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Listening to the Land

Designers behind Pike Revitalization plans get community input at weekend workshops.

Ernie Butler has been to plenty of community meetings.

He goes to his civic association meetings regularly, and he has kept up to date on plans to revitalize Columbia Pike.

So he was also on hand for the Columbia Pike Charrette this weekend, two-day design workshop involving some 200 residents along the South Arlington corridor, and was curious what was come of it.

But despite his civic involvement, or perhaps because of it, Butler was also a little skeptical. "I thought it would be unusual to have so many people, and come up with a consensus," he said. "But I thought it was fantastic."

The charrette will wrap up this week, with designers presenting preliminary plans with how redevelopment along the Pike should progress on Thursday.

"I would like to think that on Thursday, there will be some type of consensus," said Butler.

There should be, said Tim Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. The charrette let Pike residents do some design work on the road themselves, and they had already come to some agreement on Saturday. "They want a pedestrian environment," Lynch said. "They don’t want this corridor to be a traffic sewer. And they want to see new development giving a wider range of commercial options."

<b>FRIDAY NIGHT,</b> some 150 residents of neighborhoods along Columbia Pike sat down in the ballroom of the Sheraton National to hear Lynch explain just what the "charrette" was, and why they should take part.

Change on Columbia Pike is inevitable. "What if, after five years, the new Pike looks nothing like what you said you wanted?" Lynch asked the audience. The solution was simple, he said. "You will tell us what you want it to be."

Victor Dover, one of the designers heading up the charrette, tapped the audience’s patriotism to get them involved. "Let’s imagine ourselves as a Continental Congress of your corridor."

Dover, one of the principle designers for Dover, Kohl & Partners, a Miami-based design firm, conducted Friday and Saturday’s sessions along with Washington-based urban planner Geoffrey Ferrell.

Dover, Kohl and Ferrell Associates will be responsible for synthesizing the input from the weekend into coherent plans for the Pike over the course of the next month.

Central to those plans, Ferrell said Friday, is the idea of form-based code. For the last 45 years, laws governing what buildings get built, and where, were based on the use of the building.

<b>DIVISIONS WERE</b> made according to use, putting retail buildings in one area, residential buildings in another, industrial buildings yet another place. But divisions in a city based on use didn’t take into account the different types of buildings that could be used for the same purposes.

That often meant that, according to zoning, a builder could end up putting a tall, slender building on a lot, right next to a small, squat building, dwarfing the neighbors. "Currently, if there’s a vacant lot, you never know what your neighbor is going to develop," he said. "It could overwhelm your home."

In form-based codes, Ferrell said, the county would let a property owner plan to use a building almost anyway he or she wanted to, as long as the building adhered to the restrictions on the shape and style of the building.

It’s a return to an older style of planning. "Older codes are also form based," he told the audience, showing the page of a city planning manual from 1903 Chicago. "We’re finding that many of the great towns and cities were built by some type of form-based code."

<b>ON SATURDAY,</b> more than 200 Pike-area residents showed up to put their ideas about the Pike on paper.

They split into small groups at 21 tables, drawing their ideas for what they would like to see on the Pike over maps of the five-mile long road. There were parks, there were amphitheaters, and many, many trees in the drawings. The attendance at the charrette was encouraging, Lynch said, but it wasn’t everything he had hoped for. "I had hoped we would have had greater participation from the immigrant community," he said. "That was a disappointment."

Still, they were not overlooked, as many participants in the table discussions said they wanted to ensure that diversity along the Pike, both cultural and in terms of affordability of housing, was maintained.

Three hours later, the tables presented their suggestions to the entire group, and at that point, consensus began to emerge on some issues.

<b>"BY THE SECOND</b> or third table, the spokesmen started saying, ‘We agree,’ then adding one or two things more," said Ferrell. "There was a lot of consensus by the time people left. But at base, we’re all human beings, we want roughly the same things."

Participants were not only Arlingtonians. Some Fairfax residents ventured east, putting their ideas about the Pike into the mix, especially for the Bailey’s Crossroads area.

"It’s a major artery, and it carries a lot of people coming to and from Fairfax," said Tom Barksdale.

Barksdale, the vice president of the Fairfax Coalition for Smarter Growth, came to the charrette to support the inclusion of a transit system in Pike plans. The idea has drawn support in the Revitalization Initiative Plan, and Arlington County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman has also been a strong advocate of a transit line along the Pike.

"His receptivity to the idea has been encouraging to us," Barksdale said.

Butler was also encouraged by the idea of a transit system along the Pike. "One thing I hope will be mentioned [on Thursday] is transit," he said.

THURSDAY NIGHT WILL be the unveiling of the first draft of for the Pike, a synthesis of everything that was said this past weekend, Ferrell said.

But it’s not the final word. Ferrell, along with Dover, Kohl, must come back to Arlington in a month with a draft, allowing the County Planning Commission and the County Board a look at the plans before the end of the year.

Even that is not the resolution of the process, Lynch said. The Columbia Pike Revitalization Initiative will continue to focus on housing along the road, attracting new businesses and keeping existing tenants, and working to make the area more attractive through cooperating with developers and landlords.

"This code is not mandatory," he said. "If you want to put up something by right, you can. It’s still available. But what we’ve got here is a bowl of sugar, some carrots. We’re saying ‘If you want to fight to get something developed, you can, but we’ve already got a lot of benefits for you [if you develop it according to the code].’"

Not least, he said, is the assurance that developers shouldn’t meet too much community opposition. If they use the revitalization building codes they’ll know, thanks to the charrette, that they’ve already heard from the community.