Lessons of Arlington's Urban Development Needn't Be Just History

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 21, 2008

The phenomenal metamorphosis of Arlington County's Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, among the region's most dramatic real estate transformations, teaches a timely lesson: Successful urban revitalization requires long-range planning and long-range public investment that sparks private investment.

Unfortunately, America seems to have ignored this lesson.

The Washington region offers ample evidence of lapses: years of delays and funding impediments surrounding the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, debate about adding a Metro station to serve Potomac Yard in Alexandria and arguments about the Maryland Transit Administration's proposed Purple Line linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

If Washington's Metro system were proposed today, it would stand little chance of being built.

When Metro was mapped out more than 40 years ago, a very different attitude prevailed. Arlington planners and politicians were bold, optimistic and foresighted. They insisted that the Orange Line to Vienna run underground through Arlington, following Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, rather than running along the Interstate 66 right of way, which would have been the path of least resistance and at the lowest cost. And they wanted five closely spaced stations from Rosslyn to Ballston.

Arlington leaders were predicting, some would say gambling, that the extra cost of running the line underground and building those five stations would someday yield big returns. They expected that billions of dollars of private real estate investment would be attracted to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, in turn producing tens of thousands of new jobs, as well as new dwellings, and pulling in new residents, plus many millions of dollars in new tax revenue.

Yet in the 1960s, Arlington's leaders had no crystal ball. They simply had faith that properly located rail transit would catalyze the revitalization of what was then a suburban strip of spotty, low-density commercial properties located minutes from downtown Washington.

They also understood that building rail transit entails more than providing transportation. It is an integral part of land-use planning and sustainable growth policy. It affects the location, character and quality of development.

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is a work in progress, although millions of square feet of buildings already have been developed, mostly since the 1980s. Its urban design is not flawless, and much of its architecture is less than exemplary.

But the corridor functions well. It offers pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, on- and off-street bicycle lanes, plazas and mini-parks. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk between any two adjacent Metro nodes on the corridor -- Rosslyn, Court House, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston. People there can get along without cars.

Appropriately high densities and multiple uses -- commercial, residential, civic, cultural and educational -- are concentrated at each node. Intense redevelopment and convenient transportation have made the corridor successful as a place to live, shop and play, as well as to work or commute to work.

You have to wonder: Are there other places in the region where this sort of redevelopment could have occurred, or where it could still happen?

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