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Columbia Pike Ready for Major Facelift

Some residents fear that redevelopment along corridor will push out lower-income families

Anytime Bryan Sieling is having friends over to his Columbia Pike home for dinner, he leaves the confines of Arlington County and drives to Bailey’s Crossroads to buy groceries.

Several years ago a Safeway in the heart of the south Arlington corridor closed, and the only supermarket left in the neighborhood — a Giant — lacks the large selection of products that Sieling covets.

To Sieling and many of his neighbors, the aging Giant is emblematic of a district that can no longer serve the needs of the surrounding communities. Far from being the destination location it once was — where people from across the region came to shop and eat, for many county residents Columbia Pike is now merely a conduit to get to Washington.

The street, which runs from the Pentagon west to Fairfax County, is a patchwork of automobile dealerships, ethnic food restaurants, and strip malls containing sandwich counters and quirky thrift shops. While no one who lives nearby wants to see the towering development that has overrun the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, residents say they would love to see some of the high-end retail that has moved into those areas in recent years.

"The Pike is not a particularly attractive strip and doesn’t have a lot of the businesses we would like to see, like a book store or a full service grocery store," said Sieling, who has lived in the Arlington Heights neighborhood for 13 years. "It needs more stores that will bring people down here."

After years of false starts and stagnation, Columbia Pike is finally starting to undergo its much-desired make-over. Last month the County Board approved two projects that will reconfigure Adams Square and the adjacent Safeway property, bringing more than 500 apartments, retail space and a revamped 61,500 square-foot Giant — the largest in the county.

Several other projects are already underway a little further west. Twenty-two luxury townhouses abutting the Pike next to Quincy Street have all been pre-sold. And construction has just begun on a 269-unit condominium on the corner of Walter Reed and Columbia Pike.

Officials are optimistic that these four projects will help rejuvenate the neighborhood and serve as a catalyst for the transformation of Columbia Pike. Once developers in the region see the first concrete being poured, they will begin to view the corridor in a new light and look for investment opportunities nearby, officials contend.

"It's quite possible we may look back on this and say this was a turning point for Columbia Pike; a time when things we have been dreaming about actually started to emerge," County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman said after the board unanimously approved the two projects.

TO COUNTY RESIDENTS this sequence of events looks rather familiar: A long-neglected street is redeveloped with an upscale grocery store, national retailers and luxury townhouses and condominiums.

In fact, the same formula resulted in the revitalization earlier this decade of Clarendon, which is now awash in pricey high-rises, opulent stores like Williams-Sonoma and a plethora of bars.

County officials don’t shy away from their desire to see the Pike more closely resemble its neighbor to the north.

"I think over the next five to ten years, Columbia Pike is going to take on a similar look and feel to Clarendon, at a slightly lower scale," said County Board member Jay Fisette.

Yet many residents fear that redevelopment may wipe out the local mom and pop stores that give the Pike its charm. Already the Arlington hardware store has left its location on the corner of Walter Reed Drive to make way for the 269-unit condo building.

The loss in recent months in Clarendon of several neighborhood favorites, like the Lazy Sundae ice cream store and the Museum of Modern ARF, could presage what will occur on Columbia Pike a decade down the road.

"The plan is to make it just like Clarendon," said John Antonelli, a member of the county’s citizen Housing Commission who lives near the Pike. "When people see the size and scope of development, there is going to be a backlash,"

The neighborhoods in the corridor are the most economically diverse in all of Arlington, but redevelopment may jeopardize that, some residents say. Rents are already rising rapidly, and the completion of luxury towers and new shopping centers will put pressure on landowners to hike rents further or convert buildings to condos.

Runaway development on the Pike will lead to the loss of most affordable housing in the neighborhoods, causing the exodus of low- and moderate-income families — just like in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor — said Josh Ruebner, who was the Green Party candidate for County Board this past election season.

"The process of gentrification is like a snowball with a momentum of its own — the more of these projects that are built, the more developers will want to come in and build fancy apartments out of reach for many," he said.

