Entrepreneurs and residents along Columbia Pike wait to see what redevelopment brings

Adriana Torres slides into a seat at Café Sazón, her family’s restaurant on Columbia Pike in Arlington County. A soccer game plays in Spanish on TV, the WiFi is free and the mango drinks are refreshing, but almost every table is empty.

Even though she and her sister gutted the storefront and rebuilt it, agonizing over every last detail, Torres is hardly around anymore. She has taken a full-time job at Home Depot to help cover the restaurant’s bills.

“It can go either way right now, because business has slowed down a lot,” she said.

Like dozens of other entrepreneurs, small and large, Torres is waiting for the county’s ambitious reimagining of Columbia Pike to fully flower. It’s been 25 years in the making.

Construction cranes are ubiquitous along the 41 / 2-mile thoroughfare, which runs southwest from the soaring Air Force Memorial overlooking the Pentagon to the high-rise Skyline neighborhood in Fairfax County along Leesburg Pike.


Map of Columbia Pike streetcar route

But Arlington planners and leaders envision far more than piecemeal commercial and residential development along this four-lane stretch of post-World War II brick apartment complexes and 1950s-vintage strip malls.

The county’s 120-page neighborhood plan seeks to take a congested, aesthetically challenged highway and turn it into a destination, like H Street in the District or the trendy Shirlington neighborhood in Arlington’s southeast corner.

“The goal is to transform Columbia Pike from what was an auto-oriented strip through our neighborhood into a walkable main street that would serve the neighborhood’s needs without making us drive everywhere,” said Chris Zimmerman (D), the County Board member who has worked on the project since the 1990s.

“We think it will be a gem of a place to live,” said Bob Brosnan, Arlington’s planning director, calling the goal “regional smart growth” — transit-oriented communities that retain their individual character.

The goal — and challenge — is to make this happen with “no displacement” of the people who live in 6,200 affordable apartments, he said.

The county’s plan is built upon twin pillars: new zoning laws and regulations that allow high-density, mid-rise housing and commercial development along the Pike, and a streetcar line that would tie all of the neighborhoods together and connect them to the Metro stations at Pentagon City or Crystal City.

Federal subsidies for the streetcar have not materialized, however, and even the piecemeal development has unleashed a wave of gentrification that worries longtime residents. As such, Arlington’s struggles highlight the complexities involved in re­imagining the region’s sprawling suburban strips — and the limitations local governments are facing in the era of sequester.

Similar pressures have surfaced in the White Flint area of Montgomery County, the western end of Alexandria and the Route 1 arts district in Prince George’s County. How do long-established suburban communities evolve into denser, trendier destinations close to mass transit — without displacing longtime residents and losing their souls?

At CaféSazón, known for its homemade soups and golden pupusas, Torres shares the county’s vision, believing that denser development and a modern streetcar would fill her tables.

Torres’s mother, Eva, brought her to Arlington from Bolivia as a 7-year-old in 1989 to join her older daughter, Claudia. This is the only home Adriana Torres knows. She grew up along Columbia Pike and attended Arlington public schools.

She earned a degree in architecture from Catholic University in 2005 but lost her job at a Bethesda architectural firm at the start of the recession.

That’s when the family got together and found a private loan to start the restaurant, which has to bring in $20,000 a month to break even. Right now, they’re a few thousand short.

“We’ve gone through so much — moving to another country is hard when you’re 40 and you don’t speak the language, like my mother did,” said Torres, who refuses to get depressed about the restaurant’s financial straits. “Anything worth doing is hard.”

Not everyone is in favor of the changes along Columbia Pike. Residents are divided about whether more dense housing is a good idea. Debate over whether a streetcar is necessary, and worry over how the county will pay for it, continues even though the County Board has voted twice to move forward.

In April, the Federal Transit Administration declined to fund the streetcar, doubting the $250 million price tag Arlington and Fairfax counties said it would cost. Government officials are working on applying for another federal program that doesn’t cap the cost of the project at $250 million.

The county received $12 million for Columbia Pike improvements last week from the new Virginia gas tax revenues. But that’s a fraction of what the Pike’s changes will cost.

