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New Code Comes Down the Pike

As Board approves Columbia Pike building codes, redevelopment set to begin. But still no decision on transit.

As he received a smart growth award from the EPA last year, Chris Zimmerman cited the work of earlier county leaders in laying the groundwork.

On Tuesday, Feb. 25, he and the rest of the County Board laid the foundation for a new type of smart growth in the county, adopting form-based code for the Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District.

County officials struggled to contain their enthusiasm as they passed regulations that could improve quality of life along the Pike for generations. “This is a legacy that we leave to posterity,” said Thomas Greenfield, Planning Commissioner. Pike residents also expressed their support for the new codes, although they said they still had some reservations about the future of their neighborhoods.

The newly approved building codes will help guide redevelopment along the Pike, sometimes called South Arlington’s Main Street, in hopes of creating a pedestrian- and transit-friendly community, with buildings that allow residents to live, work and shop in one place.

The new codes will make the Pike “not exactly an old-fashioned American main street, but a timeless American main street,” said Geoffrey Ferrell, a consultant and expert on form based code who helped write the form-based code.

Traditional planning looks at buildings according to their intended use, and puts homes, shopping and industry in different places. A form-based code mixes those kinds of buildings together.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, it primarily focuses on how buildings, sidewalks, trees and open spaces will look, how a building’s use as a secondary concern.

It’s a common-sense approach, said Ferrell, and a glance at any successful street shows why. “The primary thing that makes it is the physical form of the buildings.”

It took three years of collaboration among consultants like Ferrell, county staff and residents to determine how the Pike should look, but the new code will save time and money in the long run. “If you’re a developer and you come in now, that pain has already happened,” Ferrell said.

Despite the advantages it offers, form-based code is a mostly untested concept nationwide, and Arlington is one of the first jurisdictions to apply the method to redevelop a highly populated area.

DEVELOPERS ARE ALREADY jumping at the chance to work within the new code. County board members voted Tuesday to approve the first redevelopment project, a 16-unit townhouse complex to be located behind Eckerd Drug store on the corner of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive.

The buildings will house restaurants and businesses as well as homes, said Tim Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

That complex is just the beginning, experts say. In addition to making sure residents get what they want from redevelopment, form-based code provides major advantages to developers.

Before Tuesday, a developer planning a major project would have had to go through a site plan review before they start work, a process that could take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Now, a development project under 40,000 square feet that is built according to the form-based codes will be approved within 30 days.

Speeding up the process isn’t the only improvement with the new code, said Ferrell. During site plan review, county officials essentially bargain for a proposal acceptable to all parties, including residents of surrounding neighborhoods. Each time plans are modified, the developer spends more money on fees for architects and lawyers.

“It’s sort of like mud wrestling,” said Ferrell. “The bottom line is it is not in anyone’s interest.” That process is partly why development along the Pike has remained stagnant for years.

GIVING A JUMP START to that development brought out residents of Pike neighborhoods to decide “what they wanted it to be when it grew up,” said Ferrell.

Some two dozen residents lined up at Tuesday’s meeting to voice their support for the code and to applaud the efforts of county officials and members of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

“I think Tim and the county staff have done a super job of organizing this and continuing to push,” said Linda LeDuc, Columbia Heights West Civic Association president.

Despite their support for the plan as a whole, some residents still expressed concerns about how the codes will affect them. LeDuc said her civic association is worried about the possibility of widening the western end of the Pike, near her neighborhood.

“The overall thought is to have a pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighborhood,” she said. But widening the road would reduce sidewalk space and could encourage additional traffic. Along with traffic comes another concern – where to put all those cars.

Parking was the most common concern at Tuesday’s meeting. Many apartment complexes face parking shortages that force cars onto the streets of surrounding neighborhoods.

Jack White, a Columbia Forest Civic Association member, said parking shortages have hit his neighborhood hard. The situation will continue to get worse unless County Board members change the way they deal with parking, he said.

“Our previous approaches to parking have had problems,” Zimmerman agreed. He said that more can be done to protect residential neighborhoods from the overflow from businesses.

One strategy is to increase the amount of shared parking. If businesses and residences share lots, it encourages people to get out of their cars and walk.

SOME RESIDENTS expressed skepticism over proposals that don’t require developers to provide a minimum of parking spaces.

But increasing the number of spaces would have little impact if existing parking laws aren’t enforced, said Mary Madden, a partner in Ferrell’s firm. Parking is not just about spaces, she said. It’s also about management.

Even with direct management of parking along the Pike, the issue won’t disappear, said Lynch. “It’s always going to be a concern, whether it really is a problem or not.”

Lynch believes minimum parking standards aren’t needed, because developers will commit themselves to providing parking. “The reality of it is that just about any development… will have to have [enough] parking, just to get financed by a bank,” he said.

Construction costs of parking facilities can run high, however, and Lynch said he expects county officials to dip into government coffers to help developers in getting started. Such partnerships should only be necessary on the first few projects, he said. “We have every expectation that the market will rise over a not-too-long time period,” he said.

TRANSIT ON THE PIKE was left unresolved under the new regulations. County staffers are finishing a preliminary study of the needs and demands on transit along the road, Zimmerman said. Soon, the county will begin an “alternatives study” to determine which type of mass transit would best serve the Pike.

Funding is scarce, but Zimmerman says he hopes by the end of the year staff will have some leads.

The Street Space Planning Task force will convene soon and will have until the first of September to make its recommendations. “It will be the first opportunity to see how transit fits in with everything else,” Zimmerman said.

Transit changes won’t happen overnight, but neither will redevelopment.

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor began to change within a few years of Metro’s arrival but is only now fully maturing into a national model of smart growth. Likewise, experts expect the Pike to take on a new look within the next decade, but the area will continue to evolve for years.

“The full vision of that plan will take perhaps a whole generation to fulfill,” Zimmerman said.