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Progressive Voice: Columbia Pike — Promises Kept?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARL.now.

By Eric Harold

When I emerge from the natural oasis of the Four Mile Run creek bed, I am greeted by an Ethiopian family teaching their son to ride his bike on the Arlington Mill Plaza. Following the spirited African rhythms enjoyed by a group of friends gathering near the bridge, I catch the tempting scents of the Bolivian food truck readying for the lunch crowd. I am reminded why, many years ago, my wife and I quickly fell in love with Columbia Pike — a vital and vibrant corridor with good local businesses, active neighborhood associations and energetic mixed-income communities. Still, we recognized this high potential area was struggling to develop as a valued Metro corridor.

After 20 years, thousands of hours of planning meetings, and many county initiatives later, the Pike appears to be thriving. We had envisioned three legs of a stool that would solidly support Columbia Pike in the future: a streamlined development process, a Pike neighborhoods’ plan with a goal of preserving over 6,000 affordable housing units, and a blueprint for greatly improving the transit system to support expected growth.

So are we where we wanted to be 20 years ago?

While some development has happened, the transportation “leg of the stool” has wobbled. Four years ago, the County Board abruptly canceled the long-planned streetcar, endangering and undermining progress in other areas. Pike neighborhoods were told that transportation investments would continue. What we received was a mediocre transit plan, delayed construction of the transit stations, and no attention to much-needed utility undergrounding.

To be clear, the current growth and development on Columbia Pike was spurred on with the implementation of the Form Based Code, an alternative development process that offered streamlined reviews and approvals for developments that supported our community’s vision and needs, as described in the Code and associated plans. As a result, we are seeing redevelopment of properties along the Pike that is bringing new residents along with some affordable housing and new amenities. We are seeing the development creep west on the Pike, as well.

But with this development comes some significant challenges. New development brings new residents, many with children attending already overcrowded schools. Businesses that were “early adopters” to the Pike, like P. Brennan’s, have shuttered. Storefronts remain empty at key locations along Columbia Pike, while new developments like Centro Arlington and 4707 Columbia Pike will bring more retail spaces to fill.

As we look forward to the next 20 years, the Columbia Pike communities need the County’s focused effort and planning to ensure continued growth along the corridor while addressing the significant weaknesses in the current plan implementation.

What should happen now?

  • Update Transit Plan now: Fast and efficient completion of the current projects outlines in the Multimodal Street Improvements plan will send a clear signal that Columbia Pike remains a critical area of growth for the county. More important, however, should be revising the Transit Plan for Columbia Pike, to include updating capacity projections based on current development and growth patterns.
  • Increase daytime population: Current development has been entirely mixed-use residential and commercial. Commercial vacancies remain high while businesses struggle, primarily due to very low daytime population. The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO) and the County need to provide incentives that will bring offices and other services to the Pike.If we are going to be true to maintaining Columbia Pike as a diverse community, we need to provide spaces and encourage services to support low-income and disadvantaged populations. Clinics, job training services, and other community assistance can fill vacant spaces and increase daytime traffic. Providing incubator spaces, shared work locations, and other office/business development can help improve the mix of development. Combined, this has the potential to make the Columbia Pike corridor a true live-work destination while maintaining the vibrant, mixed-income communities we love.
  • Improve planning with/for Arlington Public Schools: The Career Center property, just a block off Columbia Pike and now in the middle of conceptual planning for new school/community uses and space, is a prime example of the need for better integrated planning between APS and the County. Creative use of spaces along the Pike has the potential to help APS manage student population growth.

Columbia Pike has come a long way in the 20 years that I have lived here. The time is now for the county to aggressively help reinvigorate our plans and processes so that Columbia Pike remains the vital and vibrant community we love.

Eric Harold resides in Barcroft with his wife and four children. He served as president of his civic association, served for 13 years on the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2), and now serves on the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC).

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