(Updated at 10:55 a.m.) The Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote Saturday on a major update to its retail policies.
The new Arlington County Retail Plan would move away from the county’s current “retail everywhere” policy, which was an attempt to provide more lively street life around Arlington by requiring retail spaces in most new commercial buildings.
While successful by some measures, “retail everywhere” — a policy last updated in 2001 — has hit snags, with the owners of buildings in low-foot-traffic areas struggling to find viable retail tenants.
The new retail plan, which has been seven years in the making, is an attempt to concentrate retail in the highest foot traffic areas of commercial corridors, while encouraging more retail-friendly building designs. The hoped-for end result: more vibrant stretches of retailers and restaurants in Arlington.
“This updated approach will strengthen Arlington’s primary retail nodes; allow long- and short-term market shifts in retail and ground floor use to occur within this retail policy framework; accommodate innovative uses on the ground floor; and increase Arlington’s overall level of economic competitiveness,” according to a staff report.
While county staff says the new retail plan is more flexible in its approach, some in the business community have said it remains too rigid.
The plan includes color-coded maps of neighborhoods like Clarendon and Crystal City, with each color corresponding to a different retail approach. In the red areas — those with the highest foot traffic — county planners want to encourage food, entertainment and shopping destinations, while discouraging large building lobbies and service businesses, like dry cleaners.
In other coded areas, there is more flexibility, but still some design guidelines and an action plan for the type of businesses the county would like to see in ground floor spaces.
Critics say the county is “acting like a mall operator” in trying to decide which businesses go where. In “curating what the community wants on the street,” in the words of one business leader who requested anonymity, the county is again taking a proscriptive approach — one that may not reflect the changing market a decade or two down the line.
For instance, high-end service businesses like blow dry bars are growing in popularity and may want to locate in one of the “red zones,” where the county is now specifically saying they shouldn’t exist.
There have also been concerns raised about the wisdom of restricting business lobbies, which ostensibly are needed in order to serve the building’s main purpose — being an attractive place for offices or apartments. Others in the business community have disputed the coding of the plans, though some of those concerns were addressed in a recent update of the plan.
“The refinements to the Retail Plan, which address concerns and comments raised through the public process, have made for a stronger document,” the staff report says. “The retail street maps, while not meeting 100 percent consensus by all stakeholders, provide a balance of the stakeholder positions and existing policies pertaining to ground floor use.”
Additionally, while property owners are still able to request exceptions through the county’s site plan process, some say that process remains too rigid, time-consuming and expensive. An apartment building owner might be reluctant to spend tens of thousands in attorney’s fees and staff time, for instance, on a site plan amendment that could allow a dry cleaner to go where there was formerly a small convenience store.
The retail plan also doesn’t allow for additional flexibility on comprehensive sign plans, an agreement between the county and property owners on the general placement and size of signs. The rigidity of such plans can end up restricting creativity and hurt small businesses, some say.
The county, for its part, says the new retail plan is meant more as a guide to developing retail nodes, rather than as a law.
“The Retail Plan is not regulatory; the plan and its implementation elements communicate a vision for the type and design of ground floor uses the County would like to see achieved through the special exception process,” said the staff report.
In other words developers will still be able to build whatever and rent to whomever they like “by right,” as long as they follow zoning. But most projects around Metro stations will go through a site plan process, which allows the density needed to make such projects economically viable. It’s during that process that the county seeks to implement its retail goals.
The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, which had in January expressed a number of concerns about the plan, said in a letter to County Board Chair Mary Hynes that it was mostly satisfied with recently-added language.
“The Arlington Chamber of Commerce supports the less restrictive direction of the Retail Action Plan,” the Chamber said. “We are encouraged by the addition in the draft plan of the explicit statement that ‘The Retail Plan is not regulatory.’ This is a crucial clarification that, in certain situations, can help ameliorate sections of the plan that remain too proscriptive.”
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