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  Arlington Streets Defy Logic

Arlington streets, TWP
An Arlington street sign shows the intersection of Edgewood and North Highland streets, but across the street, Edgewood becomes North 19th Street.
(By Frank Johnston — The Washington Post)
By Ann O’Hanlon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 1999; Page B1

People think it's only outsiders who get lost driving around Arlington County. Not so. Some locals are just as befuddled.

Consider:

* The Realtor who test-drives all Arlington routes before venturing out with a client.

* The Papa John's pizzeria manager who refunds about $300 to patrons for late deliveries every week she has a new driver.

* The local politician whose campaign volunteers can't deliver yard signs because they can't find the yards.

Maryland and District residents who cross the river and curse the asphalt of Northern Virginia no doubt are trying to navigate around Arlington. In its compact 26-square-mile confines, the county claims a dozen North 19th streets, none of which directly connects to another. Let the driver beware, for there are also five roads named North 19th.

Ditto for North 21st, of which there are 10 streets, three roads and one avenue.

The list goes on.

"Arlington--Yeeaaauuu!" grimaced Mark McFadden, a Pardoe & Graham Realtor who sells throughout the region but makes test drives to listings only in Arlington. "Arlington is a pain in the butt. There's 35th Place, 35th Court, 35th Street, 35th Road, 35th Lane."

Not quite, but there are five 35th roads and three 35th streets.

Any way you look it, the place is a mapmaker's nightmare.

"Arlington County is definitely unique," said John Oakes, research supervisor with ADC: The Map People. "It's probably one of the most difficult areas for us."

The "spaghetti bowl," as one resident refers to the county's mishmash of streets, began with a flurry of renamings 65 years ago when Arlington, ironically, set out to simplify its mystifying street system. The new names were assigned according to a grid, even though Arlington's streets are not laid out in neat, straight lines.

Insiders say they find the street pattern eminently logical, but many residents and virtually all visitors disagree. What's more, the problem is getting worse.

Every year, about a fourth of Arlington's population turns over, either with new residents or relocations. Recent in-fill development has added yet more streets with sound-alike names, for reasons only county planners and fire department employees understand. And the once-bedroom community has become a destination for the young, hip crowd: Trouble is, say some, it's hard to party-down if you can't find the party.

"I gave a Christmas party one year and nobody came," said a sheepish Arlingtonian who asked to be identified only as Jeane. Okay, a few people came, she said, and the music was so loud she couldn't hear the telephone ringing. She later learned that 10 friends had called, desperately seeking directions to her place.

Now, now, argues County Board member Barbara A. Favola (D). "As senseless as it is, people have gotten used to it."

Board member Jay Fisette (D) jokes that the mystifying map was intentional. "It was the master plan to keep people from cutting through," he said.

And board member Mike Lane (R), up for reelection, moans that people have called offering to display campaign signs in their yards. But when his volunteers go out to make a delivery, they usually return exasperated with their trunk still full.

"Even some of the Internet map assist things aren't entirely accurate," Lane said.

The county provides a map and brochure with detailed explanations on how to get from Point A to Site B--"The 2700 block lies between Danville and Edgewood"--but few people know those aids exist. Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the county's Visitors Bureau stocks them.

Karrie Herrin, manager at the Wilson Boulevard Papa John's, has her new drivers first spend a week riding around with experienced drivers. Still, she said, they have trouble.

Federal Express driver John Johnson, a six-year veteran of Northern Virginia's mean streets, says North Arlington is "the worst. . . . I hate going up there."

And Courier America Systems, located just outside Arlington, has a nominee for worst address: 1300 North 17th St.

"It's famous," said dispatcher Christian Pauchet, who tests new drivers by making them find the Rosslyn office tower. "It's completely hidden. The first time I tried to find that building, I got lost for an hour."

The county brags other geographic phenomena. In its western corner, Roosevelt and Sycamore street lie parallel, two blocks apart. The street between them is Roosevelt Boulevard. A block north, it turns into Sycamore Street.

"Ripley's Believe It Or Not" once featured the Arlington intersection of North Vermont Street, North Vermont Street and North Vernon Street. It still exists, but is not the local favorite.

That honor goes to North 26th Street, which, without warning or explanation, becomes North 31st Street.

Dot Greene lives at the transforming intersection, which she calls "entertaining." When she talks to delivery people, she has a standard pitch: "I say, 'Listen to me, this is not normal.' "

If they don't listen, she knows they're new to Arlington.

If they have made deliveries in the county, "and you say, 'Listen to me,' they do," she said.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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