Arlington Thinks Small for New Business Spaces

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette has lived in Paris and traveled to cities around the world.

He grew to love the lively pedestrian zones and vibrant urban spaces filled with people, activity and . . . kiosks. The newsstands, coffee stands, sausage, information or art stands built into plazas or on wide sidewalks helped create excitement, destinations and places to linger.

Last month, nearly three years after Fisette (D) began pushing the idea, the County Board agreed to clear the way so that small businesses and landowners can begin to build permanent kiosks. They voted to authorize public hearings in July before the Planning Commission and the board in an effort to change zoning ordinances that prohibit such structures.

"Kiosks really animate pedestrian zones," Fisette said. "They help create an interesting experience for a person walking."

He has taken photos of kiosks in Burlington, Vt., and noted "wonderful little kiosks" in South Africa last year. Some sold food, others arts and crafts or coffee or flowers. Others rented sports equipment, such as in-line skates or bicycles, provided information or sold tickets.

The idea, he said, is not only to enliven county streets but also to create more opportunities for small businesses. Kiosks are one more part of the county's push to create more walkable urban communities, more inviting "urban villages," particularly around Metro stations.

Some areas of the county, such as Rosslyn, have been described by critics as soulless, empty streets with tall towers -- as if a neutron bomb had gone off, erasing all signs of life but not touching the buildings.

"The developers didn't do it right the first time," Fisette said. "But with each new development, it gets better and better."

He pointed to one of the latest developments in the works, the Central Place project in Rosslyn, which will combine office, residential and retail uses, with a large park in the center. That park, Fisette said, would be a perfect place for a kiosk. "I would love to see kiosks in Rosslyn, Ballston, Crystal City, anywhere with pedestrians and active retail use," he said.

The kiosk proposal took three years to develop not because of any opposition, Fisette said, but because of the need to iron out technical details.

The kiosks, for instance, will be one-story, free-standing permanent structures, not mobile carts. They are not to exceed 150 square feet. The amended ordinance would give the county manager the flexibility to determine kiosk vending zones, generally those that have at least 5,000 square feet of open space next to a public sidewalk.

Under the plan, kiosks would operate at least eight hours a day, 275 days a year.

"We want to make sure these kiosks are not impeding any pedestrian path, because we envision more people there and want to make sure that this becomes an exciting place to be," said Jill Griffin, a development specialist for the county. "We want to enliven the pedestrian experience and encourage an eclectic collection of small-business owners."

Griffin found that kiosks in Bryant Park in New York City helped revitalize the area. "They have a very successful kiosk program," she said. "Bryant Park's become a place where people want to be."

Griffin researched how kiosk ordinances were written in other countries -- kiosks are popular in Europe and India -- as well as laws in the United States. Many were written to encourage drive-through film development or drive-through coffee shops. "We're not looking at that," she said. "We want kiosks in pedestrian areas."

County officials also plan to amend the vending ordinance to extend the time an on-street vendor can sell in any one place from five minutes to 30 minutes. "We realize that's not an ideal situation," Griffin said. "The vendor doesn't have enough time to vend, nor does the consumer have enough time to be served."

Griffin said county officials have begun talking to businesspeople who might have ideas for kiosks and helping put them in touch with property owners who might have the space for them.

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