MAJOR DEVELOPMENT first began to sprout along Columbia Pike during World War I, when streetcar service connecting Rosslyn and the Nauck neighborhood stopped at Walter Reed Drive. By the late 1930s the first shopping centers were built on the street, clustered near residential strips.

Like the rest of Arlington, Columbia Pike saw a massive influx of residents, mostly government workers, after World War II. The street was widened to four lanes, and cookie-cutter, 1950s strip malls and small office complexes were constructed.

In the 1960s the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority considered building a Metro line under the Pike, but the corridor’s fate was forever changed when the Orange Line and Blue Lines were instead placed along Wilson Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Highway, respectively.

During the 1970s and 80s Columbia Pike began to lose its vibrant urban character, and the only new development came in the form of fast-food joints, auto dealerships and drive-through banks.

After nearly two decades with little new investment in the district, the county and community attempted in 1998 to jump-start development on the street. Through the course of hundreds of meetings, officials and residents ultimately crafted in 2002 a new vision for redevelopment on the street.

The central plank of this plan was the adoption of a form-based code, a prescriptive tool to guide development. The code is an optional process that sets where buildings can be constructed, how tall they can be, what uses are allowed inside and what types of materials should be used. In many ways it is a "dress code" for the Pike.

The process was driven by the community to ensure it sees the type of development it wants on the thoroughfare. It restricts buildings to a height of 94-feet and requires tapering closer to residential homes. "There is now predictability and a level of certainty for the community," said Richard Tucker, the county’s lead planner for Columbia Pike.

The benefit for developers, if they decide to use the FBC, is the building requirements are clearly defined and the approval process is much quicker and cheaper than submitting a normal site plan.

"In order to attract new development we have to offer something they can’t get anywhere else," said Inta Malis, an Arlington Planning Commissioner. "If developers comply with the FBC they can get their project through the process in 60 days."

County officials have made it clear they intend to turn the Pike into a more walkable "urban village," with continuous rows of shops and cafes abutting the sidewalks. Parking will be relegated underground or behind complexes.

"We are moving away from the 1950s-style [suburban strip malls] with large parking out front to a more urban style with on-street activity," said Dave Johnson, managing director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

The county has identified four "nodes" of Columbia Pike that are primed for redevelopment. The "Town Center," which runs from approximately Barton Street west past Glebe Road, will be the entertainment and cultural hub of the corridor. Besides hosting new neighborhood amenities like the Giant, it will have three public squares for concerts and other public gatherings.

Further west on the Pike, located around George Mason Drive, will be the "Village Center," which is expected to house a mix of office, retail and commercial development. The district surrounding Four Mile run has been dubbed the "Neighborhood Center," and is characterized by lower-scale development. Finally, a "Western Gateway" linking Arlington and Fairfax County will see slightly taller apartments and office complexes.

IN THE THREE YEARS since the form-based code was developed, only three projects have been approved under the new process. Two other major developments on Columbia Pike — the Giant and the 22 townhouses on Quincy Street — have gone forward outside the realm of the code.

This has led some in the community to question whether the code will actually spur developers to invest in the pike.

"We’ve heard so much talk over the years, but have seen very little progress," Sieling said. "It makes you feel like it’s a carrot hanging out there that you are never going to reach."

County officials counter that it takes several years for developers to move ahead with projects. The recent slowdown in the condo market has also made several companies reconsider plans to build residential complexes on the street.

"I think the pace of development is about what is reasonably to be expected," said Zimmerman, the County Board chair. "A lot of people don’t understand how long it took to get Clarendon and Courthouse going."

Developers will be carefully watching what happens with the Giant and Safeway projects, and if the apartments and retail spaces are filled, developers will begin to look at adjacent properties, officials believe.

"Developers have been reluctant to come to the Pike because it’s unchartered territory," said Lander Allin, president of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. "The more ground that gets broken, the more willing others will be to consider the Pike as a viable investment opportunity."

Yet there remain several major hurdles to overhauling the Pike. Many of the small parcels of land that dot the street are owned by families or individuals who have been there for years. If they are getting a good stream of income now, many would be wary of closing down for a year or two while their site is redeveloped, said Johnson, managing director of CPRO.

