A remnant of Arlington County’s industrial past disappeared last week after a private landowner, frustrated with the process of designating part of its property a historic site, demolished a section of a 1926 railroad trestle to build a five-story self-storage unit.
A worker cut up 1,200 square feet, or 28 percent, of Benjamin Elliott’s Coal Trestle last Thursday, cutting short negotiations with the c ounty and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority over saving the remainder of a once-thriving railroad that brought coal, oil and other fuels to the East Falls Church area from 1926 to 1968.
Hidden from the adjacent Washington & Old Dominion pedestrian and bike trail by overgrown foliage, the 0.17-acre property at 6873 Lee Highway is 20 percent owned by R. Shreve LLC; the rest is owned by the park authority. The trestle is an elevated railroad siding, a raised structure where coal was dumped into bins before being delivered to businesses and households in the region.
The site is not immediately impressive. The rusting steel rails sit on deteriorating timbers, which are supported by concrete piers. Trucks have used the “bins,” or space between the piers, as parking slots. Earlier this year, nearby old oil fuel tanks were removed.
Only a week before the matter was to go to the County Board, the company notified the county that it planned to develop the property under existing zoning, which does not require any special approvals. The company said in a June 4 e-mail to the county that it was opposed to a historic designation, and it planned to demolish all structures on the site to construct storage units, for which the firm has building permits.
Cynthia Liccese-Torres, Arlington’s historic preservation coordinator, said Shreve had planned to go through the county’s site plan process to build a mixed-use development on the property. She and her staff had started a study of the trestle structure as a potential local historic district, with the company’s cooperation.
“Such small-scale commercial coal trestles were instrumental in the processing of coal for local delivery to residences and businesses,” a historic district designation form prepared by the county said. “This coal trestle is a visual reminder of a critical early-twentieth-century energy infrastructure that fueled the electrification and development of Arlington County and the region. There are no other coal trestles extant within the County.”
NVRPA Executive Director Paul A. Gilbert said the agency was negotiating to buy the part of the trestle that it does not own from the company. Shreve has donated the rails it removed to the parks authority, he said.
“I’m certainly disappointed a resolution could be not be reached and that portion of the trestle could not be saved,” Gilbert said. “Fortunately, we own most of the trestle, and we’re going to get those steel rails and use them [in a planned display]. People will still have the experience of being able to learn about the industrial past.”