Putting Main St. On the Map
Arlington Sharpens Its Focus To Revitalize Columbia Pike
By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2003; Page F01
People ambling down wide sidewalks, window-shopping, stopping to dine at outdoor restaurants. Streets lined with stores -- big chains as well as mom-and-pop shops -- with apartments and offices upstairs. Outdoor plazas where neighbors bump into each other by accident on evening strolls.
Nope. Try South Arlington's 31/2 mile stretch of Columbia Pike, from the Pentagon to the Fairfax County line.
If wishes really do come true, that is.
Arlington County officials would like to transform sections of Columbia Pike, a busy traffic corridor, from a rundown hodgepodge of dilapidated commercial buildings and strip malls into a spiffy pedestrian-friendly new-style Main Street. And they are heaping county resources and energy into trying to make that dream come true.
It is still a fantasy, and even if it does happen, it could be decades in the making.
And development à la Clarendon could also have a serious side effect. It could threaten the identity of the area around Columbia Pike as an affordable, close-in group of neighborhoods with a highly ethnically diverse population. A 2001 report by the Brookings Institution called the Columbia Pike area, Zip code 22204, one of the "most diverse areas in the metropolitan region," with about 130 nationalities represented. Over the past few decades, Arlington County planners have concentrated their attention around the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in the wake of the construction of the Metro's Orange line there. Now, as Rosslyn, Ballston, Clarendon and Courthouse have been largely built out, the planners are turning their attention to Columbia Pike, a major Arlington thoroughfare bypassed in the transit-oriented development of the past.
"Columbia Pike has been neglected," said Chris Zimmerman (D), a member of the Arlington County Board and a long-time resident of the Columbia Pike area who is in favor of changes.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and planning went into the areas around the Metro stations while other areas didn't get attention," he said. "Columbia Pike is a major commercial corridor that's become more and more of a strip where traffic just races through. Not much has changed in retail availability there and it's become less and less walkable."
For decades, county officials have looked and talked about ways to spruce up the area with better housing and more attractive streetscapes. But little ever changed beyond burying some power lines under the road. Now, though, they have come up with a multi-pronged approach that includes transportation initiatives, a new streamlined development design and approval process, and tax and other incentives to spur development along the Pike.
To make transportation as fast and frequent as the subway, bus service along Columbia Pike was increased this week. Funded by Arlington County and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, more routes and more frequent buses were added -- weekday bus trips have increased 45 percent, Saturday service is up 64 percent and Sunday service has been almost doubled.
Columbia Pike already has the heaviest bus ridership in the state, with 10,000 people a day traveling through the corridor, but county officials are hoping that the more convenient service would persuade an additional 1,000 people a day to switch from their cars to public transportation.
To ease congestion in neighborhoods, big Metro buses have been moved to routes on the Pike while smaller Arlington Transit buses have been moved away from Columbua Pike and into residential areas.
Last year, to come up with a development plan backed by residents, the county ran scores of meetings with people living near Columbia Pike, asking for input into what kind of development they would like to see. Architects from Florida-based Dover Kohl & Partners, a company with experience in designing new urban-style towns, designed a Main Street-style plan after the meetings.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company