Documentary Chronicles Arlington's 'Smart Growth'

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Arlington County officials have long been proud of their "smart growth" strategy of clustering development at Metro stations and encouraging the use of public transit.

Now, they're telling the world about it.

The county recently completed a 53-minute documentary detailing the history of its fight during the 1960s and '70s to put as many Metro stops in Arlington as possible and avoid the suburban sprawl typical of neighboring counties.

A slickly produced combination of self-promotion and civics lesson, "Arlington's Smart Growth Journey" uses archival photos and on-camera stories to capture the urban planning approach that led to the Arlington of today.

"The other suburbs were terrified of Metro and thought it would bring all the problems of urban communities to their communities," said Mary Curtius, a county spokeswoman, in an interview. Curtius, a former Los Angles Times reporter, did more than 25 hours of interviews for the documentary. "But Arlington was in danger of being overrun by commuters from Fairfax and Loudoun counties, and they looked at Metro as a lifeline.

"And it turned out to be this incredible tale."

Jay Fisette (D), vice chairman of the County Board, said he suggested the idea of the video to staff members about two years ago. "I wanted a simple educational tool, something that could be taken to civic association meetings," Fisette said. "We have so much turnover in our county, and a lot of the new people don't understand terms like 'smart growth' and 'transit-oriented development.' "

Curtius and other staffers approached the Arlington Virginia Network, the county's government-access cable TV unit, which records board meetings and produces shows about county issues. Producer Peter Hill said he became fascinated with "the story of how Arlington is what it is today because of some visionaries in the past" and how that journey happened.

After Curtius spent hours at the county's Central Library pulling archived documents and staff lists, filming began early last year. More than 20 current and former county officials, community activists and experts were interviewed, one of whom was 93. Two interview subjects died before production was finished.

Hill served as producer, director and editor, and he and other staff members balanced filming with their regular work, so no extra county funding was required.

As they delved into history, the filmmakers learned that the young, highly educated people who moved to Arlington after the Pentagon was built during World War II had strong feelings as planning for Metro began in the mid-1950s.

"It was a group of people who came here, settled here, started having families here, and didn't want to be paved over at a time when government was throwing money at highways and America was falling in love with the automobile," Hill said. "They fought that. They didn't want roads, they wanted a public transit system. Their way of thinking is very popular now, but at the time it was seen as almost anti-American."

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