Jan Kennemer, a native Arlingtonian and a real estate agent who lives and works along the Pike, called the streetcar “massively expensive” and predicted that its rails and overhead wires will hamper other vehicle traffic.

She looks askance at the gentrification of the ethnically diverse area, where two-thirds of the 36,000 residents are non-white.

“I look at this as a two-edged sword,” Kennemer said. “Some people want the Pike to be an extension of downtown, but we live in a much more bucolic environment. A lot of us don’t want it to turn into an extension of Ballston, Clarendon or D.C.”

Columbia Pike is closer to downtown Washington than parts of Bethesda or Silver Spring, but luring the free-spending hipsters and wealthy two-income professional couples has been difficult.

Josh Robinson and his wife, Sybil, own the Twisted Vines Bottleshop and Bistro near the popular Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, a few steps from Walter Reed Drive. If there is a spot along the Pike that’s achieved what might be called a night life, this is it.

“Originally, at closing, this street was a ghost town,” Josh Robinson said. “Now we see people walking, taking cabs. The change is dramatic. There’s just more people here.”

Business has grown every year since the wine shop opened three years ago, Robinson said. But he still fights the perception that the Pike is hard to reach.

“People call and ask if we’re on public transit. I say, ‘Yeah, take the Blue Line to Pentagon City, then any 16 bus.’ Click,” he said. “Bus commuters won’t take the bus in the evenings or on weekends.”

That’s a big reason Robinson and others support the construction of the streetcar line.

In the 1920s, an electric streetcar rumbled along Columbia Pike, which was established by an act of Congress in 1810 and designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol.

The 1930s through the 1950s brought large apartment complexes and strip shopping centers that still dominate the streetscape. In the 1980s, the only construction along the road was for fast-food restaurants, convenience stores and drive-through banks.

Developing a community-based consensus on the shape of a new Columbia Pike took years, as did passing new county policies that encouraged developers to add density.

Juliet Hiznay, president of the nonprofit Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, is impatient with questions about why improvements have taken so long.

“Long-term planning, by definition, takes a long time,” she said. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which many now celebrate for the lively atmosphere around Clarendon, took 30 years to bear fruit, she noted.

But the goal isn’t another Clarendon. “There is a funkiness that is attractive to people along Columbia Pike,” Hiznay said. “They want to preserve the cultural, ethnic and economic diversity.”

The Pike is already becoming more lively. The “Third Thursday” outdoor summer concerts have attracted hundreds of families to Penrose Square, where children frolic in fountains. The Sunday farmers market at Walter Reed Drive draws a healthy crowd of kale-sorters and pea-pickers, and the Columbia Pike Blues Festival in June played to about 7,000 music lovers.

That new liveliness is celebrated by Bailey Garfield, the owner of Papillon Cycles since 1989. But with more affluence comes higher rent, which eats into his business’s bottom line. Like Torres at CaféSazón, he worries about the future in what is one of the last affordable parts of Arlington.

The new luxury apartment buildings sprouting up along Columbia Pike “have brought people with more disposable income,” he said. “But the biggest worry is escalating property values and rents getting above a certain level.”

Penrose Square, about a mile west of the Air Force Memorial, is the premier example of the new, residential-retail-office mix that emphasizes dense, transit-oriented development.

Opened last year, Penrose Square was developed by B.M. Smith and Associates, a family-owned property management firm with roots on Columbia Pike that go back to the late 1800s.

“The question for me is will the quality of life of those living and working along the Pike be improved?” said David Peete, a 53-year-old principal in the firm.

If Torres is the face of the immigrant entrepreneur, Peete represents the landed gentry. His family’s firm has ownership stakes in at least eight other parcels of land along Columbia Pike and is one of the major forces in its rebirth.

Directly across from his office, a dated low-rise historic strip of stores occupies the site of his mother’s childhood home. Peete said 105 housing units could soon rise there behind new retail space that would retain the art deco style of the existing storefronts.

“I expect us to be here for the next 100 years,” he said. “We really do believe in the future of the Pike. Everybody who lives here today wants a vibrant place to live.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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