The Arlington County Board holds its annual New Year's Day meeting as Chris Zimmerman, right, greets people after the meeting with board member Walter Tejada, left, in this Jan. 1, 2011, file photo. (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)

The night before their honeymoon in 1980, Chris and Mary Beth Zimmerman left their newly rented apartment and took a walk down Columbia Pike, looking for a good meal.

The newlyweds passed Bob and Edith’s Diner in search of something more upscale. What they found were vacant sidewalks, closed repair shops and acres and acres of empty parking lots. They finally ended up at Bob’s Big Boy, where the Zimmermans had to settle for burgers and fries.

Zimmerman, 54, now in the last months of his 17-year tenure as an Arlington County Board member, is one of the reasons that the dark days of Columbia Pike and other streets in Arlington are brighter and livelier, with more pedestrians and dining choices. He announced last month that he is leaving government at the end of January to become vice president of Smart Growth America, a District-based nonprofit organization that defines itself as a national coalition of advocacy groups promoting walkable neighborhoods near public transit. He’s the second-longest-
serving board member in the county’s history, next to Ellen M. Bozman, who served 24 years. She died in 2009.

His time as an elected local official has coincided with Arlington’s transformation into a national model of “smart growth,” in which a community’s development is concentrated on streets where subway and bus lines run, where ground-floor retail stores keep the sidewalks busy and where people live or work in high-rises above.

“Transportation is a means to an end,” said Zimmerman, an economist who served for 13 years on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and since 2002 on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. “The end is creating a diverse community in which we all want to live.”

Transit-oriented growth and pedestrian-friendly urban communities have been part of Arlington County’s DNA for decades, ever since Metrorail crossed the Potomac River in the 1970s. Zimmerman, a Democrat who lives in the Douglas Park area near Columbia Pike, has been one of its biggest watchdogs and champions.

His passionate, long-running advocacy for a Columbia Pike streetcar line has drawn fire from political opponents who consider it too costly, and who see him as a stubborn advocate unwilling to listen to other points of view.

“Part of ‘smart growth’ is cost,” said Peter Rousselot, the head of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, which says that rapid-transit buses are significantly less expensive and move people nearly as well as streetcars. “He has insufficient sensitivity to the cost of some things he has labeled smart.”

Zimmerman waves the discussion away, saying that streetcars are a better investment in the long run. Streetcar-line construction, he said, is not only necessary to handle the increasing traffic along the busy route but also to encourage developers whose projects will bring in more tax revenue that will allow the county to address other needs.

His fellow board members have twice endorsed it, and at their board meeting this month they passed a series of actions intended to move the associated land use forward. The streetcar planning is in its final stages, county transportation officials say, even if it is still missing the federal funds expected to cover about one-third of the project’s cost.

So far, the vision for Arlington that Zimmerman and others have advocated has been successful for the county. Even after the 2009 recession, young single adults flooded into the condos of Clarendon and Rosslyn, bringing with them a preference for neighborhoods that have easy access to Metrorail and good walking and biking options. Other communities across the nation pay attention, too; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the county a smart growth award more than 10 years ago. The county also has presented a video and slide show explaining its process and progress.

Zimmerman proposed the new concept of “traffic calming” to deal with intersections that have four-way stops. A cultural resistance to the idea of requiring property owners to shovel their sidewalks after a snowstorm had to be overcome. Zimmerman led the county to establish the first on-street bike lanes in the area and pushed to start the local bus service, Arlington Transit (ART).

“His effectiveness in representing us on Metro Board is often overlooked,” said former state senator Mary Margaret Whipple (D). “You have to be firm about the needs of your community and state there, and he was. He also was quite instrumental in getting natural-gas buses for Metro. That wasn’t a slam dunk, because they were more expensive initially. It was a big debate, but Chris prevailed. It not only saved the agency money for fuel, but improved our air quality.”

Political opponents have a different point of view.

“I wouldn’t say, if you look at the time he’s been on the board, that things got better,” said Mark Kelly, a former local Republican Party chairman who in 2010 came the closest of any opponent to defeating Zimmerman at the polls. “People’s tax burdens continue to rise. [The board members] are not good managers of our resources.”

Kelly said another problem was that office vacancy rates are increasing. And he also objects to the County Board’s tendency to work out difficult decisions away from the public.

“There wasn’t much listening to people who objected” to allowing a major residential development near Crystal City, called Penn Place, or those who objected to plans for a 24-hour homeless shelter between the county courthouse and high-rise residential towers, Kelly said. But he added that on the campaign trail, Zimmerman’s tendency to drill staff over small details and to pontificate from the dais were not evident.

Zimmerman’s manner can sometimes infuriate residents, county staff and even friends.

“Our vision and values are in alignment, but we had heated exchanges that occasionally resulted in shouting matches,” said Ron Carlee, Arlington’s county manager from 2001 to 2009 who is now city manager in Charlotte. He considers Zimmerman a friend. Their differences, he said, were often about tactics rather than strategy. “It usually ended up with one of us saying ‘Once again, we’re in violent agreement.’ ”

Zimmerman literally walks the walk of smart transit. He travels nearly everywhere by foot, bus or Metrorail. When he’s out of town on business, he said he asks not for the best hotel, but for the hotel near the best transit connections. He plans to take Metro to his new downtown job.

A New York City native who moved to Danbury, Conn., as a youth, he said he was obsessed with cars as a teenager because it was the only way to get around. But as an adult in Arlington, after ferrying his three children to and from sports games and after-school activities, he couldn’t wait to downsize from two cars to one, freeing him from traffic, parking and upkeep.

“I’ve never believed in shaming people out of their cars,” he said. “The basic answer is I want alternatives.”