For one year I worked at an office in Arlington, Virginia. There were virtually no restaurants that were not chains. Everything was crowded at peak lunch hour but completely empty by 3 p.m. and closed by the time I left work. Walking to the rare independent ethnic restaurant, like the pho place up the street, was (other than the food itself) completely unrewarding. The restaurant was behind a parking lot at the back of a strip mall. I traipsed there along Wilson Boulevard, Arlington’s sun-drenched main thoroughfare, on a narrow sidewalk. I passed no trees, no attractive buildings, few pedestrians and even fewer businesses that weren’t hidden behind a stairway or a barren plaza. The chain domination of Arlington retail extends beyond food: There is a CVS every mile or so. Off the main drag, walking around is just as pointless: There are no corner stores on the residential blocks, and the street map is an incoherent and baffling series of dead-ending curlicues reminiscent of a bowl of spaghetti.
So it comes as no surprise that my state’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), correctly identified Arlington in her new memoir as a “soulless suburb.” That’s exactly what most of my friends who have lived in D.C. would call it. In fact, when I was recently trying to describe the cultural vacuity of the “Williamsburg Edge,” a new apartment tower in Brooklyn, I called it, “Arlington on the East River.” My friend who lived in Washington laughed knowingly. He required no further explanation.
It’s not that Arlington is actually a bad place. From a public policy perspective, Arlington is actually a model of success compared to neighboring Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Arlington is denser and better served by transit. Unlike Fairfax, it wisely chose to invest in sinking its portion of the Metro underground rather than just running it along the highway where no one could walk to it. The decision, along with mixed-use zoning, allowed hubs of commerce and high-density living to spring up. That’s why some young people actually live in Arlington, albeit the squarest ones in Washington.
In a move that ironically illustrates why politicians themselves seem so lacking in soul and character, Gillibrand has immediately apologized. The desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings with a needless diss is understandable. But Gillibrand has nothing to be contrite about, because she has not gone out of her way to insult the place, but merely stated a fact, like saying that D.C. summers are miserably humid. Rather than apologize, Gillibrand should put her brief, boring experience of living in Arlington to good use by taking an interest in how public policies can make places more vibrant.
What Arlington demonstrates is that the private sector has to play a part in making livable communities. Architecture matters. Arlington feels soulless because its large office, hotel and apartment buildings are ugly, impersonal and unhelpful to fostering street life. They are stylistically generic. Most important, they do not engage the street. They are frequently set back behind empty, poorly designed plazas, with entrances that face sideways to facilitate the arrival of cars. Businesses are often hidden in the lower floors of these buildings, keeping their office workers from going outside and sucking pedestrians away from the street. You can’t walk around much of Arlington and stop to check out goods or menus in store or restaurant windows. There’s no point in walking anywhere, because there is no one and nothing to see. Other businesses sit in little shacks at the back of parking lots. This is because they were designed to serve the enormous spatial needs of cars, not the psychic needs of human beings. Likewise, Arlington’s houses are often set behind lawns, driveways, or garages.
It does not have to be this way. The New Urbanist movement has shown that towns can adopt “form-based” zoning codes that require buildings to be consistent with the values of traditional design. New buildings can be required to face the street, to build out to the property line to form a consistent street wall, and to place their retail spaces on the ground floor on the street.
And the city itself can do more with its amenities. Sidewalks can be widened, trees planted, bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes demarcated, and median strips inserted, so that Wilson Boulevard feels more like a boulevard and less like purgatory.
Arlington also lacks a physical center, a public space like Dupont Circle, where buskers can play music and activists can make speeches. A centrally located, and well-designed park — with facilities for both active and passive recreation such as basketball courts, chess tables, and benches — would go a long way towards giving Arlington a soul. Most important, unlike all of Arlington’s misbegotten little plazas, it has to be designed to draw passersby in and to engage with the streets around it.
Most of this can only be addressed at the local level, although the federal government can incentivize some smart growth policies through HUD, Transportation Department, and EPA competitive grant programs. Republicans are supposed to believe in community, and in recent years a few have even taken an interest in smart growth. Let’s hope Gillibrand’s truth bomb kickstarts a conversation in Washington about how communities can have soul.