Progressive Voice: Arlington’s Smart Growth

Arlington is a national leader in the smart growth movement.

Throughout the country, we are seeing a strong trend for younger workers and older suburban homeowners to choose to move to transit-oriented communities.

Arlington has developed successful transit-oriented corridors — using those corridors as a focal point for development while simultaneously protecting the character of suburban neighborhoods across Arlington.

On May 15, the Coalition for Smarter Growth honored Arlington Board member Walter Tejada with its Livable Communities Leadership Award bestowed annually to those who have made significant contributions to smart growth in our region.

In Walter’s case, CSG honored his work on the Columbia Pike corridor, adding that Walter “ensured that the Columbia Pike planning process brought everyone to the table, addressed the needs of current residents, and placed affordable housing at the forefront.

“Walter demonstrated outstanding leadership in making the case for the plan and the Streetcar, which is essential to supporting the increased density and ridership expected in the corridor, while spearheading innovative housing policy and funding strategies to preserve and add affordable housing in the corridor as it redevelops.”

Note that CSG recognized that Arlington is trying to use transit-oriented development to save, not displace affordable housing, and that we need high quality, high capacity transit to make it work.

In the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Plan, we leverage economic forces to preserve affordable housing. By allowing developers additional density, we can also require that at least 25 percent of the new development is affordable housing. The Plan would preserve 6,200 affordable apartments, equal to all the market rate affordable apartments on the Pike.

On Columbia Pike, we are lucky to live in a respectful and friendly community that is one of the most diverse neighborhoods anywhere. It’s a place where papusas and pad thai are comfort food, while the soft ice cream sign at The Broiler is a welcome sign of summer.

The diversity is remarkable to people in my generation, but not to our kids. They have grown up in neighborhoods and schools where everybody is who they are and not defined by their skin tone or accent.  The world can learn a lot from the Pike.

Affordable housing makes the Pike culture possible. Yet our property is becoming more desirable. Our aging apartment buildings will soon need renovation and the easiest route for owners is to move everybody out, install upgrades, and triple the rent. They can do that by right.

To keep the cultural identity of the Pike, we need an alternative — to make it possible, and profitable, for property owners to keep affordable units when they inevitably renovate. It would cost over $2 billion to buy and renovate the 6,200 affordable apartments we now have. We can’t afford that, so to save affordable housing we have to create more property value by allowing more density.

We also need to respect surrounding neighborhoods. By putting taller buildings on the Pike itself, we can buffer our neighborhoods. But we can’t jam more traffic on the Pike and more parked cars on neighborhood streets.

How do you add thousands more apartments and move people more quickly than they can move now? Answer: a modern streetcar system.

We need higher capacity transit that people will use in greater proportions than they do now. Buses won’t cut it. As the Pike redevelops, peak demand in future years will far exceed the capacity of even the best bus system. We can expect 1,900 to 2,100 riders per hour at peak. Streetcars and buses together can handle 2,300. Buses can handle 1,600 — far less than the anticipated demand. That just won’t work.

With the streetcar, the Pike Neighborhoods Plan can work. We can preserve thousands of units of affordable housing, the county gets more property tax revenue, and the Pike will be a better place to live. That is what local governments are supposed to do — foster great neighborhoods.

To cancel the Pike streetcar line is to cancel the Plan. Property owners can’t make the commitment to affordable housing preservation without the added value of the streetcar to draw the rents that offset those of affordable units.  The neighborhoods will reject development without necessary transportation capacity.

As Walter and CSG know, opposing the Pike streetcar is the same as opposing the best affordable housing plan ever developed in Virginia. When the Pike’s affordable housing is gone, the community it supports will also be gone, and won’t be coming back.  Save the Pike we love — build the Pike streetcar.


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Photo courtesy of ARLnow.