courthouse Road and South Monroe Street, the plan calls for the biggest redevelopment in the first special development area, the Town Center.

Mixing ground-floor stores and offices, buildings in the Town Center could rise as high as 10 stories, with the vision for the area mixing in four-, six- and eight-story structures as well.

Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, already located in the area, at the corner of the Pike and South Walter Reed Drive, serves as one of the focal points in plans for the center, augmented by other stores and parks.

The town Center would also serve as a business anchor for the Pike. The ATT Telco office on Walter Reed serving as an anchor for telecommunications and fiber optics, county planners said. In, the plan, they call on staff to court technology and defense-related businesses to relocate in the area.

Down the Pike at South George Mason Drive and South Taylor Street, the plan calls for a Village Center: less intense development than the Town Center, with buildings between four and seven stories-tall, also a mix of residential space, offices and stores, centered on Acova Heights Park and Doctor’s Run Park.

Between South Wakefield and South Frederick Street, the plan would establish a Neighborhood Center, a low-density development area devoted largely to Four Mile Run Park and an additional park. At the tallest, according to the plan, buildings in the area would be six stories.

As Columbia Pike runs into Fairfax County, the plan would establish a development node for the Western Gateway, with residential and office buildings up to 12 stories high.

At present, the area is a mix of 10- and 11-story apartment buildings and strip malls. The plan for the area represents building up the stretch of road between South Greenbrier and the county line to the same scale.

<b>Weak Links</b>

<bt>Planning commissioners largely praised the work of county planners on the Columbia Pike project last week. They reserved their criticism for two aspects of the plan: housing and transportation.

Commissioner Eugene Hubbard called the transportation recommendations "the weak link" of the plan. The recommendations would beef up the infrastructure along the Pike, bus stops, sidewalks and bike paths.

Additionally, the county looks for "higher-capacity" transit to run along the Pike in the future, either rapid-transit buses or a trolley or tram-line. To that end, the plan would keep land along the street largely undeveloped, as the site for a future transit-only lane.

Commissioners praised those plans, but said that there needed to be more accommodation for car traffic in the future. Right now, revitalization would only include intersection improvements, traffic calming measures in surrounding neighborhoods, and traffic analyses conducted by developers.

What happens, commissioners asked, when a traffic analysis shows that traffic is at full capacity? Does development come to a dead stop, they wondered.

Similarly, commissioners expressed reservations about plans to push housing redevelopment along the Pike. There needs to be a mix of affordable and high-end housing, they said. But the plan now only includes tools to encourage building owners to refurbish affordable housing without significantly increasing rents.

Pamela Gillen, commission chair, said later that the commissioners do not expect to see their questions answered right away. "Much of what we talked about was Phase II," she said, and would be answered as part of the community planning process.

<b>Next Steps</b>

<bt>The next stop for the Pike plan is with the County Board next Tuesday, in a meeting at 7:30 in the Board Room at 2100 Clarendon Blvd.

If the board approves the plan, it goes back to the community for the coming year. Neighbors of the Pike will be asked what they want to see as the road is redeveloped. A planning consultant will compile that data into an urban design handbook.

As developers look at building on the Pike, they will be able to look at that handbook. If they agree to the design components, the county holds out the possibility of increased density.

"People are going to say, density is bad thing," Bryant Monroe said. "The tradeoff is, do you want to see something happen?"