Columbia Pike residents and businesspeople have been waiting since November to hear what’s next after the long-planned Arlington streetcar project was abruptly canceled. What’s next, they learned Thursday night, is more waiting.
A forum on the Pike’s future drew more than 100 people but few answers about how to handle the need for mass transit along Virginia’s busiest bus corridor. The audience, full of people who had worked for years on the streetcar plans, had pointed questions for the panelists, who included County Board member John Vihstadt (I), whose election was the tipping point in the $550 million project’s demise.
Moderator Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington), who represents the area in the Virginia House of Delegates, noted that county leaders had promised a new plan “within weeks, then months and now it’s headed into next year. . . . Promises were made over a 10, 15, 20 year period and our political leaders didn’t stick by those promises in some cases.”
Vihstadt said the county staff is studying what other options remain “in the context of the overall transportation plan, not just Columbia Pike,” news that elicited groans from the audience. The upcoming year’s budget has money for more Arlington Rapid Transit buses, another $100,000 for the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (which organized the forum) and 23 new transit stops for $12.4 million, he noted.
“The county has its processes. . . . I would like to see us speed things up, but frankly I don't know if we can,” he said.
The streetcar, which would have run from Fairfax County’s Skyline area to the Pentagon City Metro stop, then over to the Crystal City Metro station, became a hot political topic last year after Vihstadt made it a campaign issue. He won a special election last April, beating a Democrat, and then won a regular four-year term in November on many of the same issues.
Vihstadt on Thursday night suggested as an interim measure that the county should look at Circulator-type buses that run only on Arlington’s portion of the Pike. David Peete, a partner in developer BM Smith and Associates, said that could work, if the bus was designed “maybe more luxurious than other buses, maybe serve coffee on it — a place to encourage community.”
The streetcar project cancelation threw more than a decade of planning into disarray. While buses currently carry more than 16,000 passengers per day along the Pike, the streetcar program was as much an economic development initiative as a transportation plan. Developers, business owners and residents had counted on the streetcar line to boost property values and draw more upscale businesses and offices. The residents and county crafted a neighborhood plan that would allow more development in exchange for preserving more than 6,000 apartments for low- and middle-income people in the area.
While there is a large amount of affordable housing along the Pike now, Nina Janopaul, chief executive of the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, noted that there are fewer low-cost apartments than there were in 2000.
The withdrawal of the streetcar plan sent shock waves through the business community.
Peete, whose family-owned company built the Penrose Square development on the east end of the Pike and a large number of other nearby projects, is working on another development across the street, as well as at the intersection of George Mason Drive and the Pike.
“Some of the family investors are having a challenge staying focused and putting their money back into Columbia Pike,” he said. “It’s a pause, I’d say, as to what comes next.”
Takis Karantonis, CPRO’s executive director, said that because of the length of time it takes to plan and execute developments, “the pipeline right now is running full.” But without a high-capacity transportation system, “it makes the slope a little bit steeper” to attract additional development, he said.
Lopez said restaurants along the Pike are “dying for noon weekday traffic,” and more office workers would help fill those tables. But Karantonis said the neighborhood is a small-office market and it isn’t well connected to places like Crystal City, where there are more office workers.
Peete said because of the high vacancy rates in Crystal City, large property owners there are lowering their rates, which harms the medium and small offices along the Pike.