Arlington County’s abrupt cancellation of two long-planned streetcar projects on Tuesday has upended plans to redevelop the Columbia Pike and Crystal City corridors and poses new uncertainty for those interested in transforming the aging neighborhoods, say business and civic leaders.
Some property owners along the congested Columbia Pike strip are now recalculating prices at which they think they could sell, predicting softer demand from developers who had been intrigued by the creation of a trendy streetcar line. Others, however, said they were relieved to hear that the projects were canceled — because they feared streetcars would bring gentrification that could force them out.
Advocates of revitalization, meanwhile, said county leaders must quickly commit to funding other transportation improvements if they want to preserve the corridor’s potential — a commitment Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D) promised to make.
“The risks have risen significantly for those who want to invest,” said Takis Karantonis, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. “There is no credible transportation proposal in the works. So we find ourselves in limbo.”
Zulkuf Gezgic, owner of Atilla’s Restaurant on Columbia Pike, put his restaurant up for sale more than two years ago for $275,000. He is still waiting to sell and said he’d now take $220,000 if the buyer was willing to pay in cash.
“I don’t think [another project] is going to happen,” Gezgic said. “We were waiting for the streetcar. If that didn’t happen, it’s never going to happen.”
At least four projects in the pipeline for Columbia Pike will likely go forward, Karantonis said, replacing small buildings or vacant land with about 350 condos or apartments. But plans call for thousands of additional units, both affordable and market-rate, in addition to retail and office space that could turn the worn corridor into something more fashionable and upscale.
The challenge of attracting new businesses can be seen in the neighborhood’s substantial commercial vacancy rate, currently more than 20 percent. That includes empty storefronts in some newer buildings, whose residents are yearning for Starbucks, better restaurants and high-end retail.
The only real retail success story along the pike so far, Karantonis said, is the Penrose Square development at the east end of Columbia Pike, which features a Giant grocery, a Tex-Mex restaurant, a dentist’s office and an ice cream parlor, among other businesses, and is adjacent to a new public park.
“The streetcar was a tool to help us achieve these goals,” Karantonis said. “What will we substitute now that that tool is out of our toolbox?”
Developers were among the biggest supporters of the streetcar lines, which they believed would appeal to young adults and empty nesters who have embraced a car-free lifestyle. Buses don’t excite buyers, developers said at multiple meetings over the past several years.
But critics said streetcars were too expensive and not well-suited for Columbia Pike because they would share a lane with buses and cars and not provide faster transit.
Both Arlington and Fairfax counties, which would have benefited from the western end of the Columbia Pike streetcar line, put millions of dollars into improving streets, curbs and utilities in anticipation of the project, Fisette said.
Developers including Vornado, which owns much of Crystal City and is the county’s largest taxpayer, has made major financial commitments along what would have been a seven-mile streetcar network. Vornado donated land for a streetcar maintenance facility and planned a streetcar stop at the doorstep of its major PenPlace mixed-used development, just east of Pentagon City Mall. The company declined to comment Wednesday on Arlington’s decision to pull the plug.
Wednesday afternoon along Columbia Pike, shoppers and workers expressed relief, far more than disappointment, that the projects had been scrapped. While streetcars may sound appealing because of the lack of available parking, they said parts of the area seem so crowded that a streetcar could cause more problems than it might solve.
“I just had no idea how they were going to put it in this road,” said James Kim, of K-1 Beer and Wine. “There would be a lot more traffic, also, with people waiting to get on.”
Michael Lao, whose family has owned and operated Top Jewelers on Columbia Pike for 20 years, said everyone who came into the store seemed to resent the project.
“I think they wanted the tax money to go to something else,” he said. “I don’t think a streetcar is going to make people buy more jewelry.”
Even without the streetcar, rents in the area are raised every year, said Marlene Figueroa, proprietor of Para Ti hair salon. She said that the streetcar may have brought more business but that there was also a risk that smaller businesses in older buildings would be pushed out.
“I had started to wonder, “Well, where am I going to work?’ ” Figueroa said. “Now, not so much.”
Developer John Shooshan, whose firm works extensively in Arlington but not along the streetcar routes, called county officials’ decision “a sign of leadership,” with elected officials deciding to abandon a project that have become bitterly divisive among board members and the residents they represent.
“If you can’t get to an agreement that works for your constituency, you need to step back from the brink,” Shooshan said. “I think Columbia Pike will be fine. This was a tough decision, but I think they made the right one for today.”