It is also a major challenge for a developer to assemble all the properties needed to build a new complex, said Mark Silverwood, president of Silverwood Associates. An additional obstacle is that the plots of land are fairly narrow and close to residential neighborhoods, restricting how large new buildings can be, Silverwood added.

Silverwood said the development community is still taking a cautious approach to the Pike, even with the new slate of projects that were recently approved.

"In a way the Pike still has to establish a little bit of credibility," he added. "It has to prove it can absorb these new projects and prove they can be successful."

While the county hopes to attract a smattering of national retailers to new stores on the Pike, it does not want to do so to the detriment of the family-owned businesses that have operated there for decades. The county’s economic development office has begun meeting with owners and is putting together an aid package to assist those who may struggle in coming years.

But as rents rise, this may prove to be a significant challenge, as it has been in Clarendon. "We have to use every tool that we have to avoid the situation where we have made Columbia Pike inhospitable to smaller businesses," said Malis, the Planning Commissioner.

Elliot Burkha, who owns the shopping center next door to the Giant, believes that higher rents will be more than off-set by the increase in customers from the new residential buildings.

THE GREATER CONCERN for the community is retaining its economic and cultural diversity. The Pike is the most heterogeneous part of the county, home to 57 percent of its Hispanic population, according to the 2000 census.

The county faces two conflicting goals in the corridor: spurring development and maintaining the stock of affordable housing. Yet the more development that comes to the street, the greater the pressure will be on property owners to raise rents or convert apartments to condos.

There have already been several buildings that have changed over to condos, forcing those who cannot afford the sale price to vacate the neighborhood.

"The reality is in the future there will be less affordable housing on Columbia Pike," said Douglas Peterson, executive director of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.

The form-based code has no affordable housing requirement, meaning the county’s stock will not be replenished through any of these projects. County officials retort that little housing lies in the four zones marked for redevelopment, so few, if any, units will be lost.

But housing activists believe that many families will be forced off the Pike by escalating rents.

"The projects that are approved will create upward pressure on the price of land in the area, and will make it more appealing for apartment owners to sell to developers," said Ruebner, the Green Party candidate.

Ruebner has also been a vociferous opponent of the county’s plan to put a streetcar system along the Pike, which he calls a "boondoogle."

The county envisions building a five-mile streetcar line from Pentagon City to the Skyline area of Fairfax County, at a cost in excess of $110 million. An updated public transportation system is needed to shepherd all the residents and workers the county hopes will relocate to the Pike in the coming decade.

The streetcar service would provide Columbia Pike residents with access to Metro via the Pentagon City stop, and encourage people to patronize the plethora of restaurants and shops on the corridor. It would be more reliable, more comfortable and cause less pollution than an expanded bus service, Zimmerman said.

Having a fixed rail line in the streets also sends a message to the development community that the county is serious about revitalizing the corridor, officials said.

"It will immediately attract investment to a different degree than the bus system will," County Board member Fisette added. "It will create a sense of community."

But the development community is not as sanguine about the rail’s prospects as officials are. Silverwood said he doubted that many developers would be swayed to start a project on the Pike because of the streetcar system.

"It’s a great service if and when it does get in, but it would not make me decide to go to the Pike right away," he added.

The county has yet to detail how it would pay for the new transit system. Officials are hoping to receive some federal funding to defray costs, but there is no guarantee at the moment.

"It’s an exciting idea, but my big concern is that we’re raising expectations and not sure how we’re going to pay for it," County Board Vice Chairman Paul Ferguson said this spring when the board endorsed the idea.

Civic activists are concerned that if the streetcar system is built, it will lead to the "yuppification" of the Pike. Just as Metro transformed Clarendon into a neighborhood of Pottery Barns, rowdy bars and high-priced condos, some fear the streetcar system could alter the Pike to a similar extent.

"Clarendon used to be one of the most diverse areas, but the development cut off all the diversity," said Robert Atkins, a civic activist. "Once you change one part of a neighborhood, it takes on its own rolling momentum."