Bit by bit, Arlington's Columbia Pike is getting a make-over.
About 10 years ago, the old, cracked concrete sidewalks were replaced with brick paver sidewalks along part of the three-mile road.
Then, in the early '90s, the pike's utility wires went underground, and honey locust trees were planted from South Courthouse Road to Highland Street. Last spring and summer, old-fashioned street lamps made an appearance along the same stretch.
Now, the County Board has given its blessing to another bright touch on the still-struggling road: street banners.
The banners will hang from the new street lamps and will feature seasonal displays, such as snowmen in the winter and flowers in the spring.
It may seem like a small step forward, but it's a giant leap for Arlington, explained Reid Goldstein, a local resident and president of the board of the directors of the Columbia Pike Redevelopment Organization.
"I'm excited about it because I know how difficult it is to get the board to loosen up on their sign ordinance," he said. "I'm not sure a lot of people understand this, that this is a major skirmish that we've won so that we can establish these banners and have a sense of place. This thing just doesn't happen every day."
The banners are just the most visible part of a recent push from the County Board to pump life into the tired thoroughfare, which feels urban and boasts some of the county's greatest ethnic diversity. Other parts of the initiative include a cybercenter at the local library, new county staff members devoted to the project and improved street cleaning.
The Columbia Pike Redevelopment Organization was born more than 20 years ago when local businessmen Elliott L. Burka and George Relyea twisted arms at the state level to get the street repaved. After that, the organization became dormant.
It was revived and incorporated in 1986 to focus on a small stretch of the pike--from South Courthouse Road to South Oakland Street. The definition has since been expanded to include the entire length of the road in Arlington.
Last year, the County Board, under the direction of neighborhood resident and then-chairman Chris Zimmerman, gave the process a shot of adrenaline. The board approved more than $400,000 for the pike, including a transportation planner, a land use planner and an economic development staff member.
The pot of money also gives the redevelopment group some additional funding and gives the Columbia Pike Library branch nearly $100,000 to create a multilingual education center, which will open in January. The center, with eight computers, will be a classroom for those who don't have access to computers, with special emphasis on literacy education.
In addition, a Sunday farmers market will move back onto the pike soon, selling produce next to a small park to be built at Walter Reed Drive.
"I think they're doing a real good job," said Andy Haggard, co-owner of Sandy's Bloomers, a flower shop in the heart of the revitalization district.
Though Haggard and other business owners are pleased by the improvements, they also have concerns about the pace of change and some of the decisions.
"It's been very slow," said Nora Gabaldon, owner of Arlington Hardware, who is waiting for the street lamps to go in on her block. "Right now, we need to finish what's been started."
Both business owners said they have had their hands slapped by the county for violating its strict sign ordinance. And both said the honey locust trees were a poor choice, because they grow just tall enough to block the signs that are allowed. Such hurdles inhibit businesses, they said.
All the same, Gabaldon hopes that the recent steps, which include new monthly meetings of local business owners and residents, will enhance the street her family has made its livelihood on for 63 years.
The meetings and other community forums will yield a report next spring, which the County Board will use as its blueprint for change.
Burka, who is managing general partner of an apartment complex and a shopping center on the pike, hopes that transit options will be part of the county's final package of improvements.
In the meantime, the street banners are expected next month, a "tiny little chapter" that Burka said is more than welcome.
"It hasn't been one gigantic step," he said. "It's been a lot of little steps, which are transforming the pike into what will be a very dynamic area. The pike is starting to come alive."
CAPTION: Banners to be hung along Columbia Pike will herald the seasons. The spring, summer and fall signs are part of a $400,000 effort to revitalize the thoroughfare. Other efforts include a cybercenter at the local library.
CAPTION: New street lamps and underground utility wires are part of Columbia Pike's face lift.
CAPTION: Andy Haggard, who owns a flower shop on the street, lauds the efforts Arlington County is making to redevelop Columbia Pike. Soon seasonal banners, above, will line the road.